KOK Edit: Your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM)
KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Vermont Tale the Third: Gaff Gaffe

In our previous story, I promised you one more camping adventure tale. Here is the final one:

It was our last full day in
Elmore State Park in northeastern Vermont. My husband, Ed, wanted to get in some more sailing on Lake Elmore in our Glastron 14-foot racing-class sailboat. So did our oldest son, Neil, almost 13. (For some reason, we’ve never taken a photo of the boat, but this one looks a lot like ours.)

Our youngest, Jared, almost 6, isn’t fond of sailing because when the boat’s zipping along with a brisk wind, it heels way over. He prefers a more sedate boating experience. And anyway, he had a 24-hour stomach virus ... or maybe it was exhaustion from the previous day’s
mountain hike. I don’t know how to pilot a sailboat (and am not interested in learning), though I do love being a passenger, and our boat is large enough for really only 1 person. In the past, I’ve curled myself into a ball in our boat’s cockpit to avoid the boom while Ed piloted, but I no longer find that comfortable, so I had an additional reason to stay at our campsite with Jared.

Neil, having sailed with and been instructed by Ed for a few years now, has gotten really good at sailing. He can tack with the best of them, so for about a year now, we’ve been letting him sail alone, as long as we’re where we can see him and as long as we’re at a lake, not on the ocean. He’s not ready for that yet. Lake Elmore is the largest lake that he’s sailed on, at somewhere between 3.5 and 4 miles from one end to the other. There’s a beach on the end near all of the campsites, and a free public boat ramp at the other end, accessible only by leaving the campground, driving on a local 2-lane highway, and finding the barely marked entrance.

Ed came up with a plan for the day that would allow both Neil and him to sail and allow him to have some time with Jared and me: He would drive to the ramp with Neil, where’d they’d launch the boat and then park our van and boat trailer. He’d then sail the boat, with Neil, a scrappy 5-foot, 77-pound string bean, riding on the bow and holding on to the mast. Once they arrived at the beach, Ed would visit Jared and me for a short while, letting Neil sail on his own, and then he’d go back to the beach, wait for Neil to return and tie up the sailboat, and head to the deli within the local
general store, which has been in business for about 200 years (really!), to get lunch for all of us. They’d return to our campsite to get Jared and me, and we’d all eat together at a picnic table under the fir trees at the beach, and then Ed and Neil would sail back to the ramp, trailer the boat, and drive back to our campsite, where Jared and I would meet them.

After they bought lunch, Neil talked Ed into letting him sail alone while Ed walked back to the campsite to get Jared and me. Ed even sat and chatted with us for a while before we all walked to the beach, to give Neil more sailing time. The 3 of us sat down and began enjoying our deli delights.

Ed and I scanned the lake for our sailboat, wondering how far Neil had gotten. Without binoculars, it was hard to make out much. But finally, we spotted the boat, all the way across the lake ... with its sail down and drifting toward a marshy area. The wind was whipping up, so why did Neil have the sail down? Had he accidentally pulled it off its pulley at the top of the mast? If so, he’d never be able to rig it up again by himself. And the boat was so far away, we couldn’t see him. Was he even on the boat? Had he been knocked unconscious by the boom and fallen off the boat and into the water? After all, despite his precocious sailing skills, he is only a child. And if Ed took the time to walk the nearly 4 miles down the highway to the boat ramp, it wouldn’t be a physical hardship for him, but he’d have to go all that way without knowing what had happened to Neil.

We didn’t want to panic Jared, so by mutual agreement, signaled by a meaningful exchanged glance, we didn’t tell him our fears. We just said we were wondering if Neil was having trouble with the boat. Ed knew that he’d have to be the one to rescue Neil, if it came to that, so he began eating faster and faster, jamming the last of his food into his mouth.

But how could Neil be rescued? The beach was of the swim-at-your-own-risk type, with no lifeguard on duty. And by then, in the late afternoon, it was past cutoff time for renting a canoe or kayak from the young adults from the
Vermont Youth Conservation Corps who staffed the beach office. Ed took the problem to the staff members, saying that he’d pay whatever they asked to be allowed to use a canoe or kayak to check on our son. The same young man who’d told me about the tornado warning the day before told Ed to take any kayak he wanted at no charge, because this was an emergency.

Ed launched the kayak at a run and leaped into it, paddling as fast as an Olympic athlete, the white oar blades flashing in the sun. A man on the beach, observing the scene, turned to me and said, “You’re husband’s going to be exhausted tomorrow, rowing like that.”

“No, he won’t,” I said. “He climbed Mount Elmore and went all the way to Balanced Rock yesterday. He’s in pretty good shape; he’s a cabinetmaker who’s on his feet all day and always lifting heavy sheets of wood.”

“I watched your son sailing. He’s good.”

“Yes, he is. That’s why we’re so puzzled about what’s going on. But then, he is only twelve.” And he does have
AD/HD, so maybe he just got distracted by something and is busy studying it, oblivious to time going by, I thought.

I watched Ed until I couldn’t see him anymore and then watched Jared as he played, unable to get any updates because our cell phones had pretty much no reception in the mountains. I knew that it would take Ed a good while to cross the lake and catch up with Neil—or with just the sailboat—but time seemed to stretch on forever.

Meanwhile, Ed was surprised to find that his kayak was taking on water. The back drainage hole was positioned so that an adult paddling alone in the kayak should be sitting in the front seat, but Ed hadn’t realized that and had sat in the backseat, which pushed the drainage hole under the water. He kept paddling carefully, trying to avoid taking on any water from the wakes of boats owned and piloted by people who lived on the lake. But physics caught up with him, and the kayak capsized. He rolled with it, holding on to it, and pulled it up upright again, this time piloting it from behind and outside, pushing it like a marine-show porpoise with a huge toy.

All this time, he still couldn’t see Neil, though he noted that the sailboat was now near the ramp. Whether it had drifted there on its own or Neil had paddled it there, Ed didn’t know. He was desperate to find Neil, and he realized that he was getting nowhere fast. Just then, an elderly couple’s boat roared his way, then pulled up short when the pilot realized that Ed was in the water. The man pulled the boat around, let Ed pull himself up and into the boat, and then helped Ed drain and lift the kayak into the boat. Once the boat reached the ramp, Ed climbed out and took the kayak with him, the rescuer having been rescued.

Jared and I could see none of this.

The young supervisor of the staff member who let Ed take a kayak out came out of the beach office building and told me that he was going to kayak out too, to see what was going on. This was the same guy who had
chastised the staff member for telling campers about the tornado warning the day before. I guess he wanted in on this hero stuff after all.

Meanwhile, I learned later, Ed had become hoarse from shouting Neil’s name as he’d been paddling across the lake; Neil didn’t hear his dad’s voice. Finally, Ed was on the boat ramp, where he found our sailboat pulled onto the cement. And there was no Neil!

“Neil!” Ed croaked, frantic to find out whether Neil was still alive.

Neil shot up from a crouch behind and on the other side of the sailboat, where he had been obliviously investigating something on the ground. “Daddy, why are you so hoarse?” he asked calmly.

“Because I’ve been yelling for you across the whole lake,” Ed answered, exasperated. “Neil, what happened with the sailboat?”

“The wind got too strong for me and the boat was tipping too much. I couldn’t control it, and the wind was too strong for me to paddle against, so I dropped the sail and drifted. Then I decided I’d better get over the to ramp where someone could find me. I knew I wouldn’t make it trying to sail back.”

Smart kid! He’d been taught that if we were all ever in a fire at our home, he was to get outside in front and wait there until we found him. He just translated that knowledge into a sailing situation. Ed was so happy and relieved that he hugged Neil as much as Neil would let him with other people around—Neil’s got that adolescent embarrassment thing going on already.

Finally, I saw the sailboat underway, heading back toward the beach, and two kayaks following it. Why didn’t Ed just trailer the sailboat and drive back with Neil, leaving the park staff supervisor to tow Ed’s kayak back behind his own? He’d left his keys to our van back in our tent, just as I had, so he had to first get back to the beach so he could then get the keys. I’d known that he didn’t have his keys, but Jared and I didn’t want to leave the beach to get my keys until we found out what was going on with Neil.

The wind was still whipping across the pond, constantly changing directions. That meant that Ed had to
tack like a madman to make it back to the beach, zigzagging all over the place. The kayaks arrived first, Neil in one and the staff supervisor in the other. With a wink, the supervisor said to Neil, “I guess you beat me.” He’d held back enough to let Neil have a small victory. I’m still not letting the guy off the hook for worrying more about campers’ money than their safety in the face of an approaching tornado, though.

Ed pulled up shortly in the sailboat.

I couldn’t hug and pet Neil enough after he’d told me how he’d come to be adrift. Sometimes I don’t give that boy’s decision-making skills enough credit. He’s growing up into an amazing person, and I know now that he’ll be all right on his own one day. He has heart, determination, physical prowess, good intuition, and one of the gifts of AD/HD—the ability to look at problems from unusual angles until solutions appear three-dimensional and fully formed in his head.

Will we ever go back to Vermont? You bet! We’re already planning a 2-week camping trip to the same campground next summer.

Vermont Tale the First: Skunked

Vermont Tales Interlude: Photos

Vermont Tale the Second: Tornado Mountain


LeftLeaningLady said...

Welcome Back!

It sounds like you had an amazing time and a little more adventure than you had planned.

It is great to be able to look at your young man and see the person he will one day become. Heartbreaking and wonderful at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Three cheers for Neil! Smart kid. :)
And what a great story to tell his future dates!

Lauren said...

Great story! I was in Elmore when this happened, volunteering in the Book Exchange at the back of the town hall, totally oblivious to the drama unfolding on the lake. All of us parents can relate... and thanks for being activists for gay rights.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Hi, Lauren. Nice to hear a new voice here.

How cool that you were in Vermont at the same time we were. We've yet to explore Elmore itself very much, other than the general store, but it looks so peaceful and makes us want to move there one day.

I'm happy to be a gay-rights activist. Injustice done to people for any reason bothers me a great deal.

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