Peter Shelton

La Comédie Humaine

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on August 26, 2020

Elk Lake is beautiful, but it is no wilderness outpost. I got there early enough on Sunday to be the fourth or fifth car in the parking lot. But by the time I’d completed two stand-up laps not only was the parking lot full, cars were jammed in on both sides of the entrance road all the way out to the Cascades Lakes Highway. And more vehicles, sprouting kayaks and paddleboards and floaties, were stacking up to make the turn.

There was smoke in the air. Wildfires north and south fouled the sky a sickly yellow. But there was no wind, not a breath. So, as I dipped my paddle blade each stroke brought glass-smooth gliding and clear views of trout and rock and sand bottom zipping by beneath my feet.

Mid-lake splashing indicated distance swimmers, their windmilling arms like osprey hitting the water, over and over again. One swimmer, done already, stood dripping on a private dock. Goggles on forehead, hands on Speedo-ed hips, he was high from the effort, talking with a friend. He was no longer a young man but clearly a life-long swimmer. He had the broad shoulders, the long arms and big chest of a Michael Phelps. Still glistening, Mr. Drip Dry wouldn’t stop grinning.

On my second lap, the lake and lakeshore began to fill. I heard a resort employee say to a disappointed family, “Sorry, all of our rental boards are out.” I heard the metronome beat of pumps (and pumpers breathing hard) filling inflatables on nearly every sandy beach. Colors not found in nature – shocking-pink bikinis, white unicorn float tubes, Egyptian-blue shade structures – popped, like pointillist daubs of paint, against the forest green.

My line took me past a permanently moored float, a giant rubber bagel with trampoline mesh stretched across the top. It had been unoccupied my first time around, but now there were two people on board, a woman and her toddler. The child was tethered so it couldn’t topple off the edge, and the woman was bouncing. Not as high as a land-based trampoline would fling her, but high enough.

“Look at the wake you’re creating,” I called. I couldn’t help but notice the circular waves her pulsing doughnut sent out.

“Oh. Sorry!” she said, apologetic.

“No, no. It’s beautiful!” All the other wakes now forming and weaving together on the water were as straight as contrails. Pontoon party boats, kayaks, even paddleboards left straight-line waves in their wake. She was the dropped pebble at the center of ever-widening concentric ripples.

Most of my fellow stand-up boarders were dippers – passive rather than active paddlers. In the rising heat they were content to stand straight, knees locked, their dogs and picnic coolers on the deck in front, each stroke imbued with limited intent. Followed by a languid crossover, left to right, port to starboard, as if merely changing hands on a cell-phone call.

There was one guy, though, who was out to obliterate his own, or anybody else’s, personal record. I heard him coming up behind me, pumping hard, high turnover rate, body lunging, hinging at the waist with each deep stroke.

I get pleasure from an efficient paddle stroke. I love the feeling of grabbing a “handful” of water and pulling it straight back past my hips. The challenge of transferring that force to my feet, which, in turn, push the board forward. It’s a beautiful thing, to make the board hum with momentum. But the guy going by me was on a different kind of mission. His board bounded as he pulled, leaving a wake almost as big as a motorboat’s. He completed three laps to my two and beached finally at one of the cabins on the west shore.

Back at the car I barely had room to hoist my board onto the rack. Vehicles had squeezed in everywhere, ignoring the orange cones put out by the resort to keep walking paths clear. On my right a new arrival (having driven right over one cone) disgorged a middle-aged couple, with masks around their necks but not covering their faces. Bumping up against my passenger-side door, they began taking their kayaks down.

“I see an empty picnic table down there. Should I go claim it?”


“Down there.”

Back to the kayaks, she had the bow end, walking backward down the steep slope. He had the easy end, moving forward, but he was the one saying, “Whoa! Whoa! Hold on! Geez, slow down!” A loaded pickup waited to claim my spot.

As I pulled onto the highway I wondered about the human crush. Is it just the virus? Locals, out of work or not, jonesing to blast out and away? Or is it bigger than that? Overpopulation. Vacation madness. Late-stage capitalism churning out plastic toys and leisure time. Our intentions may be good. But are we, more or less helplessly (as my friend Lito Tejada-Flores has said), “riding this cultural wave all the way to the beach”?