After paddling a mile across a lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we climbed over a large granite dome. Some sections were so steep we held our breath as we inched across what looked like a slightly faded path on the stone and avoided looking toward the sharp drop off to the valley far below. This was a trek my friends and I had made together for many years, but every time I avoid looking over the edge, and instead I focus on placing one foot in front of the other, making sure there are no tiny loose rocks beneath my shoe. We descended on speckled slabs worn smooth by ancient glaciers and followed the sparkling creek upstream, taking a break near the first crystal clear pool with a rushing waterfall at each end. A large fallen log in the shade of a towering pine overlooking a small lake provided a perfect lunch spot. We commented on our gorgeous surroundings as we shared oranges, purple potato chips, seaweed snacks, and chocolate almonds. It was like being in Yosemite, but without the crowds. In fact, we had seen no one since we started hiking up the dome a couple hours ago. To the left a rushing waterfall jutted out from a spout-like opening in the creekbed. To the right were forested slopes that framed a bowl of grayish white granite with white sand beaches, deep pools to swim in, and large rounded slabs perfect for drying in the sun.
The waterfall and creek beckoned us to come play and we made our way down to the water’s edge. We’d been to this place many times before–there is a formation in one granite wall that looks like a vagina, and if you venture farther upstream you’ll find a fun corkscrew waterslide when the water level is neither too high nor too low. This was an especially rainy year, so all levels were high and the water was invigoratingly cool.
“Do you think we can go under the waterfall?” Kira wondered aloud.
“I think so–we’ll have to swim around to the side since the flow is so fast. There’s no way we could swim into the current,” Rick said. I watched him calculate a path, looking for submerged rocks and evaluating the mechanics of the rushing water.
“Let’s give it a try!”, he said as he waded into the more shallow area forming a calm pool to the left of the waterfall. He stroked hard to get to the side of the booming, foamy spray and disappeared behind the white sheet of water.
“This is so cool!! Come check it out. It’s safe behind the falls,” he called to us excitedly. Kira and I followed his lead and soon all three of us were behind the falls, hanging out in a 2 foot wide section of calm water, our faces inches from the pounding falls. I found a vertical crack in the rock wall behind us to wedge my fingers into so I didn’t have to work at treading water. The sound of plunging water made it hard to hear each other, but I saw Rick’s eyes sparkling with aliveness, his mouth spread in a wide smile, as if he were on an amusement park ride.
“Wow! Open your eyes underwater and look at where the waterfall hits.” His enthusiasm was contagious. Both Kira and I put our faces in the water and looked at a foamy white cloud that extended down about three feet deep. Soon the rest of our group came over to check it out. Anne was the first to push off into the falls and pop out the other side to float down the tongue of fast current heading toward the lake. Alan and Rick followed and eventually Kira, but Colleen and I declined. I have a lot of respect for the power of water and didn’t feel like I wanted that kind of adrenalin rush on that day, though in the past I would have been one of the first to try it out.
I’ve come to this lake with a group of close friends almost every year for 25 years, ever since I began bringing my children to enjoy living in nature, away from computers and cell phones and stores and traffic. We canoe across the lake to a private and very rustic campsite (as in no amenities) and set up our kitchen on a large slab of granite perched atop a couple of big boulders. We filter water from the lake, sleep on the rocks under the stars, swim several times each day, play games on a shady ledge overlooking the lake, and take turns making delicious dinners for each other. At night we used to have campfires and tell stories and sing songs, and laugh a lot. We quit having fires several years ago when it became illegal, so now we look at the stars while we share stories and dreams. We always laugh a lot.
When I go to the lake I feel like a goddess. With no mirrors to look at I no longer hear the critical voices that say I should be a different weight or notice my wrinkles or wish my eyelashes were longer or my hair shinier with more waves. Being barefoot a lot of the time, feeling rock supporting my body, constantly immersing in refreshing water, watching ospreys fly across the lake and garter snakes swimming at the lake’s edge and mergansers bobbing on the surface as they make their rounds, I am drenched in nature’s beauty. Calmed by her simplicity and intrigued by her intricacy. I relish using my mammalian body the way it’s meant to move–climbing over and balancing on rocks, squatting at the water’s edge to get water, hiking uphill and ducking under tree branches, instead of walking on level pavement and sitting in a chair much of the day. My eyesight even improves, I think from having such a variety of distances to focus on rather than so much time on a computer screen. I rarely need reading glasses when I’m camping. Living in the present moment and moving through the day at my essence pace feels more luxurious than any fancy hotel or spa. I wish I could always live that way.
Later that day, on our last night camping, we sat at the edge of the lake watching the fading light change the color of the sky while we ate leftovers and odds and ends. We attempted to empty our coolers for the next day’s paddle back to civilization. Somehow we always bring too much food and end up carrying a lot of it back.
“Maybe we should stay another day. Does anyone have to get back tomorrow?” someone asked. We all considered that possibility. Most of us are semi or fully retired, and my daughter, Kira, is in between jobs since she just returned from a year in Zambia, so returning to work no longer determined the length of our stay. I remembered I had an acupuncture appointment in two days and Anne and Colleen had no way to contact their cat-care provider, so we decided to stick with our original schedule.
Alan asked the group, “What were your highlights for this trip?”
“My friends call it your peaks and pits,” Kira suggested.
Rick jumped in, “The waterfall! That was so amazing!” Everyone agreed with mmms and yeahs.
Anne said, “I loved watching Tamara and Kira, mother and daughter, being together. Your relationship is so sweet.”
“Being together with all of you was the main peak for me,” I said. “I appreciate how well we all get along, and I feel such loving energy between us.”
“I loved watching Colleen and my mom together after being friends for 36 years. Especially that moment when you both stood naked at the edge of the waterfall with your arms raised to the sky,” Kira added.
“When I heard there were going to be three dogs on the trip, I was concerned,” Anne said. “But they were totally delightful.” We all continued saying what we loved about our time together for several minutes. The glow of our love for each other and this place was palpable.
Alan asked if anyone had any pits, and we all got silent trying to remember anything negative or challenging that had happened. Rick said, “The only hard part was getting ready. My phone broke, my computer quit working, and my car window shattered within two days of leaving. That was stressful!” I agreed–getting packed for living on the lake for 5 days was the most challenging part of the trip for me. I bought a kayak two days before I left Santa Cruz and brought my stand up paddle (SUP) board, so had to load both of them on top of the van, which is not so easy to do alone when you’re as short as me. We all smiled contentedly at how well everything had gone and how relaxing, fun, and rejuvenating the trip had been for all of us.
The next morning I rose before 6 am to meditate by the lake and do a little Qi Gong. This morning was different than the others because the lake had little wind ripples all across the surface. Usually it’s smooth as glass at least until the sun’s rays work their way across the lake to our campsite. The temperature had dropped so I wasn’t yearning to go for my early morning swim, either. There wasn’t much time for that anyway because we needed to pack up the whole camp and load the canoes, preferably before the afternoon winds picked up.
When I finished a last look around camp to make sure we hadn’t left anything I went down to the canoes and was impressed with how quickly they had been loaded up. I looked at the canoe I was going to paddle in and thought it was a little top-heavy. There was a tub of camp gear on top of a cooler and somehow it didn’t seem right to me–especially since it was windier than usual that day. I said something, but it was clear everyone was in a hurry to go and didn’t want to take time to re-do anything.
We were almost ready to launch the two canoes and one kayak, but still had to figure out how to tie the SUP board to our canoe for towing. I wanted to tow it from behind, but there wasn’t any place to tie the front of the SUP board–just a place to hook a leash in the middle. On the way in to our campsite we towed it backwards, but that proved to not be a good idea and we ended up losing the board and going back to retrieve it. Colleen tied it up to the side of the canoe which seemed to make the steering easier and created less drag. But the lake was calmer then, and I was sure there was a better way to tow it behind, thinking it would be safer. In fact, I felt an urgency about towing it behind, but felt resistance from Colleen. She seemed sure of herself, and though a voice inside my head was calling out loudly, I ignored it for the sake of not creating conflict. Besides, what if I was wrong and it caused an unforeseen problem?
As soon as we slid into the water–three women and three dogs in our canoe– I became uncomfortable with how the SUP board was slapping against the waves and splashing water into the canoe. It banged on the side of the canoe frequently and was not working as well as it had on the way in. Was it a stronger wind? And coming towards us instead of pushing behind us? I felt my body tighten with concern–and we had 2 ½ miles of paddling ahead of us. The electric motor Colleen and Anne had bought for the canoe didn’t seem to be making much difference and Colleen was having a hard time steering the canoe perpendicular to the waves.
“I really feel uncomfortable with the paddleboard on the side of the boat,” I said more emphatically. “I think we need to tow it behind so it doesn’t bang against us, though I’m not sure how we can do that in the middle of the lake.” I had my hand on the board, trying to keep it farther away from the canoe, but that meant I couldn’t paddle and we were making slow progress.
“It was farther up front on the way in,” Colleen suggested. “Maybe that made it more stable.”
“I think I can pull it up toward the front,” Anne 0ffered, and she turned around in her seat to reach for the bungee cord holding my sleeping gear on the SUP board. All of a sudden the boat rocked dramatically. I think we were sideways to the waves and water started pouring in over the side. In a flash the boat flopped over, the tub and cooler tipped into the water, pulling everything over and down. I leaned over backwards, slapping into the thankfully fairly warm water, trying to avoid getting in the middle of all the gear that sunk below the surface. “Shit!!! We’re sinking!” I yelled.
The first thing I thought of was the dogs. Colleen pushed her dog, Squiddly, up onto my paddleboard where he sat shivering. It must have become detached from the canoe somehow. Fortunately Squiddly was fairly small. I saw Kira’s little dog, Pickle, desperately looking for something to get on top of and I swam to him and held his body in one arm to calm him. Kira was nearby in the kayak and started yelling at the other canoe with Rick and Alan to turn around to help.
“Mom, let Pickle swim to me!” Kira yelled, but it seemed too far and I was afraid to let go of him. I didn’t want Kira to tip over trying to get him in by herself. As soon as Rick’s canoe was near I swam to it and called for someone to take Pickle. Rick grabbed him by the fur on his neck, not wanting to lean over and tip over his canoe, too, and Pickled yelped as he was plopped inside, but became calm and quiet soon. Pickle really hated being in water.
“Where’s Riley? Riley!!” I yelled. I couldn’t see on the other side of the SUP board or around the other canoe. It was chaos all around us–our gear and food was either sinking or floating away. “He’s swimming to shore,” Colleen yelled. I could see the dome of his brown head in the distance. We were about ¼ mile from shore, but he was making good progress.
“Here–take this seat cushion,” Colleen pushed a blue cushion toward me and I put it under my chest. I think she had one, too. Where were the life jackets we had laying on the floor to make a cushion for Squiddly? It was hard to distinguish what was what with all the items floating around us. I began grabbing everything I could and putting it into my blue plastic tub which was miraculously floating. A bottle of turmeric. Plastic bags of snacks and dog treats. A package of pancake mix. Mostly empty jars of food. One of my new Teva sandals. The water shoes I didn’t take time to put on before we left. I grabbed two paddles and a large blue tarp and began swimming along with everyone else, constantly readjusting the blue seat cushion so I didn’t slide off. Swimming with my clothes on felt heavier than usual, but fortunately I only wore lightweight shorts and a thin long-sleeved shirt to protect me from sun. It was a good thing I hadn’t put on my shoes. I could only kick since my hands and arms were holding on to so many things. Kira was also picking up floating items and loading them onto my kayak. Someone (maybe me?) pulled my backpack out of the plastic bag I had it in that had become loose and was filling with water. Somehow it ended up on Kira’s back. That’s where I had stashed my van key, though I didn’t think of it in that moment.
The canoe went under, but Anne and Colleen were somehow holding onto it and holding onto Rick’s canoe at the same time while he and Alan began paddling for shore. Was the SUP board also keeping it from sinking? Maybe it was still connected. Someone saw a fishing boat in the distance, or maybe we all saw it at the same time. Time was standing still and moving fast all at once. “Help!!” we yelled, all at different times. Kira waved the yellow fins of her paddle in the air. Colleen said, “On the count of three, let’s all yell help.” We did, and soon the fishing boat headed our way. They threw a line to Alan and pulled both canoes to shore, ours could be seen as a blur of green several feet below the surface. I heard Colleen and Anne both say they could barely hold on to the canoe and were afraid they were going to lose it. I couldn’t believe how hard I was breathing. I regularly swam across the lake for exercise–over a mile across and back–but with my arms full of gear, wearing wet clothes, pulling the blue tarp behind me, and the adrenalin flooding my body, I was exerting much more effort.
The shore was rocky with waves lapping, but our feet touched solid ground as the fishing boat curved back out to the middle of the lake. Alan told us they were worried they barely had enough gas to get themselves back to the boat launch, but we saw them go back toward where we capsized to see if they could get more of the things we lost. We began pulling the canoe up to the surface. The cooler and tub were still tied on, and the battery and motor bolted on, so someone had to undo the knots and bolts before we could pull it all the way up. Finally, we got everything sorted and after several tries to flip it and bailing out as much water as we could, the canoe was once again floating. I stared at it in disbelief–did we actually make it? I knew I wouldn’t drown, but getting to shore with so much of our gear seemed miraculous.
I scanned the surroundings for a better place to stand and noticed Colleen and Squiddly sitting against a boulder, both shivering violently. “Colleen, take off your wet clothes. I have a blanket in my dry bag to wrap up in,” I said, but Kira quickly pulled one out of the kayak compartments and Colleen bundled up, naked inside. She looked exhausted. Her stomach had been upset all morning, so she must have been weak from not eating much. Seeing my dear friend like that really hit me. I realized the gravity of the situation we’d created and I wanted to cry, but I didn’t let myself. There was too much to figure out. We still had to paddle most of the way back!
After what seemed like an hour (but was probably 20-30 minutes) of untangling gear and getting things out of the water, the fishing boat returned. “We got some of your stuff! A dog treat pouch, some bags, two tubs, and even a dog bed that weighed about 40 lbs with all the water it absorbed!” The front of their boat was piled up with our gear. “Do you want us to take it to the boat launch for you?”
“Yes!!! Please! Just leave it on shore and we’ll get it after we paddle across. We would have lost it anyway, so if someone steals it we won’t even know the difference,” I said, gratefully. We found out their names were Fred and Jared–I think they were father and son.
“Do one of you want a ride over, too?” Fred offered.
“Colleen–you should go with Squiddly,” we all agreed. She climbed aboard and they headed off to the boat launch.
The whole time we’d done all of this Riley refused to come close. He stayed up high on the big boulders above us, watching intently. I wondered if I’d ever get him in a canoe again. He was nervous in the boat, but had begun to calm down the more he went out. To be honest, I was pretty nervous about getting back in a canoe. I was almost glad it took so long to get everything straightened out. I needed to feel grounded, to absorb what I’d just been through before exerting myself again to paddle the rest of the way back.
We slowly and cautiously began packing things back in the canoe. It was rocking more than before, banging against the rocks, but there was no place more protected to load it. We even transferred some of the things from Rick and Alan’s canoe so they would be less loaded and vulnerable. Amazingly, the motor started right up so we bolted it back in place. As we began loading the canoe I saw Riley come down from the top of the boulders and he settled on top of the blue tarp I’d dragged across the lake behind me. He watched everything we did, right next to Pickle.
This time we decided to tow the SUP board behind the kayak Kira was in. After several minutes of discussing and collaborating how to tie it up, we finally found a way that made sense to me. I told Kira to test it out to make sure she could paddle okay with it before we left. It worked fine. As I stepped back into the canoe I felt some trepidation, but I was also renewed with determination and strength. We’d gotten this far, surely we would make it back across the lake this time. Amazingly, Riley and Pickle hopped in without much hesitation at all and sat in front of me. I steered and paddled from behind while Anne paddled in front. It didn’t seem like the motor made much difference in the wind, so I left it on just in case it did, but I put all my energy into paddling hard and steering with my strokes.
It seemed as if my muscles had super powers. I paddled hard and long with each stroke, feeling fully alive and purposeful. My confidence rose quickly and I began having fun moving toward my goal of getting to the boat launch. Each stroke was a celebration that I am still capable of taking a trip into the wilderness like this. Now that I’m in my sixties, I no longer take my body for granted. I know it won’t be able to do things like this forever, so each year I make it to the lake and get to enjoy living a simple life, so deeply in touch with nature, I feel ecstatic. I did have the thought that maybe we should get a boat with a bigger motor, but I would really miss propelling ourselves across the lake with our own muscle power.
We made it to the boat launch after about an hour and 15 minutes of paddling. It was close to 5:00 and we left our campsite before noon. Colleen was there to greet us with our rescued items piled against the side of the road. As soon as we hit land again I felt my exhaustion. My muscles were done, but we still had to unload the canoes, kayak, and SUP board, then load up the cars. My brain no longer wanted to think. I kept getting distracted with arranging little things instead of focusing on moving the larger items into the car. Let’s see… the van is a mess, I’d better put things away before loading our gear. Oh, what happened to our melon? I’d better open the pages to my wet books and journal before they stick together. And where is my phone? etc…. None of us had eaten lunch–I only had a power bar while we were re-loading the canoe, and we still had a 5 hour drive ahead of us. I wasn’t sure I could keep pushing on for that long.
We all made it home and were amazed at how few items we lost. For me it was just Riley’s dog bed and leashes, a couple towels, a plate, two hats, a little solar camp light, and some food–at least, that’s what I’m aware of so far. Several books that were in my backpack are still drying out and may need to be replaced. My headlamp even made it and still works! I thought I lost my phone, but I found it at midnight when we finally made it back to Santa Cruz, stuck to the back of a small, soaked journal in my backpack. There was moisture inside its LifeProof case, but it still worked. On the long drive home I reflected on the whole experience. I thought of all the things I didn’t speak up about, regretted bringing the SUP board (though it was what saved Squiddly, at least), and wondered why this was the first year in 25 years that we had a problem. What was here for me to learn? How would I plan differently next time we go to the lake? Will we even go again? Maybe the solution is to take less, wear our lifejackets, get lifejackets for the dogs, and put everything in dry bags next time. And hopefully I’ve learned a lesson about listening to and honoring that voice inside–especially when it’s as strong as it was this time.
Of course the most important part is that we’re all okay. I feel deep gratitude for my close friendships and for having friends that think quickly in times of chaos. And gratitude for the generosity of strangers. We bought a gift certificate and sent it to Fred and Jared along with personal notes of thanks from each of us. I think my life is blessed with angels!