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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.

By Fritz Swanson / June 30, 2010



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.

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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.

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.