Life at the Lake

a diary of living at a small lowland lake


Early moonrise over Lake Ketchum

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There will be an occasional fishing report, but, I promise, you, not often nor long. So bear with me. It has been a terrible winter for hatchery steelhead, and the fear is there will be few wild ones returning, also, so the Fish and Wildlife people have put emergency closures into effect today and nobody can fish the upper reaches of most rivers. In turn, fishers have deserted their favorite streams. If you can't fish where hatchery fish predominate, nor keep the wild fish that happen there, nobody wants to fish except a few of us. And they are right--there are few fish being caught by those of us who still must suit up and go out.

I hooked and lost onw at the beach last week, a fine fish of ordinary size. I was standing on the beach at the mouth of Grandy Creek on the Skagit and had the fish all played out. I was ready to land it and thought of it as mine for the oven, when the hook pulled out and the fish swam away. I laughed, but I wanted to bring home a fish badly. I'd had all the fight out of a fish that is possible and the only thing remaining was to slide it onto the beach and perhaps kill it.

So yesterday I returned and while at the top of the run hooked a fine fish that showed itself several times in jumps and appeared to be a female of six or seven pounds. Nothing sensational, true, but a strong, good-fighting fish. I fished out the rest of the pool with no bumps, no hits, and returned to the top. I worked on down to where I hooked the first fish and, lo, another hit softly at the end of the drift. When I tightened, it proved to be a fine male fish, very strong, and one that made repeated runs out a distance, even when I stood on the beach and was ready to land it. Summer runs are like this, but usually not winters.

It was a beautiful bright well-proportioned male fish, with a pronounced long jaw and tiny lower kip. Wild. I nonetheless killed it for one of Norma's special dinners, and perhaps for our neighbors, John and Tracy. It is Norma's choice whether or not she shares it. [She did.] This is the couple that likes fresh steelhead and salmon so much that, a year ago, when I gave them a piece, they couldn't wait to cook it and, gulp, ate it . . . raw! I shall never forget this.

Now, many months later, I look at this couple closely, but detect no untoward signs from having done this. They told me the Japanese eat raw fish all the time. But (con't forget)then they are the ones who bombed Pearl Harbor.

It seemed strange, bringing home a dead fish again; it even seemed odd carrying it out along the woodsy trail and across the braided channel of Grandy Creek. But it felt good, too.
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Our favorite ducks return to the lake, but not until it fully thaws and the vast half-sunk ice sheet breaks up and is swallowed. This takes longer each time than I think it will.

When the lake was solid, all we ever saw was a few potbellied coots walking miserably around, flatfooted and tentative as penguins. They didn't stay out on the ice cake for long but plodded to a snowy shoreline and poked around with their yellow snouts. All the other ducks--less hardy, evidently--vanished. When I search my mind as to where they might have gone, I come up empty-handed. Only they know, and they ain't talking, Copper.

Today the lake is ordinary, tame. Our house is filled with dull gray light and not awful much of it. We are on the morning edge of turning on individual reading lights if we want to see the pages. Norma gives in. In my window writing chair I hold out, hoping for more light from the sky. No longer a studied actor on my stage, I welcome the low-level light and know in my heart my winter-dimmed eyes will settle happily for it.

A flock of seven tightly-linked ducks land in the center of the lake with minimal splash and beg to be identified through my binoculars. They are small, far away, and the light is bad, both too weak and too strong, making them into near silhouettes. My first guess is scaups, but it doesn't seem right. I don't remember the white crescent at the scaup's shoulder. Could they be . . . (the envelope, please)? I consult The Golden Bird Book. It shows just such a shape and coloring; even the telltale crescent.

They are ring-necks. There are four brilliant males, three drab females. (I don't care, feminists, what you say, that is how they lookto me.) The ducks hang together, far out, as though a raft.

That's what they are--a raft of fish-eating, diving ducks. - - Comments ()
Of course the lake froze clear across, days ago, so the snow had something solid to fall upon. We knew it would; it doesn't take too long for it to happen. The water seems to thicken before your eyes into a kind of slush or mush, then draws itself slickly together. How does it differ visually from the ordinary lake? Well, it lacks any wave action. Also, it loses its rolling glitter, one might say. The lake is no longer water but some new element, not quite land, but more like land than anything else in earth's easy repertoire.

The first thin scud of snow on the lake increases reflectance three-fold, at least. All of our front windows (13, but who's superstitious?) flood with light, even though the sky is uniformly leaden. The interior of our house lights as if by a dozen photofloods. Why, we're on the set of somebody's movie. (Careful there what you do next.) I've never cast my own shadow on the livingroom rug before. How marvelous. It's more like a play, really. The windows are our footlights. The lighting guy's gone crazy with power--electrical power. Why doesn't the director notice and say something to him? Wrench away his switch, or whatever?

Inside and out a novel drama is taking place. We move like ghosts, like dramatis personae, from chair to chair, across the kitchen floor, to a table to pick up a book, newspaper, magazine. Every mundane action takes on a stage significance. Our eyes shine in each other's gaze. When we have occasion to speak there is a hushed expectancy on each other's part. "Yes?" "What?" The words will have great import, but always prove to be disappointing.

Out on the street he county's snowplow has honored us, but turned away disdainfully just a few doors away. If we have been improvident (but we haven't) and need a trip to the grocery, the route will be clear and only mildly eventful. For our neighbors a half block away, though, the trip will be as adventuresome as most could hope for.

When the snow leaves, we always know it is coming. The local TV stations have had nothing much to say for days except woe and weather. Since they are fifty miles to the South, Seattle, they belabor and whine about the icy streets and show gleeful pictures of sad automobile skids and the aftermath. They also announce the coming end of the snow--proudly, as though they themselves created the storm (needing so badly a media event) and now they have in their vast paternal wisdom decreed it is enough, and it is time for something else.

Unchain the Metro-bus tires, put away the plows, open up the schools again. Rivulets run in the streets and the translucent slush at the curb gradually shrinks in on itself, hourly halving its bulk, its core substance. By another morning it will all be gone, all except for an irregular gray mound or two sadly left standing. Snow Mom, Snow Dad. (You'll remember yesterday's Blog.) You'll only recognize their remains if you'd seen them a day or two previously. - - Comments ()
After nearly a week of dry cold--with freezing at night, daytime temperatures about forty--clouds begin to roll in from the South, pushed by strong winds. The firs and cedars at the lake begin to stir, rustle, whisper their boughs, lean to one side. Visibility disappears by degrees. The Berg house is gone, the far edge of the lake; all the attendant rising, encircling shapes are eaten up by what looks like fog. Suddenly the wind hushes. Dry flakes of snow begin to fall. So small in diameter, so fine, they can hardly be expected to add up to anything. Oh, yeah? Yes, the souvenir globe has been shook again.

By the time we finish watching a movie on videotape and it is past time for bed, nearly three inches have silently piled up on the porch rail and the deck glitters from the lights when I snap them on to see how we?re doing, snow-wise. Throughout the night the stuff continues to fall. A kind of expectant hush fills the air. You can practically pick up the vibes of the neighborhood kids, still abed; school called off over the radio, the day dedicated to playing in the white stuff and rolling up great heavy balls of it into first a snowman, then his wife, then (until we tire of it and all the good snow is gone) a bunch of crummy snowkids. The snowfamily generally remain uncompleted, including the snowpets.

When the rains come--and assuredly they soon will--it is the parents who will be left standing the longest. They always are, for they are staunchest. - - Comments ()
We make mistakes. That is why pencils have erasers on their ends.
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In summer, when I really want to bug my wife, I tell her that the days are getting shorter already, though imperceptibly so far. But when we're both depressed in fall, which really seems and feels like winter, as we approach Christmas, I am quick to point out, for both our benefits, that now the days are getting longer. This is a truism, but I'm not certain it is absolutely true.

I decided to consult the oracle, The Old Farmer's Almanac. (Funny, but I don't remember that "old" being in there before.) And sure enough, it informs me that I'm not quite right. Well, if you're not quite right, you are wrong.

The entry for December informs me, "The winter solstice occurs on the 21st at 5:56 PST." Well, isn't the situation pretty much as I'd described it to her, except for having the precise time? Let's round it off at six o'clock in the dim afternoon. Or is my problem that I round off too many things? The Almanac goes on to tell me "the earliest sunset occurred two weeks earlier, and the afternoon daylight is already growing longer." (P. 86.)

What? It can't be, or surely I would have noticed.

I consult the table below. The sun has been setting at 4:51 steadily, all month so far. But suddenly on the 15th, it is a minute longer, and on the 18th yet another minute. On the 20th and 22nd we gain another minute each. By the 30th the sun is setting at five o'clock--in San Francisco, anyway. To adjust this time for Seattle requires some complex minute calculations that I am, frankly, incapable of performing, or even attempting, for something so puny as this.

The length of the day--hours and minutes of light--continues to shrink throughout the month until we reach the 27th, at which point we acquire one minute longer of dazzling daylight--this is nine hours and thirty-four minutes. How can this happen, if the sun is setting later, ever since the 15th? It must be because we continue to lose from the other end. Sunrise is getting no earlier, early in the month. Ah, but the table indicates the sun is rising later: on the first it is at 7:06; by the end of the month it is at 7:25. What's going on here? Shouldn't we be gaining time and daylight at the other end of the day, the beginning?

Not according to The Almanac, that knows all, tells all. We can only believe and try to enjoy what studying one's watch and the visible signs of the sunset indicate. Light's benefit is all on the sinking end.
The day's length is still receding at the end of December. It goes from 9 hours, 45 minutes at the month's start to 9 hours, 36 minutes at the month's (and year's) end. If we look only at the sunset, though, we can detect a later sinking of the golden orb, and tell ourselves that it's really not true that the days are still growing shorter.

Even if they are.

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After lunch (borscht--how's that for Christmas fare?) my wife and I lead our son and his wife for a two-mile post-prandial. It is a good way to clear the head and get some mild exercise.

Once, near dark, Lisa decided to take the walk alone, not knowing the countryside and its roads. She soon got lost and, when she was gone overly long, my son set out in his car to find her. About this time she stopped at a distant neighbor in Wilderness Ridge and was set straight on the route. But Garth found her and drove her home, slightly shaken and embarrassed. So today our daylight walk served to lessen the trauma and show her the clear route. The sky was cool gray and obscure.

We walked rapidly but not so fast as one or two will take the course. We pointed out some general points of interest. For a distance a foursome of people younger than we kept us remote company. We reached the point where, through the trees, between property lines, the lake could be glimpsed, and my son recognized several familiar points from when he had kayaked the shoreline. The lake was calm and winter-gray. The fog had lifted some but still produced a constant even neutral tone. Sky and lake were about the same color.

It had been quiet--too quiet--at Hans Berg's house across the lake. They had strung colored Christmas lights along the raingutters on the front, where it faced our house, directly across the lake, but lately the lights had been left off. We knew Hans was sick, deathly sick, from the cancer that had hounded him the past several years. Family and relatives had piled up their cars in the drive to visit, and there had been the big party following the latest grandchild's baptism a couple of weeks ago. But the house had been continuously dark at night, or when not dark inside there had been no Christmas lights turned on. One night a few days ago they had been switched on and burned late, forgotten, long after the house's interior lights had been turned off, early. Since then nothing but darkness. And no telltale plume of smoke from the chimney. I remember how Hans had always lit a morning fire.

We had been approaching the house with some trepidation for days. Now we saw a pickup truck pull out of the driveway and head our way, its driver presumably one of the several daughters's husbands or boy friends. I hailed it in my usual excessively outward manner, raising my hand like a traffic cop and in effect ordering the driver to stop. Stopping he cranked down the window.

"How's Hans doing?" I asked familiarly. I had never seen the guy before.

"He died this morning."

I reached in and clasped this stranger by the scruff of his jacket at the shoulder.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not surprised. He suffered terribly, I know. At least he is no longer in pain."

Words come to me easily, sometimes too easily. Now was just such a time. But I liked Hans and dreaded the greatly anticipated news. When I first met him at a lake association meeting, I had thought him gruff and complaining. Then, speaking to him afterwards, I became quickly acquainted with his great smile and warm manner. He had been first mate on a succession of passenger liners. Either he had retired a bit early, or else his disease had dictated that he give up his job, for I knew him to be sort of sixty-five. This made him younger than me.

I did not know him well and only had talked to him, briefly, on six or eight occasions, but each of them had been pleasant, friendly. Always the big smile. I had seen him get thinner, weaker. Last time, only a couple of weeks ago, he had leaned on a cane and I kept him standing longer than I should have, locked in conversation, when his family was taking him out to what was probably their last luncheon outside of the house or hospital.

He had shot me a "I-doing-the-best-I-can-expect-to-do" look. Chemo and radiation had stopped weeks ago; he was at the point where they simply try to make you comfortable and the medical authorities want to forget you. They want you to go home and die there. You are willing, but family members keep rushing you back to Emergency when you show signs of death that are alarming to them.I hoped he had died at home but suspected that he hadn't. But he had remained at home long, right up until recently. And perhaps he had been at home last night in the darkened house, as Christmas Eve ended and Christmas Day had begun.

Tonight, because their house was dark again, it seemed wrong to light our outdoor Christmas lights on the deck that faces them. Or our tree inside, either. - - Comments ()