Snippets of an Author’s Life: Post 13
When I was 16 and got my driver’s licence in Ontario, my friend and I often drove out to the Great Lakes beaches. We even went out in September just to see what the beach was like when the summer crowds had gone, and swam when it was 16°C outside. This passes as swimming weather for Albertans, but not for Ontarians, who’ve just had a summer of 30-plus temperatures with even higher humidexes. On such a day, after a season of heating, Lake Huron was warmer than the air.
An unusual sight
We weren’t totally stupid; we waded in just a little to see how bad it was. Other than the surf pulling the sand grains out from under our feet, making it feel like quicksand, it wasn’t bad. We went in an inch at a time, convinced we could handle this undertow that had already reshaped the beach, angling it steeply toward the water–quite the sight.
The wind was nippy, since we were now sprayed wet. In contrast, the water felt deliciously warm. We submerged all the way and bobbed in the waves throughout the afternoon until we were tired.
As we prepared to step out of the water, expecting a pull-back from the undertow, we knew at once that something had changed. It had become worse. We fought the tow for what seemed like a long time, body-surfing the foaming waves toward the shore, digging our arms into the sand as high up the sloped beach as we could reach. But each time, the undertow sucked us into the lake—and under. That’s why it’s an undertow. An adventurer at heart in those days, I now had the sensory connection to go with the intellectual knowledge.
What now? Getting creative
The trick was to not fight the water at the wrong time. It sapped energy and was pointless. The most efficient way of getting out of this was to let the tow drag us out into the lake until it released us, wait for the biggest wave to surf in to shore, throw ourselves higher onto the beach, and dig deeper into the shifting sand. I developed a method for digging fast, using the pull of the water as it loosened and sucked out the grains. When the tow inevitably pulled me, I poked my arms through the loose particles, tunnelled into firmer ground, and hung on. This seemed to create enough drag to slow me down, but also expended a lot of energy.
It took many tries, but eventually I crawled out of the pit against the water’s sucking forces, and my friend thankfully did, too. Facing each other in the wind, after a quick teenage “Whew,” the only thing we could think of was food.
Famished and far from home
We had almost no money (typical of Ontario economy at the time). Water and swimming made a person hungrier than any other activity. We had been in those waves for hours, then fought our way out, and were now standing soaking wet in bathing suits in a cold wind. In September, no one in Ontario is used to the cold. We needed calories.
The main strip of town was nearly closed down for the season, but a few places still served food. One of them was a burger and snack stand. With our couple of bucks, we bought exactly one small burger each—but I could have eaten ten.
Because life is meant to be an adventure
As we ate, we revelled in our adventure, a good thing for an author to have under her belt. Reading about undertows just doesn’t deliver the same sense of knowing. But we also knew we had been lucky. No one had been there to save us, and we weren’t supposed to be in the water with those warning flags up, even though no signs were posted explicitly stating NO SWIMMING. We wouldn’t do something that stupid again, but it was useful to know first-hand that the strength of an undertow is significant, and the flags aren’t there just for wimps. We were strong then, muscles toned by Ontario’s many forms of inexpensive recreation. In our youth and in our fitness, we had the luxury to celebrate our battle with a significant undertow after conquering it. But driving home, we were pretty weary. Once there, as teens we also had the luxury of a good night’s sleep.
Fast-forward a few decades
“Weary” is the word that comes to mind these days, 36 years after our lake adventure. Much of this new millennium has been spent battling opposing forces and beasts of many heads. No matter how much endurance I had in those waves, I wouldn’t have survived forever. And that is how it is now. I have broken free of the undertow, of the forces that repeatedly sucked me under to drown me. What I crave most now is rest and replenishment. It is a law of biological beings.