Sometimes, it is the absence of something that is more frightening than the actual presence or something horrific. The absence of light is darkness. Fog in itself is not something that affords fear, to me at least, it is what is masked by the mist, that which may or may not reside within and awaits you. A lack of sound in the forest signifies some predator may be lurking and the other prey are aware of such and have hunkered down while you bumble about breaking twigs and crushing dry leaves with your boots. When a point source of fear exists, you may not be able to be one hundred percent sure that you can deal with it, but you at least have something to focus on. When there is no point, no entity, no thing to fixate upon, fear can lead to horror and panic. This is my tale of fear of an unseen enemy that haunts my dreams thirty years beyond into middle age.
I grew up less than two city blocks from the main harbor port of my birth city. I spent a great deal of my first twenty years sitting on docks fishing, talking to boat folk, helping people dock and un-dock and in the winters, we played hockey on the ice in the shadows of tarped-up sailboats. I loved being near the water. I still do. On hot summer nights I would open my bedroom window and fall asleep to the sound of metal line rings tinging against masts of ships in dock and the water.
When I was twelve, my father purchased a boat for me. It was, sadly, not a canoe or kayak as one would buy nowadays but a heavy rubber seaworthy inflatable dingy. Thankfully, a sturdy and heavy craft, thick rubber, well constructed, unwieldy on land but once I got it in water it could be propelled, albeit slowly, in waves up to three feed from trough to peak unlike the lightweight canoe I travel in nowadays. It had an odd way of losing air but only from one of three chambers so even though one had to bring a pump with them if a trip was going to extend beyond and hour, one knew you had two more air filled flotations to keep you safe. An odd gift to give to a boy who had an inherent fear of open water but with thoughts of fishing and exploring in mind, I gratefully accepted it and over a summer, learned to handle it like a seasoned boatman.
Over that summer and the subsequent year, we spent most every other weekend and two full weeks camping at Presqu’ile Provincial Park near Brighton. A forested peninsula jutting southward into Lake Ontario, I had camped there since I was a toddler and knew the paths, roadways and marshes like the back of my hand. I would often disappear for hours upon hours wandering, fishing from shore, hiking, walking, knowing to return in time for meals and the evening campfires. Invariably I would spend much time looking for fossils along its rocky shores and when the water was warm, my father and mother and I would often snorkel out into the lake scanning the shallow limestone for underwater ones to chip out with hammer and chisel. It wasn’t “legal” we found out years later, but by then we had amassed a fair selection of trilobites and crinoids of quite good quality, most of which were eventually donated to a few nature museums nearby. With the addition of the boat, I took to paddling out a few hundred feet offshore and using it as a base from which to dive down the five to six feet into the cool lake waters and hunt for fossils we previously considered out of reach. As a person with mild agoraphobia as well as a life long fear of water, deep water in particular, this was a therapeutic venture and my phobias over time seemed to melt away as silly concerns of a child I had outgrown.
One brisk late summer morning on one of ten day long camping holidays, I woke to find the previous day’s stormy weather had completely subsided. Lake Ontario was silent with barely a ripple curling up the stony beach moving slowly from north to south. My mother was up and afforded me a quick breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast that I ate faster than usual as I desperately wanted to paddle out before the day broke fully and the inevitable wavy nature of the waters awoke. I brushed my teeth, gathered my little bag of tools, paddles and rope and dragged it all along with the dingy to the shore. I could see a fog offshore as could my mother who promptly reminded me to anchor and not go too far out. I agreed and when I reached the water’s edge, I found a large bone shaped rock that I had used the day before, tied it to the bow line, dropped in inside along with my gear and launched. Sitting back upon the rear seat, I inserted the oars into the rowlocks, turned the boat around and began to row. Birds swept overhead, gulls, terns, sandpipers, above them all a jet silently moved from west to east cutting the sky with its watery exhaust. The only wound was the rhythmic slapping of my blades into the water. Peaceful, quiet, I looked shoreward and saw I was a bit farther than expected, possibly five hundred feet from the “big rock” that sat a stones thrown from the beach.. My mother was watching so I kneeled on the seat and waved so she could see I was still okay. She waved back and I decided I would drop anchor if only to appease her. My secret goal of one day paddling to Gull and High Bluff Islands would wait.
The anchor rock dropped and twenty feet of line played out, I lay back against the inflated hump of a stern and stared up into the cloudless sky. I thought about the quiet, the few days remaining before we went home and the single solitary week of summer left before the first day or grade eight. I honestly believe I dozed off sometime shortly thereafter as I sat up with a start what seemed like a only a few minutes later and found myself surrounded by fog. It wasn’t so thick as to prevent me knowing which was east was, the sun being low in the sky and brilliant at this time of day, but I could not see shore, the islands or the horizon. A mild panic set in, but I filed it away as more evidence of childhood fears and decided to don my snorkel, mask and flippers before my parents noticed the mist and called the coast guard. Ready to dive, I grabbed the denim bag containing two chisels and a small hammer, sat up on the side of the boat and slid into the surprisingly cold lake. It took breath away at first and I almost pulled myself out of the water back into the craft until a few seconds later I decided to be a man and if anything, take a look beneath me for a few fossils. I grabbed the bowline for guidance, flipped upside down and allowed the bag to begin pulling me down into the crystal clean silent waters.
The sun began to win the battle against the fog by the time I realized what had happened and ceased my descent. Below me, as far as my eyes could see, was an enveloping field of flat rock, unblemished by stones tossed from the shore. Only the occasional waving stands of some form of water plant jutted from cracks. A few small fish near the bottom hung motionless like me, either frozen in fear or asleep, I couldn’t tell. The anchor rock hung below me, not on the bottom far below but mid depth, the full length of line below the bow. A very rough estimate put the floor at least that same distance further down though common sense told me that visibility of forty feet was something I had only experienced diving in the Caribbean. Normally, water of Lake Ontario was somewhat murky though in honestly, I had never been this far from shore. Whatever the true depth, I found my predicament disconcerting. An unknown distance from shore, somewhere off of a peninsula that juts at least five kilometers from the shore toward the middle of the lake, hanging ten feet below the surface of cold, eerie water known for swallowing ships.
I looked to the left where I assumed shore to be. Beyond a point, only pale blue sunlit waters too dense to see through existed. Flat rock extended uninterrupted. I turned to the right, toward the depths of Lake Ontario. For a few meters the rock extended but at that point blue blackness indicated a drop-off of untold depths. A cliff. A precipice. The true Lake beyond shore, where tanker ships travelled and sailing craft swung past as I watched longingly from the shore. Being so close to such a massive depth, in the water, near the edge and apparently drifting toward it filled my heart with cold dead terror. As I stared into the darkness I felt a tug from below. I looked down in time to see the rock become disentangled from the rope and fall silently downward. I fled. I used my strong young diver’s legs and fins to propel myself upward, out of the water and into the dingy, now bobbing slightly on small waves that were beginning to develop as the air warmed and convection currents began to create wind.
Flopping onto the floor of the dingy, I lay panting for a few moments then with a start, removed my fins and sat on the seat, sliding the oars into the water and began to row. At first, my rhythm was off, progress was staggered, and I swear I actually rowed in a circle once. Eventually I was able to point the bow toward the east and make reasonable progress for a few hundred meters until a shadow loomed over me quickly from behind and I nearly rowed into a large green buoy. I had never seen one this large up close before and turned the dinghy to examine it for a moment. Another realization hit me that I was in a fog bank in an area larger boats may be travelling through, also, from the shore of the campground, I had never see a buoy. I turned east and paddled more.
Nearly an hour seemed to pass before the fog thinned and I was able to make out shore. I had been drifting to the south east in a bit of a current but thankfully the waves kept down till now. I turned toward the sound of breakers and rowed until the sound of scraping told me I was near enough I could walk it in. Touching the paddle below, I felt about a foot of water beneath me so swung my tired self carefully out of the boat to stand on the slippery rock below. My tired legs began the walk to the shore and I looked up to see rising out of the fog the Presqu’ile Lighthouse. I was a good mile and a half down shore from where I launched. Turning, I looked out to the lake and realized I must have been out well beyond Weller Bay, likely close as I suspected to shipping traffic lanes frequented by ships heading to the ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. I shivered as I began the long walk back to camp a few feet off shore, dragging my boat behind me in the shallows.
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