Raising Rippers

    Photo: Katie Arnold

Why Kids Need Foul Weather

Sometimes, it takes a little storm to show us how resilient we really are

This morning we woke to a stiff north wind whipping across Stony Lake, kicking up whitecaps and long foamy streaks in the water, which had taken on a sinister pewter hue overnight. Last week we were sweating through a 95 degree heatwave and suddenly here we were, digging out socks and fleece and every last layer we'd brought with us from the desert.

When you live on an island, it's impossible to ignore the weather. Though the sky is smaller here on our lake in Ontario than it is in New Mexico, you don't need to look up to know what's coming. Growing up here as a young girl, I was taught to watch the water for signs of shifting weather.

A north wind, pushing down from Farrow's Island, past Big Otter and Little Otter, usually brought fair skies, a cool front, and good sailing. A south wind brings the heat, and a west wind promises stable weather, but nothing good ever comes from an east wind. It blows from the mainland, sneaking around the back side of our island, pushing storm clouds and almost certain rain.

You can feel the shift coming before you see it: The air settles, heavier, on the water, and the light in the sky changes. By the time you see the brooding thunderheads massing over Juniper Island, you have 15 minutes, maybe 20, before the wind and the waves and the rain and the lightning are upon you. After the storm, when the sky is pink with sunset, the clouds separate into distinct shapes and recede like enormous pieces of popcorn or cauliflower, or stretched out like needle nose sharks, harmless and beautiful on the far horizon.

Every summer, we get a couple good knock-the-power-out storms, but in between, the weather is usually remarkably nice: hot, sunny, and dry. When I tell my Santa Fe friends that I am going to Canada, they assume it's chilly here, and when I tell Stony Lakers that I'm from New Mexico they assume it's sweltering. But the reverse is often true. We're at sea level here, and the heat can be Midwestern, baking and relentless; unlike Santa Fe, it's even warm when it rains. Last week, the water was 82 degrees.

Not today, though. My daughters took one look at the swells and announced they did not want to go to their morning swim lessons. I didn't blame them. I have vivid memories of being four years old, bundled bulkily in my blue life jacket with a cotton sweatshirt underneath, being driven to swimming lessons at the old cottage near the church, on blustery days exactly like this one. All I have to do now, 35 years later, is look at the rickety white bridge and the lopsided boathouse, and the old familiar dread comes washing over me. I've always loved swimming in the lake, just not when the air is colder than the water.

It would have been so easy to stay put for the morning or to make up an excuse to go into town, away from this drafty cottage and the driving wind. But my five-year-old, Pippa, is trying to earn her next swim badge, and this is our last full week at the lake, so I gave her the choice: If she rallied for her canoeing lesson, she could decide whether or not to swim. I promised her it'd be an adventure if she did.

Despite the gale, Juniper Island was buzzing with activity. Down at the canoe docks, a herd of little paddlers hopped around like jumping beans in their storm gear, energized by the dramatic weather. They piled into boats, three kids and a teenage instructor to every canoe. One canoe was promptly blown downwind and became pinned to the shore. A mother, looking on, grabbed her lifejacket and a spare paddle and hustled along the rocks, though none of the kids were hers. Soon their paddles were moving in unison, a flotilla of canoes, Pippa's among them, back and forth across the wind, practicing sweeps and draw strokes, carrying on with their lessons like it was any other day.

Just offshore, the junior sailors were heading out for the morning lessons, 420s hurtling past the docks, hulls heeling, crew stretched out to keep the boats from dumping. Tiny, singlehanded Optimists looked like toy boats against the whitecaps; the 11-year-old solo skippers seemed impossibly small, but unperturbed. They raised their hands gamely in greeting, tacking upwind in a jagged line.

That's when the carnage started. One of the Laser IIs capsized. Another flew downwind, sails out, the boom wobbling ominously, about to jibe, but the sailors, oblivious, sat upright, seconds away from being clobbered.

Further out, a friend's 10-year-old son appeared to have run his Opti aground on a shoal. His mother and I stood on the docks, she peering through the zoom lens on her camera, giving me the play by play. "That's Sam," she said calmly, pointing to a white dot against grey water. "He was up on those rocks. Now they're pulling his boat up onto the instructors' boat. It looks like they're draining it of water. I think he was sinking."

There was no reason to panic. Instructors circled in their tin boats like sharks, plucking sailors from the water, righting boats. The kids on this lake have been sailing in this kind of weather for more than 50 years. Once, when we were 10, a friend got pinned under a sail; she fought her way out, and kept sailing, but the day changed us all. It became part of our lore, our DNA. We went out in big winds and whitecaps. We got the crap blown out of us. That's what we did. We told this story to ourselves enough times that eventually we stopped being afraid, or took a perverse pride in it.

Now our kids are learning the same lessons. I'd expected to find the swimming docks deserted, but it was swarming with children, coming and going from the lake like water-slicked mink and shivering in thick towels. Some were crying and clutching mugs of hot chocolate. Others were shedding clothes and marching bravely toward the water. Pippa took one look and yanked off her lifejacket, ready to swim. I knew she would. If I'd brought my suit, I'd have swum. The energy was contagious—and the water was a lot warmer than the air.

"We swam on days like this," a friend of mine, mother of four, and former swim instructor reminded me as she strode off to swim laps. "That's what I tell them, and then I practically throw them in!'"

After so many hot, flawless days, it was fun to watch the drama unfold. Mostly because I knew the kids would be OK—all of them. There's an unspoken protocol on our lake: We stick together. If someone needs help, we hop in a canoe and rescue them or wave them off the water when they're caught out in a storm. We swap kids, pick up groceries, pull boats off of rocks in the middle of the night, drop off meals when someone tears a hamstring on the tennis court. On sunny days and stormy ones, we look out for each other.

Whether you live in the mountains, desert, river or sea, we all need foul weather now and then. It becomes part of our stories and remind us that we're resilient. While it's our jobs to shelter our children from the storms, sometimes it's better for everyone when we don't. We can let them get cold and blown sideways and even a little afraid, but as long as they have a safety net, they learn that they're tougher than they thought. Us, too.

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