Coasting the Shore in Search of a Word
English is a rich language with an amazing variety of vocabulary. Drawn as it is from Norse, French, Latin, Celtic and Gaelic roots, to name some, then all spiced and infused with the words and phrases gleaned from a vast empire of master sailors and seafarers who still called an offshore island Home (Viking “heim“), English gives and gives, when it comes to finding just the right word. Still, it leaves us needing a word now and then. Sends us searching and not finding anything adequate. I am thinking of “lake.”
Especially in Autumn, the word “lake” falls short for me. At this season we spend a lot of time and conversation here trying our best to gauge and react to the moods and power of the vast waters stretching away to the south and west of us. I yearn for a word more than “lake”; I want something that is bigger, deeper, and more majestic. If I could find something vaguely ominous, that would be even better. So far as I can see, that word is not out there. I am open to suggestions.
Two decades ago, freshly back north from a winterlong hiatus down in the Gulf Islands off Vancouver, where Kristen and I and our two little daughters had been steeped and surrounded by boats and ships and maritime life, I found myself talking about going down the coast of McLeod Bay. An affectation, maybe (Lord knows I’ve been guilty of those), but I liked the connotation of “coast” over “shore” because I noticed that it changed my perception in a subtle way. It made some people, upon hearing me use it, pause and consider that choice of word. (“A sea or an ocean has a ‘coast,’ but a lake has a ‘shore.’ Doesn’t he know that?”) Now it has become a habit. If I am referring to a voyage or a landmark more than a few miles distant by water or ice, I tend to say “along the coast” or “on the coast.” Coast of what, though?
Two weeks ago in mid-September, a week before the equinox, we got the autumn warning shot across the bow. Equinoctial winds are a recognized phenomenon, in March and September, because the energy balance of equal nights and days makes for bigger swings in a twenty-four-hour period, and energy swings drive pressure differentials and thus make for windier weather. This year, with record high water levels that so far show no sign of abating, we knew we would be sitting ducks for just such a storm surge, and still we had a struggle. A west wind in the morning built up and backed to southwest, and soon big blue-green rollers were playing havoc with both our our hauled-up floatplanes, the big crib dock was being lifted and heaved, an overturned skiff was being buried in wave-washed sand, the narrow strip of remaining beach between here and the river mouth was flooding, and we were scurrying around all day, fretting and trying to hold things together, our moods a mix of awe, acceptance, and resignation. We were hoping that the wind would not defy the forecasters and shift even farther into the south, and luckily it did not.
By first light the next morning, the air temperature was below freezing and steadily dropping, and Kristen and I talked in bed and made a plan. We were soon down at each of the planes in turn, digging and pumping and heating water in a cutoff barrel over a big fire. The smaller plane that we operate here, the two-seat Husky, was in more dire straits, but luckily it is of a size and weight that make it more manageable. After some memorable heaving and levering and coaxing, and with a little help from the rhythmic surging of the subsiding swells, by late morning we had both planes levelled and heeled up and tied off. The sun began to poke through and the smooth swells continued to subside. If the wind had not changed, or if it had been mid-October with truly frigid air sweeping in behind the storm, things would have gotten ugly.
“Lake?” Of course this is a lake. Any and all inland bodies of fresh water too big to be “ponds” or “tarns” are, in English, going to be lakes. From gigantic Lake Superior to tiny Oak Lake, Wisconsin, where my parents lived for years and my Grandfather and I used to fish for sunnies. The doomed ore-carrier Edmund Fitzgerald would have spanned Oak Lake cross-wise, like a bridge, and if lowered into it vertically until its bow touched bottom, the stern would have towered high above the surrounding forests and farms, easily the tallest structure in Washburn County.
In trying to differentiate lakes from Lakes, Longfellow might have been on to something, purple and flowery though it is, with his Gitchee Gumee, from the Ojibwe kitche-agaming, giving it to us as “the shining big sea water.” Now that’s more like it. Or Tu Nedhe. Local Dene Soline word for Great Slave. Big Water, near as I can gather, as I tiptoe cautiously into the ever-more-treacherous pool of cultural appropriation. What more can you say? Big Water.
“Sea” will not serve, I gather, because the dictionary has decreed that a Sea must properly be salty. I did learn, though, that the Sea of Galilee is not saline, but fresh, and surprisingly small, being about 13 miles by 8 miles all told. Strictly speaking, it is Lake Galilee. It is called a Sea only by some quirk of tradition and translation.
I was flying some local weather-station technicians over the big water earlier this month, and we saw a sizeable research ship slowly circling the spot in the western part of Christie Bay, sixty miles southwest of here, where the water is at its deepest, just over 2,000 feet. 614 meters. Deepest fresh water in North America. They were circling because of course they could not anchor in such depths, and they had a smaller boat out doing some work. They have had a sensor of some sort sunk clear to the bottom there, on a cable, taking readings and measurements since a year or so ago.
That big ship, unable to drop anchor, made me think that maybe there could be some clear parameters for a lake becoming more than a lake. Is there a spot offshore, for instance, where from a boat on a clear day there is no sight of land on any horizon? Is there water more than 500 feet deep? Can a gale-force wind raise waves of two meters, or seven feet, or can a storm surge bring water levels along the shore – oops, the coast – up by more than two feet in a matter of hours? If so, then it is Big Water.
And so I am now doubly frustrated. As Kristen and I head out to look for a pail of cranberries or a sign of moose, coasting the shore of Great Slave Lake, not only does the antiquated and misleading moniker “Great Slave” irk me, now I yearn for something other than “Lake.” I will continue to seek some possibilities, and as I said I am open to suggestions. The changing of a geographic name in the North is certainly not my battle to fight. I will continue my smaller quixotic quest to get “fire flower” to catch on in place of “fireweed.” And in my head I will just think “shining big sea water” or “Tu Nedhe.” It’s still a free country, last time I checked, and language, our choice of words, is a bastion of that freedom, as it should be.
Addendum one. As I write this, another low-pressure center is sliding past us and the winds are forecast to pipe up out of the southeast, then south, then west, then northwest. Yesterday I cancelled a day of flying and just spent my time flying planes up away from the big lake, and they are both now tied up in the first wide stretch of the river, inland and safe from swells and surges. Having done this, I now of course hope that the winds do pipe up and prove the effort out.
Addendum two. But they did not. Nothing even close. It takes me a few sessions to write this, and I have to admit now that my cautionary effort to move the planes up the river was all for nothing. Several trusted weather prediction sources, and the Marine Forecast’s “strong wind warning” of 25-knot winds to play havoc with our usual safe havens… nope, nothing. So far. Computer models and forecasts are still just that. Forecasts and models. Guesses. It’s comforting, in a way, when Nature thumbs her nose at them.