Side of some road near Lake of the Woods – October 23, 2013
The elastic band on my skirt holds for a moment then rips away. Freezing air rushes into the cockpit. I rush out, splashing into knee deep water, throwing my paddle inside the boat, and scrambling toward the bow. My feet are numb blocks below the ankle, my hands a confusing mix of nothing and pain. I grab the bow handle and pull until water gives way to sand.
Two sharp punches dislodge a dry bag of clothes strapped to the deck. I wrap it in my arms and start running. Cold air burns my lungs. Sand flies from under my heels. I run and run, heart thumping, steaming breath, sprinting down the beach, running nowhere, running only to move, to pump blood through my legs, to burn muscles for heat.
My feet ache back into existence. I keep running. Over a dune. Out of the wind. Wet fabric peels off me. Red, fleshy goosebumps rise across my skin. I claw open the dry bag and clothes spill out. I shove legs and arms into holes. I yank shirts over my head. Pain shoots through my fingertips. I pile on layers. Hats, jackets. vests, socks, neck warmers, gloves. I hop up and down. I swing my arms. I shove wet clothes in a bag and run again, run until I feel my hands.
I stop and stare at the lake, at thirty miles of water stretched to the horizon. Small, angry whitecaps break as far as I can see. Wind pours into me. I laugh and shake, looking for the wave that almost flipped me. The waves are nothings made fierce in the cold, fierce by fear and numb skin. I hop up and down. I shove fingertips into armpits. I imagine a hot day in Florida.
The waves cut through my worn skirt and jacket in moments, sliding down the hull, popping against the deck bag, seeping through thin fabric. My gear used to be armor, now I hold it up and see light pouring though. It’s a sieve.
Three miles to protected water, I’d thought.
Going to get a bit wet, I’d thought.
Grit your teeth, I’d thought.
But this isn’t Florida. Water just above freezing. Air just above freezing. My skin just above freezing.
Two minutes in the surf and I forgot about everything but the beach a hundred yards away. I panicked. I leaned away from the cold. I leaned wrong.
A wave caught the bow and spun me sideways. A second crashed across the deck. Fear choked my thoughts. My heart thumped through my rib cage. I shoved the paddle into the water with hands frozen off at the wrists. Forget three miles, I begged for three hundred feet to dry land. Then I ran and ran and ran.
I stare off toward the horizon, looking at those waves, my feet on solid land, blood thawing out my hands. I see nothing but wind and cold. I know the forecast. Nothing will change. Western winds for days. Highs just above freezing. Open water in front of me. The Angle just sixty miles away. Sixty miles after seven thousand and it feels like forever.
I drag the boat down the beach, not sure what to do with it, knowing I can’t get it back in the water, knowing I have to move just to move. I pull out its wheels and roll it down an old dirt road. I don’t know where I am going, only that I want to move somewhere, that I can’t stay on the beach, that I need to feel movement, that if I stop I will freeze in place.
Everything seemed simple a day ago. Sixty miles to the end. Four easy days. Campfires and sausages. Warm breakfasts. Starry nights. Then I couldn’t feel my hands.
Waves crash into the shore. I stop at the edge of the forest and stare at them, convincing myself that I can find a way, that my last moment on the water won’t be panicking in the surf, that the wind won’t stop me. I thought the end was a formality and now I wonder how much it will cost and if I will always be four days short.
The road widens and turns to gravel then pavement. I walk. The boat drags behind me. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do. I only want to move somewhere.
I think of Florida’s sun. I think of bronze skin and summer. I think of sayings about journeys and destinations and how life is about one and not the other. I think it all sounds empty sixty miles from the end.