Chapter 5: Island excursion

The children awoke to a hot breakfast of blueberry pancakes and sausages. They gobbled down the food as they chattered to one another, energetic and gregarious with their mouths full and their bodies squirming in their seats. Myra wondered at what age kids stopped all being morning people.
Soon they’d eaten their fill and they were restless for a new activity. Myra released them outside on the condition that they didn’t go farther than the cabins. They agreed in chiming voices and tumbled out of the mess hall.
She collected the dirty dishes in a tall stack and headed toward the kitchen. Alex held the door for her and said, “Just set those down on the counter, I’ll take care of them. You can go take a shower.”
She looked at him, still balancing the stack of dishes in her hands. “Why?” she said. “The kids don’t care if I smell.”
Nevertheless, she let him load the dishwasher so she could supervise the kids outside. After a little more playtime to burn off the pancake-fueled mania, she herded them back to their cabins to put on swimsuits under their clothes for a day on the water.
Admittedly, she was happy to get out of her sweaty clothes. She and the girls wriggled into their suits. The girls were all so comfortable with their own bodies, unabashedly baring bellies and thighs and downy legs.
They layered on t-shirts and shorts over their suits and met up with the boys to slather themselves and each other in sunscreen. She assumed her role of back-sunscreener, although she was charmed when Cassie insisted on helping Percy and then he returned the favor. The charm was slightly diminished when she shrieked and accused him of pinching her, but that was a fleeting quibble that was quickly smoothed over with some gentle yet firm words, and much more so by the promise of an exciting adventure.
In the meantime, Alex fetched paddles and lifejackets. They fitted the kids with the puffy orange vests. They loaded coolers stocked with sandwiches and bottled water into the canoes. Myra announced one last chance to visit the outhouse before they set sail. A few kids took her up on the offer and ran off to use the minimal facilities of the semi-modern standalone bathroom.
“How are we splitting up, boys and girls?” Alex asked.
“No way,” Myra said, “not if the goal is to avoid conflicts and capsizing.” Contemplating the pairwise dynamics, she said, “You take Grace, Cassie, Joey, and Luke. Then I’ve got Percy, Aldo, Caitlin, and Zoey.”
As each kid returned, either Alex or Myra summoned them to form the two groups with authoritative subtlety, sidestepping any potential disagreement. They buckled the pillowy, carrot-colored lifejackets around the kids’ waists and then held the canoes steady at the sterns while the kids climbed in and found their seats on the spartan wooden benches. In each canoe, two kids cozied up on the narrower bow seat while the other two lounged in luxury on the wider seat that stretched across the middle of the boat. Myra and Alex pushed the canoes farther into the water to free the bottoms from the sandy ground, stepped into the wobbly floating boats, and settled into the seats at the sterns. After getting a grip on their wooden paddles and lowering them into the water, with a few firm strokes they were off.
The water was calm today, glassy blue from afar and teal-tinted transparent looking over the edge of the canoe into the lake below. As they got further out, they could see occasional patches of submerged plants reaching their slick stalks toward the surface, and more picturesque lily pads floating above with blossoming white flowers. Myra watched Caitlin and Zoey as they reached out over the water, trying to touch the fleshy petals. The moment they passed the danger zone of being nearly more out of the canoe than in it, Myra gently requested that they touch with their eyes and keep their bodies in the boat. The girls complied, gazing longingly out at the paradisiacal aquatic gardens.
They paddled lazily across the lake, not straight through the middle but closer to shore. Even though the woods in these unfamiliar areas looked practically identical to theirs back near camp, a strange fascination took hold of some of them, like seeing the dark side of the moon. Myra felt it, and she knew Percy did too by the way he stared wide-eyed into the shadowy thickets. His lips moved as he mouthed words under his breath. She wondered which of his usual habits he was indulging, either naming off the genus of each tree he could identify, or chanting a superstitious incantation to honor the forest deities.
“Pines?” she asked him, acting under the assumption of the former.
He nodded sagely. “Red pine. Pinus resinosa.”
Aldo was engaging in a pursuit similar to Percy’s, but he was more interested in fish than trees. He spent long stretches of the ride with his head lowered, peering down into the clear water to catch glimpses of passing fish. He wasn’t quite as scientifically rigorous as Percy—really, no one was—but after each sighting he looked up with shining eyes in search of a confidant. After a few iterations, Aldo learned that Percy was usually preoccupied with his own observations, and Caitlin and Zoey were busy whispering secrets to each other, but Myra was a reliable recipient of his reconnaissance. He’d go from hunched over the boat’s edge to sitting up absolutely straight, turn around to catch Myra’s eye, and deliver a report: “One whiskery fish!” “Two stripy green fish!” “A million tadpoles!”
Myra was glad to see Caitlin and Zoey getting along so well. Caitlin and Cassie were the real best-friend duo, but Myra hated to see those insular friendships form when they excluded the other kids. So she did her best to give Cassie and Caitlin some occasional space from each other. Zoey tended to be their third wheel, but she seemed to do great with either one of the other two when they were split up. Triangles were difficult, but there were definitely solutions, at least ones sustainable for a mere week of camp.
Myra kept up her steady but leisurely paddling, watching the boys in their observational trances and the girls exchanging whispered messages. The sun was climbing higher but she wasn’t working hard enough to resent its heat. Instead she basked in the warmth, feeling content and relaxed. Her quads were already sore from that morning’s run. She stretched out her legs underneath the boys’ bench.
She scoped out the lake and thought through the day’s plan. The lake looked circular from their beach back at camp, but it was actually egg-shaped, with one side wide and slightly flattened, the opposite side narrowing to a rounded peak. This peak had a sheltered sandy beach and a calm swimming area offshore that built up sandbars and patches of sandy islands. They’d been angling up the egg and were headed toward the peak.
She called to Alex and he paused in the middle of telling a story to his kids, who were alternately gasping and giggling with each point he delivered. The story must have been great to keep Joey’s attention off the girls, although Myra had purposefully separated him from Caitlin and Zoey. Grace was too quiet to attract Joey’s attention, and Cassie was too independent to even notice Joey’s youthful overtures.
Having attracted Alex’s attention, Myra pointed out their target stretch of shoreline. She warned him to watch for sandbars, and they steered to make the approach. With the water so calm and their intended landing spot an entire beach rather than a dock, they maneuvered in without much trouble, going around a couple of obvious sandbars. They dragged the boats farther up the beach, and the kids clambered out onto shore.
The beach was as she remembered it, a skinny U with fine sand against a forested backdrop. Everyone unstrapped their lifejackets and, under Myra’s guidance, amassed them all into a small orange mountain on the sand.
The water enticed everyone in right away, even the traditionally reluctant like Percy and Grace. For once, Myra felt a twinge of disappointment at escaping beach duty. Her legs were really aching, the lactic acid clogging her muscles. As much as she wanted to swim, for today she would have been quite content lounging on the beach, watching the water with the pleasure of indulging an unattainable fantasy.
But instead she cast aside her ambivalence and waded in. The water here was colder than their swimming area back at camp. It was more shaded by the forest, kept shadowy and cool except for the height of midday, when it received a few hours of direct sunlight. They’d arrived near the beginning of that illuminated window, when the bright sun contradicted the chilly water, like a host acting out its best behavior for guests.
They hadn’t brought along their usual foam noodles and inner tubes, but the kids easily entertained themselves. When their interest in aimlessly swimming and splashing and doing underwater handstands started to wane, Alex impressed Myra by initiating an impromptu game of Marco Polo. The kids took turns shrieking “Marco!” and Alex called back “Polo!” The children groped around, eyes closed and arms outstretched like lake zombies, feeling for Alex. He had good timing in knowing just how long to extend the game before allowing himself to be found, long enough to engender mild fatigue and doubt, but sacrificing himself before they became cross or tearful. Each time one kid found him, another would eagerly volunteer to be the next Marco.
Myra floated on her back, arms outstretched and the water lapping around her hairline. With the sun so strong, the cool water was refreshing. Even though goosebumps were pricking on her submerged arms, the sun was warming her face, and the sensation of juxtaposed hot and cold triggered an uncanny physical confusion that made her shiver.
Luke drifted over to her, his dark hair slicked to his scalp and water droplets beading on his eyelashes. “Myra? How much longer are we swimming?” he said.
She raised herself back up to vertical, legs now treading water underneath her. “I don’t know, Luke.” Acknowledging his wan face and chattering teeth, she said, “Maybe it’s time for a lunch break?”
He nodded vigorously.
She lowered her feet to stand on the soft bottom of the lake and announced, “Lunchtime!”
Within seconds she had most kids speeding toward her. Only Cassie, Joey, and Aldo lingered.
“I’m not hungry. Can I keep swimming?” Aldo called.
“Me too,” Joey said.
“Me three,” Cassie said.
Myra looked to Alex, who proclaimed, “Only if you can keep up with me!” He took off swimming parallel to the shoreline, and the three swimmers followed in enthusiastic pursuit.