The fishing camp we go to every summer, some 600 miles north of Buffalo, is situated on Firth Lake. It takes about 20 minutes with a good-sized motor to get from the south end of Firth, where the camp is located, to the north end where there is a large beaver dam. About a third of the way up the lake, on the right, is a not easily seen path that is the beginning of a short portage up and down a hill that leads to an adjacent lake called Serpentine.
About 25 years ago, I went on an expedition to Serpentine with my wife’s mom and dad. They invited me not so much for my engaging company but to serve as “the muscle” for the expedition. My job was to carry the motor and gas tank up and down the portage to a boat on the other side.
We didn’t catch any fish on Serpentine, but it was a beautiful day and we ate our packed lunch in the boat. As I recall, it was sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, and we brought along cups to drink water from the lake. It was an ordinary day. Yet I can clearly remember thinking at the time what a very special day it was for the three of us to be together on that lake. I thought to myself that after they were gone, if I could relive one special day with them, it would be that day.
It made me think of the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, when the deceased Emily is able to observe one day in her life, her 12th birthday. She sees how beautiful her mother and the day were, which she didn’t really appreciate at the time. She says, “Mama, just for a moment, let’s really look at each other. All that was going on and we never noticed. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?” The narrator in the play answers, “No. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.” Now I’m neither a saint nor a poet, but something at the time told me how memorable that day on Serpentine was, and I’ve never forgotten it.
This past summer, our daughter Sarah shared that she had always wanted to go to Serpentine, and would like to take her daughter Ava with her. We needed a helmsman for the boat and “muscle” for the trip, and those roles fell to our son Philip. We packed our lunches, and the four of us set off by boat, keeping a close lookout for the elusive path to the portage. As fishing directions often are, the instructions by the camp owner were obscure. We were told to look for “the cove after the big rock.”
Finally, we found the portage and crossed to Serpentine. As happened 25 years before, we caught no fish. Not far out into the lake, the motor on the boat conked out and we had to paddle back to shore. We ate our packed lunches, not on a picturesque island, but right where we pulled the boat ashore. Our conversation centered around what we would need to do if we had to live out in the wilderness, and we all concluded that it would be good to have unlimited water, wood and fish available. We also realized that we would not survive one deep northwoods winter outdoors with its frigid temperatures and deep snow.
I remembered the special day with Ava’s great-grandparents 25 years before. Recalling it made them feel present, and I liked the feeling that four generations were there on the lake in body or spirit.
If I, like Emily in “Our Town,” could come back to observe one day in my life, there are many special ones I might choose. But perhaps an ordinary day, like our recent one on Serpentine, would have all the specialness in it that a human being could desire. Perhaps that is the one I would choose.