Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Last Monday was hot. A lush 91°. A spate of hot weather in Seattle is rare as a democratic socialist at a Republican convention. It is not to be wasted. When winter comes, you want to be able to remember it. You want to gather and preserve the vividness and clarity of each and every sensation appertaining so that you can draw that time from the well of your memory and taste it again. Live it again. Recreate an inner summer in the midst of winter.

You do not want to spend such days indoors on the Internet. You want to imbibe such times deeply, suck them into your being, squeeze them into your cells, trap them in your biology. Hold them forever in the clutch of your nerves.

What to do. Go for a walk? Too boring. Sit in a nicely air-conditioned movie theatre enjoying a summer movie? Too decadent. Play tennis? We don’t have rackets or balls. Run through a sprinkler? We’re condo dwellers. We don’t have a lawn, or a sprinkler.

We decided to go canoeing.

I do not own a yacht. And I am glad of that. A yacht is a big expensive thing full of needs and complications. A canoe, on the other hand, is a small thing, easy to maneuver in the water, a sleek and graceful form. It is a joy to feel a paddle in your hands, the smooth round contour of the handle, watch the little swirls and whirlpools that follow a pull of the paddle in the water, the feeling of the hull as it glides over a serene surface, or splats and chuckles against the wake of some fool’s yacht. Some fool’s headache.

I don’t own a canoe either. But you can rent them. There are a number of places in town to do that, but one of the better ones is the Water Activities Center at the University of Washington. This is a modern bunker style building staffed by students on the western shore of Union Bay, in back of Husky Stadium. You sign a waiver, assure them that you can swim, and they hand you life-preserver vests and a couple of paddles and a slip of paper to hand to the boat handler at the dock, in this instance, a pretty young Asian student. Her co-worker, another young Asian woman, had just gone on break, and dove into the water.

We were given canoe #87. All the canoes are aluminum, their bows dented and dimpled, but their overall shape and condition sturdy as a Viking longship. We passed the young Asian boat handler on the way out, her head bobbing above the water. Look, I said, a mermaid. She grinned.

We paddled under the freeway, SR-520, a.k.a. the Evergreen Floating Bridge, which traverses the islands and marshes of the Washigton park arboretum. The canoeing there is pleasant, except for the noise of cars whooshing by on the freeway, the water calm, the little islands alluring and intimate, the channels and bridges charming and diverse. There are a gazillion species of waterfowl, including coots, pied-bill grebes, bitterns, blue herons, cormorants and Canadian geese, but mostly wood ducks, all in anticipation of food, as the canoeists like to toss bits of snack food into their clusters. Sometimes a seagull will drop down and create a commotion, stealing some poor wood duck’s sandwich or potato chip.

The water is choked with aquatic plants which makes me a little nervous. I’m a good swimmer, but the tangle of growth looks like it had a real potential for getting around your legs and dragging you down. I did see people swimming in there though, their heads bobbing above the water, arms outstretched in easy butterfly strokes.

I was yearning to get into the water. I asked Roberta if she’d like to paddle over to Foster Island. She said sure.

Foster Island is a wetland with 1, 750 feet of shoreline. It provides critical habitat for Chinook salmon and nesting bald eagles, and is forested with willows, alder, madrona, pines, Douglas-firs, maples, oaks, Chinese empress trees, and cottonwoods. Various shrubs engross the turgid understory, such as salal, witch hazel, and serviceberry. The wildlife consists of goldfinch, song sparrows, bush tits, small rodents, beaver, and raccoons, though I have on occasion seen, or dreamed I saw, the heads of brontosaurus emerge from the understory serenely chewing a mouthful of mountain laurel.

We paddled near a spot where we might have been able to beach our canoe, but it was blocked by someone else’s canoe, ingeniously tethered to a small log afloat in the shallow water via one of the tethers of their lifejacket. We continued to round the island to the north. I remembered a spot from several summers ago when we had gone hiking on Foster Island on a similar hot day and come to a wall of riprap buttressing the shore where there was a stretch of shallow water extending about ten feet before disappearing into the abyss of a very sharp drop-off. I had been dressed in jeans and shirt that day and did not want to risk the embarrassment of swimming in my underwear. We returned to that same spot, but there was nowhere to beach or tether the canoe. I got out and waded in the water, guiding the canoe back to the spot we’d seen earlier blocked by the canoe. It was hard going because the bottom was very rocky, the riprap extending out onto the floor of the lake. I felt my way very gingerly with my bare feet, emitting a stream of invective, ouch, shit, fuck, shit, shit shit shit, along the way. A slip could easily capsize the canoe, along with Roberta, our camera and wallets. The stream of invective was a form of verbal crochet, an aid to my concentration.

I returned to the spot where the other canoe was tethered to one of two logs, both at an angle which, combined with the shoreline, created a tiny, pyramidal harbor. There was thick vegetation on the bottom which felt to my bare feet like a weird shag carpet. I did not like the sensation. It was a vivid reminder of a time when I was about eight or nine years old and my father and I were wading near an unused portion of shoreline on Perch Lake in Wisconsin where a grove of trees were growing, somewhat like the ones you see in the bayous of Louisiana. The bottom was mucky, a deep black rich mud with bits of woodland detritus mixed in with it. I hated it. I frustrated my father because I refused to wade in it. He insisted it was harmless. I was sure there was something hideous and macabre embedded in it, a human skeleton, or some primordial creatures left over from the Age of Dinosaurs with dangerous teeth and pincers. To this day I remember my father’s utter frustration with me. His son, the wimp.

Roberta was not dressed for swimming, but I was, so she remained behind holding our canoe while I waded out a ways, dove under the water and paddled around a bit before returning, nicely cooled off.

We took our time returning to the WAC. There is nothing more delicious than sitting in a canoe on the open water doing nothing but drift. I am fascinated by gazing at water. The little rills and dimples and waves that appear are enthralling. Hypnotizing.

It remained intensely hot even on the open water, the sun blazing in a pale blue sky. There was a brown haze of pollution at both horizons, worse than a day we remembered in Los Angeles gazing out from the overlook of Griffith Park planetarium. We watched a flock of geese as one by one they upturned themselves and showed their white butts to the day as they fed on the plants underwater. We felt light breezes cross and envelop our bare skin providing momentary relief from the heat. I gazed into the water and thought about the various planes lying on the bottom of the lake, seven altogether. One of them is a torpedo bomber, a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger, that had gone down in 1942 during a training exercise, and now languishes under 200 feet water off the shore of Kirkland.

Another is a Lockheed PV2-D Harpoon patrol bomber that had sunk in September 1947, when it went out of control during takeoff from Sandpoint Naval Airbase. It is a fully armed World War II combat aircraft, its nose stuck in the bottom, the guns pointing to the surface as if to shoot down some jet skier or people on a pleasure craft.

Lake Washington’s bottom is littered with wrecks. Minesweepers, schooners, coal cars, the original floating bridge, even a stern wheeler.

Mark Tourtellot, co-owner of Fifth Dimension Dive Center in Issaquah, once found a J.G. Fox & Co. glass root-beer bottle from the early 1900s in 40 feet of water off of Leschi.

I kept track of the drift of our canoe by looking very closely and identifying a specific underwater plant and seeing how fast we moved away from it. We seemed to be moving quite fast. I looked up and saw some men running at the far northern end of Union Bay, white T-shirted torsos bobbing along in a formation. Look, I said, a herd of wild men in a stampede. It must be feeding time.

Or football training, Roberta surmised.

Or football training, I agreed.

I checked my watch. We had about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes left. But this was a guess. Roberta remarked that she was getting uncomfortably hot so we decided to bring our canoe back to the WAC. The paddles returned to our hands, the little whirlpools and dimples to the water as we moved forward, our craft slicing through the water, gliding like a dream of aluminum over a forest of milfoil and algae.

It is a continual fascination to me how many little irritations and annoyances combine to make a general pleasure. We were uncomfortably hot, but this served to augment the feeling of the breeze. The canoe was rented, but how nice to return it and have it out of our lives; boats require money and maintenance. And when we returned home, no words can express the lushness of the carpet beneath my feet. The sensation was glorious. I paused a minute to reflect and make sure the memory of Foster Island’s riprap and shallows were locked in my mind until winter.


Anonymous said...

Come out to Connecticut next summer & I'll take you kayaking with me.

John Olson said...

Sounds terrific!

Steven Fama said...

Ah, the bottom of the lake! You know I love that!

Millfoil though: ugh. It's a big topic in Minnesota, as you might enjoy reading about here.

Anonymous said...


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