Sunday, July 22, 2012

Walking on Water

I'm not a natural athlete. As a kid I tried hard, which spared me from being the last girl picked for the softball or basketball teams, but I was never a standout player. While I had good endurance on the track, I was a klutz when it came to gymnastics—even cartwheels were pretty much beyond me. So, no one was more surprised than me when, the first time I tried waterskiing, I immediately succeeded in standing up on the skis. I was a natural.

Girls bunks, Camp Tamarac.
I learned to waterski on Yokum Pond in Becket, Massachusetts, site of Camp Tamarac, my beloved sleep-away camp. I spent eight weeks there each summer for four years, starting at age ten. What Tamarac lacked in luxury, it made up for in camp spirit and an amazing array of activities, among them scuba diving and waterskiing.

You might well wonder what kind of scuba diving experience could be had in a pond in the Berkshires. Surprisingly, Yokum Pond reached 50 feet at its greatest depth. Still, its murky waters didn't allow for the type of diving one might expect to find in the Caribbean. In fact, you could barely see two feet in front of you. Nevertheless, during my last summer at Tamarac, the camp began offering its campers scuba classes and certification.

I enthusiastically signed up for the scuba program. All progressed well until one sunny day in August. I had come to the surface after a short dive and was using a snorkel while I swam back to the dock. The snorkel was necessary because the tank on my back was heavy and unwieldy, so I couldn't get my head above water to take breaths. As I paddled toward the dock with my flippered feet, feeling pleased with my diving progress, I allowed my head to sink a little too low. Instead of air, I suddenly found myself swallowing a sample of silty pond water.

I began choking and coughing, unable to hold my head far enough out of the water to breath normally and recover. By this time, I was only about twenty feet from the dock, where a swim class had just ended. Fran, the head swim counselor, was standing on the dock and looking right in my direction. Sputtering and trying to keep my head above the water, I waved frantically to her. She waved back. I waved again. Smiling, Fran waved right back. I'm drowning and she thinks I'm saying hello, I thought. Only a moment ago, I'd been so proud of my diving prowess. Now I was going to die, not from the bends, but as a result of poor snorkeling technique.

I began to go under. Fran belatedly realized she was about to lose a camper and sprang into action, forgetting every tenet of the lifesaving program she herself taught. She failed to execute the lifesaver's jump, which would have enabled her to keep me in sight at all times. Instead, she dove willy-nilly into the water. Then she swam right up to me, heedless of the possibility that I might grab her around the neck and pull her under in my panic. Fortunately for both of us, I wasn't that far gone yet. Instead of panicking, I gratefully accepted her help as she dragged me back to the dock.

After my near-death experience, my enthusiasm for scuba diving waned. I wondered what other water sport I might pursue. Waterskiing was also new at camp that summer and not compulsory. I decided to sign up for it. The skis were unwieldy, their rubber bindings a bit uncomfortable, and the boat's outboard motor looked ominous. But in those days, my desire for new and exciting experiences far exceeded my capacity for worry, so I gamely put on the skis and positioned myself as instructed—knees bent, the tips of my skis floating just above the water, arms clutching the tow rope handle.

The boat eased forward, gaining speed. I stood up, keeping my balance, and whizzed across the pond, feeling a mixture of astonishment and pride. I was the only one to achieve the feat of getting up on skis on the first try. And the second, and third. I simply "got" this sport. I loved the feel of the wake under my skis, the speed with which the boat carried me forward. Within a few days, I was crossing the wake, back and forth, with impunity. Who knows what else I might have accomplished that summer, but sadly I had started skiing during the final weeks of camp and time ran out. Further challenges would have to wait.

My only photograph of Camp Kent.
My next opportunity to waterski came a few years later at Camp Kent, in Kent, Connecticut. I was sixteen and working as a counselor-in-training—sort of half-camper, half-counselor. The camp had an excellent waterskiing program and it was there that I learned to slalom, or ski on one ski. A slalom ski has one binding behind the other, so that both feet point forward. I loved the exhilaration of speeding around the lake and carving my single ski through the wake, finding just the right balance to stay upright. The camp didn't offer tournament skiing, so I couldn't advance to the stage of competing by navigating on one ski around a series of buoys. But I didn't really care. I just loved the sensation of skimming along on top of the water.

Two years later, after a summer spent in Mexico, I returned to Camp Kent as a full-fledged counselor. As part of my job, I had to accompany my little campers to all their activities, so I didn't have lots of time to waterski, but during free periods I headed to the waterskiing dock, where I perfected my slalom skills and flirted with Allen, the handsome head waterskiing counselor.

The flirtation with Allen never panned out, but my skiing experience won me a job the following summer teaching waterskiing at Camp Wenonah, a girls camp in Naples, Maine. I would be working under Anne, a senior counselor who was an experienced waterskier and teacher. Equally important, Anne knew how to drive the Boston Whaler that would be used to tow the campers. I arrived at counselor orientation expecting to learn how to teach skiing technique to campers as young as eight years old and hoping to gain a few skiing tips for myself from my new boss.

On the first night of orientation, the head swim counselor abruptly resigned. The only person on staff qualified to assume that position was Anne. This meant that a new head waterskiing counselor had to be found. To my shock, the camp director chose me over the two other counselors hired to teach waterskiing. Anne was so overwhelmed with her new position that she couldn't help me much. One of the other counselors, deemed too irresponsible to head the waterskiing program, nevertheless knew how to drive the Whaler and gave me a crash course. Thus, the camp season began.

I'm driving the Boston Whaler.
My dreams of becoming a more accomplished waterskier that summer faded, replaced by constant anxiety that I would nick a camper with the Whaler's outboard motor as I circled back around when one of them fell. Happily, I managed to avoid that calamity and actually came to enjoy driving the little motorboat around Trickey Pond, a camper in tow. Sometimes during a break the other counselors and I would get in a little skiing of our own.

That was my last summer on a lake and, so, my last summer on waterskis. But I've never forgotten the thrill of rising up on my skis and feeling the frothy wake beneath me. It seemed a small miracle—not quite walking on water, but almost.

The only picture of me on skis (slaloming). Taken on Trickey Pond.


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