As recounted in the two most recent blog entries here, two ice fishing adventurers became lost in a Lake Superior blizzard on February 15, until they somehow managed to spot a yardlight on our home at the end of Madeline Island. After the labors of climbing up the cliff to reach our yard, the young man and woman revived themselves at our house and then we started the blizzard-battered trek to La Pointe, the only town on the island and their only reasonable chance of finding travel back to the mainland and their truck.
The North Shore Road lay deep and white with the new snow, even in the dark. No vehicles had traveled on it for hours. Between the plowed, high snow walls on either side of the narrow road and the new inches that were falling by the minute, we might have been in an advertisement for all-wheel drive vehicles. Our twenty-five minute distance required nearly forty minutes. As we finally pulled into the port town, the lights of The Beach Club burned brightly and I could tell in the timbre of our voices that an air of hopefulness had lifted each of us. But finding lights versus anyone willing to venture out across the ice road on this night were two distinctly different things. The odds were not in favor of our two passengers.
Quite surprisingly, a man stood outside the door to The Beach Club, bravely inhaling a cigarette despite the elements. We were shocked to see anyone on this night. But my new acquaintance declared that he would be the first opportunity for getting home. Our refugee jumped out of the car and ran over to where the smoker was hunched up against the cold.
The three of us watched from the warmth of our car, nervously curious as to the conversation between the two men that was actually taking more time than we had anticipated. Meanwhile, we could see inside The Beach Club, and noticed the absence of many patrons; the chances of finding help seemed dim and Katie and I later confessed to each other that we had begun to think about lodging our unexpected guests at the house for the night.
Our sojourner trotted back to the car. He jumped into the back seat with a wide grin on his face, and explained the next piece of very good fortune that he had experienced this night. The smoking man owned a four-wheel drive truck and was soon to head to the mainland over the ice road. He would be happy to take the young couple all the way back to their truck at Red Cliff. And just as quickly as the emergency had materialized, it suddenly was resolved. The couple thanked us, promising to return the following morning to reclaim their crippled sled.
All that remained for Katie and me was the return trip to the house, now in conditions that were worsening by the moment. The winds created drifts across the roadway, already nearly obliterating our tracks from the trip to town. It’s a road well-known to us, though at moments we felt as though traveling circles inside a snow globe, such was the lack of visibility and the endlessness of the road. We felt a curious mixture of both anxiety and exhilaration feeding our excitement during the 45 minutes back home, and utter relief as we eased into the garage.
Our newfound acquaintances did return on Sunday morning. The brightness of a perfectly sunny day made for a very different feel for this visit, however. They laughed and even rejoiced in reliving their tale from the night before, already honing its details for retelling it as a new lake legend. But our final good-byes carried more gravity. We all seemed to understand the seriousness of what had taken place, and how very differently things could have turned out, except for a series of serendipitous acts. What if he had not discerned the open water? What if I had not turned on the yardlight? What if he had not removed his helmet, enabling him to notice the light? What if there had been a fall at the cliff wall? What if we had not been at home? Unspoken, these contingencies played themselves out in our thoughts. As if to punctuate, the young man’s final words to me underscored the obvious: “Whatever you do, make sure you leave that yardlight on!”
And then they were gone. We have thought about our night visitors often and told the tale as often as circumstances invited it. We shake our heads at the recollection of that night, the conditions, Nature living out its own reality, the specter of Lake Superior, even in its dormant, frozen state. The adage of Lake Superior is no less true in winter than in summer: The Lake is the boss.
But what I have come to reflect upon as often as those wintry details is what the moment presented to each one of us as those details played themselves out. The young couple began their day by challenging the rawness of winter’s worst, staking out their claim on a frozen lake. Later in the day, the young man repeatedly placed himself in harm’s way for the sake of his girlfriend. For her part, the young lady withstood a blizzard’s barrage, the dangers of the cold and even loneliness on that sled, all without evident complaint or anger; she retained her sense of partnership and collaboration with her young man.
As for Katie and me, we were simply involved by virtue of a fate of time and place. We were also receptive to the service that we might render, though upon reflection I frequently wonder what more we could have, should have done. When a moment of human need presents itself so clearly and with such impact, we like to feel as though the “light has been left on,” that we are ready to respond, capable of giving all that is needed, selfless as necessary and generous as though our own survival depended upon it.
In fact, maybe our own welfare does depend upon it. Many of us spend our lifetimes seeking purpose and meaning when, in fact, the significance of our existence is no more complex than the small opportunities in everyday living to be of service, to answer a call, to provide light for those who are momentarily lost. It can happen in the darkness of night on Madeline Island or the searing sun of Nicaragua and at all points in between. We are not afforded the luxury of knowing in advance when or how such opportunities will occur, only that they will.
On February 15, Katie and I turned on a light, answered our doorbell, made hot cocoa, and drove to town. Ours were not grand or heroic actions. And yet in the words of the young couple who sought rescue from a winter tempest on Lake Superior, we might well “have saved their lives.” And who knows what the outcome of that might eventually prove to be….