Saturday, November 19, 2011


My Mom no longer owns a swimming raft, but once upon a time she did. It was a heavy monstrosity made of pressure treated wood and floating atop six or eight 50-gallon drums. I can still picture it in my mind's eye floating out past the sea weed a hundred feet or so from shore. It was anchored to the bottom of the lake by three square cinder blocks- the sort used to build chimneys. Like a hippo it was heavy and clumsy on land but light and bouyant in the water.

Bringing in the swimming raft was an annual harbinger of the coming change in season. Usually in late August or early September, when the first tree would prematurely change color, the raft would be recalled. Like I already said the raft was heavy. Maneuvering it up onto a spot where it would be out of the lake's reach in the spring required all of the ingenuity and grunting of the ancients who erected stonehenge and built the pyramids.

I remember one year when I came home from college for Thanksgiving break my Mom cornered me and my brother, Job, in the kitchen. "Nobody brought in the raft this year," she said. My Mom loved that raft, and the concern in her voice and the expression on her face made it plain that leaving the raft out there was simply not an option. Job and I instantly knew what we would have to do.

The trouble was it was late November, and late November in Vermont is no time to go for a dip in Lake Champlain. The leaves were off the trees. The first snow had already fallen. The Tate family owned no boats. We would have to swim out to the raft, haul up the anchor somehow, and bring the whole thing back into shore.

So that was how Job and I found ourselves on a cold November day standing on the shore of Lake Champlain with nothing on but our underpants. The raft bobbed up and down beyond the seaweed, taunting us, it's decking had been positively whitewashed by the seagulls. A stiff, cold November wind blew in our faces and across our bare skin.

"Alright Job, let's do this thing," I said.

"It's on!," came his courageous reply.

Then, with teeth chattering, but shoulders squared, we waded into the chilly waters. Ironically, the waters actually felt warm compared to the icy wind blowing over the surface of the lake. The water was not warm in reality, in fact it felt quite cold, but in comparison to the wind it seemed warmer. As we went along we battled our way through thick stands of eurasian millfoil, which is an invasive species of seaweed. Slowly the bottom of the lake dropped away until we could no longer touch the bottom. Then we were forced to swim for the raft. As the water deepened the millfoil grew thinner which made the swimming easier.

It was cold.

Once we got to the raft we held onto the leeward side and tried to come up with a strategy. The problem was that the anchor chain was attached dead center beneath the raft so you couldn't reach the chain without swimming underneath. Plus, the anchor itself proved too heavy to haul up from atop the raft anyway. After strategizing for a bit we decided to take turns following the anchor chain to the bottom of the lake, picking up the anchors and walking along the bottom toward the shore. First, however, we had to get the anchors up out of the mud in which they were completely buried. I remember when I first followed the chain down being surprised that I didn't find the blocks at the bottom but a smooth layer of muddy sediment. By tugging and hauling on the chain the heavy blocks reemerged. It took Job and I several dives to uncover the blocks. Then we began walking the heavy anchors into shore. It was a slow laborious process, especially once we got tangled up with the millfoil. I would go down take a few steps and then be forced to come up for air. Then Job would go down. We repeated this process over and over again, slowly making progress toward the distant shore. Once we got into shallower water we were able to lift up the anchors and put them on top of the raft. Then we made short work of pushing it the rest of the way.

Coming out of the water and onto the shore was the coldest part of the whole adventure. The wind swept over our wet bodies and set our teeth chattering violently in our skulls. We quickly dried off and got dressed, then with ears, fingers and nose red and aching from the cold we began hauling the the raft up the hill. Our energy was pretty well sapped from the effort to bring the raft to the shore and also from the cold, but one thing kept us going- my Mother's face. That poor, pitiable lover of swimming rafts inspired such devotion in Job and me that we struggled on like lives depended on it. We dragged and pushed the raft up the face of Rock Dundar, and then up onto the hill beyond. We measured progress by inches. In a last herculean burst of strength Job and I willed the ponderous raft a few more feet so that it came to rest at the base of a small tree. Then we tied the raft off to the tree, tossed the anchor blocks into the dirt  and declared our duty complete.

The next spring the raft was gone.

I don't know what happened to it. During the spring did the rising lake claim it? Was it stolen?

Although my Mother has never said anything to me about it I have long felt that she suspects that Job and I didn't do all that we could for the raft. For my part, I believe it is highly unlikely that the lake carried the raft away and thus have concluded that it was stolen. I am of the opinion that someone has been enjoying their ill-gotten raft all of these years. I wish I knew for sure though.

I always wanted to sleep out on the raft. Wouldn't that be amazing? The gentle rocking. The waves splashing against the side. The occasional fish jumping. I really want to do that someday. When my ship comes in, I'm gonna invest in a new swimming raft so I can go camping out there.

But Mom, in the meantime, I want you to know that Job and I did all that we could for your raft.


MomZup said...

I am so sorry I put you through all of that! It was a behemoth of a raft and unwieldy and its days were numbered! We should have just left it where it was and seen what happened to it over the winter! There are nice ones now, costly and still heavy but when the Tate ship comes in we can hire people to bring the raft in and put it out. . .c'mon ship! Love you Josh!

Annie said...

I heard myself groan out loud when I read, "the next spring, the raft was gone."
I think you boys earn the Nobel Peace prize or something for being such dedicated sons!
And Janie, you must've done an amazing job to instill such dedication and devotion.
Go, team Tate!!!

Rocket Surgeon, Phd said...

It's important to note that those cinder blocks were straight out of Greek Mythology - they were perfectly square and just frickin huge.

I agree that the raft flies under a Jolly Roger somewhere on that lake...we tied it off.

And while my love for you Mom is unchanged from that time - your attitude about the raft, from your above comment, most certainly has evolved.


Mom, it was definitely the correct call to bring in the raft. I think the ice would have destroyed it.

MomZup said...

I think the ice did destroy it. . .that is why there are blue barrels up and down the lake. . .same result but you would not have been put in physical jeopardy! No one else wanted the monstrosity. . .trust me!