My husband and I honeymooned in Montana, in June, which, unbeknowst to us, is like the dead of winter. At the time, we were training for a half Ironman triathlon, so we needed to find an upper body strength and aerobic substitute for swimming during our two weeks of bliss. We decided that canoeing or kayaking would suffice.
We stayed in an adorable B&B near Yellowstone, because the owner advertised healthy, organic food. Cauliflower kagel, beets, and quinoa for breakfast surpassed our expectations, not necessarily in an enthusiasm-generating way, but we felt fantastic. And hungry. Very, very hungry.
However, back to the story. Our “surprise! we’re vegetarian!” B&B sat near a tundra lake. For those of you who have not seen a tundra lake, imagine a beautiful lake in a mountain clearing surrounded by tall evergreens. Picture deer drinking from its crystalline waters, and hear the ducks quacking greetings to each other as they cruise its glassy surface. Smell the pine needles in the air, fresh and earthy.
Well, it’s nothing like that.
A tundra lake is in the highlands, no doubt, but the similarity stops there: no trees, no windbreak, no calm surface, and no scenery. Instead, it’s an ice-chunk-filled, white-capped pit of black water extending down to hell, stuck smack dab in the middle of a rock-strewn wasteland.
Other than that, it’s terrific.
Many times, I have poured out my phobia of dark water to my husband. Over and over he has suffered through my dislike for being cold (which is anything below 70 degrees).
So Eric drove ahead to scout the lake and came back bubbling over with excitement. He pronounced it “perfect” for our tandem canoeing.
Maybe it was because we were newlyweds, but somehow he decided that I would love nothing more than to canoe this lake in 40-degree weather and 35-mph winds, wearing 67 layers of movement-restricting, water-absorbent clothing.
Maybe it was because we were newlyweds, but I somehow assumed that because he knew of my dark water phobia and hatred of the cold, I was in good hands.
Or maybe it’s just because we excel at creating these types of situations.
Whatever the reason, you can see where this is going.
So…we drive up to the lake across the barren terrain. Eric is bouncy. I am unable to make my mouth form words.
Other than, “You expect me to get in that @#$%&&*$*canoe on that @#$%&&*$* lake?”
I promise he is smarter than this will sound. And that I am just as bitchy as I will sound. In my family, we call my behavior being the “Bell Cow,” as in she who wears the bell, leads the herd, and takes no shit from other cows.
“Absolutely, honey. It will be great. Here, help me get the canoe in the water; I’d take it off the car myself, but with that wind, whew, it’s like a sail. Careful not to tump it over; it’s reallllly cold in there. Not like that, love. Where are you going? Did I say something wrong?”
But the only answer I gave him was the SLAM of the car door. My prelude to tears is anger. And I was at the angry stage. But we were newlyweds, so he escaped the worst of it. Then the tiny tears pricked the corners of my eyes.
I knew I had to try to canoe. I couldn’t just quit before I started. We were training. I needed the upper body exercise. If I didn’t do it, Eric wouldn’t do it, and that wasn’t fair of me.
I exited the car. Eric was dragging the canoe out of the water and trying to avoid looking like a red flag waving in front of me.
Super-rationally, I said, “What are you doing?”
“Well, I am not going to make you do this.”
“You’re not making me. I’m scared. I hate this. I’ll probably fall in and all you’ll find is my frozen carcass next summer. But I’m going to do it.”
My poor husband.
Anyway, we paddled around the lake clockwise in the shallows where the waves were least high, and I fought for breath. I’m not sure if it was the constriction of all the clothing layers or hyperventilation, but either way, I panted like a 300-pound marathoner. It would have scared off any animal life within five miles if you could have heard me over the wind, and if there had been any animals around.
Suddenly, Eric shot me a wild-eyed look and turned our canoe toward the center of the lake, paddling furiously.
“What are you doing? You’re going the wrong way!”
“What, I can’t hear you?”
“I can’t turn around right now, I’m paddling.”
“Eric Hutchins, turn the canoe back toward the shore!!!”
And, as quickly as his mad dash for the deep had started, it stopped. He angled the canoe for the shore.
“What in the hell was that all about?”
“Nothing, love. I just needed to get my heart rate up.”
I sensed the lie, but I couldn’t prove it. My own heart raced as if I had been the one sprint-paddling. For once, though, I kept my mouth shut.
The waves grew higher. We paddled and paddled for what felt like hours but made little forward progress against the wicked-cold wind.
“Eric, I want out of the canoe.”
“We’re halfway. Hang in there.”
“No. I want out right now. I’m scared. We’re going to tip over. I can’t breathe.”
“How about we cut across the middle of lake and shave off some distance? That will get you to the shore faster.”
“I WANT TO GO THE NEAREST SHORE RIGHT NOW AND GET OUT OF THE #%$&(&^%#@% CANOE.”
Now I really had to get out because it was the second time I’d called the canoe a bad name, and I knew it would be out to get me.
Eric paddled us to the shore without another word. I’m pretty sure he thought some, but he didn’t say them. I got out, almost falling over into the water and turning myself into a super-absorbent giant tampon, and he turned the canoe back over the water and continued on without me. This wasn’t how I’d pictured it going down, but I knew I had better let him a) work out and b) work me out of his system. I trudged back around the lake to the car looking like the Michelin man and beat him there by only half an hour.
By the time we loaded the canoe on the top of our rental car and hopped in, we were well on our way back to our happy place. Yes, I know I don’t deserve him. I don’t question it; I just count my blessings.
That night we dined out — did I mention we were starving to death on broccoli and whole-wheat tabbouleh? — to celebrate our marriage. Eric had arranged for delivery of flowers to our table before we got there. The aroma was scrumptious: COW, COOKED COW, yay! and of course the flowers. We held hands and traded swipes of the Chapstick. I looked at his wind-chafed, sunburned face and almost melted from the heat of adoring him. Or maybe it was from the flame of the candle, which I huddled over to stay warm. What was wrong with the people in this state? Somebody needed to buy Montana a giant heater.
He interrupted my moment.
“I have a confession to make. And I promise you are really going to think this is funny later.”
“Spill it, baby.”
“Remember when I paddled us toward the middle of the lake as hard as I could?”
“I’m trying to block the whole experience out of my mind.”
“Yeah, well, let me tell you, Sweetness, it was about ten times worse for me than you. But do you remember what you said about falling in yadda yadda frozen carcass next summer blah blah?”
I didn’t dignify this with an answer, but he didn’t need one and continued without much of a pause.
“Well, you were in front of me, breathing into your paper bag or whatever, when I looked down, straight down, into the eyes and nostrils of a giant, bloated, frozen, very dead, fully-intact, floating ELK CARCASS.”
“I am not. It was so close to the surface that if you hadn’t still had those tears in your eyes, there is NO WAY you wouldn’t have seen it. You could have touched its head with your hand without even getting your wrist wet.”
“No, you did not take me out on a lake with giant frozen dead animals floating in it.” A macabre version of alphabet soup popped into my mind.
“Yes, I did,” he said, and I believe his tone was triumphant.
“Oh my God. If I had seen it right then, I would have come unhinged.”
“More unhinged. I know. I was terrified you would capsize us and then you would quadruple-freak out in the water bumping into that thing. I had to paddle for my life.”
He was right. I let him enjoy his moment.
And I am glad he confessed about the dead elk.
But I can promise I will never canoe on a tundra lake with Eric again. Even if I got my courage up, he would never invite me.
Cinderella, eat your heart out.
p.s. There’s video. But not of the elk incident. Here are four links (below):