For Brendan the Navigator at 25

A memoir from Big Water (1999)

Fog at Isle Royale [Source:]

Fog at Isle Royale [Source:]

When we shoved off the pebble beach, the outer islands that rim Malone Bay looked like green humped turtles on the horizon. All day long we had watched the smaller islands appear and disappear in the fog. Now the icy blue bay shimmered in hazy light. In the long midsummer dusk on Isle Royale, we had three more hours of navigable light.

I steered for open water to clear the surf zone inshore. Out there we bobbed on a slowly heaving swell, waves one to two feet. On a Coast Guard weather forecast “waves one to two feet” sounds almost like flat water; in a 17-foot canoe on Lake Superior, the sensation is more like a gentle roller coaster ride. We call it big water.

“Want to head for Wright Island?” I asked my son.

“No,” Brendan said firmly. “It’s at least a mile. I don’t want to go out that far.”

“We have to go out there half way to quarter these waves,” I told him. “We’ll swing out, then back.”

We set a westerly course midway between Wright Island and shore. I sensed something uneasy about the way Brendan hunched in his life vest. He wasn’t talking.

“Want to go for Hay Bay?” I asked, hoping that an absurd proposition would loosen him up.

“You’re crazy, Dad. Ten miles there, ten miles back — before dark? This lake could change any minute.”

He was right. First came intermittent wisps of clouds scudding across the water. The fog thickened, and five minutes later Wright Island disappeared again. Malone Bay socked in, too. Birches and spruces along its shore blurred like trees in a waterside painting by Claude Monet. Sometimes the shore was there, sometimes not. About the same time, Lake Superior’s rhythmic swell turned into an indeterminate chop.

After three Isle Royale journeys with Brendan, the first when he was nine years old, I knew we were most likely to disagree about things when paddling through chop. He read the fickle wind and waves one way, and I another. Instead of balancing forces, bow and stern clashed and our course was an unspoken dispute until one or the other or both of us yielded.

“How far do you plan to go in this?” Brendan said. It wasn’t quite a question.

“We just got started,” I said. “What’s the matter? You’ve been on big water before. Bigger than this.”

“Not in the fog. I don’t like it when I can’t even see where we started.”

I had to laugh. “But Brendan, this is what the world looks like all the time to me. Just a little fog. It’s a fine day for boating on the Great Lakes.”

Without missing a stroke he turned to dart a skeptical glance at me. Brendan the Navigator. When we named him I didn’t tell his mother everything the legendary Irish name implied. But I imagined him taking on the role of navigator for me. He was christened on Whitefish Bay, on eastern Lake Superior, when he was four weeks old. His first voyage on big water came at age 2, nested securely between my legs at the canoe’s stern. Growing up with Coastal Survey charts and tales of Great Lakes shipwrecks, he came to know Superior as another home. He never doubted the wisdom of canoeing there with a father who was half blind.

Now Brendan was 13. He knew the difference between swell and chop. He could translate a flat navigation map into the protean dimensions of no-name islands and deception bays. He could thread a canoe route between cliffs and shoals, spot a portage trail a mile across the water, scan a snag-filled cove and say with hungry satisfaction, “Hmmmm… looks pikey to me.”

I would like to claim that I taught him these things, but it didn’t happen like that. We learned together, negotiating and navigating small steps along the way. When he learned to walk he became my eyes in the woods, spotting snakes and toads and a hundred other things I would have missed by myself. When he learned to read he assumed responsibility for package labels and street signs and all the incessant visual information that drives everyday life. The teamwork we developed by finding dinner at the grocery store grew into the kind of partnership needed to find camp at Isle Royale. Two days before the fog at Malone Bay, I was amazed at my son’s surety and poise as he guided us through the clamor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, navigating a course from gate 7 to gate 85 in fifteen minutes, just in time to make our connection.

Our partnership was built in small steps out of patience and trust. I questioned Brendan about what he could see, sometimes directing his attention to what I expected to be there, sometimes waiting for his reckoning of the unknown. I listened to his description of the world around us and sketched my own mental maps. As the weather deteriorated on Malone Bay, he reversed the process to probe my sense of what neither of us could see.

“OK, just a little fog,” he said. “What if it keeps getting worse and we can’t find our way back?”

“We’re heading west,” I said. “We come about and bear east.”

“What if we miss our camp? We could be out here all night.”

“Remember the big rock at the mouth of the Siskiwit River? That’s east of camp. I’ll hear the waves breaking on it. I can steer by it — and I can keep off it.”

“If we stay out here we might not make the shore at all.”

I reminded him of the compass in his pocket. “On this side of the island, bear north. You can’t miss it.”

“What if it’s too rocky to land?”

“Any port in a storm,” I said. “If we have to land we’ll do it — with or without the canoe.”

As soon as I said that I knew I should have kept my mouth shut. I reached instinctively for the throw bag clipped to my belt to make sure it was there. Brendan didn’t say anything but continued to paddle. Then our fitful passage through the chop settled back to a slow, rolling swell.

“Feel that?” I said. “I know where we are. We just cleared the lee of Wright Island. We’re on open water again.”

“Oh boy,” Brendan said flatly.

“How long was Wright Island on the map?”

“Maybe a mile.”

“Then we’re only two or three miles west of camp. No problem.”

The wind off Superior stiffened enough to scatter the fog west along the shore of Malone Bay. The waves picked up with a jolting bounce. I lifted my binoculars quickly to try to make out a landmark in the vague distance.

“I think I see a snag leaning out over the water,” I said tentatively. “Looks like light behind it, like it’s a point. Let’s go for that, then turn back.”

“Dad, there’s a lot of snags leaning out on that shore.” He knew from experience that I used such landmarks to re-negotiate final destinations.

“Look, Brendan. You know I will always defer to your judgement. You’re the navigator. If you say turn back, we turn back. But if I think we can push it a little bit farther and still be safe, I’ll always ask. What do you think?”

After a moment he said, “OK. We go for the point.”

An hour later the canoe crunched wet gravel again on our beach. Somewhere on the southern horizon, the Isle Royale Light on Menagerie Island swept a circle in the growing dark, but we couldn’t see it. Read more

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