It was July 4th weekend as the plane lifted from the New York runway and landed in Minneapolis. My five day, kayak-camping trip with my friend and her husband was about to begin.
Soon after my arrival, the three of us stood on the shores of Lake Superior. I stared at the horizon, water and sky indistinguishable. I grinned with satisfaction; I finally understood how a lake could be as vast as an ocean.
I submerged my feet. It was unlike any summer lake I’d visited. My ankles burned and I watched them glow red beneath the water. Memories surfaced of quick summer dips in the Atlantic off the coast of northern Maine where summer water temps also hovered in the 50s.
In sleeveless wetsuits, buckled into life vests we glided out under blue skies and were enveloped in warm summer air. The forecast:10 percent chance of rain.
We ventured to the remarkable sea caves and walked on a sand bar far off shore before we set course to the island where we would camp for the night.
Several hours later, I felt my kayak rocking; the water was becoming choppy. I looked over my shoulder for my periodic 360 degree check-in with the skies and water.
The sky behind me was black; the waters white capping.
My friend’s husband grasped for the marine radio… It was a tornado.
We changed course and headed to the closet piece of land. It was a small island that also housed a ranger station-lighthouse.
Just then the skies released a torrent of water.
Panic threatened to drown my reasoning as I negotiated the swells and whitecaps.
It was impossible to paddle in a straight line to the island and be perpendicular to the waves. Even though I wore a wet suit and life vest, I was terrified if the kayak flipped that my muscles would freeze in the cold waters and I would find myself unable to right the kayak and pull myself back in. Pictures of my body lifeless from hypothermia floated through my head. I had begun compulsively glancing down at the skirt tab to reassure myself it was free.
The island was getting closer.
All around me lit up. A searing crackling released with an immediate boom.
I reflexively ducked. Paddle, keep paddling. The lightning continued.
The island was now about 300 feet from me. I paddled the boat hard into the shore, then quickly stepped into the lake as lighting broke around me. I swiftly dragged the kayak to higher ground. We grabbed a few supplies from our boats and ducked into the woods.
We had a 1/2 to 3/4 mile trek, uphill. In army green ponchos, we jogged through the woods toward the ranger station.
The heavy rain flooded the path and it became a stream. Muddy waters repetitively splashed up my legs. We reached the top. I paused and looked across the grassy clearing briefly reviewing which was a better decision: run across a field during a lightning storm to get to the ranger station and a small brick building, or stay put with a tornado headed towards me? During those brief seconds, hail the size of golf balls began pelting down then rebounding upwards off the grass like super balls as if trying to return to the clouds.
I dashed ‘cross the open patch of grass. The three of us sought refuge in a small brick building with the ranger and another couple who’d been out sailing.
In time, the winds subsided. We stepped out of the building to a huge rainbow arching the lake skies. It was late and the ranger let us sleep in a tiny area of the light house.
When I woke the next morning the air was cool indoors as well as out.
From a small window I looked down the cliffs at the white capping water, then up at gray skies. It looked like Maine in November.
We decided to head home. I wanted to cry as my damp, cold and smelly wetsuit resisted against my skin. We grabbed our few belonging and headed across the open grass area, down the trail, through the woods and to the beachfront. We shoved off onto the chilly waters.
I was scared and cold. I looked a the white caps and decided this must be what a small craft advisory meant.
We quickly exited the protective cove and were hit with the open winds and waves. Working to keep my anxiety level, I headed the bow into the waves while setting as direct a course as I could to the mainland.
Hours later we reached the land and hugged the shores as we paddled. The white caps, wind and my fear all greatly reduced. That afternoon we were melting away in a hotel jacuzzi.
Over a decade had passed. I was flipping thru TV Channels and found myself sucked into a story about campers who had been rescued from a derecho that had whipped thru the Boundary Canoe Waters of Minnesota. I listened to the narration; the storm that hit on the 4th of July weekend in 1999 was the most devastating one they ever had with winds reaching 80-100 mph. I watched the red radar patch indicating severe lightning as it traveled some 70 miles from the BCW and hit the Apostle Islands before it moved on and eventually withered. The Apostle Islands… where the three of us had been kayaking that 4th of July weekend in 1999.
As I worked on this image memories from the trip surfaced. I reflected on other adventures and misadventures in my life and the meaning of fear, curiosity, and safety.