Late on the Water

I arrive at the paddleboard shop on Barker’s Island in Superior just before noon. Because I learned to paddleboard last spring, and because winters are long, I need a refresher on how to attach the folding seat and ankle strap to the board. (I don’t need a crash course on how to tie my shoes—they have Velcro straps.) Last year after I connected the seat and strap to my board, they stayed put until I deflated it in the fall. Heather, co-owner of North Shore SUP, helps me. (She’s friendly and supportive and would show me how to tie my shoes, if needed. It took me a long time to learn to tie them when I was a kid.)

It’s July 16, and I will paddleboard for the first time this summer. I’ve lost a month because a long, cold spring latched onto the heels of a long, cold winter. Toss in stormy weather plus the three days a week I provide daycare for my grandkids, and getting out on my board slid to the bottom of my list.

The Mayflies Are Late Too

Heather talks about mayflies, and how late they hatched this year. I feel like a late-hatching mayfly. She describes a recent moonlight paddleboarding trip where a flock of birds burst into the air, zooming and darting, feasting on newly hatched mayflies. She’s excited to share her story, and I’m happy she does. I used to think mayflies were creepy, but last summer I researched them. To learn about mayflies is to admire them, to know they perform snazzy mating dances, and to respect their place in the circle of life.

Getting on my board and paddling away from the dock is like riding a bicycle after winter recedes—muscle memory kicks in. The water is smooth, the breeze a whisper, and the air hot. I see other paddlers, small fishing boats, and large pleasure craft gliding through the water. Even with all the traffic, it’s quiet. The heat and still air create a meditative atmosphere, compelling people to speak softly and move quietly.

Around the Outside of Barker’s Island

I paddle around the northwest tip of the island and the SS Meteor, which bills itself as “the last above-water whaleback ship in the world.” Built in 1896 and retired in 1969, it’s now a museum. Its main function is to blow its horn at irregular intervals, startling all nearby people. It gets me every time. I paddle on.

A man throws an orange floating toy into the water and says, “Get the buoy” to his chocolate lab. “Good girl,” he coos when she returns it. He tosses it again. She jumps into the water and returns it again. And again. I pass by listening to the man’s rhythmic commands and compliments.

It’s hot. I meant to be on the water before ten o’clock, but I walked my dogs then revised a story and the morning ran away from me. Now, it’s noon and 90 degrees. I skim the water slowly to conserve energy and avoid overheating. I thought it would be cooler on Lake Superior. It’s not. When it’s 90 degrees, it’s 90 degrees in every nook and cranny. I could get into the water and cool off, but the water is dark and creeps me out. Maybe I need to research the lake’s water.

Billowing cloud formations compete for space in the sky. A pair of them become two bear cubs standing on their hind legs, playfully boxing with each other. A moment later one cub morphs into a zaftig fertility goddess, and the other cub becomes a roaring lion with a flowing mane. I find a wolf, its snout tilted toward the heavens in a silent howl at a still sleeping moon. I spot a laughing puppy and a resting dragon as I glide over the water.

A pair of paddleboarders put in from the shore of their home, and on one of the boards, a yellow lab sits facing backward. His owner says the dog is learning to stay on the board. Me too. On days when the water is rough or when motor boats create heavy wake, I sit on my board and paddle kayak style.

I meet another paddleboarder who waves and says, “Summer’s finally here.”

“Yes,” I answer, thinking about the one-day-of-summer jokes Northlanders like to crack.

Around the Inside of the Island

I round the southeastern tip of the island and notice tiny dead creatures floating on the water’s surface. I use my paddle to lift one of them out of the water for a closer look. They’re exoskeletons. They look like the nymph skins mayflies shed before resting on the water’s surface to dry their wings so they can take flight. Given Heather’s description of the recent mayfly hatch, it makes sense. The exoskeletons make the dark water seem even creepier.

It’s hotter on the inside of the island, so I decide against picking up speed. Besides, I’m in a no-wake zone.

I dawdle along the marina and see my favorite boat—a 66-foot yacht named after a Disney character—moored at its slip. The designer who drafted its lines created poetry with shape. The boat’s silhouette is stunning. It’s eye candy. I always stare at it, to the point of rudeness. It’s the best-looking boat in the marina.

I pass a large boat heading out of the marina. On the top deck a German Shepherd peeks over his owner’s lap and smiles down at me. The dog is happy to be on the water and more relaxed than the yellow lab that was learning to stay on a paddleboard.

“Nice captain you’ve got,” I say to the man steering the boat. He laughs.

Because we’re traveling in opposite directions, I don’t have time to tell him I grew up with a German Shepherd that was kind and smart and loyal.

I paddle toward the large culvert I must pass through to return to the dock. The water remains smooth, the breeze continues to whisper, and the air still swelters. There are no more dogs, and the clouds have become ordinary cotton balls. I sit on my board and aim for the opening. Today is the first time I will pass through the culvert without having to adjust for swirling currents. Every time I paddleboard around Barker’s Island, there’s always a first.


Victoria Lynn Smith writes fiction, essays and articles. For more visit writingnearthelake.org.

1 Comment

Marie Zhuikov

about 4 months ago

Great story, Vickie! You really captured what it's like to board around the island. Hope to run into you out there sometime this summer!

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