It was in the waning summer of the year of the great plague that the thought came over me that it might be pleasant to leave the confines of civilization and spend some days in contemplation of nature. It was thus that I found myself browsing a catalog of properties for daily rental, looking at remote areas of the northern woods. Although initially I had considered a more modern building to be ideal, I found my attention curiously drawn to a certain cabin, called by its owner a Swedish Cabin that was situated in the wilds of central Wisconsin. I suggested it as a destination to Suzanne, and she received my proposal with a strong, almost instinctive, delight.
I cannot tell with any great certainty what drew my attention to this location. As a relic of a previous age, it had neither plumbing nor potable water, nor kitchen or other cooking facilities. The owner warned in his advertisement that it was not for the usual traveler, and required written confirmation that the renter understood the peculiar nature of the property. Far from dismaying me, this description awoke in me a strong feeling of excitement and and enthusiasm to experience this remote and raw locale.
Over the next few days I researched the area and communicated with the owner. I had considered spending an afternoon rafting down the nearby waterway (the “Wolf River”), but travelogues of the experience stressed the dangers of the waters, describing how fellow travelers had been thrown from their craft and had struggled with treacherous currents; and how the proprietors had been oddly uninterested in helping. Apart from this entertainment, the area seemed deserted, speaking only of the ability to hunt and fish in the vast wilderness to the north. When searching for a local store the results were similarly nebulous and almost evasive; hinting of the availability to find some items, but not within a day’s walk of the cabin.
Even the location of the cabin seemed unsure. Its official designation was as existing in White Lake, but the hand-drawn map provided by the owner placed it on the shores of Boulder Lake. I consulted my guide, Siri, about the location of this latter lake, but she seemed ill-pleased with the suggestion, and instead suggested a journey to the metropolis of Boulder, Colorado as a more suitable destination. Undeterred, Suzanne and I packed the car with necessities for the journey, including five gallons of water in a container borrowed from a friend, and instructed our guide to take us to White Lake, trusting that as we neared our destination, the hand-drawn map would be sufficient to lead us to our cabin.
As the rolling hills passed us by, we left the major highways and took the main state road to the north. We were struck by a decided uniformity of the local inhabitants; it was nearing election season, and rather than the usual sea of choices presented to us by flags, signs and the like, we saw only one variety in this landscape; the feeling of being an alien in a culture unlike our own familiar one crept over us as we went deeper into the north.
Towards the end of our route, we bade goodbye to our guide and struck out using only our hand-drawn map. It was then that an odd incident occurred. We had been storing the map on an electronic device, and mere minutes after our guide left us, not only did we lose connection to the outside world, but the maps vanished from our devices and it was only by intense pleading and re-orientation that they could be persuaded to return. It seemed almost like these inanimate objects were imploring us not to continue. I recalled the note on the cabin’s advertisement that the connection to the outside world might be “spotty” — the following days showed that this was a vast understatement and that we would be completely isolated from any form of communication.
Nonetheless we had traveled half a day to this location and would not give up easily, and so we followed the penciled markings past state and national routes, and to where the roads had names unknown to mankind, and previous travelers spoke of paths that were nigh-inaccessible in winter. Being summer, we did not experience such difficulties and our vehicle, scraping past gentle firs and lush undergrowth, negotiated the narrow path admirably, passing the “Big Cabin” and the boathouse before arriving at our destination — to our great relief, we had made it well before dusk, as darkness might have caused us to miss the odd turns and switchbacks necessary to attain our goal. Before us stood the cabin!
How can I describe the structure that stood before us? It was a modern-built building, well constructed along ancient lines, consisting of one room with beds at one end and a table at the other, with a comfortable sofa dividing the two. The interior was almost uniformly wooden, excepting the raised stone dais and the metal-lined wall on which the cast-iron stove resided. On the walls and in the roof were stored skis, boots, poles, rowboat oars, life preservers and other accruements of the outdoor life. The exterior was stained a red color, not light as blood, but more of a deep wine color, a burgundy of olden France, maybe. The cabin was surrounded by tall trees, a mixture of firs and deciduous, towering over it, many times its height. Although the cabin boasted many windows in the walls, the crowding presence of the deep woods necessitated leaving lights on inside, even at noontime with the sun bright in the sky.
The building stood on a slight rise, leading down a flight of hand-cut wood-lined stairs to the lake which lay only a stone’s throw from the front door. Surrounded by the forest greenery, the lake had a magical, hypnotic presence, and we stood entranced by it for some moments before we broke free from its spell and entered the cottage for the first time. As we did so, and activated the switch that engaged the electrical circuits, a loud noise startled us. A large electric fan which we had not previously noted immediately started whirring and pushing air around the room. The lights also came on, revealing that the sheets on the beds were unmade and lay ruffled and unkept. Since we had been told that sheets were not present at the cabin, we assumed that these must have been the property of the previous inhabitants, but if so, what had caused them to leave in such haste as to forget to turn off the fan, and even to desert their own bedding materials?
That evening we lit a small fire and sat outside watching the lake. Something in it called out to us and we both felt a strong desire to immerse ourselves immediately in the placid waters. It was only the lateness of the hour and our tiredness at the end of the day that stopped us from doing so, and instead we took a short perambulation around the water’s edge, culminating in an exploration of the area surrounding the Big Cabin. Although this seemed a prime location, with a hand-built cedar deck, hammocks, multiple outdoor tables and chairs and a small dock leading into the water, it was deserted. We persuaded ourselves that this must be due to the pervasive virus that had the country in its grip, and not for any more sinister reason.
Indeed, the lake itself was wreathed in silence. We could see buildings on the further shores and boats in the middle of the lake, but no sounds could be heard except the droning of insects, the chirruping of the cicadas and a susurrus from the light wind in the trees. Even the lake itself was silent; the small waves that lapped the edges of the water made no sound as they drew our eyes deeper into the waters and spoke to us of refreshment and pleasure within their watery bounds. Returning to our cabin, we took some evening refreshments and took early to our beds, wrapped in the deep night that was so black that in the early hours of the morning it made no difference if your eyes were open or shut — the inky darkness was utterly enfolding.
I slept deeply, and on waking I took my morning coffee and found myself again looking out over the lake and contemplating its waters. Inspired by a compelling desire, I persuaded Suzanne to change into a bathing suit and together we took the few steps necessary to bring us to the edge of the land. The location we had chosen to enter the lake had a drop of less than a foot to the surface of the waters, and the clarity of the lake demonstrated that the sandy shore was but a foot or so below the surface at this point, and would become only gradually deeper as we progressed further from the shore. Additionally, there was a tree on the edge of the shore that for some peculiar reason was growing at a very shallow angle, almost horizontally aligned, as if trained by an unknown hand to lead you easily into the water. With such an invitation, how could we refuse?
On first stepping into the water I felt a surge of refreshment as the water cooled in a delightful manner. The sand was comfortable underfoot and I took a few steps further out, intending to wade deeper before immersion. It was then that I became aware that the comfortable sand near the shore had given way to ground of a different character. The first difference I noted was that it was considerably less firm — my feet were sinking into it up to ankle depth or lower and although easy to pull out of, the unpleasant sensation that the ground was sucking me downward nagged at my consciousness. The second characteristic that I became aware of was that the floor contained a considerably quantity of vegetative matter, which had a slimy, slippery quality to it as it caressed my feet. The combination of effects caused me to alter my plan; instead of wading further, I lifted my feet from the noisome bottom and commenced swimming.
This was my first experience in lake-swimming for many years, and I immediately noted that the buoyancy one experiences in sea-swimming was lacking in the fresh waters. I had been depending on the several extra pounds that months of home isolation had added to my girth to provide additional flotation, but compared to sun-soaked waters of the Caribbean, these lake waters, although nearly as warm, seemed not to want to support my body, but rather to drag it down to the bottom; as if it desired me to lie among the silent vegetable matter for all eternity. However if not a strong swimmer, I was at least moderately competent, and so was able to resist this force and enjoy the warm and pleasant surface waters as my partner and I frolicked in the morning sun, to all appearance alone on the deserted lake, until hunger overtook us and we returned to our cabin to break our fast.
In the noontime hours we elected to talk a walk inland, in an attempt to avoid the ever-present lure of the lake. We followed a few trails into the forest, but they soon became overgrown and wild-looking, and we were ill-prepared for serious hiking, so instead we returned to the main paths and roads. Along the side of the road we discovered a large pile of logs, standing several yards high. Clearly they had been designated for some unique purpose, but calamity must have had fallen, and they had been left to rot over the decades. Only a scant half-mile further down the road we saw a group of what we took to be the local denizens of this area. With the aid of machinery and engines they were erecting a large structure pre-made in giant shapes comprised of wood that had been bound and bonded in many angles. We surmised they were creating a large meeting-house, but for whom or what purpose there was no sign. We wondered if in a few decades all that might remain of their efforts was also pile of rotting timber …
Returning to our abode, we lit a fire using the dead wood of the forest floor, and over a ancient iron grill we cooked our main meal of the day. Being of European descent and leaning, we knew that our presence in the midst of this most American of settings might disturb the local woods, so we chose our victuals so as to blend in with the native diet and not cause offense to the spirits of the trees and the lake that surrounded us. Presently, we sat down to a repast of bratwursts with sauerkraut, burgers with American cheese, and local corn, washed down with beer brewed within the state. The only concession to our foreign heritage was a lightly grilled portobello mushroom, served in a bun with fresh vegetables.
But the lure of the lake could only be resisted for so long, and within the hour I had left Suzanne to guard the fire, had donned my suit and was floating in the womb-like waters, hearing the slow thud of my heart as the lake enclosed me in its primeval fluid and urged me to submerge completely and become one with the eternally aqueous being. How long I drifted in a mesmeric state, I cannot tell, but was awakened from it by Suzanne, and returning to myself I struck out for shore and pulled myself out of the limpid waters. It was then my turn to guard the fire, while Suzanne ventured out into the shallows. She returned shortly after, her face happy and smiling, but I could not help noticing that she immediately went to the fire and would not move from its vicinity until every trace of water from the lake had been destroyed by the cleansing heat.
For the remainder of the day we stayed close to the flames, thankful for the strange urge that had made us gather many branches earlier in the day — more than we had thought we would need — since now we were able to keep the flames alive through into the evening, when darkness covered the lake and we were no longer subject to its bewitching presence. It was only when dusk enfolded the land that we let the fire die and retired to the cabin.
By unspoken accord we did not speak of the lake the next morning, nor go down to gaze upon its silvery surface, but on awakening we performed our morning ablutions, drank a strong cup of coffee and loaded our vehicle, intent on leaving before the growing lure of the lake would hold us in its power again. As we drove off, navigating the overgrown pathway that led to civilization, a mix of emotions filled our hearts. We had spent less than two full days by the waters, two days in which our connection to the outside world had been obliterated; two days where our only contact with humanity had been an aged man we saw at a distance who did not return our wave, but only turned his back on us and walked away — yet the natural (or possibly supernatural) effects of the waters and the solitude had changed our very souls. We were glad to be returning to civilization — to our friends and family, but yet, deep in our hearts there dwelt a determination, one day, to return to that place; to the quiet and the waters; to the vast eternal primeval heartbeat; to the the cabin by the lake.