It was a misty June day when a hearty outdoorsman, a math teacher, and an eclectic mix of ten disheveled teenagers arrived at one of the best kept secrets of the Pacific Northwest. Only one of them knew how to paddle (you can probably guess who) and the rest carried varied levels of enthusiasm about the whole “outdoors” thing. As they wobbled to the dock and first laid eyes on the snow-capped Cascades of Northern Washington, the fated twelve shared the sense that there was more to the trip than met the eye. They didn’t yet know it, but their next six days would transform the face of illegitimate high-school athletics forever. They were about to make history.
I knew we had arrived when every direction I looked presented a postcard-worthy view. Ross Lake was known for its natural beauty after all, remaining mostly untouched by humans throughout the years. It is only accessible by foot or canoe, and we had been preparing to tackle the latter. I inhaled deeply, taking in the cold, crisp, pre-summer air that frosted my lungs. Everything about our destination was pure. Adamant. Pristine. And deceptive.
The start of our trip was like living in a dreamland. A six-mile paddle North held three different waterfall sightings. The mini-island out in the center of the lake was apparently a giant, isolated campsite. We thought “Devil’s Chasm” seemed too tame until the current kicked in, sending us rushing towards a beautiful (or gorge-eous, for you pun-appreciators) grove at the end. For every time we felt like we had seen it all, there was something new to discover. We lived in a state of perpetual wonder.
A few days in, however, we became too confident. The lake itself was so transparent that we were sure we knew all its secrets, but we soon discovered how wrong we were. On Saturday, we had a lot of ground to cover, but the weather conditions weren’t exactly ideal. The wind had howled throughout the night; our tents flapped like kites in a tornado. By noon, the downpour had settled in and our supposedly “water-resistant” clothing was soaked through. Against the current, our desperate paddling was like walking backwards on a very angry, very slippery treadmill. We all struggled to keep our boats parallel to the current, but my boat was having an especially hard time. The bow of our canoe began to careen as water began pouring over the sides. Visions of hypothermia clouded our minds and we saw our lives swish past us, lost forever in the ephemerality of the current. Okay, maybe this was an exaggeration, but for a couple amateur canoeists, this may as well have been Armageddon. Long paddle short, we made it back to the Thunder Point campsite, fully drenched, completely exhausted, and smiling ear to ear.
Not only did we learn to master the elements, but we also learned about each other. Being left to our own devices forced us set aside whatever unspoken social restrictions might have been in place at school. Though our differences got the best of us at first, we eventually found common veins of interest: borderline-obnoxious puns, impossible riddles, teasing our trip leaders, and taking photos of anything and everything. Soon we were inseparable; life on the water became routine and we lived like a large, dysfunctional family. After all we had been through together, we dubbed ourselves the Lakeside Varsity Canoe Team, taking what began as a school outdoor trip and immortalizing it in our hearts and minds.
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