As a kid I read a lot of stories about survival and kids building homes. My favorites were the Jack London books about wolves, Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, The Boxcar Children Series, and the Berenstain Bears book about the clubhouse (before Berenstain Bears acquired their current conservative Christian bent.)
I dreamed of the perfect fort, in my mind a treehouse on a child-sized island, about the size of a tiny island in the middle of a certain Seattle lake. I frequently asked my dad when we walked by the island if we could canoe there some time, but as a former Forest Service employee, he had an admirable respect for any place designated a bird sanctuary.
When I discovered a few years ago that the place was no longer a wildlife refuge and that a couple of my friends had camped there, my interest was renewed. In the whirlwind of adult responsibility they didn’t find time to return there with me until last night.
My friend Jack bought an inflatable raft for 50 bucks, we loaded up on beer and firewood, and around 10 PM we set out. While no longer legally protected, the place wasn’t set up for human visitors, having no docks or even a post to tie a water vessel to. I had no idea what we would find there, and the island, as a place I’d thought about since childhood, had grown huge in my imagination. I’d heard its population consisted mainly of rats (which I mostly like) and spiders (which I cower from in a corner of my apartment while my girlfriend transports them to the garden in shot glasses.)
On the shore nearest the island, Jack told me on his last visit he had seen the ghost of a woman who died there in the 20’s. She had an affair with her dad which ended violently, the only evidence of the murder a pile of clothes neatly folded on the beach. Jack saw the silhouette of a woman approaching the beach disappear, as if she bent to retrieve something dropped in the grass and never stood up again. He spent a fair amount of time searching for the woman before concluding she was gone and setting off for the island.
He told me this on the beach as I assembled plastic oars whose sections connected like an Erector Set, and he inflated a raft we couldn’t find the cap for. We left the pump screwed into the raft, which I continuously pumped up as we paddled to our destination. If I stopped pumping, down we and our beers and hot dogs would go. The raft took on water as we paddled. I initially panicked, thinking we had worn a hole in our little ship on its scrape-y path from the shore, but Jack assured me it was from the slopping of the oars rather than the metal spikes lining the lake bottom or a ghost’s switchblade.
Our ten-minute passage concluded and we hefted our thankfully plastic-wrapped firewood and hot dogs onto the island. It was beautiful there. Part of what’s kept me from leaving Seattle during the rent hike and invasion of hideous architecture (besides miraculously finding affordable housing—FUCK YOU whoever is doing nothing to stop the housing crisis) is knowing the tiny distance I have to travel to see the moon and stars, which blazed through the trees on the island like strings of broken Christmas lights.
I was surprised to find well-worn paths, a fire pit, and several elaborate driftwood forts. Building a fire took a few minutes as the twigs and leaves we used for kindling were damp. Soon we were cooking and drinking. I heard rats and saw several giant spiders, which if anything enhanced the fun of the expedition.
This was exactly the adventure I wanted as a kid. I was sharing something I care deeply about with a person whose experience informs and enriches my own. It was the realization of the dream of companionship I’d had since childhood, plus lake water-soaked underwear and some conversations I couldn’t have conceived of that young. To be in love, to talk about it with someone who was as well—how could I explain to 8-year-old me this was what I’d needed for decades?
Before we or our rat and spider eavesdroppers knew it, it was 3 am. Jack re-inflated the raft and we headed back to civilization. We were too tired to end the evening at a diner as we had planned, but having made plans to return to the island as the lake soaked our asses on the return trip, it didn’t matter.