At thirteen, I fell in love on Shasta Lake. If not love, then something that I couldn’t yet name, a dizzy weak-kneed rush that knocked me broadside the day I saw her leap Levi-clad from the shore and arise dripping, and I didn’t know what else to do but leap myself and surface to the caught-breath shock of cold with gravel between my toes and the snowy volcanic dome floating on the horizon. Who wouldn’t be in love?
They’d rented a houseboat with some relatives, this young couple, and they brought me along to babysit for their toddler. We swam and water-skied—I desperately wanted to learn to slalom—and we fished and camped sometimes on the beach. The lake was ringed by red earth exposed at a slant, an annoyance when docking or dragging a canoe to shore. No one called it a draw down. No one explained it. Having been to the ocean many times, I assumed there must be something like a tide, that at night the water would rise to the edge of the woods. I waited, but nothing changed.
We didn’t talk about the dam. Why would we talk about the dam? We talked about fish when we baited the hook or gutted the trout, but I knew nothing about the salmon or the Wintu, the rightful inhabitants of the place, nothing, even, about the drowned river. One day I’d understand costs and trade-offs. I’d learn to call it what it really is—a reservoir, not a lake—but not that summer.
That summer I held a small sleeping child on my chest, our sweat mingling. I steered an outboard motor, swerving the rudder side-to-side, testing resistance. One day near sunset, I finally got up on one ski and flailed for a moment before tripping over the boat wake, falling hard, and feeling a twinge in my upper back, the first I’d ever felt, a twinge that’s stayed with me ever since. At night, sunburned and scratching mosquito welts, I could feel myself tense and relax, reacting in sleep as if by reflex to the towline tug.
There’ll be a very bad day, one of the worst days ever, in not so many months, standing in her kitchen, when suddenly it will be clear: how I’ve been fooling myself. I’ll know then what it’s been, not at all what I wanted it to be, and I won’t yet know that everyone survives such a day, that it’s as much a right of passage, this gut-punched humiliation, as falling in love.
Thirty years later, at dusk, I’m on another reservoir, this one at full pool. No draw down. A group of congenial strangers paddles a large canoe across the glacial-silt surface, turquoise in the daylight, now nearly oily black. Paddles slip into the water and out. We stop at a dock, and for a moment it’s silent, and someone reads nature poetry aloud, and still, still, I feel the twinge, discomfort over what’s unsaid. As we turn into a westerly breeze, we can’t ignore it. Incandescent lights shine on cement, gracefully arched and huge, and the dam is, for now, breathtaking. All night, in my sleep, I’ll hear the gentle splash of paddles as they enter the water. I’ll watch them split reflected light, and I’ll feel my muscles flex, over and over, with the effort of trying to get back to safety before the wind picks up.
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey (winner of the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize) and Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw. Her writing on nature, work, and life in a small community appears regularly in High Country News, Mountain Gazette, Oregon Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Stehekin, Washington.
Illustration by Marc Snyder