PAGES IN TIME: Dock days on China Lake

by Elizabeth Byrd Wood

Our dock on China Lake is a place for morning coffee and an afternoon beer, rambling conversations and quiet meditation, paperbacks and loon watching, and in the summer months, we spend much of our time there.

For years we had an all-wooden dock, composed of two sections with supports in the middle and at the end. It was a dead ringer for the photos of kids jumping off a dock in the tourism ad “Maine: The way life should be.” In late June an intrepid soul or souls would brave the cold water and put the dock in. The same would happen in reverse in late September. Every so often when too many people crowded on the dock, one of the supports would give out, and the dock would gently slide into the water, spilling shrieking family members into the lake.

In the early morning, when I take my coffee down to the dock, the lake is tranquil and smooth—“like a mill pond” we often say. I sit on the end of the dock and dangle my feet in the water, welcoming the warmth of the dog as he leans against me. Mornings belong to the fishermen, who set their lines and troll slowly close to the shore. As they pass by, we nod to one another, but don’t speak.

Our family passes many lazy afternoons on the dock, surrounded by books, towels, sunscreen, folding chairs, water bottles, and dog toys. Distractions abound: shimmery, blue and green dragonflies, the sudden appearance of a loon, an eagle perched on a dead branch in the towering pines along the shore, the great blue heron balancing on the sunfish moored nearby. The breeze across the water brings a whiff of gasoline from a passing motorboat and the earthy smell of manure from the dairy farm across the lake. The shouts and whoops from the nearby raft signal that a young cousin has gotten up on water skis for the first time.

The dog pesters someone – anyone – to throw a frayed tennis ball into the lake. The ball safely fetched, the dog runs back down the dock and shakes, ready for the next toss. The dock is soon wet and slippery, except for the dry islands where someone is sitting.

At some point, it is time for a swim. Getting into China Lake requires a little preparation, at least for the grown-ups. Not so for kids. Kids just take off and run the length of the dock and plop into the water like little frogs. “Don’t run on the wet dock,” we call out. But they never listen.

But for the rest of us, sun-warmed from an afternoon on the dock, the thought of jumping into the cold water requires planning and occasionally some discussion. Is the sun going behind the cloud? Better wait until it comes back out. Are those thunderheads forming across the lake? Better get your swim in before the storm.

My sister likes to dive into the lake. She stands for a minute at the edge of the dock, and makes a clean, shallow dive into the lake. Others take a more gradual approach and use the wooden ladder to ease into the water. When my sister and I were little, our dad would stand on the ladder and pretend to let us push him into the lake. After we pushed and pushed, our father would fall back with a roar and a mighty splash.

I prefer to wade in. I venture out a few steps, the soles of my feet protesting against the sharp and slippery rocks underfoot. As the cold water creeps up my bathing suit, I lift my arms high and linger a moment. The smart remarks from family members sitting on the dock begin. “Why do you torture yourself!” “Just get in, for crying out loud.” “You make me cold just watching you.” “But this is the way I’ve always done it,” I protest. Others, usually visitors from warmer climates, test the water and exclaim, “No way am I getting in that cold lake.”

Although we have upgraded to a new, sturdier dock, our afternoons on the lake have not changed much over the years. In family movies from the 1930s, the dads might be wearing a one-piece, wool swim suit, but they still bob delighted toddlers in the water. Young cousins take turns diving off the end of the dock and show off their crawl strokes. My mother, as a teenager, suns herself and flashes a self-conscious grin at the camera.

The sun sets late in the summer, and many nights we enjoy a glorious sunset as we linger over dinner on the back porch. As the sun sinks on the western shore, it casts a shining trail of gold directly across the water. I often imagine that I could step right off the dock and run across the lake on that glimmering path. Once the sun disappears behind the trees, the rich colors of the sunset begin to emerge–mauves, purples, pinks, and corals—which slowly change into a deep blue black. Darkness soon envelops the dock, hiding it from view until early the next morning—and my cup of coffee, with the dog, on the dock.


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