Hal, no

Man and woman paddling in blue canoe on lake - Philbin PondIt has to be the same every year. The same dried food. The same backpacks and tent and groundcloth and water filter. Of course, the same canoe and paddles and boat jackets.

But of course, every year, something is off. I swear Cassie can smell these things. Like the paddle. After my six weeks of cajoling the company to dredge up an old-model paddle that looked like the one my friend Steve carelessly broke during a late-night dare on a Boundary Waters trip, Cassie had known in an instant that it wasn’t the same one. Even after I’d carefully rubbed it with leaves and soil and ground the tip into rocks to make it look like it had pushed off the canoe a thousand times. I’d even buried it with the other gear in the rear of the garden shed and taken care to make it dusty like the others.

But Cassie had reached for it as soon as she saw it. Then, she’d rubbed a finger over the logo on the blade where the old one, I recalled only as I saw her do it, had borne a half dozen scratches through the paint.

And so it began. “No! Hal, no … Hal, no.” Her moaning wail had gone on and on, for nearly an hour. And there was no explaining or reasoning. Only apologizing over the wail of “Hal, no … Hal, no.”

The similarity between “Hal, no” and “Hell, no” hasn’t been funny since I was a freshman in high school. In that misty time when we were sort of a regular family, before my Dad died and left me the canoe trip to take alone with Cassie. In truth, it’s hard to believe I ever found it funny, but I know there was that other time. When Cassie and I spent hours and hours lying on our backs to watch the sky with my Dad and he made it all seem normal. Like something it was alright to laugh about.

But of course, my high school buddies didn’t agree that “Hal, no” wasn’t funny. They inserted it into conversation whenever it was remotely feasible, and plenty of infeasible times as well. “Hal, no, I won’t eat that meatloaf, not for 10 bucks or $100. You know, the lunch-lady disease is contagious like zombies.”

All those guys are gone from Mooers Bend now, abandoning it just like I did, to grow up into real lives. They come home for Christmas sometimes, but none of them have to come home the second Friday in June, come hell or high water, with a canoe trip to stage that’s necessary to talk about the whole damn year long. A trip that’s only just bearable when not too many things go wrong. Where wrong equals different from before.

Because that’s the other thing Cassie talks about all year—what went wrong the last year. Any other time I’m home, she drags me out to the shed or up to the attic to point at the offending piece of gear, reminding me that it wasn’t right. Which is her way of making sure I get it right the next time.

But getting every last little detail right is only getting harder since Mona and I bought a house in Ithaca. The four-hour drive to Mooers Bend seems to get longer every time, and the new job has only two weeks of vacation. Using half of it for a trip with my sister isn’t sitting so well with Mona.

“Just tell your Mom you can’t do it, Hal. That you’ll lose your job. That you have mono, anything. Once you change the pattern, Cassie will adjust. She’ll forget. There’ll be a new pattern.”

A new pattern. Except the new pattern will be a whole lot of nothing. Because that’s what the rest of her life is already like. This tedious, repetitive canoe trip is the friggin’ pinnacle of her tedious, repetitive life.

She hardly ever smiles. But it’s true that every year when I pull up for the canoe trip, I get a smile.

Driving through the mountains to get to Mooers Bend, I have plenty of time to fret over all the details I haven’t really dealt with since last year. Never mind the weather forecast, which is lousy.

When I get there, Cassie’s waiting for me on the top step instead of on the porch, which immediately makes me a little nervous. Knowing her, it probably means something. I have no idea what, but any change in her routine can mean a blow-up’s coming. But then I relax when I get out of the car, because her smile is wide, and this is no small thing. She hardly ever smiles. But it’s true that every year when I pull up for the canoe trip, I get a smile. Just the one, usually. It has to last me all year long.

Except it’s my mother who should be smiling when she sees me, because the five days of this yearly canoe trip make up the only break she gets from Cassie, ever. But I think my Mom’s morphed into someone who can’t even have a life of her own, because she doesn’t seem to know what to do with herself while we’re away. At least she seems incredibly glad to see us when we get back.

It’s the same thing every year

Woman huddled in sleeping bag - Philbin PondIt takes a full day to pack for the trip. Blessedly, my mother takes care of the food, so I only have to deal with the gear. Which is easy enough most years, but late June can still be rainy and cool in the Adirondacks and I worry about keeping Cassie warm enough. Because of course, she never says anything when she’s cold. Or hurt or whatever. I wonder how much she even feels it.

It’s the rule that we have to swim in the lake every night after supper, no matter the temperature of either the water or the air. And it’s my job to keep her from getting pneumonia. For this, I need to portage in enough dry towels and extra layers of clothes, and sometimes even an extra sleeping bag if the forecast looks grim—because she’ll turn blue with cold and still refuse to get out of the lake until she’s seen all the constellations. Which can be uber late in the second week of June, when the last light lingers well after 9 p.m.

I’ve brought the star chart and this year’s lunar calendar, of course, because charting the moon and the constellations is what we do for most of the week. It’s one of Cassie’s two interests. The other being insects. Which is no coincidence, with those being my father’s two pet interests. Though, of course, my father was interested in every other natural science as well—stars and bugs were just his favorites. Cassie, as far as I can tell, kept the two and chucked the rest.

The pattern of how we spend our time on the canoe trip is always the same: we look for bugs most of the day, take a nap and then chart constellations well into the night. The reason for doing the trip in the middle of June is that insects are hatching at a furious rate. Most of which descend to suck our blood. But that means—and this is key—that at the height of blackfly season, no one else is crazy enough to be within miles of these lakes. So we always get the good campsite on the island.

The day we leave is always harrowing for me, with so many things that can go wrong. We have a small snafu with the broken seat in my car not wanting to fold flat, which means we have to repack to fit everything. But we make good time paddling across Blue Pond, the fish hatchery lake you’d can’t camp on, and then across the long portage to “our” lake, Philbin Pond. We make straight for the island with “our” campsite, pulling up in the canoe and tying it off.

The first thing she always does is walk the perimeter to scope for any bits of trash or other signs of people. These she carefully erases them, bagging the trash and stacking any wood with axe marks by the fire to be burned. I guess it’s important that we seem like the only people who ever come here. Though how she accounts for how the trash showed up, I have no idea.

I was hoping the chance of rain in the forecast would go the other way, but even as we bob on the lake in our boat jackets that night, the sky is clouding over and we can’t make much of the stars. The only good thing about a cloudy sky is that I can get Cassie out of the lake a little earlier than usual. Tonight I’m completely beat and have been pining for my sleeping bag for the past two hours.

Of course, it’s playing with fire, this cloudy weather. Cassie expects one or two nights to be cloudy—they always are—but if none of our five precious nights aren’t clear, we’re going to have a problem.

The rain starts in the night and is coming down pretty steadily by the time the sun rises, an invisible presence behind the thick quilt of clouds, lightening the full black to dark grey. We don full-body rainsuits to make breakfast and then begin the annual inventory of bugs on the island.

The world of bugs is the one place she seems to like change, as long it’s careful and measured and she can record it in her notebooks.

Cassie has her “Rite in the Rain” notebook for the year, in which she’ll carefully note every insect we see—just like our Dad always did. All year, she’ll go over these notes and compare them to previous years, looking for patterns in insects coming or going. The world of bugs is the one place she seems to like change, as long it’s careful and measured and she can record it in her notebooks.

But today, there’s almost nothing to record, as the bugs are mostly hiding from the rain. Which is what I’d like to be doing.

We always stay five nights and four days, and the engraved-in-stone itinerary says Day One is all about the campsite island, while Day Two is for combing over the other big island on the lake, on which all the campsites are closed to let the island recover from humans. Day Three is a visit to the bog on the eastern end of the lake. Day Four is a paddle through the outlet to the swampy creek that leads to Sabin Pond, which is surrounded by tall marsh grasses in which, in some years, we can find the six-spotted fishing spider. This being the peak excitement of the trip.

It rains steadily through Day One, Day Two and Day Three. Since there’s no changing the itinerary, we dutifully follow it in our rainsuits. Cassie is doing better than I might’ve expected, remaining glum but quiet as we steadily look for things we can’t find. It’s me I’m beginning to worry about, because I’m wet and cold and bored out of my mind with seeing the same places I’ve seen dozens of times before. And this year, my boredom’s unrelieved by the sight of living things, as everything with any sense at all is hiding from the weather. Only the loons and the diving ducks are as active as always, the rain a boon to their activities. But how many hours on end can you watch them dive?

Turns out the answer is lots, at least for Cassie. By Day Four it’s still raining, but it’s more of a mist than a pour. We don’t find the fishing spider on Sabin Pond, which is hardly surprising, since we’ve hardly seen anything all week. I worry what this last disappointment will do to Cassie, but she seems to take it in stride. Her tolerance for chance and change in nature is infinitely greater than in anything humans control.

Dinner in the misting rain is another glum affair, with bits of hemlock needles stuck to nearly every surface and wet ash smeared on every inch of cookware. After dinner, we strip off our sticky wet rainsuits and don still-wet bathing suits and boat jackets for the evening dip. It’s painful to bare our skin in this chilly wet air, but then the lake, in comparison to the air, feels blessedly warm.

A perfect night sky

As we paddle around with our boat jackets holding us afloat, I realize the mist has finally ceased falling on my face. Which means it’s actually stopped raining. And then, a few minutes later, I feel it: a breeze on my skin. A cool wind has kicked up, and when I turn over onto my back, I see that the thick grey duvet of clouds is breaking up into streaks and blobs. And moving. All week, it’s been an impervious layer of solid grey wool, impersonating the sky, but now the stubborn clouds are finally moving.

Cassie has turned over next to me and is staring upward. We bob like this for the next hour, the water warm beneath us and the air cool above as we watch the clouds form and re-form, with the fresh new wind nipping at their tails. The streaks of thinning clouds are lit from behind by the bright slice of waning crescent moon, dropping down in the sky.

As we watch, the clouds thin and break apart further, and the slice of moon slips behind the Earth. When it’s gone, the sky grows ebony black behind the sparkling stars. And suddenly, against all odds, it’s a perfect night sky. Cassie points at the Milky Way, and then we kick our feet to turn and start the constellations with Aquarius, the Water Bearer. Our Dad always had us start with Aquarius, and some traditions are engraved in stone.
Milky Way constellation above water - Philbin PondAs we rotate slowly on the soft lake water, Cassie begins to name each constellation and tell the legend. She traces each outline with her finger, just as our Dad would do, and names each anchoring star. She’s even, remarkably, committed his exact words to memory and speaks them in her own flat monotone, which sounds nothing like his rich, cadenced voice used to when he told the same stories on this same lake.

I have a sudden sense of my father floating nearby, watching closely to see that we get it right.

But also, I think as I listen, everything like it.

“Now here, we have Libra, the Scales,” Cassie says in her deliberate way, “on which Astraea, the Roman Goddess of Justice weighed the good and evil deeds of men and woman as she determined each one’s fate. When people grew so wicked that they horrified Astraea, she abandoned humankind and left behind her golden scales, which the Romans, in fear of her justice, embedded in the constellation Libra. To show they respected her judgment. And nearby we have Scorpius, mortal enemy of the hunter Orion …”

As I listen to Cassie, I have a sudden sense of my father floating nearby, watching closely to see that we get it right. He’s guiding us, helping Cassie remember all the names and helping me listen. I can feel how he’s glad to be here with us.

Cassie’s flat voice is clear and, for her, oddly bright. It feels as if her words are woven through with joy, her own particular flat and quiet kind of joy. No one else would be able to hear it, but I can tell she’s smiling.

And it occurs to me, then, that I wouldn’t trade places with anyone just now.

Because all of this is right.

And no single, small, tiny little piece of it is wrong.

Hal, no.

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Jodi Lew-Smith lives on a farm in northern Vermont with her patient husband, three wonderfully impatient children, a mess of farm animals and 250 exceedingly patient apple trees which, if they could talk, would tell her to stop writing and start pruning. Luckily, they’re pretty quiet.
image 1: Pixabay; image 2: Pixabay; image 3: Boyko Blagoev (Creative Commons BY)