Life at the Lake

a diary of living at a small lowland lake


Early moonrise over Lake Ketchum

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Along the Old Pacific Highway the farmers' fields stretch off to the near horizon, flat as they can be, a vast geometrical arrangement of color bands that appeals greatly to the eye, or at least to mine. Do not think because it is winter the fields lie dormant. No, there is a lot going on. Winter crops are growing, or else the rich brown fields are newly turned. The colors are vibrant. I prefer the sight of them to summer, when all is various shades of the same intense green. These are winter colors.

Last year at this time the fields were under water. Now, enjoying the benefits of a minor drought and sparkling skies for more than a winter week, the fields are only puddled, here and there. A new color to my eye is this buff. I first saw it in a Gilkey painting (mine) and thought it all wrong, unreal. No color anywhere near to it exists in nature, I thought. Well, I was wrong, inexperienced. Now I see entire fields of that surprising, nondescript color.

What is it? What is being grown? A thoughtful farmer has provided the answer in the form of a sign erected just far enough away to be hard to read from the highway. After Norma has clued me, I can just make out the first part: "Barley for the birds." (I kid you not.)

Barley probably has some practical uses besides feeding the flocks of snow geese, mallards, and immense trumpeter swans. It is used for making beer and ale. Also whiskey, I know. Good--it is a long winter ahead, and if the land provides the makings for some respite, so much the better.My dictionary tells me additionally that barley has two possible word origins, but has been around a long, long time. Meanings fuzz and meld over time. One is Latin, "far or farr," having to do with "spelt," a hardy wheat grown in Europe, or a grain from which farina is made.

The word is also Germanic, coming to us from the Saxon occupation in the form of Old English: "bere, baer, baerlic, barley." I suppose this is where we get beer. The word also means barn. A barn is where the good crop, barley, is stored to keep it dry, or else it will rot in the fields with winter rains. In middle English the vowel sounds have blended into a single one, barli. It was pronounced the same as today. - - Comments ()
It is about five miles from our place on the lake to the village of Stanwood. There are three possible routes for us to take, each about the same distance. The easternmost takes us into a large new shopping center dominated by Hagens, a modern food pavilion. First a McDonald was built there; a couple of years later a Burger King rose directly opposite, the same way a Shell and Chevron will take each other on, tet a tet, mano y mano, or as we say, head-on.
The second route is the fastest. It is to the West , but is not the most westward way to travel. It is called the Pioneer Highway, and becomes State Route 530, which skirts the village and continues on along a winding course through farmlands to Silvana and hence to Arlington and points far East--eventually it goes through Darrington and continues on to Rockport, where it ends in a merger with State Highway 20, plunging through the North Cascades pass and ending up in Winthrop at the mouth of the Methow River, at its junction with the great Columbia. This is a long ways off and the pass is presently closed because of snow. It will remain so until June, if a normal spring lies ahead.
The third route is my favorite and I usually take it. It is the Old Pacific Highway and aptly named, though it now is two lanes of speedy blacktop. If I hurry to the village by the quickest route, the middle one, I usually return to the lake along this one because of the grand view it provides. I can see the smaller mouth of the Stilly to the South and Port Susan, a bay so heavily silted that a huge beige shadow indicates its extreme shallowness and extends nearly to Camano Island. I can also see from here to the North to Skagit Bay, with its attendant diked fields dedicated to extensive agriculture.

The flats of the Stilly are also farmed, but on a reduced scale, as if not to contest what goes on just to the North. If the Skagit were not so near, so awesome, a person might be impressed by what these farmed fields provide. The Skagit simply dwarfs the other river valley and outclasses it from a scenic standpoint. There is no doubt why my favorite regional landscape painters, the late Richard Gilkey, chose the Skagit on which to live and paint. So would I.
Lake Ketchum straddles the two watersheds as if it can't quite make up its mind which to belong to and might want to claim both. Thus it is truly neither. This is the perfect situation for the likes of me. Years ago I published a photoessay on the two river valleys, comparing and contrasting them. Today I am of the same divided mind. For so long the Stilly has been my adopted river, first as a city sojourner, then as a place where I lived for long weekends and parts of summers, while the years advanced. But it is ruined now and shows no signs of recovery. Lately I have had to switch my allegiance, with regret, to the mighty Skagit. It was either this or to dwell for the rest of my life in the shadow of a ruined river, remembering only its ghost self, for its gray water never clears anymore. 
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Well, it was pretty awful, this episode of The Fifties, and like most the others jumped around thematically and chronologically, and this was distressing to watch. An old Allen Ginsberg finally appeared as segment narrator and what a gray eminence he has turned out to be.  (He died recently; nobody on film is every truly dead and presses on, persistently, his age frozen, speaking and smiling into a future he never lived to see. How ghostly.)

Then there was young Ginsberg, skinny, with a lot of hair, and Jack Kerouac, whom the script writer called a famous football player. (How little does she know.) By these words I guessed her age--probably about forty. She did not live through the period and got the tone all wrong; what she read in David Halberstam's book got misinterpreted through the summary method and her conclusions were all wrong.  It was a disappointment and, though I taped it, I decided it wasn't worth keeping for its real-life snippets. I ran it back to the beginning and afterwards taped a movie that, I suspect, will be just as ephemeral.   - - Comments ()
There are days like this that pass alarmingly fast. Where do they go? Beats me.

Well, there was a bit of computer programming to be done in the morning, after I?d checked the stock market, national news, e-mail. I had to teach myself how to copy and save a graphics file off the Internet. Clue?it involves the use of the right mouse button. (The left is what does most of the daily work.) You copy it to a word-processing program, such as Word, give it a name and save it to a file folder and certain drive, probably my new ZIP drive, E. then you can it call it up and display it on your screen. It can even be printed, if you have the need.

Also there was the problem of converting an old Word Perfect file, with all its codes, into Word, which I've gone over to in the past couple of years. Word will convert it, however reluctantly, and there are usually some awful code mixups, such as WP's block protect command and a pesky capital C, closed up, which is how my WP em-dash translates. I have to replace them, one by one, which is tedious and time-consuming.

Aside from these small things, the tasks went smoothly, including backing up nearly all of my hard drive, labeled C, on my removable ZIP discs, each of which holds 100 megs. Copying my Windows directory took a long time, for it is a big, rich program that does a lot of work.

A four-chapter Ms. came in the mail from my old college chum Verna Maclean, and it had to be . . . scanned is the word for the day and I'll use it again. I gave it a quick runover with my eyes. Then there was a long phonecall from my fishing friend, Russ. Norma and I then took our usual two-mile walk around the lake; always there is a distant neighbor to stop and chat with for a moment. This slows us down some. Today it was a new one: I heard her name as Elliot, Norma thought it was Evans. We will have to check the lake roster.

Then I blew some leaves and cedar duff away from the gravel drive with my new (new for me, anyhow, though I was given it for a birthday present a year ago) Tomorrow leaf blower/vacuum. I put off learning how to use it for a year because I believed its only use was to suck up leaves and shred them into a long swooping bad that I must carry over my shoulder, all the while. But it does a blow job additionally, with a series of nozzles or spouts which attach. I've discovered that to blow leaves is fun, or nearly fun. And then it was full dark.

Soon after dinner on the History Channel is part umpteen of David Halberstram?s The Fifties, an adaptation of his book which I'd read a couple of years ago, when it was remaindered. What a tedious trip down Memory Lane it is! Tonight is a two-hour special on the Beats and Elvis Pressley. Kerouac and Ginsberg are two of my specialties, so I'll watch closely. I've read most of both of them. Film clips, however, put you right there, in the living past, with the burning present. I'll probably tape the program for the archives, so to speak. My personal archives, of which I have many on video tape to date. Most are old movies.

And there it is, my day. Is it a lot or a little? Oh, yes, I've edited some on an old book that just won't clean up satisfactorily. And I've written this fresh diary entry. - - Comments ()
Directly across the lake lives Hans Berg and family. On a crisp autumn morning--it is not yet winter, but sure feels like it--his lawn is the first thing I see on my way to breakfast. It is deep in frost and gives the illusion that a light snow has fallen overnight. Soon the lawn will be bathed in sunshine and the green will return by degrees.

The lake is flat, nearly black. A few ducks inscribe long tapering vee-wedges, each at a different angle, for these cruising surface-feeders are not behaving as flocks these days. Without binocs I can sort out the female shovelers from the widgeons of the same sex partly by size but mostly by how they swim. The shovelers have their heads in the water as they paddle along. The widgeons are a little smaller and swim with their heads erect and seem forward-looking. The lone horned grebe in residence is asleep, his long white neck curled back on itself like a miniature swan.

Hans has four grown daughters. All have worked at Thrifty grocery, I heard. They have heavy blond hair. Since Hans is sick, his wife and visiting daughters--a team--do all the yard work. Earlier this fall I watched them rake up leaves industriously, their hair flying. Since I had never seen them up close until lately, I must admit to a bit of middle-aged male fantasizing. Nothing major. Mostly it was how vital they looked hair flying among the flying leaves.

Hans has cancer. He is dying. I do not know him well but find him highly likable, with his gruff German manner and big flashing smile. It is myeloma, a disease of the plasma cells which are in the bone marrow. The plasma cells produce some of the protein that circulates in the blood. The cells manufacture antibodies, my textbook tells me. (It is Choices, by Morra and Potts, 1980.)

In Europe, where he came from, it is called Kahler's Disease. It sounds like he is German. I shall think of it and call it Hans's Disease. It is also called multiple myeloma. Because the bone tissue is being systematically destroyed, Hans's bones are becoming fragile, brittle. This is painful. It is worse at night and often makes sleeping impossible, but I never see his lights on late. He must lie abed. Tumors develop. There is excruciating pain in the back. The immune system no longer functions and infections develop, with fevers and sometimes bleeding. Pneumonia is likely.

Radiation helps reduce the growth of the tumors, while chemotherapy sometimes bring down the bone pain. It is important for the patient to exercise, for the cancer is causing the blood cells to release calcium from the diseased bone in quantities the kidneys can?t handle. There is pain urinating. Patients, my text tells me, "become weak, nauseated, and disoriented." There is the constant threat of bone fractures.
It is not a pretty condition and Hans has had myeloma for several years. He is younger than I and retired early, perhaps because of the onset of the cancer. He was the first mate for ships on an international cruise line. He has seen the world many times over. Now he is pinned to his house. From his speech I gather a first mate is a member of management. He speaks accordingly. Not the captain but next in command responsibilities. On a huge cruise ship they must be considerable. He has taken all the radiation he can handle. They have cut him off from all but palliative pharmacology. This means he is supposed to die at home and be quiet about it. The hospital will not welcome him back but must give him emergency care when his wife, Joanne, deems it necessary and drives him fifteen miles there in their red pickup truck. Always they return him promptly home. This is how it is today.

When Norma and I take our daily two-mile walk around the lake, I always am alert to signs of activity from Hans. Usually he is closeted inside. I check to see if the red truck is present and accountable. There are other vehicles there often--Joanne's, a daughter or two who are visiting, perhaps the daughter who still lives at home. It is not idle or morbid curiosity; I am hungry for the sight of a vertical Hans and for an opportunity to renew our casual association. We are more acquaintances than friends. Yet I care.

Once lately I saw Hans move slowly along the side of the house, as wife and daughter were working in the yard that was not the lakefront but faced the road and presently us. I halted him with my piercing whistle and waved heartily, I who could, perhaps foolishly. He waved wanly back.
Just the other day I caught him between house and car. Wife and visiting daughter were taking him out to lunch in a restaurant. It was sunny, which meant no rain would fall on his head. Perhaps he was feeling better, or there was some occasion, some small personal triumph to celebrate. Norma and I stopped in our tracks. Hans and I chatted for too long. He was much thinner and leaned heavily for the first time I'd seen on a cane. This fit the scenario, the myeloma syndrome. Then I permitted him to enter the car that was waiting for him. No, seeing how tired he looked, I urged him, turning away.

Will he make it through Christmas? Or will it be better, more charitable, to hope he doesn't, and his long suffering swiftly end? I have no answers. I can only observe the public fringes of his life from my distance--while out walking or from across the ocean of our lake.
And there is now the seasonal question: should we give them, him--no more than acquaintances--a poinsettia, as we shall our neighbors on both sides. Or would this be too much--too massive an invasion of his privacy and need to suffer alone? Mightn't it be received, though, for what it is? A simple sign of commiseration and good will? I hope so.
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My life revolves around rivers. At least it used to. They are always in my mind. Never am I happier than when my feet are firmly planted on the bottom of some stream, the current pressing against my waders, the water green and clear to a depth of more than three feet. Give me a few of some leafless alders and shaggy, black/green cedars on the far shore, with no signs around of civilization, and I am as complete as I will ever be.

I have seen watersheds literally vanish under my feet. First it was the Green, near Auburn, back in the primal Sixties. Next it was the Skykomish, in the long reach between Sultan and Monroe. Finally it was the beloved Stilly, where I've had a summer camp for more than 35 years; fifteen of those have seen the watershed grow hopeless wasted from multiple slides, while its channel became massively silted.

By degrees I lost my love of fishing. My favorite rivers were ugly, an unpleasant place to be around. Gradually my joy at being out of doors, with the hope of getting a steelhead or two for my efforts, went away. Each time I heard the call my mind filled with visions of muddy water and beaches buried in silt. Each flood brought more of the ruinous soft debris and pea gravel; afterwards you could see where the rivers and attendant creeks had carved recent paths through the stuff; the beach looked like it was midway through the road-grading process. So I simply stopped going out fishing, winter and summer.

Since moving to the lake my interest in rivers has rallied somewhat with my rediscovery of the Skagit, a huge stream with a vast watershed. If not pristine, much of it will serve until the real thing comes around; with it I will make do, in the absence of anything better for hundreds of miles in any direction. But recent logging and road-building has bit deeply into this watershed and its tributaries already show alarming signs. I will explore this only slightly familiar river and learn some new reaches where it can be bank fished and, hopefully, no other fishers be found, or else few of them. I must fish alone, unless it is only occasionally with a good friend. Now that I no longer have a dog, I am bereft of true company.

So yesterday I drove out to the Skagit. It was a sparkling day, the sun low-angled with approaching winter and casting deep shadows in the lee of the hills that elsewhere would be called mountains. (If you have any doubt what mountains are, look directly to the East and you will behold some impressive ones already capped with snow.) My watch tells me I have about three hours in which to fish. It is enough.

I drive to the road leading to the Mixer Hole. It is now gated, but we used to be able to drive along an old railroad grade exactly one mile to where a path cut down to the huge river bar. For the past several years fishers must walk the distance. This separates the walkers from those who won't or are unable to--the big majority. I used to have qualms about walking it, but Norma and I daily walk the two-mile circuit of the lake and the distance has shrunk. It is no more than our normal trek. On a day such as this--clear, with a patchy sun banding the track--it is a pleasure, but I must take precautions against getting overheated on the way in; on the way out, the grade will be deeply shadowed and there will be no problem. It will be crisp, and the walk will serve to warm me up from the river's chill.

About halfway in I flush a half dozen ruffled grouse and the covey explodes on both sides of me. Stupid birds, each flies off fifty or sixty feet and lands he believes invisible in a tree or leaf-packed copse bottom. If you track them with your eye to their landing site, they are easy to spot. This they don't know, the dumb chickens. A hunter could, and does, I suppose, blast them standing, which is illegal and unsporting; either way, they taste the same.

A few small shotgun shells litter the ground. (They will biodegrade in about one century.) From their size, no hunter I, I would guess they are quail loads. There must be those here, too. As I continue on at the same brisk pace two of the grouse start again, exploding on to a second stand. This time I lose them in the brush. All is quiet, uneventful, for the remainder of my walk in.

The river is high but a wonderful transparent green. No one occupies the enormous drift; it must be a third of a mile long, though not all of it is good drift water. Only the lower half is slow and deep enough, with an irregular bottom that causes my lazy feet to stumble occasionally. This kind of water will hold resting steelhead. But not today. It is still a little early for them.

An old man drifts by in a powered sled, fishing alone. We exchange pleasantries. He caught a five-pound dolly varden earlier, he tells me, when prompted. When I ask about steelhead, our common quest, he has nothing to report. No salmon, either. The river is supposed to be full of chums. He is fishing bait and appears to know what he is doing.
It is enjoyable, Spey-casting out a long line, with the day's red marabou attached at the end of my leader. I touch not a fish in an hour and a half, and decide to leave early, perhaps to try another pool. Cool now, I wonder how long it will take me to hike out. I check my watch and when I reach my car look again. Twenty-six minutes. I had thought it might be twice as long. That's not a long walk, when measured by real time.

One more stop before it is too dark to fish. The new pool I call the Widow, in tribute to a kind woman who lets me park in front of her humble house, from where it is a very short stroll to the river's edge--another long bar. I caught a fine steelhead here last year, just as the season drew to a close, and its memory keeps bringing me back, though I?ve caught nothing here since except small dollies.

One strikes but I miss it. Then it is too dark for even an optimist to fish any longer. I drive home through a memorable raspberry sunset.

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This is an animal story. (Bear with me.) All animal stories today involve people. It is man's fate. Our neighbors to the West are Anton Ehinger and Carrie Urling. In spite of the different last names, you may be assured they are married. They have two young children--Haley, a girl of six, and Keaton, a boy of two, pretty nearly three.

Carrie has kept her maiden name for professional purposes; she is a high school teacher, half-time now that she has a family to raise, who now counsels students with social and learning problems. It is a tough job, and often she comes home with a whipped look. Normally she is bright and cheerful, full of chatter.

Anton teaches PE in a high school many miles away to the North and--is it necessary to say?--is wonderfully fit. Weight-lifting is one of his classes. I know not what the others are like but I remember my own school days and there was a lot of horrible gym stuff, like wrestling in your weight class, shinnying up ropes, running obstacle courses involving tagging a wall or something before making the return run, and vaulting a most dreaded object called the horse, made of padded leather, with a pair of grips for mounting and flinging yourself over (if luck be with you today). I'd guess that many of these implements of torture remain and only a few have been superseded. Aside from what he does for a living, Anton is a nice, quiet guy. He and I share a solitary vice: He is nuts about fishing and goes out at every opportunity.

Until Keaton developed a severe allergy to cats, the Erlingers had two and the kids' play revolved around them. When the decision had to be made to find them new homes, all four family members were devastated and grieved their loss. To fill the gap, they adopted two large feral neighborhood cats. Haley and her mother feed them from afar, since the cats will not approach anyone close enough to be touched, let alone petted. A shame. Carrie and the kids put food out in little dishes, then retreat behind glass sliders and turn on the outdoor floods. This is the sign it is cat chow time.

It is chow time for the raccoons, as well. The cats wisely scurry at the approach of the overcoated terrors. The raccoons eat their food with impunity. From behind the glass the Ehinger kids and their parents watch the well-lit, bright-eyed critters vie and forage freely. When the food is gone--in seconds, often--all disperse. The lights get snapped off, the kids go to waiting beds.

I have seen a raccoon at the lake only once before. Perhaps I saw two, that night. It was dark. Norma has sighted them more often. After dinner my son was busy installing a new ZIP drive for my computer--a belated birthday gift. My son thought of it. He is an expert at computers and makes his living programming complex networks and performing related difficult tasks. The computer lives on the lower level of our house at the lake, so we were all down there, wife, self, daughter-in-law.

The installation was not going well and the expert was having problems. It sometimes happens. For some reason the outdoor floods got turned on; there are several of them, and they produce a powerful glare. Brilliant light got splayed across the cement patio. After a blinding moment we began to see huge dark shapes moving across the light field. The beasts grew in number until there were five of them lumbering about--great shaggy ominous-seeming creatures, each bigger than a spaniel.
Incredible, but true. All were thickly dressed as for a Russian winter, their coats thick and shiny, the fur standing out from their from their bodies Ears like spear points, muzzles tapering to a black bead of a nose, paws smally fingered, clutching air, and eyes, those eyes, masked for trick or treat. Why here, why now?

We had given them the signal. Turned on patio lights mean food, come running. You want to get your share, don?t you? Not a cat was in sight. Banished. But Carrie and the kids will settle for a raccoon any old day. Cats are common place at the lake. I have a hunch the raccoons may prove more than a nuisance. They may be a menace. Even if you aren't a cat.
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