The Boulder, 1981

In seconds, a strong wind rushed our canoes as if a giant fan had switched on. Was it a piece of tornado? Struggling was instant under a blue sky and bright sun. No one spoke but leaned into the wind, paddling.

We were surrounded by white caps, traveling on a long stretch of lake between two dense shorelines of pines, in the Canadian wilderness. Branches overhung the shallows. There was nowhere to stop. It was every canoe for itself.

We’d find out later this was Devil’s Pass. My cousin, Eva, and I, were behind as usual in our group of seven canoes. Up ahead, the girl counselor, 17, turned her head and looked worried for Eva and me. I looked to the shoreline, now ten feet away and wondered if we should hang onto a branch but I watched everyone struggle forward.

Our canoe fell further behind, so I dug deeper into the lake, the black water swirling around the thin neck of my paddle as I sunk it deeper, pulling it through the lake and leaning into each stroke while the others moved ahead.

Something made me look at the shoreline again, and I saw a boulder.

As I paddled and paddled, I stared at that boulder and realized with fright, we weren’t moving forward. The wind was blowing so hard that our canoe stayed in place. I couldn’t believe it. I pointed this out to Eva. That was when we tried even harder, using faster strokes. Would we make it? I wasn’t sure, but this was no place for wonder. Finally, we moved passed the boulder. Faster, faster, more, more, more, I focused exclusively on the speed to get out of there and did not stop.

All canoes made it out of that hallway of wind and lake. Eva and I were the last ones. When we joined the group, our canoes tapped together in a loose pod, wordless in mutual exhaustion. I fell back upon my blue duffle in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with the blue sky. Empty of everything, until my thoughts began to form around that boulder. A simple boulder, alongside a dangerous place. Using no words, that boulder taught me how to save myself.

Photo by Connor Kelley on

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