Colin Summers: “Plunge”

When the lake closes over my head, the rest of the world recedes. Not just the world itself, but the details that we keep in mind, all the meaningless pieces of memory that make up our understanding of the world. The patina of tiny clues that create the context for our daily experience. As the cool, quiet and soft water closes over my head (my hair thinning now on top), details slip from my grasp: cell phone rings, web page passwords, car alarms, caller id, retirement planning, the traffic patterns on the freeways, the new security procedures at the airport… they all fade to a dim outline and then blink out entirely. My head is as empty of them as it was when I was four years old.

That’s how old I was during the first summer I remember at the lake. It was my fourth summer up here, but the others are lost, collected only in my flawed recollection of stories my parents told. They told of my fascination with dragonflies my second summer, and how during that same summer I walked out from the beach to greet them as they canoed in. I kept calmly walking as the water climbed my chest, neck, face and over it until I was trudging underwater toward them. My father nearly capsized the canoe jumping in to pull me back up, smiling and drooling lake water down my overalls.

I don’t remember that. But I remember watching my father start the generator, patiently wrapping the six feet of old water ski rope around the starter disk and pulling with the driftwood-grey handle. Thump thump, but no roar. Wrapping it again and pulling again. His grim determination to coax the fifteen year old engine into chugging through another night for us. His smile as the roar finally filled the tool shed, sending me leaping for the door, escaping to the quieter dark just beyond. The generator settled to its regular growl, and seemed to resign itself to making light for us to read by and power for the water pump to fill the forty gallon drum above the kitchen.

I remember sitting in the kitchen and watching my mother stir the Tang into a big pitcher of lake water, and the muted pops and crackles as the wood stove chewed through its morning supply of kindling. That was also how we took care of the trash in the lodge. Anything that could burn was stuffed into the wood stove. So I sipped my orange Tang, so sweet it burned the back of my throat, and mingling with the chemical orange smell of my breakfast drink (the same one the Apollo missions drank!) was the smell of the burning plastic and damp cardboard turning to ash in the wood stove.

Smells and tastes always seemed stronger, clearer, up at the lake. I was convinced for a long time (or at least during that philosophical period in college when even the smell of cookies baking is cause enough for treatise on sense and memory) that this was because of all of the dives into the lake, the near-constant immersion. Our palates were constantly being rinsed. We were always clean. Clean of not just a day’s worth of dirt, but clean of even an hour’s worth of sweat. As smoothly clean as the rocks along the shore. By lunch any hint of breakfast was sluiced away, and by dinner there was no sign of the grilled cheese (crumbs tumbling into our laps, somehow flying into our hair) or smears of chocolate icing from the cupcakes. We were always less than an hour from another dunking, a leap off the sailboat or a somersault off of the water skis as they pitched over a wake.

It was not the water, but the land that interested my grandfather when he saw the Lake. His first comment as he flew over was, “What a great place for a golf course.” At the time, he was the attorney general of New Jersey, and a state trooper piloted the single-engine plane on a tour of the lake before setting down in nearby Muskoka. A career of golf course dealings, beach club martinis, and clubhouse luncheons probably made him a little nervous about a vacation spot without a sand trap.

He changed, though. After buying a hundred acres for a less than three dollars an acre he began a different, slower sort of investment in the place. He started to understand the flora and fauna of his north woods retreat. He was a big gardener back in New Jersey, known in his time for being able to cultivate variegated holly farther north than it was meant to grow. He understood that the pines, birch and cedar on his new land were different from his oaks, elms and alders back home. He culled, chopped and cleaned out the dead falls, but he didn’t try to pretty them. There was no lacing or carefully lined saplings along the paths to the sleeping cabins. And while he had traded in manicured lawns for dog trot paths carpeted with pine needles, he was content. He understood the disconnect and reveled in it.

Once, when he was wrist-deep in the lower rose garden at his home in New Jersey, a big shot Philadelphia lawyer rolled up the driveway which snaked around the hill my grandparents’ house was perched on. The lawyer leaned out the window of his Cadillac, nodded up to the big white house and said, “Is he home?” My grandfather stared at him before nodding. The lawyer said, “I haven’t met him yet, but I’ve heard he’s a real son of a bitch.” As the Cadillac continue around the hill towards the top, my grandfather walked up the six flights of slate steps and met the fellow at the back door.

There were no people dropping by on the lake. My grandfather sawed his trunks into logs, split the logs, stacked the wood, and had his evening fires in peace. This isolation was good for him. The Point seemed to distill from his life the few good things he enjoyed. The release of physical work, the quiet at the end of the day, and activities that engaged his family so that he could enjoy them in the way he could best: watching and listening.

He learned to fish. He had fished before, but now he fished for the pleasure of being on the water, away from the bugs in the woods. Fishing as a way of passing the time to evening, when the fire would crackle and pop and the lodge would hum with the voices in the kitchen as the dinner was prepared. It was not fish very often.

My grandparents, Ted and Margaret Wilson, were invited to the lake by the Quinns, a doctor and his wife. They met on a cruise in the Caribbean, which seems ironic: a luxury ship in the bug-free blue sea, tropical drinks on white sand beaches and an invitation to the north woods. My grandfather was more comfortable, in the end, overcoming the black flies than he was trying to survive bad service (and the nearby whining about the same).

The Quinns owned an island (Aurora, visible from The Point, the leftmost island in a chain of five that marched along the southern horizon). They were very proper. He was a surgeon in Toronto and Helen was his second wife, his nurse in his private practice. I’m convinced that they thought that my grandparents would bring a more sophisticated social scene to their summers on the Lake. The couples did remain friends, but the Quinns must have been disappointed.

The first summer they were on the lake my grandparents rented the island next to Aurora, a slightly smaller and flatter one called Skrogies. The next summer The Point was for sale. It seemed outrageously inexpensive to me, even as a child when I first heard that it was a hundred acres for five hundred dollars Canadian. Most of the dining room chairs in the lodge, gnawed by porcupines, had my grandfathers mark on them: a bold WILSON burned in quarter inch high along the edge of the seat. But on a few of the chairs were the cryptic letters WAJOWEBO. Eventually we learned that the Waldrons had owned The Point before us. On our maps we saw Waldron Lake a quarter mile back in the woods, surrounded by our land. The other letters were the first two of each of the family members. John. Wendy. Bob? We weren’t sure.

When we asked what made the Waldrons want to move (as children, the lake was an unimaginable paradise), to give up their spot on the shore of constant adventure and mystery, we were told that it was the widow Waldron who sold it. At first it seemed that her husband and children had been eaten by bears, but later we were told the truth, that her husband and the eldest sons died in World War II.

As I got older, each summer at the lake began to connect itself to the last, to all of the summers we had come up. Like beads stacking on a necklace, as they increased in number the individual visits became less important than the whole. Every leap into the lake pressed comfortably back through time to the last time I had plunged under the near-black surface. It was as if all those moments, all the minutes under that particular water, were stitched together. A single, long, staccato experience which blotted out the world above the quietly lapping waves. Instead I floated in a world of the distant, pleasant buzz of outboard engines, the amplified click and gurgle of my own swallowing. A world which stayed frozen in time, waiting for the next time I could spare a few minutes from the one above.

The time at the lake was an amplification of this effect. Since I moved a few times while growing up, and since I was a suburban kid transplanted to the Big City, I never felt connected to any of the places we lived. The lake was a constant. Since my parents were teachers, we went up for two and a half months each summer. The first summer I had to shorten my visit was a shock. The entire six weeks at summer school (an AP program in Ithaca, my parents dropped me off on their way north) was spent with dreams and daydreams of the sun moving across the sky above the lake, its slow transit from tree line to tree line before it sunk into the pines near the mouth of the river.

The weeks spent on the lake were disconnected from the rest of the time in my life. They belonged to themselves. There was no telephone, no newspapers. To get to our little group of buildings you took a boat ride. Three miles across the lake, winding between islands. The miles on water are longer than on land, since the surface is featureless and the shoreline crawls by in parallax. We parked our car at the government landing and the distance to The Point, as it scrolled out behind the outboard, was leagues, light years, lifetimes. Later, I arrived at the lake with cell phones, pagers, laptops with cellular modems. As I unpacked in my sleeping cabin I would solemnly turn each one off. They were all out of range. The nearest cell tower was in Parry Sound, over fifty miles away, ten miles of it down the dirt road from highway 510 to the landing.

So no news arrived on the lake. The death of Elvis, Princess Diana and even 9.11 were events that I learned of as I surfaced from the isolation, as I climbed back into the rental car and drove back towards street signs, neon, telephone poles and parking regulations. The end of each summer marked the end of a borrowed sort of innocence, and a reminder that my cynicism and jaded outlook were something that I had learned, and that I had to don once more as I joined the world.

In some way both disconcerting and comforting, the sense was that the outside world didn’t touch the lake. Literally, since the road to the south end wasn’t paved. Even the one connection to places with drive- throughs, drugstores, and speed limit signs was tenuous, fighting its way through the thick stands of pine and scrambling across stretches of the Canadian shield. Without the constant rub of the civilized world, time stood still at the Lake. Oh, people got older, and kids that were too young to water ski one year were trying to sneak ale bottles from the refrigerator the next summer, but fashions didn’t change. The collection of cars parked in the weeds around the landing was different each year, but the half dozen boats tied at the dock were always familiar. Until I was twenty, we had the same little outboard to get us from the landing to The Point and over to the bakery for the bread at baking time.

The lake was an strange spot, being so close to Parry Sound (a modest-sized town and the proud birthplace of hockey legend Bobby Orr), and yet remaining so wild. To get as removed from the crowd (and a crowd is already measured differently in Canada, which has fewer people per acre than our emptiest deserts), vacationers usually headed a few hundred miles further north.

The Magnetawan River contributed to the lake’s isolation, which is a strange thing for a river to do. The flow wasn’t steady and as a result the level in the lake changed three feet from one end of the summer to the other. Other lakes along the river had modern dams which controlled their levels. Boathouses built along the edges of these lakes were safe from the vertical movement a water level change would have meant. So, too, was the vegetation at the alongside the boathouses. That meant that on Ahmic Lake, just one lake up the river from us, the shore was lined with “floating” boathouses on pilings and the lawn-perfect grass rolled right down to the lapping waves like a carpet.

In contrast, our lake offered not a putting green’s worth of grass. The boathouses were a respectable distance from the shore (high enough that during the spring floods the boats inside were dry), with a pair of long, wooden rails out the door of each one. With these silver-grey extended tusks, each boathouse sat solemnly like the head of a walrus, chin on the stone and glass eyes peering out from the forest.

Looking up from my plunge into the lake, I see the filtered golden light from the surface. A magical spray of rays reaching down to me as I sink. I twist a little for a better look, since this is my last, and the chain bites into my calves, the concrete blocks chafe my shins. The discomfort angers me, because among all of the collected injustices life offers up, a barked shin on the way to your doom seems, in the moment, more than one should have to bear. I feel an angry scream building in my chest and stifle it, managing to let escape only a slow moan, which turns into a thread of bubbles drawing a line back up to the concentric rings at the surface.

I picture those bubbles in my mind, but I cannot see them. It is dark, now. The gloom of night as found at the bottom of a river-fed lake, where sediment is stirred up and delivered constantly. On days that we could see more than ten feet in the water, the landscape around The Point were discovered anew, these acres submerged around our acres. A bus-sized rock that I had stood on to bathe for a couple decades was suddenly as mysterious as a feature on the moon. I have no idea where I settle on the bottom. It is into something soft rather than the grind of the blocks against rock. The snap of some wood as my weight, and the weight of the chain and blocks, crushes branches that last saw daylight decades ago. The branches drop into the lake in the winter, as the weight of the snow snaps them from the pines around the lake’s edge, and now they wait on the bottom, slowly turning into the mud, the black silt, that carpets the cavity of the lake.

Although I work to suppress it, my body reflexively lunges at the surface, and I know that I am ramrod straight, straining from the bottom like a helium balloon leashed to the floor. As I bob and turn for a moment, before regaining control, my hands stretch uselessly over my head and I am reminded of the last time this happened to me.


After having Frank McCourt as his writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School, Colin Summers went off to be trained as an architect. Eventually Cornell University relinquished his Bachelors of Architecture. He grew up in New York City’s Greenwich Village and spent summers in the north woods of Canada. He programs computers, flies airplanes and draws buildings. He lives in Santa Monica with his wife and their two sons.

[photo: Colin Summers]

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