DarkSep 18, 2014
I didn’t factor the seasons into my calculation this evening.
It's heading toward winter, which means that it is getting dark at night. The legendary Alaskan summer days are indeed endless, and I’d gotten lazy with my planning.
I’m not new to Alaska, but I am new to lakes and open water and boating. The skiff I drive has an outboard motor and is full of quirks and things to remember. She likes things just a certain way. Choke and throttle just so, motor up in shallow water, fuel tank open, a few squeezes of fuel to wake her up.
I am, by my very nature, fearful. There are days I am embarrassed about just how many things frighten me. Usually I can plow through the fears that come up for me, but some days, they give me a real run for my money. Some people say I’m courageous because of the things I do - like moving to Alaska by myself. Perhaps I just hide my fear well.
In actuality, I'm scared of all sorts of the most ridiculous things, especially tonight: sea monsters, frogs, open water, sea monsters, weeds in the water, swamps, bogs, things that jump, things that make me jump, the dark...sea monsters. Mostly things that don’t exist or aren’t inherently harmful.
So on this evening after a meeting and some shopping, I realize as I sit in traffic that I am going to have to drive the skiff across the lake in the dark. As I wait, I realize it is not just dark. It is the pitch-black, cloudy, rainy, first-dark-of-the-season dark that my eyes have not yet adjusted to.
I consider staying at a hotel, but my husky is inside at the cabin alone, and I can't leave him there without risking his curious and quick mind figuring out how to open the freezers and pantry doors, full of meat and fish from this season.
I try to think of any other way out of this. No dice. I have to boat across the lake in the dark. I have to figure this out alone. I need to figure this out alone.
When I had left the boat earlier in the day, I parked it in the bushes and trees in a shallow grassy area to be out of the way. It was lovely during the afternoon, but as night fell, the trees and bushes woke up and invited the underworld to play.
How much I wish I had taken the time to move boats around and docked closer. I have groceries with me, which means several trips over the small, uneven, and now-creepy trail, back and forth from car to skiff.
I park, hold my breath, and force myself to unload just what is perishable, leaving the rest for the morning. The boat landing that usually feels warm and homey now feels sinister and dangerous. What if something or someone is waiting to jump out and get me?
I put on my extra-bright headlamp, gather my bags and walk the short distance to the boat. It feels like an incredibly long, treacherous trail in clogs, not exactly my footwear of choice when I need to feel fearless.
I push aside the branches and leaves grabbing at my arms and legs and untie the boat in the slowest panic I've ever felt. My entire body is rigid. Breathing is non-existent as my mind is running around everywhere sounding alarms. Every sound makes me jump and every jump moves the boat, feeding the panic like gas feeds a fire.
As I push off, my headlamp points straight down to the lake’s bottom. I freeze. Murky rocks, slimy weeds, an old tire, pieces of rotting wood, and other unidentifiable objects litter the lake floor. Clearly, this is the breeding ground of sea monsters. They are here and they know I am terrified of them.
Some part of me pushes off the shore and paddles out to a point where I can lean over the menacing water and let down the motor. Mysteriously, my mind remembers to open the fuel tank release, squeeze the bulb to prime the engine, put the choke just so, and gently start the engine at just the right idle.
As terrified as I am, I don’t want to stay here. I want her to start right away, so I arrange things just as she likes them. Just so. A turn of the key to the left and her gentle purr rings in my ears. My body relaxes and I turn the boat west. It is at this moment I realize how dark a lake can be at night. My headlamp isn't any help, except for illuminating the water and creating frightening and eerie patterns that are clearly sea monsters. I click it off.
I know the buoy that marks the shallow spot wasn't there this morning, so I have to stay close to shore but not close enough to hit anything. It also means I have to be that much closer to the shallow, grassy weeds I fear so much.
I have a moment of complete panic.
Every fear I have is in this boat with me.
It is dark. I am on the open water. It is night. The predatory Pike that live in this lake will devour me. I am sure that at any moment, a huge sea monster is going to fly up out of the water, wrap around my neck and yank me under the black water. Yes, I am a grown woman having a terrifyingly vivid, 5-year-old-girl sea monster nightmare. My primal mind is in full control, and it is running wild.
And all at once, something inside me stops and is quiet.
This is nonsense. This is just a tale of a wildly dangerous and heroic journey across a monster-infested lake, where I am in danger of death at every moment.
I take humbling stock of the situation. What is really happening? Really?
All I'm doing is driving the skiff at night to the cabin. That's it.
In fact, I am driving the same skiff across the same lake that I have driven many times. It's just dark. The only thing that has changed is the light saturation...and with it, my mind.
I slow my breath and consciously, intentionally, relax into reality. I just drive the boat, and I am peaceful. Just like that. I know exactly where I am. I know where I need to go.
I realize Craig's light is on serving as a beacon, or gift from the universe, depending on your leaning. It is the most beautiful light I have seen in a long time.
Soon, the dock appears and I land the boat. I am exhausted, weary from adrenaline and fighting against my wild imagination.
It isn't until I recount my tale to a friend that I comprehend how wild my mind had gone into stories of monster fish with giant teeth, predatory grasses, and violent sea monsters.
Driving the boat wasn't scary. The real dangers didn’t frighten me, I knew I could solve those. It was all of the imaginary things that could jump out and eat me that were scary.
I hung up the phone and laughed at myself, a grown woman who wasn't afraid, or even particularly concerned, about the real dangers of the situation, but terrified by the stories of the unknown.
And this is most of what we fear in general. We fear the unknown.
The facts and circumstances of that night I couldn’t change. It was fall and it was a dark, moonless night. But the stories my mind spun about the unknown, I could control. They were just thoughts.
When I’m able to drop my beliefs, my stories, my melodrama, my fears, and just do what reality asks me to do, it’s a less exciting story, but I’m a lot more peaceful.
That night, I could have just followed what needed to happen. Driven the boat in the dark, which is all that really did happen. There was nothing heroic about it. I could have provided warm shelter for myself from a night of fear and terror had I simply not believed my thoughts.
When we are willing to drop our wild stories about the future, we can drop our suffering and move forward.
Next time; I'll see if I can just drive the boat.
I hope you'll join me.
Updated April 18, 2023
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