Grand Marais, MN – July 26, 2012
The water on my skin feels different. The air tastes sharper. The land has changed. It’s like I’ve emerged from the Grand Portage’s forest into a new world.
It feels like that first day on Lake of the Woods when I didn’t know what waited for me. Then came four days of wind and islands, the Rainy River, Baudette and International Falls, Rainy and Namakan lakes, the Boundary Waters and a dozen portages. Somewhere it all became my world, familiar and comfortable, a place I’d figured out.
After eight miles on a trail from the Pigeon River, it disappeared, replaced by a lake with enough water to cover North and South America a foot deep, a lake that sinks giant ships under thirty foot waves, a lake that stretches beyond the horizon and never gives up her dead.
I’m scared of this lake. Staring at it makes my heart race. It’s unfamiliar and new, I don’t know it, I can’t feel it’s moods, I have no routine here. It feels like I’m walking into a cave and hoping the dragon’s asleep.
Everyone I meet has stories. They tell me about the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 700-foot freighter that was the biggest ship in the Great Lakes when she was built. Lake Superior smashed her in half and buried her under five-hundred feet of water so fast that she never sent a distress signal. All 29 crew members died. This isn’t a story from long ago of old ships that didn’t know where they were, this happened in 1975. People lost friends, cousins, brothers, and sons.
They tell me that a month ago a paddler died near Grand Portage. He set off an emergency beacon and the coast guard found his body two hours later. I read newspaper stories and know that he was better prepared than I am with more experience. I grieve even though I never met him because I see parts of him in my reflection.
The lake stretches to the horizon, blue and calm, and I stare. I tell myself that it’s just water, that I’m strong, that I’m ready, that I know enough, but I don’t believe my words. I believe my skin and eyes, the way it feels different, the way the water is heavy with cold and looks as clear as a winter sky.
Everything has changed and I must learn again, grow into it until I can feel its pulse, breathe when it breathes, but for now, I know nothing, nothing but one thing, there can be no mistakes here.
Lake Superior does not forgive.