All Creatures Here Below

Original Photo by Adam Whipple

The road to the lake is so twisted that one stretch is named “The Dragon’s Tail.” Our truck, bristling with canoes and kayaks, yaws through the tight curves like a ship coming about, far too sluggish for the thrill-seekers swarming thick to challenge the dragon. Motorcycles and hot rods stack up behind us like a trail of creeping ants, and when we turn off the highway they gun their engines, freed. The boat launch is quiet though, the dusty pebbled road lazing with its concrete toes in the water. We load canoes as close as we dare to the sinking point, the grind of the final push giving way to sudden silent weightlessness as they slip into the water, gunwales low to the murky green.

On the water we’re sluggish again, but there’s no wind today to shove our burdened convoy backward. There are also no jellyfish beneath us, as there were in the early years of these trips–quarter-sized wisps pulsing through the dim, impossible as faeries. It’s silent here, but for the murmur of water, the subdued splashes of our paddling, and our jests tossed from boat to boat. An excess of sky seems to have pooled between the mountain ridges, rippling with wet laughter, so there are clouds above and below us. We taunt each other across a mile or so, and with shoulders burning, we make landfall. The Island.

Our advance scout rolls lazily out of the silken cocoon of his hammock to greet us as we clamber up the shifting rocks. Joe made the journey alone, by moonlight, to claim this ground before any rivals. He accepts our praise with a bleary smile. Without his midnight quest we might have been forced to camp somewhere other than this, the magic spot. We heave gear up the steeps, amid head-sized stones that turn over to gnaw our ankles. Thirty feet from the water a fringe of gnarled pine roots reaches out into empty air, marking the border from bare rubble to stubborn forest. We sling our hammocks between leaning grey pillars on the edges of the island’s narrow wooded crown, leaving open a dirt patch around the firepit. There are a few among us who can’t sleep with so much air between them and the earth , so they grub among the roots and rocks and sloping ground for the least bad place to lie down tonight, and wedge tiny tents into what gaps the island has left them. All the activity startles gray-brown lizards who dart into stony crevices or up tree trunks, where they turn invisible on the bark.

There are coals glowing dull amid the pale ash from our morning fire. Dug in, we fall to feeding these into crackling life. By tradition there must be meat cooking as often as possible, and we need to start making inroads on the absurd amount of beef and pork in our coolers, or we’ll have to haul it out when we leave. While marinated steak sizzles on a black iron griddle, contributions to the island library begin lining up on the long plank spanning two flattish boulders, with smaller rocks pressed into service as bookends. Lewis and Chesterton have made the trip with us, along with Dostoevsky. Golding has not been forgotten. Every genre is accounted for on the dusty plank, where leather-bound, gilt-edged tomes snug up to creased paperbacks with only remnants of coversan ephemeral Alexandria in the wilds.

Others arrive in twos and threes, until our chatter spreads out and goes spilling off down the rocks. A swimming creature is sighted. No, it isn’t a beaver, it’s Dave, come without a boat and swimming all the way in. He arrives with eyes red and swollen from the cold water, and we older ones reminisce about having the energy of youth. From there the conversation turns to the year an armada of wild boar swam from the nearer southern shore and landed on the island; and the tale is told once again, with much gesticulation.

We fill our bellies with steaming pork in memory of the boar as evening draws in. Small and innocent looking flies snatch mouthfuls from the backs of our ankles, leaving a welling drop of blood each time. A breeze carries them off and palavering goes on without further predation. Pipes and cheroots are lighted and fragrant smoke wafts amid conversations of fatherhood, books, authors, church planting, the correct pronunciation of Pinus strobus, third-party candidates, the kid who was seized by the head and pulled from his hammock during a bear attack half a mile from here, impending marriages, and how long you think you could live alone on an island, far away from mankind. We gather gingerly on the sharp rocks as the sun sinks between framing mountains across from us, setting the lake aflame. As the last gleam flares a harmonica appears in old Maynard’s hand to sound out the Doxology, and we join our voices to the familiar strain and the unheard song of the emerging stars.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” we sing, especially those of community and camping, among nature’s wild imagination.

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