By Lyn Fuchs, Germany/Mexico (Published in Issue 13)
Innocence, in a sense, dies when fear is born.
Vancouver Island doesn’t seem like the place to confront terror. Sailing, windsurfing, and kayaking don’t seem like ways to do so. Yet it was, and they were. You see, my deepest fear is just that: phobia of the deep. This began with a near drowning, thrashing about wrapped in tentacles—I’ll come back to that later.
Saturday, I rode a crisp, isle-bound breeze out of English Bay with my buddy, Rob, his black mutt, Wally, and two bikini-clad friends. (Vanquishing inner demons need not be unpleasant.)
We hoisted the sails. Virgin cloth unfurled in whip-cracking independence before succumbing to Calypso’s caress. Wedding-white tufts billowed in a marriage of wind and craft, giving birth to speed.
W.O. Mitchell described prairie as the least common denominator of nature: land and sky; all around me was aqua prairie. I saw the blue, felt the spray, heard the roar, tasted the salt.
Gripping a taut line allowed me to lean out and peer down. Coho Salmon skiffed the surface. A luminous smack of Moon Jellies drifted in the murky depths. I imagined the colossal White Sturgeon and Pacific Octopus skulking far below. I imagined there were things down there I couldn’t imagine.
Suddenly, a signature sound spun my head like a Pavlovian bell. Uncapped beer! An ice-sweating bottle was pressed into my sweat-sweating hand. I indulged immoderately. (Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.)
More brews pressed themselves into my hand till a thought struck me: I had never fly cast from a sailboat. No one that I knew had. Why anglers never stand on a rocking deck whizzing a hook back and forth past ropes, sails, and human appendages was beyond me. Fetching my rod, I swaggered off to pioneer the sport… Discovering the ocean lacked fish, I set about untangling my line.
Splash! Rob fell overboard. With an “I-meant-to-do-that” smirk, he beckoned us to swim. Only loyal Wally responded. Once afloat, the panicky pup couldn’t reboard. Attempting to board Rob instead, the hapless hound clawed a shirtless swimmer. Rob howled. Orgasmic at this display of canine affinity, Wally howled in harmony. By the time we hauled them aboard, man/beast bonding had shredded Rob bloody.
“You look like a skinned elk!”
“You still look like a $%#!”
While Lori and Angie doted over our wounded sailor, I wondered what injuries I could incur.
Lori went below deck to pee. “Oh, my gosh! Angie! You gotta see these cute, little nautical fixtures.” Directly above, Angie opened a hatch and began photographing Lori on the toilet. Rob and I exchanged “pinch-me-I’m-dreamin” glances as adolescent fantasy #47 was fulfilled.
At dusk, we coasted into the shallows of a remote skerry. China Rockfish fled from our approach as Sea Anemones waved us in. Harbor Seals and Steller Sea Lions issued a honking, barking intruder alert.
Calling it a night, we anchored off the rocky islet. Wispy trees clung to bleached boulders like nymphs embracing hulks. Being gentlemen, we let the girls sleep on the boat. Being drunk, we offered to sleep on the girls.
Sunrise and a squawking gull came about five minutes later. Wally’s tongue woke all slackers. We cast off quietly, barely rippling the still, glassy waters, and drifted like a ghost ship into the Georgia Strait.
All morning, a lone cloud raced our boat: two parallel ovals crossing azure planes without perceptible motion. An inquisitive Pacific White-sided Dolphin briefly broke the monotony. Finding us boring, he moved on.
Midday sun. Shadows disappeared from the deck; shimmerings appeared on the horizon. Baked-brain euphoria. We docked at Parksville with glowing skin and dangerous bliss. Swapping sea legs for Highway 4 and a Ford Explorer, we started across the island.
Our first stop was Cathedral Grove. This towering stand of cedars goes back over eight hundred years. These trees remember when the Americas were an infinite wilderness: the last worthy staging ground for a man’s primal dreams.
For me, old-growth forest is sacred ground. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I held my breath for a transitory enchanted moment in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation I neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to my capacity for wonder.”
Abandoning such noble reflections, I attempted to impress the babes by hyperbolizing the California Redwoods, (snow job falling on cedars). Rob would not be outdone. Offering a glimpse of even bigger timber, he reached for his zipper as I hastily changed the subject.
The drive to Nitinat Lake gave me time to panic. Sailing was one thing; windsurfing and kayaking were another. The watery abyss and I were about to get better acquainted. I remembered how fearless I used to be.
One childhood summer, my Dad and I climbed Half Dome. This lightning-charred geological celebrity, with its round back and sheer vertical face, has reined over Yosemite for eons, awaiting the attentions of its personal paparazzi, Ansel Adams. Our trek was a historical footnote, except in the mind of a young boy.
We set up base camp just below the summit ascent. Didn’t sleep much. A group of nearby nudists smoked herb and shuffled DNA. I was fascinated, and repulsed. (Getting back to nature may be great, but exposure to the elements had eroded these hippies rather harshly.)
Our boots hit the upward trail at dawn. Trees and clouds in turn deserted us to our sol companion: the relentless sun. After a rest just long enough for chipmunks to spoil our water, we poured the contaminated life-nectar on the ground.
My father was breathing hard. Suddenly, I realized that while I was growing up, he was growing old. “I guess we better turn around,” he panted. “If I go much farther, I won’t make it back down.”
Glaring at him with fire in my eyes, I snapped, “Dad, we never said we’d make it back down; we just said we’d make it to the top!”
Bravado comes easy for kids. Not understanding life’s value, they wager the commodity freely. Inhibition comes easy for adults. Not appreciating life’s brevity, they let caution steal their dreams. A little fear is good, but it must be mastered.
We finally reached the dreaded loch. Nitinat Lake is an inlet that acts as a sea-breeze-collecting wind tunnel. Picture a hurricane, with a crowded campground.
Rob tossed me a slimy, foul-smelling wetsuit, probably harboring more unseen critters than any body of water. I suited up with all the optimism of a Texas inmate filing for clemency. Grabbing our gear, we trudged to the shore.
In seamless motion, Rob hopped on his board, popped up his sail, and snagged a passing gust. Lori and Angie looked at me for a duplicate performance. I got on, fell off, got on, fell off, etc., etc., etc.
Some time later, I was saddling the wind and riding the range. Yee Haw! Then, it hit me: the longer I stayed up, the farther out I’d go. Every second I surfed was ten feet of algae I’d swim. Oh, the injustice! Rode that little Philly to the middle of the corral. Then, the wind died. “Son-of-a—” Kersploosh!
Sputtering and thinking happy thoughts, I dog-paddled the rig through primordial broth. Rubbery, decomposing vegetation fondled my toes. I couldn’t resist a flashback to when this paranoia began.
One childhood Spring, I was tubing down some torrential snowmelt. The brown, interchangeable forestry sign proclaimed the river safe. This satisfied my parents. (The only rafting reassurance I, Huckleberry Lyn, needed would have read: “Objects in icy mountain water are not as small and shriveled as they appear.”)
Shooting over white, foamy moguls, I rounded a bend. Instantly, the water became still, deep, and green. Leaves circled aimlessly in whirlpools. Shade cooled the air and shadowed the sandy bottom. Submerged in the emerald calm was a hollow, fallen tree.
I dove down for a closer look. Breaststroking into the cavernous root tangle, my sandal snagged. A first freeing attempt failed. My lungs emptied; my confidence vanished. In a panicked frenzy, I hallucinated that the roots were giant squid tentacles. Instead of unbuckling the tiny leather shackles, I yanked and yanked, losing consciousness.
Lying one-shoed and gasping on the bank, I remembered nothing of my escape to the realm of air. Dad and I searched all afternoon for the sandal. We didn’t find it, because I didn’t take him to the same place. To plagiarize Norman Maclean, I am haunted by waters. My fears merge into one, and a river runs through it.
So there I was at Nitinat, encircled again by writhing plants. This time I stayed cool. Neptune granted me safe passage; sea dragons took a holiday. I sloshed ashore as Rob readied the kayaks. Forgetting to be scared, I was soon mid-lake, doin’ the oar-and-torso boogie.
“Flip over!” Rob commanded. Flip over? Voluntarily? This was certainly counter-intuitive. Rob explained that a safe recovery is your basic kayaking skill. Hmmm. Sounded like a terrorist plot to me. I reached down deep, mustering a force even stronger than fear: male ego—you know, never let ’em see ya sweat, better dead than chicken, that sort of thing.
I flipped over. There is nothing more stimulating than looking at the reflective undersurface of a lake with a deluge surging up your nose. Did I say stimulating? I meant horrifying and nauseating.
Rob left me floundering, just long enough to pay for everything I’d ever done to him—real or imagined. Then he paddled alongside so I could use his kayak to right myself. I practiced over and over till flipping became smooth.
All the way home, I savored my little victory—small step for mankind, big step for me. Nearing Vancouver, we dropped sail. A full moon hung in cobalt over the city’s glittering-pearl skyline; snowcapped mountains saw-toothed across the horizon; sultry rhythms floated over from the Jericho Beach Jazz Festival.
While Angie grilled salmon, zucchini, and portabellas, Rob popped a cork. Lori stuffed a morsel of sourdough and Brie into my mouth as I garbled out, “If this is terror, I could probably get used to it.”
Thus ends a ritual voyage from boyhood to manhood, from fallacies to phalluses. I no longer fear deep, dark waters. (Now, I fear brewski: lurking in those clear, golden waters are excess carbs and impaired seamanship.) Water was the spawning ground of my fears. Following life’s cycle, I returned to the source.
Fear, in a sense, becomes the birthplace of courage.
Lyn Fuchs is the author of Sacred Ground & Holy Water and the forthcoming Fresh Wind & Strange Fire. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at the University of Papaloapan in Oaxaca, Mexico. Check out his Sacred Ground Travel Magazine at http://lynfuchs.blogspot.com.