We’ve never suffered much cabin fever in my family, thanks to snowshoes and cribbage, a well-stocked library, and a lively game of living-room hockey my sons and I played when they were young, using a tennis ball for a puck and bookcases for goals. But winter is long in Michigan, and by March we’re a little impatient for spring.
When it comes, it comes fast: a patch of yellow grass in the yard and a warmish wind gusting from the south, carrying those aromas of new growth and freshly turned soil that people through the ages have always associated with promise. But for us the promise isn’t delivered until we can go to the shore of Grand Traverse Bay, a short walk down the hill from our house, and see bright stones in the water and waves breaking on the sand. The first day of real spring always sends us straight to the nearest water.
We’re not alone in this. Millions of people — perhaps the majority of us —choose recreations that take us to lakes, rivers, ponds, and oceans. We fish, paddle, sail, ski, swim, snorkel, dive or just hang out on the beach. It seems to be a universal compulsion. Almost without knowing it, we’re attracted to water.
Its appeal is so strong that we have always invested it with special powers and continue to make token sacrifices to it — throwing coins in fountains and wishing wells just as our ancestors did to propitiate gods that had the power to withhold rain and bring drought and famine. Water has always awakened our sense of wonder and our fears. It has inspired more lyrical comment from writers, poets, and composers than any other aspect of the natural world. We are mesmerized by the flow and fall of it, by the voices we hear in it and the colors we see in it, by the elegant shapes of waves and raindrops and snowflakes. We’re drawn compulsively to waterfalls and crashing surf because they are powerful enough to pull us out of our selves and launch us into the larger world. There is something liberating and exhilarating about that.
Such spectacles have the power to reawaken us to the everyday wonders of the world.
When I was a kid my brother and I had a spring ritual that seems reckless to me now but was irresistible to us then. As the ice began to break up on Long Lake it would melt first around the edges, opening a band of water along the shore. As soon as it was wide enough for a boat, Rick and I would turn over our little fiberglass rowboat, revealing heaps of dry leaves from the previous autumn, and slide it into the water. We would step inside, fit the oars in the locks, and soar.
The stones on the bottom were extraordinary in their detail. Every year, looking over the side of the boat, I was reminded again of how colorful and singular the stones were. Among them rested the skeletons of drowned maple leaves, their veins as delicate as the bones of mice. The first waves would wash them away, but for now they were preserved as if under glass.
Already the ice had been growing dark with decay, until it was nearly black. Everyone knew to stay off it then, but we discovered that we could ram it with the boat and it would crumble into crystalline, hexagonal shards, giving us room to maneuver. Better yet, if the wind was blowing it would open cracks in the ice large enough for us to enter. With the oars we would push rafts of slushy ice out of the way and make our way slowly through jagged leads until we passed the drop-off into water so deep it was black.
Sometimes we could make our way across to tiny Ann’s Island, where we pulled the boat onto shore and searched for any of Ann’s rabbits that might have survived the winter. And sometimes while we were on the island the wind would close the leads and we would be stranded for an hour or two. It inspired a delicious terror. What if nobody knew where we were? What if we had to build a campfire and spend the night? It never came to that but the possibility made us giddy with joy. For of course we were on the lake not just to celebrate spring, but our growing independence.
Much of the year I can step outside and see water in liquid, gaseous and solid forms. That it can exist in all three states simultaneously is just one remarkable quality of this remarkable substance. I can see clouds, dripping icicles and snow almost any day from November through March, and by midwinter, the novelty has worn off.
Spring brings it back in a rush.
After a winter of sensory deprivation, getting outside reminds us that our veins flow with the same water as the lakes and rivers around us. Boating, fishing, and other outdoor activities give us the opportunity to know water in ways we might miss if we only watched it. The secret of the stuff, and perhaps the key to its fascination, is that it beckons us to come close. It invites us to get involved.
Heeding urges so deep that we’ll probably never quite understand them, we go to water not just to observe and wonder.
We go to immerse ourselves in life.
Award-winning author and BLUE “Reflections” columnist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City.