Lesson at the Lake

“You don’t always have to get on a airplane to take a holiday,” my husband often says. “You can just drive somewhere, like to the lake. That’s a holiday too.”

“The lake is just a part of summer,” I protest.  “It’s not like getting on a airplane. It's not as exciting,”

“It could be, if you let it,” he once said—a curt reply that stung and then stayed with me. 

I’m at my happiest when I have an airplane ticket booked. It could be for tomorrow or six months from now, but just knowing that I have a trip on the horizon is exhilarating. It’s the anticipation, the planning, the promise of something new and the break from my every day routine that excites me.  

Growing up with a mother who worked for Air France, car trips were never considered a vacation. They were functional and practical.  Our family piled into a vehicle and drove off to a destination.  There was nothing sexy about it. Even as a child in the back seat of my parents’ faux-wood paneled 70’s station wagon, I had a ho-hum reaction to automobile travel, but as soon as I was greeted with “Welcome Aboard” and my feet crossed the metal threshold into the stale oxygen controlled environment of an airplane, I was elated.  Each takeoff was better than Christmas morning.  Looking back, I experienced it as complete and utter freedom. 

Flights lead to unexpected adventures, moments where I feel the delicate lanugo-like hairs on my neck tingle, and momentary flashes where I hover just above reality. From standing at the top of a ski hill in the French Alps, so high up that you are not sure where the mountains end and the clouds begin, to hiking up a fresh muddied trail into a remote lagoon in Thailand while being followed by Macaque monkeys in the swaying branches above, travel allows me to be completely in the moment and nothing else in the world matters.

Lake time is different. It is familiarity and warmth. It is jumping off the dock, boating, long balmy afternoons spent reading Swedish mystery novels and card games that last late into the night. It is perfectly barbecued steaks, freshly picked Alberta corn and a chilled Big Rock beer. I cherish lake time and could not imagine summer without it but it is not getting on an airplane. I smile, I laugh, I relax, but I do not get that travel high. The only moment that comes close is when I’m out on my water ski-- a natural feeling of euphoria hits me as my slalom ski glides across the smooth waters.

“I can’t believe how still it is. Like the calm before the storm,” I said to my daughters.

It was a perfect late-summer evening at Shuswap Lake, with the sun descending over the mountaintop, grey skies moving in, low-lying billowing clouds almost caressing the serene water. 

“Are you sure I can’t take either of you for a ski?” I asked, dying to go for a ski myself.

Both gave me an unenthusiastic, muted answer. Most evenings, I would sit, staring expectantly at the sunset water, letting my family eat at least part of their meal before dragging them into the boat. With age I had become a fair-weather skier, only hitting the water when it was dead calm—like tonight. This glass-like water was a skier’s dream. But an important meeting had called my boat-driving husband back into the city and my teenage daughter’s boat driving skills were not quite ready to take me for a ski. I could take them skiing but they could not take me. It was pure torture, the lake teasing me, showing me how composed she could be. 

“What a waste, I can't believe neither of you want to ski,” I said in frustration. 

“And where are all the other boats? Why is no one out there?" I asked.

Then off in the distance, I heard that familiar drone; it was a boat pulling a skier. Like a mirage, he appeared, in our eerily calm bay, cutting his way across the water. I rushed out of my seat, taking the narrow circular stairs two-by-two, running down to the dock, phone in hand, wanting to capture the skier on video. He looked tall, his full-length black wet suit only exposing his arms.  I imagined his robust biceps and triceps contracting, as he pulled on the ski rope. As the expertly driven black and white boat approached, he was challenging the water like a ski god, his slalom ski slicing with precision like a skilled chef handling a sharp knife. Over and over again, he went from side to side, far out over the wake, letting go with his outside hand, only holding on with the fingertips of his inside hand his body almost parallel to the glistening water on each turn. Unlike most skiers, he did not have a better side, both sides were pure artistry—perfection.

I watched in awe as he passed our dock, too mesmerized to videotape him, not wanting to be watching through my cell phone but rather with my own eyes. And he continued, 10, 15, 20 cuts, not stopping after the typical six cuts of a skier who was rehearsing carving out the buoys on a slalom course. He was an unstoppable apparition taking over the supernatural waters of the lake. It was like a ballet dancer elegantly pirouetting across the stage or a calligraphy artist applying fresh ink to virgin paper. As I admired his talent, a cool breeze-like sensation blew on the back of my neck, all my hairs standing at attention as if someone were gently running his fingers lightly down my spine.

And then he was gone, back into the shadows of the twilight dusk.

I lingered at the end of the dock, letting the boat wake gingerly rock me as if I were one with the dock's wooden slats. It was like the gentle back and forth swaying that naturally occurred when I held my newborn daughter in my arms years before. The calm returned, a small fish jumped out of the water, the late evening bugs resettled on the surface. Sitting down on a yellow Muskoka chair, I was exhilarated and completely in the moment—nothing else mattered. This unknown artiste who passed by in the lingering evening light had changed my perspective and a gentle, transcendent moment brushed over me. I knew then that I didn't have to board a plane or be on the other side of our earth.  I just needed to embrace the moment. It was all right there at the lake, where the ordinary transformed into the extraordinary.  It was my kind of travel. 

Ingrid Littmann-Tai is an avid traveller and freelance writer, focusing on memoir, personal essays and travel tales. She is currently working on a “fish out of water” type-memoir about moving to Paris with her school-aged daughters.

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