The Water Way
By Tamia Nelson
August 27, 2013
A note to the reader: This isn't a true story. But there are bits and pieces of a true story in it. I'll let you decide what's true and what isn't.
How I got to this remote cabin on a lonely cove somewhere on the coast of New Brunswick doesn't matter. Nor does it matter why I made the trip. It's enough to say that I came up here to forget what went before. There's no need to say more than that.
And as luck would have it, this was the first time in my life I'd seen the sea. Seen it close up, I mean. I'd flown over it a couple of times and looked down, but that's not the same thing, is it? You can't smell the tidewrack at 30,000 feet. All you can smell is the aftershave on the face of the guy in the next seat. That's not the same thing at all.
I have to admit it took me a couple of days to settle in. I'm not really into primitive — the cabin's owner said it was "rustic," but then he was in real estate, so what could I expect? — and life without a bottle of Scotch on the bedside table always seems kind of lonely. (I'd emptied the one I'd brought with me on the first night.) But the place sort of grew on me. Sometimes a squirrel woke me up, chattering away at nothing from the top of one of the tall trees — white pines, I think, but don't ask me how I know. I'm not into nature, either. Other times it was the chug‑chug‑chug of a little fishing boat heading out of the cove in the half‑light.
Mostly, though, it was the sea. I mean, the sea started to work on me. It seemed to breathe life into me, somehow. Twice a day it came right up to the head of the cove. I could almost have spit down into it from the cabin's deck if I'd wanted to. (I didn't. Try to spit in it, I mean. It just wouldn't have seemed right.) And then, six hours and a bit later, all the water had drained away, leaving a quarter mile or more of mudflats.
Did that mud ever stink!
That was my first thought, anyway. But as the days passed, I changed my mind about the stink. It was a rich, earthy sort of stink. Kind of reminded me of Scotch. The good stuff, I mean, not the stuff that tastes like it's made in some chemical plant in New Jersey. I'm thinking of the kind where the bottle comes in a cardboard tube with a picture of a rocky sea coast printed on it, plus a lot of crap about how this whisky — What happened to the "e" in whiskey, I wonder? — has been distilled in a copper kettle on some remote island, using water from a wee burn back in the heath‑covered hills.
Whatever a "wee burn" is. I suppose I should look it up. Then again, why bother? It's just some crap printed on the tube holding a bottle of Scotch, after all. Kind of pretentious, really, if you want my opinion. But the message comes through loud and clear, all the same: This is the real thing. It's not made in New Jersey. And sure enough, the whisky in the bottle is more than OK, even without the "e."
~ ~ ~
I'll make a long story short, all right? After I'd been in the cabin a week or so and watched just enough television to know I didn't want to watch any more, I figured I'd do a little exploring. There was a short gravel path leading down to the head of the cove, which, like I said — or meant to say, I forget which — came right up to the foot of the rocky point the cabin had been built on. So I walked down to the water. Or to the place where the water would have been if the tide had been in. (I was starting to think like a local already. Must have been the TV news.) But it was ebbing — How do you like that? Just like a local. What'd I tell you? — and there was already a wide mudflat stretching between the stony shoreline and the water.
I just stood there, taking it all in. The rocks. The hills. The trees. The sea. Even the mud. Which, now that I was looking at it up close, wasn't like any mud I'd ever seen before. That mud had been dead. This was more like living mud. I almost expected it to get up and walk around.
In fact, everything seemed so, you know, alive. The colors. The air. (Yeah. Even the mud‑stink stank of life.) The outlines of the hills, too. Everything seemed to pulse with life. And light.
It did something to me. I started to feel alive myself. I mean really alive. Not going‑through‑the‑motions alive. In fact, I felt so alive that I kept walking, following the stony foreshore (there's the TV news for you, again) of the cove right around till it opened up to the Bay. It wasn't an easy walk, either, especially for someone who's often been tempted to use the little battery‑powered scooters in Walmart. My feet got sore and my legs ached and my breathing came hard. But it was worth it.
Because there it was. The Bay. More mudflats. Then open water as far as the eye could see. Well, as far as my eyes could see, anyway. I suppose I need glasses. I could see a sailboat, though. And one of those little fishing boats chugging along. Then, for no good reason, I figured I'd sit myself down on one of the bigger rocks and wait for the tide to turn, just to watch the water come back across the mudflats.
I did, too. I got pretty thirsty, waiting there on the rock. Not to mention sunburned. But it was worth it. I wasn't bored. Ever. I looked at the small shells that were lying all around, all kinds and sizes, some of them whole and some just fragments. I watched the seagulls circling and listened to them shriek and saw them land and pull things out of the mud and eat them. (I don't know anything about birds, but I know a seagull when I see one.) And every now and then another sailboat would appear in the distance, and I'd watch that, too. Until I couldn't see it any longer.
After a while the tide turned, and the waves started marching toward me instead of retreating. I didn't do anything. I just watched the water flooding back across the mudflats. It took its time, but I was in no hurry. (Though I was getting really thirsty now.) Finally, when ripples were actually washing over my shoes, I simply got up and walked back to the cabin, feeling pretty good about things, even if I was dying for a drink (water, not Scotch) and my feet hurt and I had the worst sunburn I'd had in years. I just felt good. For the first time in quite a while.
You're probably thinking, "So what?" And you're right. It wasn't much of an adventure. I mean, I could have gone parasailing. Or rented an ATV or dirt bike and torn up a stretch of trail somewhere. But I was happy. And whose adventure was it, anyway?
~ ~ ~
Did I mention that there was a kayak at the cabin? I don't think I did. To be perfectly honest, it didn't matter much to me when I rented the place. Yeah, I'd paddled a kayak on a little lake near a friend's camp a couple of times, and it was fun. Sort of. But that was years ago. It's not something I've been dreaming about doing again. Still, my hike down to the Bay got me thinking. Maybe it was seeing those sailboats, far out on the water.
Bottom line? I hauled the kayak from under the deck and looked it over. I wasn't impressed. Faded green plastic. Lots of dings. And dust on it like it came from the mummy's tomb. Still, I didn't see any holes in it, so I figured it would do the job. It took me a while to find the paddle and life jacket, but when I did — they were up in a sort of crawl space that served as the cabin's attic — they looked OK, too. I was in business.
But then I started having second thoughts. The cove wasn't a little lake. There aren't tides in a lake, for one thing. And I was no hot‑shot paddler. So I left the kayak under one of the big pines. I still walked down to the water every day, though. And I saw something new each time. Or I saw old things in a new light. Which is pretty much the same, isn't it?
Of course, I walked past the kayak each time, coming and going. And then, about a week after I'd hauled it out from under the deck, I picked it up and carried it down to the cove. On a whim, like. The tide was in, and little waves were lapping on the stones. It was a great day. No wind. Not a cloud in the sky. I asked myself, What am I waiting for? I'm going paddling.
And just like that, I did. Not that it was really that simple. I'd forgotten how hard it is to get into a kayak, and even when I did get the hang of it again — I'd had the sense to strip down to my underwear (nobody was looking, after all), so the rest of my clothes stayed dry — I spent about ten minutes going in circles. Then I got things under control and headed out. I didn't think I could get into too much trouble if I stayed in the cove.
It was a good call. I had a great time. There's something, well, almost magical about floating over the surface of the water in a boat you move with your muscles. Not that I often use words like that. "Magical" isn't something I say everyday. But it was the right word for how it felt. The sun sparkled on the ripples, and when the angle of the light was right I could sometimes see the kayak's shadow flying over the bottom. And the silence! That was pretty magical, too. The gulls kicked up a fuss, like always, and the wavelets made a sort of splashy noise against the kayak's side. But that was all. Like I said, it was magical.
The tide was already starting to go out, so I made the most of the time I had left, paddling around in water that wasn't much deeper than my paddle was long. I passed a couple of tiny creeks that emptied into the cove. (I could see where the flowing water had carved new channels in the muddy foreshore, now growing wider by the minute.) And I saw a bunch of ducks — I don't know what kind of ducks they were; but I know they weren't seagulls — eating something off the rocks at the mouth of one of these creeks. I caught a glimpse of a sleek and furry animal running off into the shadows under the pines, too. I'd like to think it was an otter. I don't know why. I've never seen an otter that I know of. Maybe that's the reason.
There isn't much more to say about that first trip. The tide was emptying out in a hurry now, so I beached the kayak on the mud and hauled it ashore. I wondered about quicksand — I'm sure you've seen the movies — but I didn't need to worry. There was hard sand under the mud. I was pretty dirty when I made it to shore, but that was OK. I'd had a great time.
~ ~ ~
I headed back out on the water the next day, too. And the day after that. I was getting better at paddling now, and each day I pushed a little further. I had good luck with the weather, as well. Light winds and clear skies. It was almost as if the world was holding its breath. After a week of this I'd gotten pretty confident. Too confident, maybe. Because the next day, there was a sort of milky haze in the sky, and it felt like we might be in for a change in the weather. (I say "we" because I'd started thinking of the kayak that way. It was almost like it was a person.)
But I headed down to the cove anyway, just as soon as the tide was in, and this time I set my sights on a little rocky island. It was maybe a half mile offshore. It wasn't much to look at. Just a treeless lump of rock. Still, it was someplace I hadn't been. And that was all the excuse I needed. It didn't take me long to get out there, either. Something like ten minutes — and I wasn't paddling hard. The island was what I'd thought it would be. A lump of rock, spattered with gull crap, with ropy tendrils of some sort of seaweed clinging to the edge. I didn't see a good place to pull the boat out, so I paddled around the island, instead — I'd named it "Gull Island" in my mind already — and I found some nice, sparkly pebbles on a little ledge. I grabbed one and held it up against the milky sky. It didn't look like anything I'd seen on the shore. It seemed to shine with a light all its own.
That was all I found, but it was enough. I put the pebble in a pocket of my shorts for good luck (I'd given up paddling in my underwear) and started back, more or less the way I'd come. A funny thing happened then. I'd only gone a hundred yards or so when I realized I was being followed by a couple of seals. I didn't mention the seals before, did I? Well, there were always a couple of them somewhere in the cove, but they'd kept their distance, and I didn't try to get any closer. I figured they needed their space, and that was fine by me. I felt the same way.
Now, though, they were almost close enough to touch. Their heads would pop up, they'd swim alongside me for a minute or two, looking over at me now and again, and then they'd disappear. And when they came up again, they'd be in a different place. We swam along together for a few minutes — OK, they swam; I paddled — and soon I stopped paddling and just drifted, listening to nothing in particular. It was that peaceful, you understand.
~ ~ ~
And I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew I was looking at… Well, I was looking at nothing. Nada. I couldn't see the shore. I couldn't see Gull Island. I couldn't see much of anything farther away than the blades on my paddle. It was like I woke up inside a cloud. Which I guess is what happened. A fog bank must have rolled in while I'd been asleep.
Do I have to tell you I was scared? Well, I was. And instead of doing the smart thing and sitting quietly while I figured out what to do next, I did the stupidest thing I could have done: I started paddling like crazy, striking out for a shore I couldn't see. Which was dumb enough, I admit, but then I did an even dumber thing. I lost my grip on the paddle — my hands were slippery with fear sweat, I guess — and it got away from me.
What did I do then? I lunged for it, that's what. And in no time at all I was in the water. Alone. With no paddle. And no boat. And no clue where the shore was. Maybe you're wondering what happened to the boat. So was I. I must have kicked it when I went into the water, and it just floated off. It was probably only a few yards away, but it might as well have been in the middle of the Atlantic. I couldn't see it. I couldn't see anything.
At least I was wearing the life jacket. That was something. Especially as I'm not exactly a good swimmer. I mean, I can dog‑paddle. But just about any dog, even a fat poodle owned by a heavy smoker, could beat me across the pool.
How did I feel now? You guessed it. I was really scared. But the cold water — and the water was damned cold, make no mistake — sort of sobered me up. I splashed around in a circle for a couple of minutes, hoping I'd bump into my kayak, but I didn't. The fog hadn't lifted. If anything, it was even thicker than before. So I gave up looking for the boat and struck out blindly in what I hoped was a straight line, not knowing where I was going. Bad idea, you say? Sure. But I didn't want to tread water till I froze to death. I'd rather die trying, if you know what I mean.
Actually, I was sort of hoping not to die at all. But that option wasn't looking too likely. I kept swimming, though, doing my best dog paddle, and trying not to think where the ebbing tide might be carrying me. That's when I felt a bump against my left shoulder. I turned my head and saw a face poking up out of the water alongside me. At first I thought it was a dog — It seemed logical at the time. Maybe I wasn't right in my head, you figure? — but then I realized it was one those damned seals. Well, I didn't feel much like playing tag, so I sort of shoved it away. Talk about bad breath… You could sure tell that seals eat a lot of fish.
Anyway, the seal took the hint and moved off. And I kept dog‑paddling. I didn't know what else to do. Then I felt another bump. More of a body‑check, really. This one was definitely harder. More of a shove than a bump. The cold water was really getting to me now. My arms and legs were pretty numb. I certainly didn't fancy going one on one with a seal. So I angled off to the right, hoping I'd be left alone. It worked. No more body‑checks. Until I'd gone I don't know how many more yards, that is. This time the shove came on my right shoulder. I looked. A seal. Again. And I'd swear it was a different one than the first.
I edged a little to the left. Kept swimming. Then there's a body check on my left. So I angle right. Keep swimming. Body check on the right. I angle left. Keep swimming. This goes on for a while. No idea how long. But I'm almost out of gas now. And then what do you think happens? My flailing feet are kicking mud. Mud! A few more strokes and I'm crawling. On my hands and knees. In the mud. Until I reach the rocks.
I'm filthy. I'm shivering. I'm dead tired. But I'm not dead. And I'm home. Or good as. And it's a great feeling. I look back the way I came. The fog's as thick as before, but there's a wind getting up, and it pushes the curtain of mist aside, just for a couple of seconds. And what do I see? You guessed it. Two seals. They're looking my way. I have to stop myself from waving. Then I figure, what the hell? I wave. The seals turn away. The fog rolls back. I limp up the gravel path to the cabin. Home.
~ ~ ~
I said I'd make this short, and I will. But the story's not over yet. Not quite. The following morning I get up late and eat a big breakfast. After that, I walk down to the water, and while I'm walking I'm wondering what I'm going to say to the guy who owns the cabin. Like, for instance, what happened to his kayak? I get to the cove. Tide's out. I walk along the stony shore, not really looking at anything. And there it is: the kayak. Pushed up past the high‑water mark. The paddle, too.
I put my hands in my pockets. I don't know what else to do. I'm a little too old to jump up and down and shout for joy. And you know what I find in one pocket? That shiny pebble I picked up at Gull Island. So I take a closer look at the pebble, and it looks exactly like a seal, all smooth curves and sleek surfaces, sculpted by who knows how many thousands of years of surging water.
I think I'll go into town and buy a bottle of Scotch. The good stuff. You know, one of those bottles in a cardboard tube. And as soon as I get back to the cabin I'll pour myself a double. After that… Well, who knows? I might even jump for joy.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "Snapshot: Dancing with Seals"
- "Aqua Vitae — A Tale From Another Time"
- "The Swamp"
- "The Last Chickadee"
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