North End of Big Island, Lake of the Woods – October 24, 2013
I slept under a stand of spruce next to the highway. The empty road stretched away, straight for miles. East and west. Back to Baudette, forward to somewhere. No cars passed. Not one. Only empty pavement cracking in the cold.
I saw Baudette everywhere last night. I saw it in uncooked macaroni and my tarp stretched tight. I saw it in clouds of breath and wind racing over tree tops. I saw it buried under two sleeping bags and behind shut eyes. I dreamed of it. I woke to it. It was everywhere.
There’s walls and a roof in Baudette. There’s friends and a road stretching west then north to the Angle. Water can’t touch you on a road. Wind doesn’t matter. Twenty miles to Baudette. A hundred to the Angle. I could walk it. I know I could walk it. I could drag the boat behind me the rest of the way. Two weeks of pavement. Two weeks of dodging trucks and sleeping in ditches. Two weeks and it would all be over.
Or I could wait.
I could camp in the trees for days and hope the forecast changes, hope the wind isn’t as relentless as they say. Northwest. Northwest. West. Southwest. Always from the west, always pouring into me across open water. I could hope a window opens. Hope water doesn’t freeze while I wait. Hope a glimmer of warmth returns and winter isn’t already here.
Or three miles.
I stare at the map. I fold it closed. I open it again. I stare. I measure with my fingers. Three miles. I only need three miles to reach islands scattered along the northern shore of the lake. Three miles and I’d have a thousand places to hide.
But yesterday’s waves are not gone. The panic is still fresh. The cold still stings. The waves crashed everywhere in the shallow water. There was no rhythm or sense. I fear them. I fear the cold washing across the deck, the way it cut into my clothes and stung like ice. Three miles can be a long way sometimes.
I unroll my wet suit and stare at it. It looks like a lifeless, deflated body, empty rubber skin, flat and cold. I haven’t worn it since wading up the Kaministiquia.
Three miles, just three miles. I have to try one more time.
I pull the boat down the empty road, not toward Baudette, but away, away toward something else, toward a thin river. The water is as wide as a car and calm. I slide into it and curve through the grass. Three miles, I tell myself. The thin river builds, expands at every bend, yawns open toward the lake. Wind races through the trees. I hear the roar. Ripples build across open bends of water. Trees shrink away. Grasses bend back. The wind growls louder. It hasn’t faded in the night. It is there, roaring and mad, hungry.
Three miles, I tell myself.
I spill out into a sea of whitecaps and stare at the island three miles away. The first wave hits me. I feel my heart jump. The water slaps against the wet suit. I flinch then breathe. I smile. I lean into it.
Calm down. Calm down. There is nothing here you haven’t seen before. Nothing.
The waves are Nipissing’s waves, the Gulf’s, the giant wind-blown pools above Mississippi locks. They are Superior’s, the Atlantic Coast, the Ottawa in a storm. They are the mouth of the Hudson, Huron’s whitecaps, and New York Harbor on a bad day. They are crashing into Massacre Island the first time I ever saw Lake of the Woods.
I breathe. I choke down my fear. I stare at the waves, my eyes still and calm. I start counting strokes.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5.
My mind unwinds. I keep counting. I don’t think. My calm eyes spill into my mind. Focus and nothing more, nothing but my paddle in the water.
760. 761. 762.
I smile at the waves. They can’t touch me. They can push all they want. They can slap and drive. I’m beyond them now.
3,211. 3,212. 3,213.
I count and paddle and move. Inch by inch. I watch foam drift past the bow. The islands draw closer. Numbers and waves. Numbers and waves.
5,837. 5,838. 5,839.
I stare into the western horizon. Water and whitecaps. The wind roars. I grin at it, matching its wildness. Sliding forward piece by piece, feeling the water’s power die in the shadow of the islands, feeling the waves lose their strength in slivers.
8,325. 8,326. 8,327.
I slip through a narrow gap between islands. The bow surges forward on clean water. A pair of bleached-white swans stare at me from the calm bay, ghosts against the metal grey world. I stare back. I’ve seen them before. They watched me in the Savanna Portage’s waist deep mud, above the Namakan River’s waterfalls, in the lee of islands before I crashed on yesterday’s beach. They watch me still. They always watch me. They look like angels.
I stop counting and breathe. The boat glides behind islands. I push it forward in the clam, eating distance until darkness forces me to shore. I stack wood in a giant pile and light it on fire. The red glow casts a halo of light under a starry ceiling. I stare up at the North Star hanging forever in the sky and wonder if I will see it again.
Three miles, just three miles, and the end feels close again.