Sunday, December 11, 2016

By the Shining Big-Sea-Water

A Personal History of Learning to Wade in and Dive Deep, from New Orleans to the Twin Cities

The author, down by the river. Photograph by Ryan Ball.
The author, down by the river. Photograph by Ryan Ball.

Foam and Fauna: Growing up near the Wilds of Water

There’s something about the confluence of ancient existence and constant change inherent in rivers and shorelines that makes me feel like everything is going to be okay. I’m okay and the world is okay simply because the rivers and lakes are here. Maybe it started when I stood at the edge of a gorge, looking across at the water of the Zambezi River rushing over Victoria Falls. The water plummeted downward, pounding the rocks below with a deafening vehemence and sending up a fine spray of mist: Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders. It felt like standing at the edge of the world, viewing the beginning and the end all within the scope of one spectacular vista. Maybe it started as I was floating in a giant rubber inner tube down Big Creek somewhere in southern Mississippi—an image I will always associate with family, freedom, and my first beer. Maybe it was dipping nervously into a chilly lake near Rockport, Maine. As I held my breath and ducked my head beneath the water, I could sense the history of the lake; it had been there so long that my visit was a mere blip on the radar screen in the lake’s life span.

Though I spent my formative years in foreign lands, Louisiana is my home. I was born there and, like so many Louisianians, I take pride in stupid things like crawfish and sweat. Louisiana rivers and lakes are teeming with wildlife, which was always troubling. As a pre-teen I viewed natural bodies of water with a mixture of skepticism and fear, constantly wondering what might lurk beneath the surface and never quite feeling at home there. Scary, water-dwelling creatures feel at home there, not humans. Swimming in the waters of the South with the knowledge that alligators and water moccasins could be lurking under the next footfall did not breed the toughness of constitution that one might think. The thought of snakes nearly ruined the water when I was younger—anyone who has seen “Lonesome Dove” will know exactly what I’m talking about. I look back now and wish that I hadn’t wasted so much time being wary of the water and had gone ahead and taken the plunge.

Now I know that I would have discovered the calming influence of being underwater, the way the world is muffled and blurry and green-tinted when you dare to stick your head in and take a look. I certainly enjoyed frying in the sun on a hot beach or jumping into an aqua blue swimming pool as much as the next teenage girl, but my true passion for water came later and developed at almost imperceptible increments.

The Evolution of Summer

Although I admit that water and I have had a rocky past, we’ve grown closer over the years and now I can’t imagine a summer without floating and splashing around in some body of water, be it a lake, a quarry, or a chlorinated oasis. In recent years summer has taken on an entirely different meaning than it had in childhood. It’s as if the season exists somewhere outside of the time-space continuum in a place known as Kidland. Childopolis. Summer is all a blur of eating ice cream, careening with the neighbor kids through sprinklers and being devoured by mosquitoes.

These days, summer isn’t so much a wonderland of heat and rainstorms as it is a catch-all excuse for intense laziness. (No, I haven’t gotten the mail today—or the past three days—because that would require me to go outside. I think I will have another margarita.) Adulthood means a certain amount of nostalgia during the summer months; some of that childhood excitement still clings to us. We remember what summer once was and think of what it still can be, vowing to make the best of it. To wear shorts and flip-flops for as long as humanly possible, to expose our skin to as much sunlight as it can handle (and often more). Everybody takes it a little easier in the summer, things get done a little slower, and then we all go for a swim.

Pacing out the Season in the Bayou State

Last summer was a bit different for me, as I moved at more of an autumn/winter pace than a summer pace. The summer was a bustle of activity and new experiences, and I grew an emotional six inches in just under three months. Straight out of college, I split my time between the political capital of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, and its cultural capital, New Orleans. The two lie only about an hour apart, but they are vastly different. Looking back, life in Baton Rouge was mostly too-small streets clogged with too-numerous cars. And heat—the most hideously stifling heat—settling over the city at approximately 6:00 a.m. and barely dissipating by midnight. New Orleans, on the other hand, never seemed to get quite as hot as Baton Rouge. Maybe it did, but I just didn’t mind it as much there. I didn’t mind many things while I was in New Orleans.

Times-Picayune Map of New Orleans, 1919.
Times-Picayune Map of New Orleans, 1919.

Both cities are perched along the Mississippi River, but a bird’s-eye view of the two cities reveals a crucial difference: Lake Pontchartrain.

Lake Pontchartrain is a beautifully glistening, calm body of water, bordering New Orleans to the north while the river wraps around to the south. The highway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge cuts a direct route along the edge of the lake, and cars driving to and from are raised above the waters. To one side is a bayou stretching out to a dim view of oil refineries in the distance, to the other is a vast expanse of motionless water. On my weekly pilgrimage between the two cities the lake was always a welcome sight: coming into New Orleans, the sight of Ponchartrain meant that I was almost there. I was almost to that place where I could be comfortably nestled in a culture that defines Louisiana to the rest of the country but is in reality so different from the rest of the state. New Orleans is a city of outcasts, die-hards, and general weirdos, and Lake Pontchartrain acts as a buffer from the rest of the states, the rest of the world even. Leaving New Orleans, driving over the Bonnet Carré spillway offered that last refreshing sight of the lake. I felt my self purified, refreshed, and armored against the outside world.

Thinking back on it now, after having watched the iconic Minnesota film “Purple Rain” I can’t help but think about Appolonia, an alleged New Orleans transplant in Minneapolis, being duped into “purifying” herself in Lake Minnetonka. (Any true New Orleans girl would have said, “I don’t care how big your motorcycle is. You first.”) I admit to having the same impulse regarding Lake Pontchartrain. Often I longed to simply pull my car over and jump in—to really experience that water, to become a part of it, letting it soak through my skin and right into my bones. Instead I learned to live vicariously, remembering horrifying pollution statistics. I would take quick sideways glances of the lake as I drove, never truly getting the eyeful I wanted. Even so, the image is still as sharp now as it was then; I can simply close my eyes and remember the exact contours and shadows of the lake at different times of day. In the morning, traffic was middling but, as often happens when people drive too slowly and follow too closely, cars would back up to a crawl all along the spillway. This was when I was able to get a good, long look at the lake. The sun would glint across the surface, giving a pinkish-orange tinge to the deep green waters.

On a good, clear day I could look across the water and make out, through the rising mist, the outline of downtown New Orleans. Admittedly, not a New York or Seattle or London in terms of iconic skylines, but if famous photographers were to line up along the spillway and wait for that perfect morning moment to snap their shutters, they would capture an image to rival any of those others: a glistening lake in the foreground with a craggy cityscape fading into the background. It’s a juxtaposition of nature and man-made creation so unceremoniously plopped together that is so typical of southern Louisiana.

In the evening, driving back the other way, the lake doesn’t quite light up the way it does in the morning. At that time of day the lake is calm and soothing, inspiring imaginary fodder for the drive back to Baton Rouge. All the critters were under the surface of the water, the life cycle happening just a couple of yards beneath the rushing of wheels on asphalt. Across the surface of water to one side, the soggy marsh to other side, fishing boat lingered or a house sat on stilts. The idea of living directly on water, to be surrounded by it and so completely at its mercy is both a familiar yet altogether perplexing notion. The life and surface of Lake Pontchartrain got me through the days until I struck back out over the water and the whole thing repeated itself.

Where Summer’s Lease Has a Way, Way Shorter Date

After a summer of splitting my life down the middle, I craved consistency and even a semblance of stability, which basically led to my boyfriend Ryan and me piling our possessions into our cars, renting truck space with a shady moving company and moving 1,200 miles. When I told people in Louisiana that I would be moving to Minnesota, the reaction was predictable: a look of vague terror would come across the listener’s face and a chill would run through their body as if just imagining the temperatures might give them hypothermia. “Why?” they would ask. “It’s gonna be cold,” people would point out, helpfully. Once in Minnesota, I found that Minnesotans were eager to reassure me about the weather when they found out where I’m from. People practically recited sonnets at me about the beauty of Minnesota summers. Now summer has finally arrived and I feel like I could write a few sonnets of my own.

I was told repeatedly that Minnesota summers would be so different from Louisiana summers. Well, it’s obvious that a summer in St. Paul will feel very different than a summer in Baton Rouge. That’s like saying that a gorilla doesn’t make a very cuddly pet. Louisiana and Minnesota are different places. One is North and one South, but I’m not here to be the Yakov Smirnoff of Louisiana (“In Minnesota, y’all swat mosquito. In Louisiana, mosquito swats y’all!”). There may be more similarities than differences between the two states, and the summer is the perfect time to explore them, the time to come out of my winter hibernation and get to know my new surroundings, to make Minnesota my new natural habitat.

When Ryan and I first started to consider moving northward, hoping for a change of scenery and a change of circumstance, I did a little research. I discovered that “Minnesota” means “sky-tinted water” and “Minneapolis” is a close approximation to “city of water,” and water is really something a Louisiana girl can get behind. Louisiana is, like Minnesota, a land of water. Take a drive around certain parts of central and southern Louisiana, and you might begin to imagine the entire state is one big swamp—it’s not, I assure you—and that everybody goes about their lives conducting their business just a few feet above the ground. (Okay, that part is kind of true: basements are rare if not nonexistent.) As you travel northward through the state, the land starts to make a comeback, taking over the landscape and only occasionally giving way to a lake here or a river there.

Getting More Intimate with the Mississipp’

And there is an unmistakable connection between the two states: the Mississippi River. The river originates up here, meanders southward through the states, dividing the country in two, to finally end up in New Orleans, where it cradles the city in its crescent shape. As a child I had a friend from Minnesota; when we discovered our home states had the Mississippi River in common, it was taken as a sign that we were destined to be best friends forever. That’s kind of how I feel about it now too. There’s a reason we chose the Twin Cities as our new home turf over some of the other northern cities we had considered briefly, besides the very logical reasons like being intimidated by the cost of living of places like New York and Chicago. The idea of being so close the the Mississippi River was very comforting to me. It’s as if I’m not really all that far from home if I can see the river, stand there, and feel the breeze blowing off its surface.

It wasn’t like I was able to get very close to the river in Louisiana. Down south, the Mississippi River is a beast as much as it is a body of water, and it was a bit too formidable to get very close to.  As it nears its final destination, it seems to pick up speed, rushing in its anticipation to reach the Gulf of Mexico. In Louisiana, I admired the Mississippi from afar, and my relationship with the Mississippi was one of crossing bridges—at Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge.

Moving up north has opened up a whole new perspective on the river. It’s smaller and much more accessible. On a particularly hot sunny day a few weeks ago, Ryan and I decided to go walk along the Mississippi. We drove down Summit Avenue with the windows rolled down, gawking at all the bicyclists and runners and families out and about. As we looked out over the river noting the current, the color, the probable depth, we realized it was possible to get even closer.

All it required was simply shimmying through a slight gap—it practically had a welcome sign—in the protective fencing. I plodded down the steep path dug by countless previous visitors, jumped down a few of the steeper sections and finally came to an outcropping where the land dipped suddenly into a gorge, plunging into the river. I peered over, the sun beat down upon my neck, the breeze had momentarily let up. I was hot. I longed to jump in.

Shielding my eyes from the glare dancing off the surface of the water, I looked over at the Minneapolis side of the river. It seemed cool and shady, and I could see groups of people gathered along the bank, right up to the edge of the river. Some were even wading in up to their knees! I realized with a sudden thrill that I was looking at a beach. “We have to find out how to get over there,” I explained to Ryan. It was some weeks later and considerably cooler outside when we finally made our way over to the beach, which had reached fabled heights in my imagination. By that point I had convinced myself that I had surely seen a few mermaids splashing in the water and unicorns prancing on the beach.

Not remembering exactly where the beach was supposed to be, we passed it by a couple of times, driving up and down River Parkway, until I pointed to an open spot and said “Park here.” Ryan was skeptical, “I really don’t think this is it,” he said, but as we walked through the woods on its well-worn dirt trail, with me several paces ahead, I caught sight of sand and water and flashed a triumphant smile over my shoulder. (I’m ashamed to admit that it is a fault of mine to take a little too much pleasure in being right.)

The beach was totally deserted, though evidence of other visitors was scattered about the sand. I was a little dismayed at the 46oz gas station drinks littering the beach, but that disappointment faded when I dipped my feet into the Mississippi. I have no doubt that many people would not find this to be an especially exceptional moment—I was in the company of one of them—but I was overjoyed. It felt so right to be standing in the headwaters of the Mississippi, to change its course, the flow of its current, however imperceptibly, as it swept southward toward my family. As Ryan fretted over water pollution, I stepped in further and lost myself in the ebb of the river. Even though it was a completely different body of water, I felt that at that moment I could understand what Prince was talking about. I felt purified by the waters of the Mississippi River.

What Would Appolonia Do?

In a further attempt to come closer to the Purple One, I decided that no exploration of the summertime waterways of Minnesota would be complete without a visit to Lake Minnetonka. Not knowing exactly where to go, I typed “Lake Minnetonka” into the GPS, which promptly came up with “Lake Minnetonka City Hall,” “Lake Minnetonka Auto Service,” and “Lake Minnetonka Regional Park.” Bingo! A regional park, I reasoned, would probably be fairly safe, fairly clean, and fairly uncrowded on a Wednesday afternoon.

It turned out to be all of those things to an almost frightening degree. The park is safe in that it seemed like a small fortune had been spent on the signage alone. There were abundant speed limit signs, “No Life Guard on Duty” signs, and even signs outlining in the minutest detail the depth of the swimming pond. And the swimming pond! When we pulled up to the gate to get our passage into the park for the day I was delighted to see a sign announcing “Swimming Pond Open.” Throughout the winter I had gotten through the short, cold days imagining all the wonderful swimming I would do in the summer. I imagined diving into secluded lakes, or even wading into the public waters of Minneapolis’ lakes.

Lake Minnetonka, circa 1885. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.
Lake Minnetonka, circa 1885. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

The swimming pond wasn’t the lakefront beach I was hoping for; it was what you might call a glorified swimming pool. I’ve often fantasized about a body of water, maybe a wide, slow moving, cool green creek, where there is no nasty wildlife to worry about, but the swimming pond at Lake Minnetonka Regional Park completely shattered my fantasy. It was an entirely unnatural natural body of water, and it wasn’t at all what I imagined such a thing would be.

Tromping up the beach-like border of the pond with our towels and dollar-store lawn chair we were greeted by a bank of orderly picnic tables that looked like the arrangement of an obsessive compulsive giant. I could see how they would be a welcome refuge on a hot, crowded summer day, a place to sit in the shade and eat quickly melting ice pops with friends. Today they were like a prison yard in their emptiness.

Past the picnic tables, jutting out of the gravelly moist brown sand were a fresh crop of what seemed to be permanent umbrellas. Standing proudly on ten-foot-tall steel poles and spanning just about as many feet in diameter, they too were probably meant to be a welcoming symbol of summer. I could picture pink-tinged families vying for the perfect spot, but with no one to vie against on the empty beach, the colossal umbrellas were just eerie. We spotted the large sign detailing the exact depths of the swimming pond and where you could expect them to change, which was helpfully delineated by floating colored ropes in the water. The sign also offered an explanation of the strange white boxes jutting out of the water: they were filters. The pond was filtered, which was a bit disconcerting.

Eternal optimist that I am, I often start sentences with , “Well, at least…,” searching for a silver lining, the light at the end of the tunnel or some other comforting platitude. Standing there looking out at the roped up pond (I hate ropes in my water the way some people hate raisins in their oatmeal) I came up with, “Well, at least it’s a place to swim.” Not my best work, I’ll admit, but that’s how I felt about it.

The Lake Is Half Full

In all honesty, it really wasn’t that bad. Past the first six inches of water it was just plain unbearably cold for someone used to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but those first six inches of water were pure delight. Crisp and clear with just enough of a chill to cool off but not enough to start turning blue. The sand had a pleasantly crunchy give to it, especially comforting to feet that do a lot of standing.

The pond and surrounding beach may have been overall too immaculate—even sterile—but it was a truly beautiful day, one of the first warm and sunny ones I was actually able to get out and enjoy. As I sat in the full sun glancing occasionally at my book, I was able to completely relax and take in my surroundings. I even spotted a couple of deer grazing and loping down the hill directly in front of me across the surface of calm water. Although my head never actually went under the water that day, I came away with a sense of accomplishment. Lake Minnetonka Regional Park may not have inspired a desire for a return visit, but it did indulge my need for a place where land and water meet, and where people can enjoy that union, where bipedal upright creatures can walk in, lie back, and float away. And it made me thirsty for more.

In Minnesota I have yet to have that ecstatic water-induced high that I seem to be chasing constantly. But I haven’t given up. In my quest for that perfect summer time dip, I look farther northward, to the ocean-like coast of Lake Superior. Native Minnesotans have told me to reserve my judgment until I have the opportunity to swim in Lake Superior, a body of water almost universally regarded as perfect.

Even if I haven’t yet had the chance to swim in Minnesota’s greatest body of water, I can’t say that I’m too disappointed by what I’ve seen so far. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how accessible the water is to Minnesotans, especially to those in the Twin Cities area. Sure, some lakes are so crowded with mansions and boats that it seems like a six-figure income is required to swim there, but overall access to the water seems to be fairly equitable. Now that we seem to be in the thick of summer, the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis is always crowded. Lake Calhoun is a great spot for people watching. And sometimes that’s all I really need from my water: not a deep, life altering, mind changing experience, but simply a place to watch and remember that I exist in a world of humans and water.

Victoria Perkins was born in Louisiana and grew up in Guatemala, Zambia, and Peru (and Virginia for a little while in there). She now lives in St. Paul, where she is trying to become a grown-up lady.