General Fiction posted June 9, 2015

This work has reached the exceptional level
A family fishing excursion takes a terrifying turn


by Ellen Evans

At that particular time in my life, experiencing Mother Nature was nothing more than a contemplative walk in the woods or perhaps an early morning ski run to enjoy the fresh powder without the crowds and subsequent congestion they presented. I believed that these wonders were provided for personal pleasure and conquest. I was pleased that I was able to recognize and appreciate the glory of Mother Nature and all she had to offer. The problem with this line of thinking was, that I had no idea what "all she had to offer" entailed. I never stopped to think of the horrors she was capable of, or that they could affect myself or anyone around me. The uglier face of Mother Nature was experienced by unfortunate people in unfortunate places, usually across the globe or if not, the country. This type of thinking creates the "perfect storm" and Mother Nature never misses a "Teachable Moment". She will teach and you will learn. Period.

June 5, 2015
We arrived at the docks of Waukegan Harbor just outside of Chicago, at 5:30 am, to embark on a private fishing expedition on Lake Michigan. We were off on a grand adventure to catch all the Salmon and Lake Trout we could haul in.

I, myself, could sleep until 10:00 every morning if allowed; but not today. My stomach rebelled as it often did when sleep deprived. Fortunately, we arrived at the docks with just enough time for me to grab a bag of peanut M&M's and avoid imminent disaster. The sugar gave me the jolt I needed and reassured my stomach that it would not be left empty. I was ready to go.

A lunch feast for our journey was carefully prepared the night before. There would be plenty to eat when our sense of hunger awoke and was ready to be fed.

As I stood by my father. Looking out onto Lake Michigan which appeared as a vast cloud where nothing came into focus. No horizon, no landscape, not even the water itself could be distinguished. There was a thick shroud of fog which made it impossible to see anything past the end of the docks. I suddenly felt a chill go through my entire body. We would soon be on that lake where no one would be able to see us.

I chalked up the chill to the cold air which as I remember was in the low fifties. This was quite unusual for the early part of June, even for the Midwest. For some reason, I felt a sense of foreboding. I asked my father which of the Great Lakes was called Gitchigumi, wasn't it Lake Superior? He paused, giving me a quizzical look and answered, "Yes, I believe that was Superior." Now I felt better.

There is no denying that the gloom, wind and whitecaps brought to mind the song of the "Edmund Fitzgerald". Why was it that my mind always raced to the worst possible scenario while others patiently waited for our fishing boat to arrive?

The boat arrived as scheduled and we all clambered aboard. My Sister Jody, came aboard followed by her supportive and loving friend Jay. My father followed, with me behind him. just a cozy family day of fishing on Lake Michigan. The difficulty getting aboard was my first clue as to what this journey held in store for us. There was nothing steady in the hand that gripped my wrist to guide me to the deck. With everyone on board we headed out a mile or so into the foggy gloom that surrounded us.

My dismay over the dismal weather was soon overshadowed by the fact that none of us seemed to be able to stay standing even while inside the cabin of the 38ft. boat that hosted us. The wind whipped relentlessly from all directions it seemed, causing the boat to pitch and sway violently.

I glanced at my sister, Jody uneasily. It was clear that she was already struggling with the rolls and pitches of the boat as it was being tossed about like cork. I saw that haunted, lost look in her eyes. This is the look that I had become all too familiar with. I saw it often during the past two years as she battled valiantly alongside her husband Bob, against the lung cancer that would take him away from her forever. It was a look that said, "How can this happen? Bob has enjoyed excellent health and is only 55. He is a tennis pro for God's sake! Now I am losing him. This battle has no victors, everyone loses. How can that happen?

I had no answers, the best I could do was to listen and offer whatever support she needed. Often it was just time to "defrag" as she called it. She needed to keep herself strong if she was to help Bob become strong and perhaps even recover. Jody refused to let the last flicker of hope die.

I found I could help free up some of her time by taking care of their two daughters Megan aged 13 and Sarah, who just turned 11. These two girls were quickly losing their father and Megan in particular was also experiencing the joys and challenges of puberty. Looking back, I was very proud them both in their ability to get through this incredibly difficult time while supporting their mother as best they could. Throughout the first year following his death, I secretly hoped that at least one of them would rebel in some way, perhaps breaking curfew or something equally benign. Perhaps a good old-fashion "melt-down" might help clear the air and offer a sense of normalcy to their lives.

I watched as the wonderful man who recently entered her life, Jay held her close and kissed the top of her head. A smile spread across her face giving light where there was only darkness in her eyes. She was going to get through this. Jody was a survivor.

My reverie was abruptly cut short as I heard the crewman shout out, "Fish on line 5!" We all stopped and looked at each other wondering what, exactly we were to do. I heard my name yelled so I raced out of the cabin and grabbed the rod held out to me. "Reel, Reel! Keep the rod up. Don't let him win!" Whatever was on the other end of the line was extremely heavy yet quick to react.

When I finally caught sight of the fish, it was fighting mightily by swimming across the white capped water; circumventing the straight line I hoped the fish would follow from his/her location to the boat. This fish like the pounding waves, seemed to have its own agenda.

There was a long battle to be fought. With the guide holding my pole up, I was able to continue reeling in this monster fish. Then I was instructed to move backwards. I stared at the guide in disbelief - I could hardly stand as it was. It took two people to hold me steady as the boat rose and fell. Finally, the fish was netted. My "monster" fish was a good catch, but hardly the prize I imagined. It was a Coho Salmon, however, and I was proud that at the very least we would have one fish to enjoy for dinner.

When the fish was safely in the large cooler on the bow. I relished using the closed top as a bench which I sat on with my father. We were sitting on "my catch", my contribution to the family effort. Mostly, I was thinking, "Well, I took my turn, now you each get to have your fun!"

I sat proudly next to my father who had recently turned 84. I knew the moment I looked into his blue eyes which had turned rheumy with age, that these times together were numbered. Would he be here fishing with us next year? I vowed that when his turn came to reel in a fish, I would stand behind him and hold him up no matter what happened. He would land his fish and feel the satisfaction of the conquest. Nothing would take that away from him. Fishing was his passion, and this was the real deal.

I decided that in order to avoid further ruminations on my Fathers mortality, I would retrieve one of my "inner tapes" which was carefully stored in my memory for just such an occasion. It was the spring of 2014. I flew from Colorado to Savannah, GA to spend some time with Dad.

We were on the tennis court and I was running every which way in an attempt to score a point. Yes a point! Games were rarely won against my father, so I learned to appreciate the smaller victories. I was gasping for air and sweating bullets as he confidently met each stoke I played returning the ball at least three times harder and faster than when it arrived.

My father was strong and sure in dealing with whatever life threw his way. Whether on the tennis court or dealing with the latest family crisis, he was a pillar of strength which I leaned on frequently. While I was well aware that his time with us could be cut short in an instant, I felt a rush of gratitude that he enjoyed the things 'his girls' enjoyed and usually exhibited superior skill and acumen. After all, we girls had to be kept humble.

My father was always been active and healthy in spite of his daily indulgence of cocktails and cigarettes. I asked him once long ago if he didn't worry about the effect of smoking on his lungs. He confidently stated, "My doctor told me that I have unusually large lungs -- plenty of room". And so it was that he was able to continue smoking at the age of 84 without any serious repercussions. No further questions would be asked. I only hoped that my fate since picking up my first cigarette at age 17, would be as positive as his. My Father was the epitome of strength and courage. He too, would survive and thrive.

There was quite a stretch of time between fishes caught. I felt invigorated and hungry as I swayed back into the cabin. It was then I saw our first "casualty" Jody was propped wall to wall blocking access to the stairs which led the bathroom/bedroom. She looked miserable, once again as she asked me if I needed to get down the stairs. I replied that I was just hungry, and asked her which cooler she packed the sandwiches in. She made a guttural sound as she pointed to the nearest cooler. I remember the deep moan she gave as I took the first bite. Jay was faring little better, standing bolt upright clutching on the nearest object that appeared stable.

I believe it was shortly after the third fish had been caught, that I suddenly felt a rush of adrenaline that made me feel comfortable and exhilarated by the constant pitching and tossing of the boat. I turned the music on from my iPhone and was amazed how each song accentuated an important element of this adventure. The music and the waves became one exciting and powerful emotion washing over me. I was looking out the window of the cabin to the vast emptiness that lay in front of us. Now however, I could both see and sense the waves coming. I was able to anticipate their effect on my balance. I let my body relax and roll with the direction of the boat rather than fighting to stay perfectly straight. I felt a sense of power, freedom, and exhilaration I had never experienced before.

Lost in my thoughts and powerful emotions; a rogue wave hit our boat broadside. I remember watching Jody fall across the cabin into Jay before they both bounced off the far wall. I remember my shock and surprise as I was lifted off the floor and thrown backwards crashing full force against the cabinet on the other side of the cabin. I remember hoping that my father was OK. I wondered if my head was split open across the back as it felt. Was there much blood? I could not make sense out of anything as my world went black.

The thrashing waves of Lake Michigan, dark and menacing, took hold of me. I sensed her cold, wet and knarled fingers reaching out to grab me and hold me down to be with her forever.

From a distance I heard my Jody say, "Don't move her, leave her..." I felt sure that the boat had been overtaken by the violent waters and I was being left to fend for myself. Anger and horror are two very powerful emotions and both erupted hearing my sister's words.

I struggled to open my eyes and beg not to be left on this godforsaken boat to perish. Suddenly I felt the icy water reach my lips, then my forehead. The rest of my body must be numbed by the cold already, and now it was going to drown me. I sputtered and choked and finally managed a scream which tore through the boat, fog, and crashing waves.

I came to in a panic. As I tried to lift my head, Jody held me down. I was not in the icy waters of Lake Michigan. I was being held still while my sister tried to rouse me by dripping ice water on my lips and face. Jay must have been behind me holding my shoulders firmly ensuring that not even the slightest movement was possible. My father sat beside me calling my name repeatedly. I had no way to tell him that I heard him and indeed was there. Even the fishing guide was hovering asking repeatedly "is she ok? This is why I told you all to be sure to hold on to something steady when standing up!"

As the story is told, my reply was "The hell you did!"

It was not quick or dramatic. Slowly and effortlessly the waves with their surrounding darkness returned, this time with the promise of peace and tranquility if I would simply surrender. No. I thought in a brief moment of clarity, I must be strong and fight these waves that threaten me. If I were Jody or Dad, perhaps even Jay, I might have stood a chance. The game was on, and I was no match for Mother Nature. And so it was. I would be taken to a place far beneath the violent waves; become a light, sparkling brightly within the depths of their blustering fury.

I do hope I have chosen wisely, and hope that there comes a time when you look into waters of this Great Lake and see me as I help calm the waters beneath you and make your journey safe.


This is a story based upon a recent trip to Chicago and what can go wrong due to the whims of Mother Nature.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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