Windigo, Isle Royale National Park – July 28, 2012
An ancient cedar rises from the rocks on Hat Point to watch the water like a bent and twisted old woman. Its gnarled roots cling to a cracked boulder, its trunk bends in an upward spiral, its needles are no more than a dash of green against the sky.
It wears every year of its five centuries, owning them, owning each wave it watched crash into the cliffs, owning every frozen winter, owning every breath of wind that tried to bring it down.
It laughs at them all, laughs with its twisted branches, laughs at trees twice as tall and half its age crowding the safety of shore. It wouldn’t trade places with any of them.
From below, floating in the clear, calm water of Lake Superior, I stare at it, wishing I knew what it knows, wishing it could tell me if the water would be kind today.
Isle Royale looks like a distant shadow on the horizon, a line painted between the light blue sky and deep blue water. It’s almost a mirage, an illusion, an idea that you have to believe in to make real.
I stared at the twisted cedar, then at the waves, then at my boat.
Seventeen feet of yellow plastic felt so big on my shoulders. Hauled over portages, lifted between lakes, it felt as large as the world and I felt like Atlas struggling to keep it on my back.
As the twisted cedar faded into the outline of Hat Point, as the smear of Isle Royale grew a bit thicker, as waves stretched for miles and miles in every direction, seventeen feet of yellow plastic felt so very, very small.
When there is no shore to swim to, no other boat to climb up, fear fills the empty space. It floods that moment of hesitation between strokes. It pushes each shift of weight beyond your center. It tightens your spine and makes your hips stiff. It throws you off-balance, feeding on itself and growing bigger.
The more afraid you become, the more afraid you should be.
It circles you, stalks you, consumes your focus. You have to push it away, you have to believe in yourself, believe in those seventeen feet between you and death, believe until Isle Royale becomes real, until that thin line between water and sky transforms into trees, rocks, cliffs, and bays, until Hat Point and its lone, twisted cedar become nothing more than a line on the horizon, an idea you have to believe in to make real.