When I first came to Pickle Lake, I didn’t think I would like the north. Helping with Vacation Bible School wasn’t the problem. I’ve done that quite a few times in my life. It was our non-VBS activities that had me worried. Marnell told me stories about fishing and boats on the lake and spending the night at a cabin with no indoor plumbing, and I began to tally my fears.
I don’t know the first thing about fishing. I get seasick in boats, unless they are moving straight and fast across the water. I have a positive phobia for spiders. Once, spending the night at a cabin in my youth, I got stung by a wasp disguising himself on my bed covers. The fear of picking up a blanket and getting stung has never quite disappeared.
So I was entirely unprepared for the very strange feeling of happiness that settled over me when I went north. In fact, I think each year it surprises me again. It’s as if the cares of normal life drop off into the rivers we cross as we move farther and farther above the 49th parallel.
After settling in at Harvey and Carolyn’s the Friday we arrive, we head toward the lake. Where the blacktop road ends in Ontario (although they are preparing to extend it now), we turn off into the woods–or, I should say, the bush. We drive down a wide, graveled road, with summer trees lining both sides in an unbroken bank of green. We bore deeper and deeper into the bush, until we arrive at Kapkichi.
Those who are capable of backing vehicles with trailers (I tried, but don’t ask me how it went) ease the boats into the water, and we load them with stuff. We all settle in, and my stomach recoils at the subtle bobbing motion of a boat beside the dock.
But then, the boat motor roars to life. Water churns behind us, and a turbulent but steady V-shape marks our path as we blast off across the dark grape-colored waters of the waiting lake. Sometimes white foam breaks as the waves tumble over themselves. On quieter days, the water takes on the appearance of plastic wrap, shiny and unbroken, with all that deep dark, jello beneath it.
There are other cabins on Kapkichi besides Harvey’s, but they are so sparse that often nothing can be seen on shore but the spires of evergreens dark against the sky. It’s rare to pass a boat that isn’t part of our group.
Last Saturday, I sat in the screened-in porch at Harvey and Carolyn’s cabin while the others went fishing. I listened to the wind tossing the tops of the trees and the occasional haunting music of a loon. Every now and again, the waves would hit the shore below and I would hear them lapping against the dry land. On occasion, the motor of a boat screamed by, even though I couldn’t see it through the screen of trees. Finally, when the fishing was over, I heard the boats coming. I heard them decelerate and then cut quiet as voices called and ropes wrapped the boats tight to the dock.
The other night we beat a hasty retreat from the cabin, the sun already dropping behind the trees. Harvey ran a load of people across the lake, and then went back to the cabin for another load. As our boatload shot across the lake toward the dock, we passed him going the other way. With him as the only passenger, his boat skimmed the top of the lake, flying across the water.
Last night, Marnell took me upriver to a little waterfall. On the way back, a bald eagle flapped up out of the trees. He didn’t come close, but yet he seemed to accompany us, flying ahead, and then coming back. He drew huge circles in the sky, flapping upwards and then coasting, his white tail and head shining in the late afternoon sun as we kept up with our boat, flying across the water.
When I try to put a finger on what the north communicates to me, I find it difficult. It’s not so much about what I see there, as about what is NOT there. Pickle Lake, and Kapkichi in particular, have something that Elkhart County simply does not have: space.
On Kapkichi, it’s not so much about excitement as about the absence of boredom. It’s not so much about grandeur as about the absence of commerce and advertisement. Even our phones don’t work well. It’s not so much about beautiful sounds as the absence of noise and babble. It’s not so much about fun as about a sense of smallness in the bigness of a land still untainted by humans. It’s not so much about pleasure as about the distance from life’s normal pains.
If you get seasick, you might understand what I mean. When I get off an airplane after vomiting through the flight, it’s hard to put a finger on what it means to feel good. Feeling good after being seasick is about what is not there–the spinning of the head, the revulsion of the stomach, the anxiety about the next dip of the plain, the aching of the body for a horizontal space in which to lie–to have these absent is what it means to feel well.
I think that is what Kapkichi is to me. It is a place of health, away from the spinning, confusion and aching of the busy, troubled world. It’s as if you didn’t realize you were quite sick before, until you get there, and suddenly realize how well you feel.
It makes me understand, just a little, what it must be like to go to our final home, to a place entirely beyond confusion and pain. (After all, I still get seasick on Kapkichi!) I wonder if living in the immediate perfection and presence of God is so unlike the world in which we now live, that we will not fully know how much we longed for it until we get there.
We keep talking about how we don’t know if we will keep coming back to Pickle Lake every year, due to a number of other responsibilities we have. I know Marnell would miss it a lot if we didn’t, since he’s been coming here almost every year since 1998 to lead the VBS. I’ve only come here three years, ever since knowing him.
But the odd thing is, I would miss it too. I enjoy the VBS, although it is similar to my past experiences in this department. I enjoy Harvey and Carolyn’s hospitality and the many little faces listening to my Bible story. But it is out on Kapkichi that I hear a language unmatched by anything else that I have experienced south of it. I’m not sure what it is, but it draws me in as if I were an old friend, and helps me recover from a sickness I didn’t know I had.
Tuesday Tips: Come back for an authentic northern topic: how to cook a swan! 😁