"A Spearfish Lake Story"
It was just beginning to get light low in the sky behind the trees of East Point when Blake got up to drain his bladder. No one had brought something as crass as an alarm clock with them, so they’d agreed that the first one to wake up once it started to get light would wake the others. It looked like he was elected.
In the hours since they’d gone to bed, it’d cooled off to the point where standing around in bare skin was just a touch chilly. He dug around in the drybags setting just inside the tent door – it wasn’t a rental tent, and they’d used it on trips before, so it was the largest of the four tents on Little Woodlark Island – and pulled out clothes for Jennifer and himself. She was sleeping so soundly that he hated to wake her, but she’d been among the more eager to do the early-morning run, so he gently shook her shoulder, and as she came to, greeted her with a kiss that only relatively new lovers could share.
"It’s just starting to get light," he told her. "Time to crack those lids."
"That’s a nice way to wake up," she said a little incoherently; she was a slow riser.
"I’ve got some clothes and your swimsuit laid out for you, right next to you," he reported. "I’m going to go wake the others and get some coffee on."
"Uh-huhh," she said, still pulling herself together, but Blake was sure she was awake, so he backed out of the tent and used the open space in the night to get dressed. Finally, he pulled on some sandals and started down the beach toward John and Candice’s tent.
In the stillness Blake could hear the sounds of some light breathing. "John, Candice, time to get up," he said, shaking the tent.
"Ummm, OK," he could hear Candice’s sleeping voice. "John? John?" she continued, "Time to get up."
They were apparently awake enough that Blake felt he could leave. He turned to cross the island, heading toward Phil and Brandy’s tent, reflecting that John was a lucky guy, for Candice was one sexy woman. She’d even gotten to him a little in that black string bikini she’d been wearing yesterday, although he’d been careful to not let on. The thought was actually a little comforting to him. He knew he would never be tempted to do anything about it, for in his eyes, while Candice was appealing, she couldn’t hold a candle to his own incredible woman. There had been a time that Candice in her string bikini wouldn’t have raised any reaction in him at all, but now the thought that a woman besides Jennifer could appeal to him reassured him that the old days were truly in the past.
He walked through the few trees at the top of the island and down to Phil and Brandy’s camp. There was a duet of some serious snoring emanating from within the little tent. They seemed to be enjoying themselves so much that Blake hated to wake them up, but he did it anyway. First, he gave the tent a little shake, but that didn’t do the job, so he shook it harder and said, "Hey, rise and shine! It’s daylight in the swamp."
"Umm, OK," came Phil’s voice sleepily from within the tent. "Be with you in a few."
Blake turned and went on down the beach. There was a little light down where they did the cooking, and as Blake drew closer, he could smell the hint of coffee brewing. Josh was sitting there, with a couple of pots on the alcohol stove, he discovered.
"Hi." Josh said. "I was just getting set to get everybody up, but I thought I’d get some coffee going first."
"I’ve made the rounds," Blake reported. "I think everybody’s stirring."
"Well, I guess I’d better get Tiffany up," Josh said, standing up. Blake took a seat on a chunk of log that was too big to use in the fire and listened to the pots perk, while Josh went over to their tent, crawled partly inside, and gave his wife a little shake. She too made sleepy sounds, but began to stir, and Josh came back over to the coffee pots and sat down next to Blake.
"Nice morning," Blake said quietly. He was reluctant to disturb the stillness.
"Yeah," Josh said. "Better this way than from the cab of a SD-40."
"Been up long?"
"No, just long enough to get dressed and get the coffee going." Josh said. "Hey, I hope you don’t mind, but that’s real coffee, not that Sumatran jazz. I guess I’ve had too much coffee from the café, but that stuff hits me a little hard at this hour."
"Oh, I don’t mind," Blake said. "It was a treat, after all." From the corner of his eye, Blake could see Tiffany emerge naked from the tent, stretch, and then kneel down to get some clothes from a drybag. Like Jennifer and Brandy, Tiffany had spent a lot of time at the club while she grew up. As a result, she didn’t have a lot of body modesty built into her, and Brandy didn’t, either. Jennifer once hadn’t, he remembered, but had acquired quite a bit along the way.
"Gonna be hot again today," Josh said.
"Yeah, afraid so," Blake agreed. "You know, while I like doing this, getting back in air conditioning is going to feel good."
"Gonna be cold again all too damn soon," Josh said. "I like winter, but it gets damn old by spring, especially as much time as I spend out in it."
"I imagine," Blake said, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Tiffany had stood up and was heading naked toward the cat hole latrine they’d dug back in the bushes. She wasn’t a bad-looking woman in her way, either. "What I don’t understand is how Bubba and those NASCAR guys can put up with all the heat. Most of the schedule is in southern sweatbox heat, and those damn cars are like ovens."
"They get used to it, I suppose," Josh replied, and, noticing Tiffany getting out of earshot, dropped his voice. "Are you getting used to the idea of becoming a father?"
For an instant, Blake thought that Josh was referring to the secret in his past that they’d kept in the closet for so long, but then he realized that Josh was being perfectly serious and straight.
"It surprised me," Blake said. "I mean, I never expected it to happen. Then, it took me about two seconds to realize how wonderful it was. It’s going to mean a lot of change for us, and we’re still getting used to it. Probably will be for a long time."
"I guess I’ll find out," Josh said. "We keep talking about it, but it’s going to mean a big change for us, too. It’s the end of the serious racing for both of us, at a minimum. But then, unless I win next year, that’s probably the end, anyway. I learned last winter that I can survive without the Iditarod, and I don’t expect Tiffany to go much longer, either."
"Burning out, huh?"
"Yeah," Josh admitted. "Most years, about this time we’re really looking forward to the dog training. This year, it seems like we’re just going to have to go through the motions. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get started and decide to say the hell with it."
"Things change," Blake said. "I think I can speak for Jennifer on this, but as far as we’re concerned, if you decide to quit, that’ll be OK with us."
"Oh, I expect we’ll get going and habit will take over," Josh said. "But right now, it just seems like a chore. This time of year it usually does."
Blake shook his head. "You have to be the ones to make the decision. But Jennifer and I will back you, whatever you decide. If you feel like you want to quit, you don’t have to feel like you’re letting us down."
"That’s good to know," Josh said. "Frankly, I’m sort of looking forward to being a father when the time comes. It can’t be as much work as all those dogs."
"Probably not," Blake smiled. "You want some coffee? It smells like it’s about done."
It was still well before sunrise when the eight of them got into their kayaks and paddled out onto the lake. Rather than hug the shore, they started out over the quiet waters well out from Woodlark and Albany Islands, aiming for the area where they had started their crossing from the East Peninsula on Saturday morning. About the time they got there, the sun poked up over the trees, shining a glowing light over them. However, the low sun in their eyes soon became irritating, and not long after sunrise, Tiffany found a beach where they could stop for breakfast.
Soon there were several alcohol stoves heating pots of water, and making more coffee. Breakfast was simple, and quick: oatmeal with dried fruit, roasted walnuts, butter, and brown sugar, but no one complained about not having enough to eat. They lay around on the beach for a while, waiting for the sun to get a little higher, and then paddled on toward the northeast end of the bay.
In this area, Goose Bay was a confused little patch of small, rocky islands, some barely rocks sticking up above the water, others big enough to have a few trees on them, but not big enough to camp on. They paddled around in them a while, and Phil took more pictures. They paddled on around the bay to where the Spearfish River fed into the lake, and up it a bit, until the current got uncomfortably strong for lazy paddling. They turned around and headed south to a swampy patch at the southeast corner of the bay, and spent some time bird watching. The morning lengthened, and it began to get warmer, although the sky filled with cumulus clouds that gave them a little relief from the beating sun. On a little point a mile or more to the east of the swamp, they took another break.
"It’s a little early for lunch, and it’s just going to get hotter," Tiffany said. "I’d just as soon put it off till we get back so we don’t have to paddle in the heat as much. I brought some snacks if anyone wants them."
A couple people took bags of trail mix or dried fruit, but no one minded, and they were soon back out on the water, paddling along the south shore of the bay. By the time they reached the spot where they’d ended their crossing on Saturday, the group had spread out a bit. Most headed on a more-or-less direct route for their camp on Little Woodlark, a couple miles away, while John, Candice and Phil decided to stay a little closer in to the shoreline.
By taking the longer route, Phil, John, and Candice were behind the others when they made it back to their camp, but not real far behind; Tiffany was in her kayak at one of the floats, bringing up some cold drinks when they paddled in.
It was hot that afternoon, sticky hot, but at least frequent dips in the lake could cool them. Tiffany offered to make lunch, but warned them that it was going to be a cooking meal if she did, and she didn’t want to eat anything warm. In the end, they decided to just work on the snack supply, while they sat there and drank pop and beer. To save a little for later, soon they switched over to cool lake water straight from the water filter as they sat and talked about the trip that morning.
"You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a thunderstorm this afternoon," Phil commented. "It’s sure hot enough."
"Me either," Tiffany said. "Look at those buildups."
Off to the west they could see towering nimbus clouds in the blue sky. The clouds nearby were getting thicker and heavier, too. "Yeah, me either," Josh said. "Might cool things off."
"Yeah," Tiffany agreed. "When I was going through Topkok last winter, I never believed I could be unhappy to be this warm."
"That’s up on the trail somewhere, right?" Candice asked.
"Yeah," Tiffany said. "I’ve never been so cold in my life."
"I don’t think I’ve heard this story," Blake commented.
It was a good opportunity for Tiffany to tell the story of going through the blowhole back in the closing stages of the Iditarod in March. She told the long version, but shied away from the self-doubts that the incident had caused; that was for her and Josh alone. But, even leaving that out, it was a good story.
"I went through there a few hours later," Phil reported. "And it wasn’t anything like as bad, except for a little stretch of a mile or so down by Bonanza Ferry, but boy, I could see how that could be a mother at night and blowing like a son of a gun."
That touched off another Iditarod story, and the three veterans had plenty of them, and even Brandy had one or two, including telling about standing around in the Anchorage terminal in cutoffs and a tank top in March while waiting for Shelly to come and pick her up. "I tell you, I don’t think I could have got any stranger looks," she smiled. Though everyone knew the story, she told about chartering the Learjet, and mentioned that she’d heard in an e-mail that Shelly was now dating the Learjet pilot.
Eventually they noticed that the sun was no longer beating down on them and that the sky had turned dark and gray. In the distance they could hear the boom of thunder. They looked out over the lake and could see a stroke of lightning.
"Yep, we’re gonna get hit," Tiffany said, a tone of command in her voice. "This probably isn’t the best place to ride it out, but it’s going to be better here than if we were out on the water. I think we’d better get buttoned up before it hits. Let’s get the boats pulled up in the trees, and get a rope on each one of them so they’re not so likely to get blown away. Then, gather up any loose gear and either get it into a boat or drybag or a tent. When it hits, we probably ought to be up in the trees, or in a tent."
The boats were all sitting on the beach between Josh and Tiffany’s tent and Phil and Brandy’s. One by one, they carried them up from the beach and slid them into the trees, put loose gear in the seats and in the hatches, and put on cockpit covers. There wasn’t a lot of rope lying around loose, but by scavenging clotheslines and the like they found enough to tie the boats down. Josh and Tiffany pulled up the stakes on their tent and carried it bodily back into the trees where the wind wouldn’t hit it as hard, and Phil and Brandy did the same. "You’re probably OK where you’re at," Tiffany told the others.
By the time they’d pretty well gotten everything buttoned up, the storm was a lot closer. They stood together on the beach, watching the lightning flash, listening to a continuous roll of thunder. "This’ll probably cool things off pretty good," Josh said. Soon, a strong gust of wind hit, bringing the first sting of rain along with it, and each couple hurried to their tent.
John was a little ahead of Candice, and crawled in first. In a few seconds, he began to wonder where she was. He turned around and saw his wife standing out on the shore watching the storm, with the waves washing around her feet. She was bare-breasted, heedless of the wind-driven rain that stung her body. He noticed that somewhere along the way she’d even taken off the tiny black bikini bottom; it dangled loosely from her fingers as she stood there naked, the wind whipping her long, black hair as she calmly defied the fury before her.
Standing there facing the storm, she looked the most beautiful, the most exotic, that he’d ever seen her, maybe the most beautiful, most exotic thing he’d ever seen in his life. In a sense, she seemed like a stranger, or at least, he was seeing something in her that he’d never seen in a dozen years of marriage, something that he hadn’t suspected existed, couldn’t put a word to. Something that wasn’t familiar, maybe even something that he was not happy to discover.
"What are you doing?" he called.
"Just watching," she called back. "We’ve got a few minutes yet. Come join me."
He didn’t think they had that long, but couldn’t resist. He crawled back out of the tent and walked the few yards down to where she stood at the shore. He put his arm around her and let his hand slide down to her bare breast, which felt strangely cool in his hand. They didn’t say anything; there was nothing to say as they watched the lightning flash, heard the thunder, and felt the wind and the rain pound on their bodies.
Finally, as the serious rain was about to hit, he put his head close to her ear and whispered, "We’d better go," as if he really didn’t want to himself.
"Yeah," she said so softly he could barely hear her. She turned and kissed him quickly but powerfully, then followed him up the beach to the tent, while the thunder roared around them.
It was strangely cool and still and damp and humid once the rain quit and the storm moved off into the distance, though they could still hear the thunder as it drew away. It was still breezy, but nothing like the wildness of the storm.
"Everybody OK?" they heard Tiffany call into the relative quiet.
It proved that everyone was, and slowly they began to emerge from their tents and congregate at the familiar fire site that had been their headquarters. It was cool enough now that their swimsuits had been covered or replaced with shorts and T-shirts, and a couple of them even had on long-sleeved shirts.
"Well, it’s late enough that we ought to think about making some supper," Blake commented.
"Yeah, and it’s cool enough now that I could even think about eating it," Phil agreed.
"Let’s get started," Tiffany offered. "Blake, this is one of yours. Tell me what you want me to do."
While Blake and Tiffany were starting the meal, Josh and Brandy decided to get the fire going again. The rain had soaked everything, and the wet wood proved troublesome, and several attempts failed until Josh went to his boat and pulled out a safety flare. "Outdated," he said. "But they’re still handy to have around." With a couple of scratches the magnesium was burning too bright to look at, but the heat of the flare got the attention of the wet wood. Soon a fire was burning merrily if a little slowly and smokily as the wood toward the edge of the fire dried out from its soaking of not long before.
It soon proved that there wasn’t much help that Tiffany could be with the meal, so she got out of Blake’s way, and joined the others at the fire. "Hey, Candice," she said, "Do you have anything going the first week of August?"
"No, not particularly, other than you putting me to work at the store."
"I’ve been thinking about it. How’d you like to come to Quebec whale-watching with me?"
"Are you kidding?" she replied. "I’d love to."
"It’d be a work trip, and you’d have to be the assistant leader and bottle washer, but you should have a little experience with trips like that and how they work so you can answer questions a little more intelligently. And, you never know. The time may come when you have to lead trips."
"Makes sense," she said. "How are we going to handle the store?"
"Josh is running nights, and he said he’d fill in," she told her. "It’s about the last chance before we get to training dogs, so he won’t be free to do it after that."
"Fine with me," Candice agreed. "You’re the boss, after all."
"What are we going to do about the boys?" John asked.
"Well, you’re going to be home," she said. "That’s not a problem."
"Yeah, but I’m going to be working." John wasn’t too sure how thrilled he was to have his wife head off on a neat trip like that anyway, leaving him at home.
"The boys can take care of themselves if you check in on them occasionally," she said. "They’re getting old enough."
"Well, I suppose," he said. He clearly wasn’t happy, but this wasn’t the time to put up a protest. Maybe there never would be a time, he realized, but he did feel a little jealous.
"We’ll go over what you need to do at the store," Tiffany said, a little oblivious to John’s reluctance. "Believe me, it’s not going to be like this trip. We’ll have clients with us, and there’s not going to be any skinny dipping or running around topless. Well, at least not us, but you never know about the clients."
"I think it’ll be fun," Candice said. "And, you’re right, I’ve never been on a trip like that. I should know what it’s like."
"If someone wants to paddle out and get something to drink, we’ll be about ready to eat when they get back," Blake said.
"I’ll go, if someone wants to help get the boat out of the woods," Candice offered, falling almost automatically into the gopher role she’d have on the Quebec trip.
"We’ve got one round left after this, I think," Tiffany said. "And, I think we’ve pretty well shot through the beer. Does anyone absolutely have to have a beer if there’s any left?"
Cokes were fine with everyone, and as soon as Candice returned to the shore, Blake began to serve dinner. He’d fixed a delicious veggie stir fry with a red cabbage, carrot, and onion salad dressed with rice vinegar and soy sauce. Having skipped lunch, it was quickly devoured, and soon there was little left but a pile of dirty dishes.
While Brandy turned to the dishes, the rest of them sat by the fire and watched the sun set in the direction of Spearfish Lake. It was a nice, red sunset, although the sky was clearing rapidly. "Hey, Tiffany," Brandy called with a grin on her face. "Come here a minute."
Tiffany got up and walked over to the kitchen area, where Brandy was working with the dishes. There really weren’t that many. Brandy waved her head to call Tiffany even closer, and the younger girl knelt down beside her. "What do you want?" she asked.
"A bet on the dishes for the next trip," Brandy offered in a whisper.
"What you got in mind?" Tiffany grinned.
"Whether Candice shows up for work Wednesday morning wearing a skirt," Brandy whispered with a grin. "I’ll bet she does."
"OK, you’ve got a bet," Tiffany grinned back. "But I don’t think we’re going to have a chance to get out here again this year, like this."
"Guess we’ll have to," Brandy said, a little louder. "I’m already thinking we ought to keep this weekend open for next year."
"I’ll put it on the calendar when I get back." Tiffany promised, getting up and leaving Brandy with the dishes.
"What was that all about?" Jennifer asked.
"It’s a secret," Tiffany grinned. "But she did say we ought to come out here again next year."
"I’m in," Jennifer said. "Probably by this time next year I’ll be ready for Mom to have to change diapers for a bit."
"Instead of me," Blake snorted. "I’m in, for the same reason."
"How about you, John, Candice?"
"Of course," Candice said. "I can’t remember a better weekend."
"Most likely, unless something comes up. I don’t know what would, though."
"It’s a trip, then," Tiffany said. "Now, the light is starting to go. If we’re going to do a night paddle, we’ve got to get the boats out of the trees while we can still see them."
They turned to dragging the other three boats back down to the beach, while Josh built up the fire and Brandy finished the dishes. The light was fading fast by the time they finished, and only a thin sliver of moon a few days old hung low in the western sky over the lake. "Let’s keep it short," Tiffany said. "Stay together. We’ll just paddle down around Woodlark and come right back, and we’ll have the fire to find camp with. When we get back, we’ll bring up the last of the cans and sit around the fire."
Dusk was rapidly falling when they got out on the water. By the time they got to the passage between Woodlark and Albany Islands, it was severely dark. The only way they could steer was by the stars, with the deeper unlit blackness of the island beside them to show them where they were. As they came back out from behind Woodlark, they could see the glow of the fire behind their camp. Then all of a sudden the sky sprang to life in a massive aurora borealis hanging like celestial curtains, looping and swirling madly in the sky, changing colors and shapes in a gigantic heavenly light show.
"Wow," Josh said. "I’ve seen it like that in Alaska, but never around here."
"My God," Candice breathed, "It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen it like that at all."
It took them over an hour to paddle the few hundred yards back to camp, eyes on the sky most of the while. They sat offshore in the boats for quite a bit longer, just watching. Then one by one they pulled the boats up on the shore, put on cockpit covers, and sat back on the beach to watch the display, the last of the Cokes forgotten, still in their net bag offshore.
No one was quite sure how much longer they stayed up, but it was late before the splendor died down, and slowly each couple crept off to their tents, half-stunned with the beauty of the perfect ending to their trip.
They got up in the morning to a breakfast of pancakes and German sausage, loaded the boats, and finished off the Cokes before paddling the direct route over the silky, quiet lake to East Point and the landing beyond. There they waited for Mike and Kirsten, relaxed and mellowed by the weekend. Each of them was sure that, in some small way, they’d never be quite the same again.