FOR LOVE OF LAKES
By DARBY NELSON
MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Darby Nelson
All right reserved.
Chapter One Lake Magic
What we call landscape is a stretch of earth overlaid with memory, expectation, and thought.... Landscape is what we allow in through the doors of perception. SCOTT RUSSELL SANDERS
I stand again on the shore of Rainy Lake. Its glassy surface shimmers before me. Islands, mounds of green, ships becalmed, dot the placid surface into the distance. The rose-colored mirror turns peach then rich golden-yellow in the rising morning sun. All is silent. Earth rests.
Deep feelings of joy, of belonging, envelop me. Boundaries melt. I seem as one with water, rock, and lily, all part of a magnificent whole.
While such feelings have arisen in me at other times in other places, all have occurred in the presence of water and most frequently, as now, by the side of a lake.
I have not visited these waters since my college days. I have returned to this lake to renew my relationship with a beautiful body of water that awakened in me a deepened interest in the natural world. My personal lake journey began here. I seek sharpened senses to see with fresh eyes this world of lake.
I load my gear into my canoe, launch and paddle slowly from the dock, nose around a small bedrock point, and edge out onto a broad sheet of water, a pane of glass extending for miles, where not a ripple disturbs the reflective surface, where water becomes sky and sky becomes water in seamless union.
I peer through the mirror into the depths. The water is clear but tinted brown, the color of water that seeps from a bog. The canoe passes slowly over a Lilliputian forest of pondweeds. Stalks bearing clusters of skinny, grasslike leaves disappear into the depths. The canoe glides effortlessly through the placid water as I round a point and turn east. A houseboat throttles along ahead of me towing two small fishing boats.
How delightful to be back on the lake. My first visit to Rainy long ago occurred at this same place. Our family was intimately familiar with lakes nestled in outwash sands near the Mississippi headwaters. Rainy Lake was my first exposure to the bedrock lakes of the ancient rock core of North America, the Precambrian Shield. Rounded bedrock domes, humpback islands, hidden coves, and open horizons unleashed wonder and the spirit of adventure.
* * *
This trip is unusual in one important respect. My wife, Geri, is not with me. Also a biologist, she loves paddling and camping adventures almost as much as I do. She would be here, but her teaching schedule ruled it out this time. More patient than I, she believes in checklists. I would not have forgotten my tennis shoes back at the car had she been along.
Miles pass. I am making good progress, but a stand of red pine in a cove invites me to stop for the day. Prudence calls for easing muscles slowly back into their paddling routine the first day of the first outing of the year, so I accept the pines' invitation and pull to shore. I slip comfortably into camp routine. Packs unloaded and tent pitched, I crawl into the tent, unroll my sleeping bag, and glance out the rear window. A red fox limps past toward the lake. He returns my stare.
Though not designated an official National Park Service campsite, a blackened fire ring, hard-packed ground, and the absence of dry wood nearby reveal many have camped here before me. The search for firewood gives me an excuse to explore. The camp sits among pine growing on a small hill of gravelly sand, a rare break in the ever-present gray schist bedrock, and undoubtedly the source of the sand on the beach. A seam of milky white quartz slices through the gray stone at the south edge of the grove. Sometimes associated with gold deposits, quartz seams fueled a short-lived gold rush here over a century ago. A foot-wide stripe of pale yellow pollen forms a bathtub ring along part of the shore. A white-throated sparrow and a hermit thrush sing a duet to close the day.
The gimpy fox returns soon after I open packs to fix breakfast. As I step back to the tent he hobbles, as fast as a fox with three working legs can go, directly to a pack, grabs a plastic bag in his teeth, and scampers off onto a low rock ridge. Luckily for my menu he got the bag with my Field Guide to the Birds. It falls to the ground a few steps away. He abandons the empty bag and stands at the base of the ridge, watching.
As I break camp and load the canoe I remember the piece of salmon skin, waste from the salmon sandwiches I'd brought from home for supper last night. I hold it up for the fox to see, set it on a rock, and step away. He limps to it and gulps it ravenously.
A Twin Otter airplane, kayak slung below, flies overhead as I launch my canoe. A labyrinth of islands confronts me. I stop paddling and locate myself on the map, an act reminiscent of my first explorations of Rainy in my college days.
The previous fall my parents had moved to International Falls, on the west end of this large lake, only months after I had left home for the university. I had returned to my family for the summer and to a job in the town's paper mill, having changed my major every few months that freshman year. Actuary? Geologist? Historian? Teacher?
My motorboat adventures on Rainy Lake occupied my days off from work that first summer and the next. I traveled countless miles into bays, around points and between islands. I discovered a long abandoned gold mine and whaleback slopes of smooth bedrock rising from the depths to form land. I also discovered the open horizon of the Brule Narrows.
On one trip past the Narrows to the far eastern end of the lake, I discovered Sand Bay Island. Beaches of sand are uncommon on the bedrock lakes of northeastern Minnesota and adjacent Canada. To stumble on such a beach is a delight. This island had three! Later that summer I came back to the island with two friends for an overnight camp. In my excitement to return, I forgot to bring a sleeping bag and spent the night curled beneath a stiff canvas tarp. I slept not at all, anticipating the next day's explorations. The lake had become enchantress.
I find myself on the map and guide the canoe into a maze of islands. Miles away lies Soldier Point, a long skinny peninsula that forms the American side of the Brule Narrows, my destination. But on the way I must first visit an old stony friend. I pass through a labyrinth of islands and now see the large whitish boulder in the distance that marks the entrance to Cranberry Bay. I first met this massive stone in my college days when it served as my faithful landmark.
There it waits, unchanged. I paddle toward it to renew our relationship. It sits in several feet of water like an enlarged VW beetle. Its domed top projects seven or eight feet above the level of the lake. Uniformly light colored and granitic, it bears no resemblance to the dark gray schist of nearby points and islands. Geologists call this a glacial erratic, a large rock carried by moving ice away from its point of origin to be abandoned, like an orphan, somewhere else. A four foot mass of lichens paints a deep ochre color on the stone's north face, giving the light-gray rock a touch of pizzazz.
So many other lakes have lost their youthful clarity and vigor since I last was here. I rest my hand on the rock. A reassuring sense of groundedness returns. Here I know where I am.
I eat lunch on a small nearby island and resume paddling east. In the space of half a mile I notice three basketball-sized stones with the same composition as my landmark rock. As I break out of islands, I see what appears to be the same rock type forming much of the Canadian shore several miles away. It's as though the stones were Hansel and Gretel crumbs my sentinel rock dropped along its line of travel so it could find its way back to the mother formation.
I plan to camp on one of the National Park Service campsites shown on my map. I approach it but discover it already occupied. Muscles, sore and complaining, must suffer a bit longer. I move slowly along the shore searching for an opening in the undergrowth that can serve as my camp, and find it in a tiny cove deep in Lost Bay. I squeeze the tent between two balsam fir trees. Though the woods are abuzz with mosquitoes, they haven't yet discovered the newly arrived food at the shore.
A pastel salmon sky reflects itself in perfect mirror image on the glassy water. A herring gull lands on the water and approaches shore as if accustomed to getting handouts. I refuse to cooperate. Snorting sounds of flustered deer begin shortly after I crawl into the tent and continue into the night. I have apparently pitched my tent astride their trail to the lake.
* * *
This morning as I break camp, a resplendent pair of bufflehead ducks and two pelicans float silently on water smooth as glass in my cove. The clear sky portends sunburn. I put a large band-aid on my nose in lieu of sunscreen forgotten at home. The paddling is easy. At noon I pull my canoe onto the low bedrock shore of Soldier Point. After lunch of rye crisp, cheese, and a handful of raisins, I explore.
An outcrop of bedrock, bumpy with small protruding garnets, becomes my seat. Eons of weathering have eroded away the softer schist exposing the garnets, among the hardest of minerals. Water four inches deep teems with life beside me. A mass of energized whirligig beetles whirl and gig in random, seemingly nonsensical motion across the water surface. Such energy. Such exuberance. The antidote to pessimism. Sometimes they bump into one another, setting the collided pair buzzing around each other. Two stay together for several swings around a three-inch circle. Maybe it's a mating dance.
A two-inch-long fish rests on the rocky bottom as if he's asleep. Dark speckles on his back and the W-shaped splotches along his sides identify him as a Johnny darter. It's been years since I've seen one. The diminutive darters are relatives of perch and walleye. They dart almost faster than the eye can follow. Male Johnnies' parental instincts are particularly endearing. They not only clear a spawning chamber, often beneath an overhanging rock, but hover over the eggs, fanning and protecting their brood. My Johnny works his way along a thin brown film coating the rock, feeding I suspect, and now disappears into a crack.
As I reach into the water to move a stone, myriad bits of life streak for cover—except for an inch-long object moving slowly across the bottom. It is composed of two elongate slivers of wood, several small twigs, a flat green piece of plant stem, and some stem sheath, all glued together—the accoutrements of a bag lady.
I pluck the object from the rock and lift it into the air. In moments a brownish snout with two tiny eyes peers out from one end, as though puzzling about what is happening to the neighborhood. Finally she fully emerges onto my finger, revealing three pair of legs immediately behind her head and a series of body segments behind the legs. This skinny creature is a larval caddisfly, an insect that spends its early life under water to eventually emerge as a flying adult resembling a small moth. I am distressing her. She is not adapted to live in air. I don't mean to tease her, and I lower my finger into the water. She retreats into her case as it settles to the bottom.
Waters of Saginaw Bay caress the bedrock across the narrow point. Protected from the northerly breeze by the point, the pool here is glass smooth. Creatures the size and shape of tiny safety pins row themselves jerkily through the water with oarlike legs. Their name, fittingly enough, is water boatmen.
Many feed underwater on the organic layer covering the rocks. Some rise to the water surface. All share a beautifully symmetric pattern of gold and black lines on their backs. A flat sloping rock seems the boatmen's mating place. Several pair up. The top bug clings to the one below with both legs and mouthparts normally used to gather food. The bottom bug, however, keeps right on feeding throughout the mating. Priorities are clear. Many lone individuals approach amorous couples from behind and try to climb aboard to form a trireme. These intruders soon discover their mistake and quickly leave, with apology I presume.
Open water extends so far east from this pool and the Narrows that the land simply disappears. I remember looking out on this place for the first time. Stretching forever, the open horizon seemed filled with infinite possibilities in a future waiting to unfold. Even now it quickens my imagination.
* * *
My fascination with the lake grew on those youthful jaunts on Rainy Lake, leading ultimately into a redirection of my life's arc. Back at the university that fall I found myself in a biology class looking at the silvered letters on the green cover of my course book—Taxonomic Keys to the Animals of the North-Central States—and wondering. Me, sitting in a biology class, of all things. In high school I disliked, no, detested biology. Pickled frogs. Pickled perch. Endless terminology. And here I was again. Things were still pickled, pickled, pickled. Dead. Dead. Dead.
One day our professor changed our routine and took the class on a field trip to a lake some miles out of town. Students gathered in the tall grass next to a narrow sand beach that sloped to the water's edge. "Wade into the water with a net and see what you can catch," Professor Eddy called out.
Gentle waves slipped through thinly scattered rushes stirring sand grains in the clear water. I took a net with vial attached and waded in. As I moved along I saw small schools of minnows and a few snails but little else. I swept the net through the water. It was no match for the minnows. They easily darted aside avoiding capture. I swept the net again then stopped to see if I'd caught anything. I grasped the bottle and held it to the sky.
I stared in disbelief at what I saw inside. The bottle was in motion! Alive with motion! Teeming with darting, wiggling, jerking, pulsing vital bits. The top part of the net dropped from my hand and I clasped the bottle with both hands and brought it close to my face. It was not an amorphous mass of agitation, like riled dust. I now saw the bits of motion as individuals, as distinguishable forms of life.
Many swam in exaggerated jerky motions, seemingly propelled by a backward snap of two leglike appendages emerging forward out of the head. These legs arose from near a dense black spot that looked for all the world like a cyclops eye. Others, smaller and with long pairs of feelers, swam more slowly, trailing odd sacs on each side.
A red wiggling motion on the jar's bottom caught my eye. I turned the bottle to see it more clearly. A worm, red as blood, flailed its long body. Its agitations aroused a much larger creature at its side with large oogly eyes. It was brown-green, the color of the lake bottom. Pairs of legs sprouted from behind its head. I then noticed small seeds on the bottom that suddenly lurched into motion, moved by some invisible force across the jar, then, as suddenly, stopped, resuming their disguise as seeds. Everywhere crowded, random, crazy motion. Everywhere vibrancy! Everywhere! I was stunned.
I slowly lowered the bottle and gazed out over the lake. How could this have happened? I had lived my entire twenty years growing up among lakes. I had played along their shores as a toddler, collected shells of snails and clams and crayfish, learned to swim in lakes, fished in them, camped beside them—not rarely, not sporadically, but often. How could I not have seen, not have noticed these creatures. It took no microscope to see this new world emerging before me. I was dumbfounded and ashamed. I had no explanations. The world suddenly seemed much less certain, much more intricate, and vastly more fascinating. What else had I not noticed? What else around me was not as it seemed?
I looked back into the bottle. The jerkers and squigglers now seemed as messengers from an invisible part of the cosmos, emissaries to my blind, unobservant self. My universe would never be the same. I changed my major to biology and ultimately completed graduate research on the ecology of lake herring in the headwater lake of the Mississippi River. Life became lakes and lakes became life.
Excerpted from FOR LOVE OF LAKES by DARBY NELSON Copyright © 2012 by Darby Nelson. Excerpted by permission of MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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