|Oakwood Lakes State Park, South Dakota.|
I was underwater before I knew what had happened.
In that long second under, before the top of my head broke up through the surface of the lake, two thoughts came rapid-fire: “Find Nathan,” and then, “If he’s okay, let him hear you laugh so he doesn’t panic.”
It was Fourth of July weekend. Our family had gone camping at Oakwood Lakes State Park, located not far from our home in Brookings, South Dakota (see photo). On Sunday afternoon, brilliant with sunshine and cooled by moderate winds, we were canoeing the choppy water of one of the lakes. Our shoulder muscles had grown pleasantly tired from the paddling, and we were just starting to turn back the way we’d come, my husband Jihong in the stern, myself in the bow, and between us our eight-year-old Nathan, fidgeting–“ready,” he said, “to go back to the dock.”
That’s when it happened. A sudden shift of weight, a critical shift of balance.
No weeds to entangle us here; we were in very deep water, murky brown-black. As I struggled up through the water, I strained to see any sign of Nathan through my sunglasses, still perched on my nose. I could see nothing.
Then, as suddenly as we’d tipped over, I popped to the surface in my life-vest. Nathan, also vested, was already a-bob nearby, as was Jihong, who was struggling to get a grip on the capsized canoe. Everyone accounted for, I started laughing, whooping it up, and Nathan, hearing me, began to giggle rather uncertainly, thrashing in the water, reaching out for me. Soon he was laughing from deep in his belly.
Jihong tried to right the canoe. Tried again and again. Every time, it came up full of water. I clung to Nathan, my mother’s instincts not entirely trusting his life-vest.
We aren’t that experienced on the water, Jihong and I. The hours we’ve logged have been mostly with kayaks, not canoes. My mind scanned the ol’ memory bank for something, anything, about capsized canoes, which present more of a challenge than overturned kayaks, and could only come up with this: “Stay with the canoe until help comes. It won’t sink.” Probably a remnant of Campfire Girl instruction, decades ago. At the moment, not very helpful.
I remembered seeing, just before we spilled, some hikers on a look-out point on the far shore. Maybe a half-mile away, maybe more, they were tiny to the eye. Had they seen us go in? Did they think we were in trouble? (Were we in trouble?)
The canoe, righted now for the fourth time, sat fat and low in the water, almost completely submerged. Nathan crawled in, took a flooded seat. We had nothing with which to bail besides our hands. Next to futile.
“We’re going to have to swim for it,” I said to Jihong. Shore was a good 80 yards of rough water away. “We get over there, we can stand up, dump the water out.” He agreed.
“Okay, Nathan, we’ve got be serious now,” I said, treading water with my hand on his vest, feeling more afraid for him than I wanted to show. I was suddenly incredibly grateful to that vest. I was grateful, too, for Nathan’s natural love of the water and his clumsy but capable swimming. When he was calm, I handed him one of the yellow paddles. “We’re going to swim to shore. All of us. Your life-vest will help you stay afloat, and so will your paddle, so don’t let go. If you get tired, turn over on your back and rest. I’ll help you. You can do this. You’re a good swimmer!”
He didn’t even hesitate. Off he plunged, his slender body twisting this way and that through the water toward shore. Already he was laughing again, but he was making good progress, quickly outpacing me. Jihong wasn’t far behind him, pushing the waterlogged canoe ahead, directing its course.
Suddenly, though, I was struggling. My right leg, slow to recover from major surgery a year ago, was tightening with cramps. Before long each kick was bringing a moan. Nathan out of earshot, Jihong turned round, asked with concern if I were okay. “My leg,” I gasped.
I stopped and floated, loosening the straps on my life-vest so I could move more freely. Then I began to swim again, one-legged, letting my bad leg dangle. I was fighting the water, breathing hard. The shore actually seemed to be receding, and I began to doubt. I’m no help at all, I thought.
Then, all at once, Nathan burst out with a yell. “I made it!” he cried. “I’m standing in mud!” And I raised myself up in the water, and looked, and there he was, indeed, standing in mud at the shoreline. Standing in mud, and holding mud. Enormous handfuls of mud, dripping down his arms into lakewater.
What a beautiful, beautiful sight.