UPDATED 23Jul2020: I’ve only felt deeply and undeniably helpless once in my life, but it taught me a valuable lesson. Perhaps it will help you, too. A family of otters had something to do with the whole thing.
It happened when my oldest son, Robert, and I drove down to a nearby lake to haul our family swimming raft up on shore for winter. I’d postponed this annual chore too long that year and it was mid-November by the time we were paddling out to the raft in a canoe with our tools to disconnect the anchor chain. The air was windless when we left the house, the sky clear and the air temperature slightly below freezing that bright Saturday morning. The lake was about as cold as liquid water gets and the raft had an inch of ice all over it.
Our family swimming raft on a warm and beautiful summer day. Robert is on the right, Katherine, left.
No sooner had we pulled up to the raft and climbed out of the canoe than a bunch of otters paddled by just a few feet away. Not muskrats, but real otters, rolling and playing and making little noises as they glided through the smooth water. It was magic for a few seconds as the sun glinted off wet fur, their little eyes gleaming, ripples streaming off the happy animals as they swam. I could almost hear David Attenborough narrating the scene as he does so well on nature documentaries. Then the magic turned ugly.
I thought Robert was holding the canoe to the raft and he thought I was. Neither of us had tied the boat yet. When a little breath of wind rose the otters were still delighting us. That’s why we didn’t notice the canoe noiselessly drifting away, out of reach. We were stranded. It didn’t take more than 10 seconds for my mind to stop bouncing around looking for solutions that did not exist. During that time I noticed the wind picking up, and my inner conversation went something like this:
“No problem! We can just unchain the raft, set it adrift, then paddle the raft back to shore! . . . Oh, wait a minute, the tools are in the canoe. So are the paddles.”
“Okay, no tools, no paddles. When we’re late for lunch someone from home will come looking for us! . . . Except that the wind is coming up, waves are starting to break over the edge of the raft, and we’ll probably be deeply frostbitten by the time 10am turns into noon.”
“Well, there must be some way around this . . . even though I can’t think of anything.”
Sometimes when a situation is so entirely hopeless all you can do is laugh. Our deep, jolly laughter lasted for less than a minute, then grim reality set in. Robert and I were sitting on a 6-foot x 8-foot piece of ice, 60 yards from shore, no tools, no boat, no one to help us, wind coming up from the north, spray starting to break over the raft, deadly cold water. Literally, we were up a creek without a paddle.
Could I swim the 60 yards to shore through near-freezing water and survive? The fifteen minutes we’d been considering our predicament felt like hours when I started to take off my jacket for a late season swim, then noticed movement on the shore.
The only full-time resident living around the lake at that time was a farmer named Mike. I consider it one of life’s quiet miracles that he was home in the middle of the morning that day – something that’s highly unusual for the man. From where I stood way out on the raft, it looked like Mike jumped a foot off the ground when he heard our yells for help as he walked from the house to his truck. What would you do if you heard your name being called from out in the middle of a deserted Northern Ontario lake in November?
The icy raft adventure will always remind me of one thing: stay humble, stay generous. Regardless of how it might seem, none of us are very far from absolute helplessness in life, though this reality is often hidden. Our health can change, our business can change, tragedy can strike our family, friends might someday let us down. Perhaps a seemingly innocent bit of procrastination might lead to a near-lethal event on a frozen raft. You never know when you might become helpless someday, as we did, nor even that you’re helpless right now in some ways and don’t recognize it. None of us are as strong as we feel sometimes, and this realization is the root of humility. Boy, do we need humility.
I’ve seen the world unfold over more than half a century, and I’ve never seen such a lack of humility in so many people as I do now – young, old and in between. Haughtiness and arrogance seem like things to be proud of these days. It reminds me of a famous prediction penned many centuries ago, a prediction that seems more true today than it was when I was a boy:
“There will be very difficult times . . . people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, disobedient to parents and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure.”
Perhaps it’s my imagination, but are you seeing more of this kind of thing than ever?
I don’t suppose it could ever happen, but I suspect our world would be a better place if everyone got completely helpless on an icy raft from time to time. It’s not something any of us would choose, but sometimes life’s most unwelcome challenges do us a lot of good. Facing your true and utter helplessness every so often has a way of knocking the stuffing out of a proud heart, doesn’t it?
Feel like building your own swimming raft? Click here for a detailed plans and instruction package for building your own raft just like ours. It’s FREE (just watch out for the otters)!