Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Water Preferences

One glorious day last August, I was sitting with my girlfriends on the sandy bank of a lake, a dammed river-cum-recreation facility, called Hunting Creek Lake in Cunningham Falls State Park in Maryland. ( The day before, we'd driven away from Washington, DC in effort to get a bit of nature and bonding on a camping weekend. The night before, all of us sat in front of a fire pit like failed pyromaniacs and burned twigs and small branches, taking turns blowing into the glowing embers, trying to get a fire going. We talked about families, boys, friends, work, and life. We started a game of "Would you Rather . . . ?" which spilled over into the next day, sitting on the imported shore of this state-funded tourist attraction.

"Would you rather have a lake, an ocean, or a river?" came the question.

Two of us are a bit afraid of open water. We walked side by side with our feet in the water up to mid-shin while the third swam happily at the deep end of the roped-off swimming area.

It's a tough question to answer. I grew up near an ocean. I even played in the waves when I was younger. I seem to always expect to find one just beyond the horizon. It brings me comfort to visit them. To sit on the shore and stare off until the horizon curves away.

I don't know when my fear of water developed. I remember being afraid of the shadows in the pool when I was younger and swimming on my own. That's probably a result of seeing Jaws at too early an age. Or maybe it was due to the time that in the backyard of my childhood house, I was swimming with my brother and father and a lizard crawled up my back, using me as a ferry to the side of the pool. I used to swim a lot. More recently, I've had a fear of putting my head underwater.

My grandmother also has this fear, but with good reason. She saw a kid drown when she was young. It was in a lake. He'd cried wolf a couple of times, but then ended up being stuck below the floating platform and drowned. That stuck with her. To this day, she won't shower. She takes baths and washes her hair in the sink. She never learned how to stand under the water without breathing in the air.

My fear of the ocean these days I believe can be attributed to a humbling. The ocean is powerful and vast. It holds giants and mysterious creatures. When I stand before the ocean, I don't feel tempted to go in. I look at it with awe and admiration, but I know, it's no place for me. Water is not my element. I am of the earth. Plus, I'm not a huge fan of sand in cracks and crevices.

My fear of large bodies of water extends to lakes--big and not so big. Too big and it's as frightening as an ocean. Too small and it's, well, I suppose it's a pond and just not very much to look at. I do like lakes. I enjoy sitting on the shore. I like lakes big enough that they have waves--not big waves, but that gentle lapping of water at the edges.

The most beautiful lake I've ever seen is Lake Mc Kenzie on Fraser Island. ( It is positioned in a depression in the white sand dunes and sits 100 meters above sea level. Is it filtered ocean water or is it caught rain water? The water is an amazing spectrum of blue--light at the shallow edges, fading into a deep dark blue.

I guess it's my girly squimishness that makes me not want to go into lakes like Hunting Creek. The thought of the slimy aquatic plants touching my legs or any fish rubbing up against me makes me shudder. (I know, don't be such a wuss.) I'm much more of an on-the-water type, but only in comparison to the degree to which I am not an in-the-water type.

In the past few years, though, I have developed an interest in watercraft. That day, we rented a paddle boat and took turns paddling. The weather was about as good as you get in summer for that part of the world. Warm, medium humidity, blue skies and the occasionally white puffy cloud. We drove that boat around the lake, parallel to the contours of its bank. Over on the side where less people were, away from the noisy beach, the trees came right down to the water. We took turns not paddling and sitting at the back with feet dangling in the water, in the wake. We raced, we drifted, we leisurely peddled, we sunbathed. It was lovely.

My first boating experience was in 2006, a 3 day sailing trip around the Whitsundays of the coast of Queensland. ( Not being a water person, I was nervous about the trip. Not only would I be on a boat for three days, I'd be sleeping on it. My thinking was this: If it went down while I was awake, I had a good chance of survival, I knew how to swim, it would simply be a race against the sharks and jellyfish. But if it went down at night, when visibility is limited and/or I was asleep, the odds of survival went way down.

It ended up being an amazing experience. I loved sleeping on the water, feeling the gentle rocking of the boat. I loved being out, away from the city lights. One night, I watched the big dipper set into the ocean. I loved the water, which was blue and so clear you can see fish swimming around in it. (It helped immensely that the seas were calm, that we anchored near islands, and that we could see other boats around us.) I even got in the water one day and snorkeled. My heart almost stopped when I ran into a jellyfish so I went in just the once. But I wanted more boating experience. It made me want to spend more time on the water.

I'm interested in learning how to sail, but my watercraft of choice is the kayak. It sits you low on the water, close enough to touch, but safely suspended in it. They are easy to get in and out of, hard to tip, and easy to navigate. I only kayak in calm waters--after getting sucked down a waterfall when I was 10, I'm adverse to rushing water. (Maybe that's where the aquaphobia stems from?)

My first kayaking experience was in an ocean kayak. We set out in a bay area before heading into the waves. It was a fun time. But my favorite kayaking, is river kayaking. The Potomac which separates Maryland and Washington, DC from it's southern neighbor, Virgina. Kayaking there, launching out from Jack's Boathouse ( just below the Key Bridge, down the slope from Georgetown, was my favorite way to spend a few hours after work or on the weekend. The kayak provides a unique view of the city as well as some relaxation and an upper-body workout.

Back on the shore, sitting with our feet in the sand, the girls and I weighed the pros and cons of rivers, oceans and lakes against one another. We sighted reasons for wanting or not wanting each of them. And what did it mean to "have" one? Have it in the backyard? Yes, we agreed, if you could have one water feature in your backyard, what would it be?

The water-loving friend picked an ocean. The water-wary friend went back and forth between a river and a lake.

Well, so long as the others continue to exist and I would be allowed to visit them (all this was allowed), I decided I'd rather have a river. Maybe a meandering river, out back of the house, but not too close in case of flooding. My river could have fish, ideally it would have some sort of wildlife, but no crocodiles or piranhas or parasites that invade the body. It would flow but more in a babbling brook way rather than a roaring river way. The current wouldn't be strong enough to carry you away. It would be deep and wide enough for kayaks and canoes, for inner tubes, for swimming. It would have trees that filter the sunlight on either side of the bank and rocks for lounging on. Maybe it would have lightning bugs in the summer, crickets, butterflies and frogs. The water would be clean enough to drink, unpolluted by human and industrial waste and runoff. The river, I think, is the middle point between the forceful and expansive ocean and the stagnant lake. It moves. It flows. It's always changing. Who was it that said you never step in the same river twice? A river goes somewhere. It has a beginning and an end. It has moods. It has voices. It has a past and a future. And, if you pick the right river, its past might be a lake and it's future might be an ocean. Yeah, I would have a river.

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