It begins with a deep brown Alaskan lake lined with thick, silky muck. A spindly forest of spruce, willow, and alder. A swamp of bog blueberry, cinquefoil, cotton grass, and aromatic Labrador tea. Mosquitos, fierce and dense. Trout and salmon. Loons, ducks, grebes, gulls. Beaver, muskrat, moose, and bears. Berries. Once a place of fish camps and villages, hunters and trappers. Once a place of plenty.
* * *
On a map, lines are drawn, long thin rectangles, each with a slice of ragged lakeshore. Little boxes of land, sold at a tidy profit. One goes to my father.
* * *
Early in June, 1977, the ground still thawing, I steer the old Dodge through greasy mud, around yawning potholes, along a maze of lumpy roads crudely cut through the trees. It all looks alike. At last, at the base of a long, steep driveway, I spot Dad’s red pickup truck parked next to a mustard-colored cabin perched on short, concrete columns. A ragged bulge like an old scar runs along the roof line.
Dad pops his head out the back door. His black hair sticks out from his gold-braided captain’s hat and his blue, zippered overalls stretch taut across his belly. As I open my door, a float plane roars across the water. In a flash of red, it lifts and takes off.
“You found us,” Dad yells over the noise of the plane.
“It wasn’t hard,” I lie.
“I’ll show you around.” He waves me forward. “Crappy color,” he says, indicating the new-to-him cabin. “I’m gonna paint it.”
A pack of jet skis streak across the water, filling the space where the plane had been. Seconds later the wake hits the dock and sets it kicking and screeching against its metal moorings.
“They joined two cabins together.” Dad points to the roof. “Two for the price of one. Might have to jack it up here or there.” That will be regular maintenance. When you build on a swamp, a cabin will heave and buckle in freeze and thaw.
As Dad escorts me to the property line, we sink to our ankles in ground as springy as foam rubber. We don’t have to go far. Faded orange survey tape droops from weathered wooden stakes a few paces from each side of the cabin.
“These lots are close,” I say.
“But we’re right on the lake.”
“Is it always this noisy?”
“Only on the weekends.”
A sliver of land. The din of water sports. A beat-up shack. A tilting outhouse. This would be my inheritance.
“Not bad,” is all I say.
* * *
Dad does battle with the alders, burning fresh saplings with a blow torch. Not very effective since they spread by their roots, but he has a smile on his face. Neighbors have multiplied nearly as fast as the alders. A gnarled old railroad worker and his clan bought two lots on the north side of Mom and Dad’s land. They bulldozed their lot from the road to the lake, built a two-story cabin, then hauled in several sheds, dug a massive fire pit near the lake, and threw a roof over it. The thin line of surviving trees on Dad’s property barely veils the snow machines, boats, four-wheelers, pickup trucks, snow plows, campers, and various “parts” dumped on their land. The owners revel in all-night drunken parties around a campfire.
“I’d like to shoot them,” Dad complains.
Dad’s former coworker buys the lot on the other side of the cabin. He razes the few trees between the two lots and creates a straight shot for snow machines that race from the road to the lake. When she brews her morning coffee, Mom looks directly into this neighbor’s bedroom window. My parents add their own clutter to the neighborhood—a tool shed, a greenhouse, a speedboat with water skis, a bright orange canoe, an aluminum row boat. Joining the winter uproar on the ice, Dad buys a snow machine. Mom seems to enjoy all the visitors that the new toys attract.
I want nothing to do with the place. The lots carved from the lakeshore remind me of the trailer court I used to cut through on my way to elementary school. Close. Smelly. Rackety.
The cabin itself holds no attraction: one bedroom, a kitchen/living/sleeping room, no running water, no electricity, and an outhouse that leans to the right. Rather than visit, my husband, daughter, and I speed past the turn-off to Dad’s slice of paradise and head into open country where we can climb a ridge and hear nothing but the wind. I can’t understand what happened to the dad I knew as a kid, the one who took us to wild places where we could run free.
But Alaska is changing and so is Dad. He’s quit smoking—again—but he sometimes starts drinking at lunch and keeps at it until he nods off in the recliner at night. I can’t predict the phase of drunkenness he might be in when we do visit—happy, sentimental, pissed off, apathetic, or conked out. I don’t want to witness any of it, nor do I want my daughter to see.
But she begs. “Please Mom. I want to roast marshmallows and drive Grandpa’s boat. We could go swimming.”
So every now and then we make a day of it: pack a picnic, paddle the canoe, dive off the dock if the weather is hot, let Dad give us a tour of the lake in his speed boat, make ourselves sick on s’mores, and come home late, dirty and stinking of campfire smoke, everyone happy but me.
* * *
Five years later, on Memorial Day, when the last shards of ice finally dissolve into the lake, Mom asks me to row her across the lake to Dad’s favorite fishing hole. It’s only the two of us. One of my sisters can’t quite face what we are about to do. The other sister lives in Arizona and doesn’t want to spend the money to come back home.
Neither of us thinks to oil the oarlocks on the old metal rowboat. With each dip, the oars scream in protest. Mom sits in the bow while I row. She holds a colorful tin box that looks like it might hold cookies but instead contains Dad’s ashes. The squawking of our human-propelled boat rakes against the early morning quiet.
When we reach a spot too deep for grass or lily pads to reach the surface, Mom tells me to stop. Rays of sunlight streak through the top few feet of the murky water. Mom holds the box between her legs, opens the lid, and draws out a thick plastic bag that appears to contain chunks of broken white coral. As she untwists the metal fastener, I realize I have not prepared anything to say. I should have borrowed a poem, pulled something from the Bible, written a few words. Now nothing profound comes to mind. Of us children, I am the least close to my mom, and as a family we aren’t very generous with affection.
Mom dips her hand into the bag, pulls out a handful ashes, and scatters the bits into the water. They drop like oddly-shaped pebbles. When she has tossed out half of the contents, she hands the bag to me. I can’t bring myself to touch the bleached-out remnants of my dad’s body, so I upend the bag and dump the rest of the pieces into the water. They trickle down and sink from sight.
“Back to the fish, Dad,” is all I say.
Neither one of us cries. I pass the bag back to Mom. She stuffs it into the tin, wiggles the lid back on, and tucks it under her seat. I picture the ashes sliding through the water on their way to the bottom, fish poised to intercept them on the way down.
Nearby, a grebe laughs, then dives. A slight breeze gently rocks the boat. I feel the expanse of the lake, its coves and false horizons, its peninsulas and boggy fingers, the creeks and trickles running in and out of it. I breathe deeply and my shoulders relax.
* * *
For the next few years we lay out poison in the fall to keep the mice from ransacking the cabin. But nothing keeps out the carpenter ants. They find the cabin’s rotting wood irresistible. Efficient and industrious, the fat black bugs are turning the whole structure into a sawdust pile. Worse, as the cabin strains with the seasonal undulation of the marsh beneath, it’s splitting apart at its fault line. The two halves withdraw from each other as if they can no longer endure an intimacy they never truly accepted.
The cabin belongs to Mom now, but she’s never learned to drive, so one of us has to drive the seventy-five miles to get her there. My sisters still feel a sentimental attachment to the place, but whenever I visit I feel hemmed in, oppressed by speed and noise, sad at how this peaceful lake has been overcome by thrill seekers. Retirement homes and second residences are replacing the simple weekend cabins.
Mom urges us to do something to save the disintegrating place. My sister’s husband, a building contractor, gives the cabin a thorough check-up and declares it terminal. With uncharacteristic consensus, our family agrees to tear down the old structure and build a new one. In memory of Dad. For Mom. For our kids.
One spring weekend, three generations of my family arrive in pickup trucks, armed with sledge hammers, saws, and crowbars for their assault on the rotting wooden structure. While the men rip out walls, Dad’s daughters and granddaughters pull rusty nails, load debris for the dump, and feed a colossal bonfire that rivals any our rowdy neighbors have ever erected. We set up folding tables and load them with sandwiches, chips, beer, soda, cookies and pie. Never before have we worked so closely together. Mom stands at the sidelines, agitated that we have taken over her cabin, worried that someone will get hurt. Family members rotate in and out, hauling in lumber, hauling out trash, until only a gravel pad and tool shed are left of Mom and Dad’s retirement dream. I feel a strange peace at clearing away the dilapidated cabin and starting over. Now we can build it right.
* * *
We hang pictures from the old cabin inside the new one—Dad smiling in his captain’s hat, a ptarmigan changing from its winter white plumage to summer buff and brown. We fill the new cabin with furniture cast out of our homes. My sister Teri sews and hangs cheery blue and green curtains. The land may be only a sliver, but at least now the place we’ve built looks clean, bright, and cozy. Periodically, my sister Patty takes Mom to the cabin for a day. Teri spends a few weekends a year at the place with her son and husband or her women’s group. But mostly, my daughter Elisha and her family take over the place. Her husband Chad buys a boat and pulls their kids behind it on inner tubes and wake boards. He buys a dirt bike and two four-wheelers. The place churns with dust and smoke and waves and children’s squeals.
I stick to floating along remote Arctic rivers, hiking through the mountains, exploring deserts, discovering Africa’s elephants and hyenas. The cabin is their place, not mine.
* * *
When Mom dies, I row my two sisters across the lake to her favorite view of Mount McKinley and fulfill her wish that her ashes be united with Dad’s. Then I give my share of the place to my sisters and my daughter. Finally, I’m rid of it.
* * *
Heavy snows fall, followed by a melting Chinook, then a massive windstorm, and another foot of snow. The cabin, seldom used and no longer so new, might be crushed by trees, or collapsed with snow, or ripped apart by thieves. My sisters ask me to check on it.
I don’t care. It’s not my place. Never was, in any way that means anything. But I agree to stop by. The road to the cabin has not been plowed all winter, so early one March morning I don my skis and head across the lake into a piercing north wind. A pale silhouette of the sun peeks through fast moving clouds. My nose dribbles and my eyes water beneath my goggles. I pause to retrieve the hood from the little pocket at the back of my nylon ski jacket and tie it securely under my neck, a slight improvement. I slip into a snow machine track, find my glide, and pick up speed. Past a new stone house, as big as a lodge. Past a one-room turquoise hut with a bent stove pipe. Past a cedar home with Christmas lights strung on posts around an ice rink lost in snow. I should be there by now.
I spot a pitched gray roof on four naked timbers. Is that the neighbor’s fire pit? I glance to the opposite shore, looking for the old marina where people used to rent boats. But that’s long gone. In its place, a sprawling modern house and two more houses on the hillside. Nothing looks right.
I reach the end of the lake, where snow machine trails converge on a frozen swamp studded with black spruce. I must have missed it. I retreat, veering off the trail into deep snow, then slide back to my own tracks. I pass the same tall gray roof perched above clean, untrammeled snow. It looks different from this side. The skeleton of an empty boat lift. The slight hump of a dock. I ski closer. Near the snow-covered dock I see it, finally: the dark shape of the cabin, farther from the lake than I remember. I herringbone up the slight hill, my skis slicing the crusty knee-deep snow. Yes, this is it.
I work my way around the place. Porch and roof intact. No broken windows. But beneath several feet of snow, the driveway is covered with a jumble of bent and broken spruce, willow, and alder branches, a mess that will have to be cleared by a work party armed with chainsaws.
The back stairs sag and twist away from the porch. I side-step to the front steps, unclip my skis, and step carefully onto thick slabs of ice, the drip line from the steeply pitched metal roof. I peek in the window and see nothing out of the ordinary except the blue curtains drooping unevenly from their rods. The key, hidden in the old real estate lockbox, does not give itself up willingly. I try the little knobs until my fingers ache from the cold. Now that I’m here, I want in. I lean down and squint at the little box. I can make out the engraved numbers from this angle, and when I enter the code again, the lever moves and the key pops out.
Inside the air is cold and stale, as if the winter has seeped inside and can’t escape. Grimy mattress pads lie stacked in corners. The expensive oil stove is unplugged; my sisters tell me it’s no longer working. The refrigerator door is propped open, empty, save two boxes of baking soda. I climb the stairs to the loft. Beds without linens. More sleeping pads stacked against the railing. A musty smell. Even the paint looks scuffed and dirty.
I flush with righteous anger. What became of the bright new cabin, our show of family unity? How could they let the place fall apart like this? Why are they keeping it if they don’t use it? How could they be so indifferent to the memory of our parents?
But I gave the place up. Why should I care?
I turn to leave, and as I lock the door and fumble with the cranky lock once more, I glance up at the place where there might be—where there used to be—a driveway. The swamp is winning. Again.
Let it win. Let the alders grow, let the cabin sink, the outhouse rot, the lily pads creep over the dock, the muskrats nest beneath its floating planks, the floods lap against the cabin steps, the blueberries reclaim the shoreline. Let the whole place turn into a midden for future generations to ponder. Mom and Dad have joined the detritus on the bottom of the lake. Their legacy is not this place. Their legacy is us.
I clip my boots back into my skis, push off, and glide quickly down the gentle slope to the lake. I follow my own tracks back to another cabin, newly purchased by my daughter and her husband, on another cove of this same lake, a two-story getaway with indoor plumbing and electricity. It is a place for their speed boat and four-wheelers and dirt bikes, a place for friends and kids to gather. Not my kind of place, but a place where I can visit, play board games with the kids, help with projects, ski across the lake. A place without ghosts or expectations.
As I ski around perfectly round windows augured into the frozen lake by some winter angler, I take in the quiet. I feel lighter, the old place behind me, the new place, full of life and clatter and hope, ahead. In between, I’m alone on the ice.