Secrets of a lake's amber depths

As they glide across the water, 4-year-old Oscar dips into the murky world of corkscrew weeds and beaver dams.

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At Lake Olga, Oscar was looking for turtles and for "fish I catch with my hands." He held up his 4-year-old hands while Grandpa loaded the canoe with paddles, life vests, and some snacks. When we arrived at the lake, the air was still and hot.

Olga is several miles into the pine stands of the Manistee National Forest (current forest fire danger level: very high) at the northern edge of Osceola County in Michigan. Olga is a kettle lake, so-called because the kettlelike basin was formed when a huge chunk of the retreating ice age glacier broke off and crashed into the moraine of soft earth deposited by the flowing ice. The landlocked iceberg, having nowhere else to go, melted into the depression, forming Lake Olga. For all of the thousands of years between then and now, the basin had made a habit of collecting anything that rolled into it.

This was Oscar's first time in a boat. The sandy boat launch that pushed out into the mucky lake was boxed in by a 7-by-10-foot frame of four-by-fours. Out beyond the edge of the old wood, the lake sank down into amber depths. In the corner of the launch, in the shadow of the wood, Oscar knelt and patiently watched minnows for his chance to strike.

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When he nervously climbed into the canoe, Oscar informed us, "My bottom wet."

Like any other piece of forest flotsam, we were adrift on the surface of the lake. Below the boat grew brown corkscrew-shaped weeds in huge mats.

"What that?" Oscar pointed out to the middle of the lake where plants pushed up through the surface of the water. As we approached, the canoe wobbled and Oscar held tight to the gunwales. "Can we go back?" he asked.

"Don't you want to see what's ahead?"

"I want to catch fish with my hand," he said quietly.

The lily pads were in bloom, little yellow blooms like ping-pong balls with a hole in the top. A fly flew into one and never came out.

The canoe hissed against the shrubs that grew up out of the water. In the center of the lake there were great hedges of a strange woody shrub with long, thin gray-green leaves that grew up past the waterline. Beneath the water there were clumps of mud caught in piles of logs. It might have been myrtle, it might have been bog rosemary, but it was growing up at the center of a lake. Amid the shrubs, herbaceous red flowers drooped face down. In the depths, growing from the muck caught in the old logs, the flowers were sprouting from gape-mouthed pitcher plants.

You could imagine that eventually the shrubs would grow so dense that one could get lost in this mid-lake garden.

The network of logs made up the outer edges of a huge beaver lodge. The lodge was sun-bleached gray and topped with a high mast of wood about seven inches in diameter that supported an angry red-winged blackbird. Several muted brown females hid in the shrubs and trilled at us while the males swooped around us and barked.

"I wish I could go in there," Oscar sighed, his eyes following the woodpile down into the watery dark.

"Me, too," I said.

I imagined the beavers diving down into the acidic waters where they would slip through a hole deep at the base of the lodge. Inside the mound of wood, back up above the waterline, they would sleep in a spacious, dark burrow.

There seems, at certain moments in life, to be nothing more comforting than the idea of being completely lost.

The water around the beaver lodge was especially yellow, and I wondered if it was acidic from the wood. At the center of the lake, a bog was forming. This would be the first stage of the eventual end of the lake, the water choked off by all the writhing life it collected in its maw.

Beyond the lodge and the copse of shrubs there was open water, and then a dense brake of more shrubs. The shrubs were clustered so densely that some of the peaty muck they grew from pushed up above the waterline. The peaty edges of the slowly forming island were fringed with an alien garden of blood-red pitcher plants, drawing greedy deerflies down into their enticing depths. At the center of the mound of shrubs there grew a stunted tamarack where a pair of buntings watched us warily.

"I want to go back," Oscar said again, as the canoe tilted left, then right.

We startled a nesting loon, and she beat her wings, flying so low along the water that she kicked up a wake as she desperately tried to lead us away from her young.

Briefly, as we paused in the water, there came a cooling breeze from the east.

"That's nice," Grandpa said.

On our way back to the launch, we watched black male loons dive after fish. One of the loons unexpectedly broke the surface just five feet from the boat, unconcerned as we slipped past. I admired his checkerboard wings while Oscar clutched at the canoe's crossbeam.

As the dark loon faded from view down into the gloomy water, it seemed as though the whole lake were drawing everything down into itself. I let my hand drag in the water. After weeks of early summer heat, it was tepid, inviting. I could imagine sinking into it, getting tangled in the mats of corkscrew weeds, twisting amid the pile of beaver-dragged logs.

After circumnavigating the lake, we pulled the boat up across the wooden frame of the sandy boat launch. As Grandpa loaded the canoe back on the trailer, Oscar knelt in front of a four-inch fish that, like him, was trying to catch minnows.

Oscar's hand hovered over the fish, but the fish only sank farther and farther into the shelter of the shaded corner of wood. Then, a leech undulated along the sandy lake bed. He was three inches long, twisting in spirals, his back speckled, his belly rusty red.

A small brown leech tugged at my foot, and I watched him lazily until I finally decided to shake him off.

As I put him in his car seat, Oscar said, "We didn't see any turtles." I agreed that we hadn't.

When we got home, Grandma asked Oscar what he had seen at Lake Olga.

"A worm with spots on its back that wanted to suck my blood!"

I had to privately agree with his enthusiasm. The leech, like the lake, was unsettlingly beautiful.

Fritz Swanson teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at the University of Michigan. New Voices showcases the work of students, graduates, and faculty involved with Masters of Fine Arts creative-writing programs around the United States.

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