Somewhat fictionalized recounting of an actual incident
|I’m underwater. The water is so cold my external organs may never return to normal size. My vital signs are plunging. I see myself as a young boy. A much warmer young boy. There is a dark shape looming above me. At least I think it’s above me. I’m totally disoriented.
How had my comfort zone been so suddenly violated?
Let me start somewhere near the beginning.
My friend and co-worker Norm is an avid outdoorsman/fisherman. This means that he buys all the latest stuff necessary to create the illusion that you are sitting in your comfortable living room in Pleasantville, when you are actually at a campground somewhere high in the mountains with wild animal shrieks emanating from the dark. (The loudest shrieks are usually coming from the raccoon who begged thirteen pieces of Marshmallow Surprise from you earlier in the evening).
Norm came up to me at work a week before Father’s Day with a smug smile on his face and I knew that he had scored some sort of major coup that I was going to be forced to top if it was humanly possible.
Men Who Are Men rule #18 states that if your friend manages to get his wife’s permission to go camping and fishing then you must in turn get your wife’s permission to go camping and fishing and to take the life of at least one small animal. You must outdo his coup even if it means promising to visit your in-laws at their one-bedroom, single wide mobile home in Humble, Idaho for two months.
“I get to go off by myself for the entire Father’s Day weekend,” Norm smugly announced.
My heart sank. This meant three months in Humble.
“And I’m going to take my new Coalman Canoe,” he added.
Two bombshells. The Men Who Are Men manual didn’t have a double-coup contingency. I was probably going to have to move to Humble in order to top this. Norm had not only been allowed to purchase a top of the line, sleek new Coalman “water doesn’t scare us” Canoe, he actually got to use it. I decided that artificial expertise was the best approach.
“So, you’ll need somebody to come along who can show you which end of the canoe is the front and stuff like that,” I said. “I might be free that weekend myself.”
“You think your wife will let you go on such short notice?” Norm was astounded.
“I’m the one who decides how I spend my free time,” I retorted. “If I don’t have something already on my calendar for then, I’ll tell my wife I’m going to go fishing with you.”
I could tell Norm was suitably impressed, if not completely convinced that I wasn’t lying through my bicuspids, which, of course, I was. If I had actually walked up to my wife and announced that I was going fishing with Norm and his new canoe on Father’s Day weekend I probably wouldn’t have regained consciousness until Mother’s Day.
I now had to come up with probably the most cunning strategy I had ever devised to get my wife to let me go for the entire weekend, the entire FATHER’S DAY weekend no less. My wife has always placed a special emphasis on birthdays and other semi-holidays like FATHER’S DAY to make sure a strong tradition is instilled and maintained on those occasions. So on FATHER’S DAY, I was going to spend the whole day with the kids, even if we all had to trash prior plans and glare across the room at each other from dawn to dusk. Tradition.
I decided to employ the rare, reverse third party psychological guilt inducement ploy.
“Norm told me today that his kids are letting him go away by himself to fish and camp all weekend for his Father’s Day present,” I began.
“Well I’m glad that you care more about your family than Norm does about his,” She said with finality.
Checkmate, and I hadn’t even moved my pawn. I plunged ahead anyway, refusing to give up so easily.
“Don’t you think that maybe Bradley & Tiffany would want me to do whatever I wanted on that special weekend?” I whined. “Norm said he’d really like me to come along and do some bonding.”
“The last time you and Norm bonded you lost the car,” she said. “And I don’t want to have to spend two days filling out reports and looking through mug shots.”
“It won’t happen again,” I replied. “We’re taking Norm’s car.”
After a great deal of back and forth, give and take, kick and receive, I finally got her to agree to the weekend off, if it was all right with the kids. Tiffany had a hot date and didn’t mind a bit. She even gave me a few bucks to spend on the trip, but Bradley wanted to go with us. Since I had the natural desire to get away from being a parent for at least one weekend, I used a little more psychology.
“I promise, Brad, The next space shuttle, I’ll have you in a first class seat, next to a window or porthole or whatever they use. And you can stay up till dawn breaks for three months in a row.”
Bribery usually worked pretty well with the boy but this was going to be a tough one. He shook his head and insisted that I take him along because he “wanted to spend Father’s Day with his dad.” He was shrewd. He’d learned everything he’d ever need to know about laying on guilt trips from an expert in the field, his mother.
Logic never was allowed to intrude on a guilt trip. Never mind that on the last Father’s Day he had wanted to spend the day with his friend Grunt Hansen because Grunt had just gotten the new version of their favorite video game, Street Avenger 27. (In this one the manhole covers jumped up at random and disemboweled unsuspecting super martial arts heroes but it didn’t matter because they were already dead and were trying to find the sacred worm that would bring them back to life and restore the real estate they’d lost in a scam... never mind. It was RAD.)
Just when I thought I had met my match in this struggle of wills, I remembered something that always worked with Bradley. I tripled his allowance. We were already having to borrow back part of his allowance to make the house payment, but again, logic didn’t seem to affect this negotiation process. After I had written up the standard “allowance contract amendment” and signed it with the usual small portion of my own blood, Brad seemed satisfied.
The big day came. Saturday morning Norm rolled into the driveway in his full sized van with the new green beauty lashed to the top. The glistening rays of the rising sun bounced off her sleek hull. Her bow pointed down the road to excitement. Norm bounced out of the van with a Swisher Sweet clenched firmly between his teeth and his jaw pointed toward adventure. My breakfast of Four coffees and a bowl of Granola Delight caught up with me and I pointed myself toward the bathroom.
Before very long we were sailing down the highway. Now we had to decide just where we were going to go. Norm had brought his “Best Places For a Person to Catch a Fish” book and I looked in it to see if I could get some inspiration. Some of the places mentioned were too far away. Some were too close. Some too deep. Too shallow. Too long. Too short. Big. Small. Wet. Dry.
We bickered back and forth for a full two hours about where we might spend the day fishing when suddenly a sign loomed. “O’hell Lake, 2 miles.”
“Have you heard what the fishing’s like at O’hell? I asked.
“Not much,” Norm replied somewhat testily.
He hated to admit that he didn’t know at least something about a body of water that might contain fish within a thousand miles of his house, so he never just said “no.” It was always “not much” or “very little.”
“Well, why don’t we try it?” I asked.
“We’ll try it,” Norm said firmly. He liked to make it sound like every decision was his.
We pulled down into an area at the east end of the lake that had a lodge with a small general store, a boat ramp and a camping area nearby. The camping area was packed with assorted RV’s and milling life forms.
There were signs that we were a long way from civilization; WORMS - $15.00. SMALL CANS OF TUNA FISH - TWO FOR $18.27.
We decided that there were too many people hanging around there, spoiling the “wilderness ambiance” so we headed down to the west end of the lake as fast as we could, hoping that the inevitable campground at that end wasn’t full also.
We came to the sign that identified the entrance to the overnight camping area; COYOTE BAIT CAMPGROUND - ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE. We drove through the labyrinth of one way, narrow lanes that ran through the place but the only vacant campsite we could find was a bleak little spot that was devoid not only of sunlight but of any signs of life whatsoever. “Hey, this is great!” Norm exclaimed. “Get out and direct me back into this spot.”
“I don’t know, Norm,” I began. “Have you heard about any nuclear testing being done around here recently?”
“What’s the matter?” He sounded somewhat hurt. “Don’t you like the wilderness ambiance here?” He pronounced the “am” in “ambiance” like the “am” in “Spam.”
“More like cemetery ambiance if you ask me,” I replied.
But my feeble protest fell on absent ears. Norm had already leapt back into the van and was backing hurriedly into the entryway to the site. He had apparently been made nervous by the other poor, late-arrivers who were driving slowly by and eyeing the site hungrily while we waffled around about our decision. Too late I noticed the obstacle in Norm’s path as he pulled the van back into its final resting place for the night.
“Norm stop!” I yelled. “There’s a huge pile of dead fish under the van. We should at least toss them off into the woods before we park for the night.”
“Ah, it’ll be all right,” Norm grunted. “This van is so tight, you won’t be able to smell anything tonight.” He seemed to hesitate. “But I do wonder why somebody would leave an entire pile of fish behind.”
“Maybe they had to leave in a hurry,” I said. Once again I looked nervously around and tried to find any redeeming qualities about the place. I walked back and forth across the invisible boundary line between this place and the next campsite and could swear that the temperature was several degrees colder in ours.
Norm immediately began untying the canoe and I realized that there was no more negotiating for a change of plan that day. I started to help set up camp and before long my spirits had risen to a mildly depressed state.
We walked down to the campground manager’s site to pay our overnight camping fee. He was a wiry man who looked old enough to have planted all the trees at the campground. It seemed as if he gave us a funny look when we said we were in space number 27, but it could have been my imagination.
We returned to camp and scouted around. We found that we could reach the water by going directly through the woods to the lake from our campsite instead of going out onto the paved lane that ran in front of the site and down to the boat launch area. We decided to do just that because it was a cool thing to do. Besides, taking the route through the woods only added a half mile at best to what was normally a five hundred foot walk.
We lifted the canoe off the van and suddenly, what had looked like a lightweight, fiberglass piece of nautical whimsy turned into a five ton ironclad. The canoe was heavy enough to seriously alarm my abdominal muscles. Maybe gravity was much stronger at this place too. None of the other natural laws of physics seemed to apply.
“Jeez,” Norm wheezed as we struggled along the narrow, sometimes nonexistent path to the water, carrying the canoe between us. “Did the trees move closer together since we came through here the last time?”
We finally got to the shore of the lake and lowered the canoe into the water. Someone had gotten to the area before us and had moored their boat to a tree. People who camp and fish a lot have their own quaint, individual ways of laying claim to a site temporarily whether its a spot along the shoreline, or a choice camping area. Some people build a mound of rocks, some hang a flag. These folks had left a sign that said “Touch this boat and die a horrible death.”
Norm and I were instantly rejuvenated and excited by the sight of that beautiful glasslike body of water stretching out before us. An occasional hungry trout would burst through the surface of the lake and cause our pulses to race, I think. It was hard to tell because our hearts were still pounding from the exertion of the trip through the woods.
We situated our gear in the bottom of the canoe, then climbed in and shoved off. Norm had claimed his position in the rear (aft) seat of the canoe. I climbed into the forward (daft) seat. Immediately I sensed a small problem. The horizon began jumping up and down and acting really silly. I looked back at Norm and he was looking back at me with probably the same expression I was using on him. Why weren’t we just gliding across the water smoothly, being part of the picture post card scenery, instead of bobbling from side to side, not being able to find any kind of center of gravity?
Norm took up his oar and began to paddle. I did the same with mine and things seemed to get somewhat better for awhile. Pretty soon we fell into a pretty good rhythm and were indeed gliding across the water with considerable speed and apparent stability. We were lulled by the lake ambiance, and soon forgot about our shaky start.
O’hell is one of those high mountain lakes that drops off rather suddenly about five feet from the shore and whose bottom has never been found. Several unfortunate spouses are rumored to be resting in its icy depths. Of course, if there’s no bottom, then they’re all still sinking.
Norm and I didn’t dwell on those kinds of morbid thoughts as we were caught up in the adventure at hand with thoughts of catching our limits of nice fat fish as soon as we found the right spot to wet our lines.
Finding the right spot proved to be somewhat difficult as Norm’s fabled “right spot radar” seemed to be malfunctioning temporarily. Possibly it was being thrown out of whack by the occasional “bobbles” of the canoe. Neither one of us wanted to say anything out loud about the persistent bobbling problem because each didn’t want to seem to be blaming the other for it, but it was Norm’s fault.
Norm paddled the boat furiously about, searching here and there looking for the perfect place and after almost two hours of seemingly aimless wandering about on the water, he suddenly made the announcement.
“I need to pee,” he said. “Let’s head for shore and try again after grabbing a bite to eat.”
I wanted to hold out just a little longer because it didn’t seem manly to go ashore without at least one captive fish. Norm reluctantly agreed and we prepared to toss out our lines one more time. I had been trying different kinds of bait and lures while Norm had been playing “dying fly on the windowsill” with the canoe. None had worked, so I finally had to break down and use the one surefire, when all else fails fish-getter; worms.
Baiting a hook with a worm always depresses me. They lie there in their little styrofoam and dirt travelall harming no one, full of good will toward all, then suddenly a giant hand pulls them forth and performs unspeakable acts on them. I felt like a monster.
“Quit staring at that worm and get on with it,” Norm snapped. “I need to get back soon or else I’m going to raise the water level of the lake.” He chuckled at his little joke and started jiggling his line to attract some attention down below. The jiggling caused the canoe to bobble. Jiggle. Bobble. Jiggle. Bobble. I began to hope that Norm wasn’t going to try a cast.
I apologized to the worm, hastily performed the act and threw the hook over the side. Of course, the worm flew off in a different direction and I had to do it all again.
Now that I was using a bait that I knew was going to bring the fish to my hook I began to feel a rising excitement. Shortly, my excitement level was up around my gorge level, which had been slowly rising due to the random tossing of the canoe. I envisioned the bigger fish gathered in front of my hook, fin-wrestling for the right to be the first one to swallow my worm. Suddenly it happened. There was a jerking of the pole, the line went taut and then began flying off the rapidly spinning reel. I knew that this was not simply the worm’s mad, last-ditch effort at freedom; I had a fish. I had to look at Norm, Mr. Northwest Fisherman, to see his reaction to me being the first to hook one. He seemed to be unaware of the sudden flurry of activity at my end of the canoe.
“Hey, I’ve got one,” I yelled.
“Are you sure?” Norm asked nonchalantly. “It may be a snag.”
“It’s not snagged,” I yelled. “It’s a fish!”
“Really,” he said. “How do you know?”
“Look out there,” I said proudly. “That’s how I know.”
My fish had broken the surface and was sailing through the air while twisting about on the end of the line. He was a beauty. Eight glorious inches of trout gleamed briefly in the sun and then dove below the surface once more.
“Well, he’s a monster all right,” Norm said somewhat dryly. “I hope there’s room for him in the canoe.”
I reeled him on in and held him up for display. Instead of putting him on a stringer, I just tossed him into the ice filled cooler which Norm and I had brought along for drinks. We had forgotten to put any drinks in the cooler but now it contained something even better, the fish that I had caught and Norm hadn’t.
“O.K.,” I announced. “Now we can head in for that bite to eat.”
Of course Norm was now reluctant to return to camp because he knew the fish were biting, but the pressure on his bladder had begun to equal that of the pressure on a weather balloon in the outer stratosphere, so he grudgingly turned the canoe toward shore.
We were about a hundred feet out when my world turned upside down, and not in the figurative sense. Norm and I had one second been cruising smoothly toward the beckoning shore, and the next second we were under the canoe, which of course, is also where all the water is.
I flailed around for a moment or two while my mind raced to catch up with the events that were taking place. O’hell lake is about a mile up in the Cascade Mountains, which means that the temperature of the water is similar to the temperature of the liquid nitrogen used to cryogenically preserve dead people who hope for a cure for the disease that killed them. I had heard that when you are faced with a sudden drop in body temperature, your blood will race to the brain as your body instinctively tries to preserve its most important organ. This is sort of what happened to me except that when the blood arrived at my brain, it couldn’t find anything worth preserving and raced off in search of other vital organs. This heightened my disorientation so that, try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what the dark shape looming above me was. (This is the dark shape I mentioned at the beginning of the story. Yes, we’re finally back where we started.)
I also was having trouble figuring out why I was so cold and... OH NO! I’M WET, I’M COLD, I’M WET I’M COLD, I’M UNDER THE CANOE, GOT TO GET ABOVE WATER, GOT TO GET OUT FROM UNDER THE CANOE! CAN’T! CANOE WON’T MOVE! CANOE UPSIDE DOWN! GO AROUND, THERE! I’M ABOVE THE SURFACE! THERE’S NORM BACK THERE AT THE OTHER END OF THE CANOE. HE’S IN THE WATER TOO! THERE, GOT SOME AIR. PROBABLY GOING TO LIVE AFTER ALL. SHOULD PROBABLY GO BACK TO UPPER AND LOWER CASE NOW!
Norm was attempting to swim toward shore and push the canoe ahead of him as he went. I was in front so I tried to pull it along with me as I also attempted to swim. Various items that had been in the canoe with us were floating in the water around us now. It was interesting to note those things that floated and those that didn’t. The $1.59 styrofoam cooler floated. My $95.00 reel didn’t. My $3.50 paperback floated. My $150.00 carbon rod didn’t. The dead fish floated, and nearly everything else didn’t.
We had been far enough out when the canoe went over to make it a real challenge to get to shore, which seemed to get farther away with each stroke. The cold water was taking it’s toll rapidly and I began to doubt once again whether we might make it. Some people had gathered at the edge of the water and a few of them had cameras and were taking pictures. This gave me an added incentive to make it in. I had an overwhelming desire to see if those cameras floated.
My feet finally found the bottom when I was about ten feet from the shore. I pulled the canoe in (and Norm along with it), then we trudged up on to dry land. As we stood dripping in the bitingly cold air, staring at the canoe and what little had survived The Poseidon Adventure III, Norm made another announcement.
“I don’t have to pee anymore,” he said.
People had gathered around us and offered to give us a hand. One man told us he would gather up anything that floated in and put it in the canoe for us while we went back to camp and changed into dry clothes. We thanked him and slogged off back to our camp. After we had changed clothes and rested a little, we went back for the canoe. It hadn’t gotten any lighter, and the only thing that had floated in while we were gone was the dead fish. We struggled back into our site with the canoe between us and dropped it unceremoniously on the ground. We dropped ourselves down at the picnic table. The last thing I wanted to do after that ordeal was clean a fish, so I tossed it under the van.
We built a small fire and attempted to dry a few articles of clothing but it was no use. It was getting too dark and too cold. We gave up and crawled into the van to sleep. Before we dropped off Norm said “I might get up early tomorrow and try to see what I can catch off the bank.”
He had three extra poles and two extra tackle boxes so fishing gear was no problem. I said “Go ahead, I’m through fishing for the weekend.”
When I awoke the next morning, Norm was indeed gone. I crawled from the van and was walking toward the picnic table when I met one of the denizens of the forest face to face. His beady black eyes gleamed with evil intent. His fur covered ears were laid back menacingly and a low threatening noise was coming from deep within his chest. Just then Norm emerged from the edge of the woods and came toward us.
“This chipmunk is growling at me,” I said. “I didn’t think they did that.”
“He wants something to eat,” Norm said. “He was here earlier.”
“Whatever happened to doing cute things and begging?” I asked.
“They’ve gotten so used to people stuffing them with leftovers they’ve developed an attitude,” Norm replied. “Give him one of the cookies.”
I tossed the little rodent a cookie and he just glared at me. I retrieved it and broke it into chipmunk sized pieces and tossed them to him. He picked one piece up and angrily stalked off with it. That pretty well destroyed whatever “wilderness ambiance” had still remained and I started gathering stuff up.
“Let’s go now,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster. “If I stay much longer I may never want to leave.”
We tied the canoe onto the van and drove out of the campsite. I looked back and almost gave a start.
“The fish are gone!” I exclaimed.
The pile of dead fish had disappeared, even the one I had added the night before. We surmised that the camp manager had cleaned them up and as we drove by his R.V. we saw him out front and decided to ask him about it. We got out of the van and went over to him but didn’t get the chance to speak.
“You’ve got a canoe!” The wide-eyed old man exclaimed. “Everyone with a canoe who stays in space 27 goes over, it’s the curse of O’hell lake. Did you guys go over?”
“Yeah, we went over,” I replied, astounded. “Why didn’t you say something when we signed in?”
“You walked down here, I didn’t see your canoe,” He said.
Then he seemed to remember something else.
“Did you see the fish?” He almost yelled. “Everyone with a canoe who stays in space 27 sees a huge pile of dead fish when they pull in!”
This was amazing. I was about to reply when Norm cut in.
“I didn’t see any fish,” He snapped. “Let’s go.”
He hurried back to the van and got in. I followed along and got in the passenger’s side then stared at him quizzically.
“The next thing he’ll say is everyone with a canoe who stays in space 27 chokes to death on their breakfast three days later, or something like that,” Norm said. “Life’s too short to be worrying about curses.”
“You worry about curses?” I asked.
As we pulled away, the old man yelled after us, “You boys stay away from oatmeal for a few days!”
“That’s incredible,” I began. “I wonder how many people have been victims of the O’hell Lake Curse?”
“There’s no curse,” Norm snapped.
“But what about all those people flipping over?” I asked.
“He made that up.”
“What about the fish?”
“He probably put them there, or else you imagined it.”
“You think I’m seeing fish?” I was somewhat irritated.
“People who make chipmunks mad are capable of anything,” Norm replied sagely, if somewhat illogically.
As we headed back to civilization, I turned to Norm and said, “I want to be there when you tell everybody that you didn’t catch any fish and fell out of the canoe.”
Norm immediately slammed on the brakes and turned toward me with a look of ferocity.
“Nobody needs to know about any of it,” He growled. “What they don’t know won’t hurt us.”
It didn’t take much to get me to agree. Our lives would become an eternity of misery if our co-workers ever found out what really happened. We’d have to change our names and beg to be let into the witness protection program.
The story we told them had us catching and releasing record sized fish all afternoon and most of the next day. Nobody believed us, and several suspected we had fallen out of the canoe. A story that appeared in the local newspaper’s recreation section with a blurry photo of two capsized fishermen thrashing about in O’hell lake didn’t help matters.
Actually, this is the only true account of what really happened up at O’hell lake that Father’s day, and I plan to keep it in a safe place that only my wife and I know about. It’s a great comfort to know there’s one person on this earth that I can trust with a secret like this. In fact, if you’re reading this and are not an aquaintance or relative of mine, I must be dead... or else I did something to make my wife really mad.