Photo by Beth Burrell

by Christi Craig

Weighted with a backpack, cooler, four beach towels, and a chair, I follow my son and daughter from the bluff down to Miner’s Beach, a favorite spot on the shores of Lake Superior. They move fast, excited; I am shuffling, shadowed. When we reach a dune high enough for a perfect view of the lake at all points, I should be relieved. But the trek from parking lot to sand has stretched my somber mood into a taut band of aggravation: the steps too wide to maneuver easily; the sand hot and too deep to move quickly; the tiny sticks of driftwood too hidden—they poke at my tender feet. I am sweating, cursing, regretting every person or thing within my immediate vision. And I am out of breath. From a distance, I look healthy, but I have no real stamina. In fact, maybe my husband carries the chair. Maybe the kids carry the cooler. 

I take refuge on my towel, fix myself within the strict boundaries of stitched edges. Belly down, I set my chin on crossed arms and resign myself to misery.

I am being dramatic. My husband says so, and perhaps he is right. But this shroud of irritation I know is cover for something deeper: a pressing for retreat. Though, not this kind of retreat—when spirits are up after a long winter, when the air is warm and promising, when we set off on family vacation to enjoy the luxury of rest and relaxation, the company of each other. I want none of it. 

Still, the sand at eye level—white like the tropics—tempts me enough to release one arm and scoop a handful, let it fall through my fingers. The tree-topped bluffs to the east and west whisper protection. The knot in my chest loosens. But as I study the lake, I pull my hand back into the confines of the towel. The sky and water are crystal blue, but the line between them difficult to decipher, one continuous abyss straight out and beyond. 

I could get lost.

Some say, because of the cold underwater climate, Lake Superior is “unproductive.” Not enough oxygen or plant life, hardly any bacterial growth—a vessel for preservation. Fall victim to her currents and drown and your body would not decay, but simply sink to the bottom. Years later, a scuba diver excavating the deep might find you in the exact state as when you succumbed: vacant eyes, floating hair, arms limp. 

I am envisioning this when my husband reappears in my line of sight. “Lake Superior is warmer this year than most,” he says. “The warmest in a decade. You gonna swim?” I give him the side eye. He knows my position. Warmer is relative, when you’re bred Texan. I tighten my grip on each arm, tethered by my own design. At least here I know what to expect.

My husband, though, takes to the water like a true Northerner. He jogs out into the waves, his red swimsuit breaking the surface as he dives under. He is hooting and hollering, arms pumping. Sloshing. Sloppy. He eggs at me to come in. I shake my head. I am a thousand degrees, but I cannot, even for the sake of cooling off under the hot sun, leave the towel. I scrutinize my water bottle, fish around in my backpack for a snack. 

Only when my kids follow their dad into the lake am I up on my elbows. They are both good swimmers but young yet, and I have seen the signs about riptides. I know how fast the current can pull you under. Even while the waves crest low, even while the sounds coming from the water hit thrilling high notes of joy, I do not trust what I see. I am fearful for them. For me. Standing alone on the beach towel. I wave them back in, but no one—not the kids, not my husband—pays heed. 

Against my best efforts to remain anchored, I move onto the wet sand. A wave breaks and nips at my toes, envelops my ankles. I hold my place for five seconds, when my feet usually grow bitter cold, then find that it’s true, the lake is warmer. To my right shoulder, I see my whole family swimming away along the shoreline toward the eastern bluffs. 

Against my better judgment, I submerse myself in the water. 

The weight at the crown of my head lifts. It will be years—perhaps never, I think—before I will swim like this again, in this space. As when I was young, I crawl through the shallows on my hands, let my legs rise and kick behind me. I turn onto my back, and my feet flutter. Buoyant, there is relief. My arms take in the full scope of the water around me. The magic of being submersed in such clear waters brings a lump to my throat. This lake is a vessel.

It takes me forever to catch up with my husband and kids. They are eager to reach the sandstone rocks that press out from the base of the bluff into the water, making a wide platform for walking out further and exploring more. My beach towel far behind me, I follow in their footsteps, still cautious but willing. The sandstone is smooth, slippery. Lines of brown and orange, red and soft yellow curve along the surface of rock out into the lake like another invitation. If I could, I would soak up the stone’s ability to shed grains of itself – a property that makes for an easy sloughing-off of old, of worn, or wear. Instead, I return to the shallows, float on my back; my hands flutter and fall so that my fingertips grace the stone. The water level with my ears, I listen. 

To the muted sounds of laughter nearby.

To the rhythmic current. 

To my own breathing.