“Nice one, Curt!”
Curtis grinned broadly, holding up a three-pound lake trout. The 14-year-old redhead possessed a sixth sense for catching fish. I swore he could smell them, but he just said he thought like a fish. He caught more fish than anyone I ever saw, youngster or adult. He reveled in his skill. His favorite tee shirt boasted, “Women love me. Fish fear me.” Curt would rather fish than eat, and he loved to eat.
The July day dawned calm and humid. Patchy clouds scudded across the pale blue sky. Crystal clear depths revealed smallmouth bass on their redds, and darting schools of baitfish. Light and dark colors mottled the vast expanse of water, reflecting the cloud cover above.
That morning Curt and his older sister cruised offshore trolling for salmon, while Mollie and I relaxed in the cabin. After lunch a westerly breeze picked up, but I thought nothing of it.
Curt and I were leaving Mary Lou and Meridith at the camp so we could enjoy some man time. The 16-foot runabout could carry four, but more than two people fishing would cause bumped elbows, or worse, tangled lines.
Curt prepped the boat while I gathered the tackle.
“You be careful out there,” Mary Lou admonished. “You don’t know this lake like you do the lakes back home.”
“Yes, Dear,” I replied with exaggerated politeness.
“Don’t ‘yes dear’ me. This is a much bigger lake, and I don’t see any other boats to help if you get stranded.”
“We’ll be fine,” I said. “We have plenty of gas, the motor’s running great, and we have all our Coast Guard gear.”
Mary Lou called out, “You be careful on the boat, Curtis. And do what your father tells you.”
“Yes, Mom,” came the bored response.
We departed with a promise to return by suppertime. Curt and I fished the shoreline for smallmouth, and then trolled the deep water for lake trout and salmon, all the while meandering into the northern reaches of Moosehead Lake. The Maine lake was 40 miles long and over a mile wide, and as much as 250 feet deep.
This was our annual family vacation, and we enjoyed exploring a new lake each year. The trip was more about the adventure than the fishing, although catching fish was always fun.
The water tinted dirty green as the sky grew overcast. The wind increased and shifted to the southwest, making trolling more difficult. If I tracked with the wind, we moved too fast; if I headed into the wind, we moved too slowly. I started crabbing crosswind, heading north, causing the boat to toss around.
“Dad, why is it rougher here than at Quabbin?” Curt held on to the gunwale to steady himself.
We fished Quabbin Reservoir frequently at home. Although large by local standards, Quabbin was small in comparison to Moosehead.
I took a deep breath. “Well, it’s complicated. Wave height is related to three things: wind speed, water depth, and fetch. The faster the wind, the higher the waves. The deeper the water, the higher the waves. The more the fetch, the higher the waves.”
“What’s fetch? I never heard of that.”
“People talk more about it on the ocean, but it can be a factor on a big lake like this too. Fetch is the distance wind travels over open water. The wind pushes the surface water, making waves. The longer distance it has to push, the more the waves pile up on one another, and the bigger the waves become. Look where we are,” I gestured at the lake. “The wind is coming from the west across the narrow part of the lake, so the fetch is only about a mile long. If the wind were to come from the south along the lake’s spine, the fetch here would be more like fifteen miles, and the waves would be much higher.”
He tuned out after the first few words and busied himself with the fishing poles. In yet another parental failure, I provided him more information than he wanted. I wished he could devote the attention span he had for fishing to other subjects.
The sky darkened with the increasing clouds. I reached to take off my sunglasses and realized I had already done so. I struggled to keep the boat on a northern heading, fighting the wind and the waves. I couldn’t believe it was so dark. I turned around and looked south. The black sky off my stern unnerved me.
“Reel’em in, Curt. We’re heading back to camp.” He didn’t complain. He knew this was no time for his typical plea for “one more cast.”
With our lines in the boat, we turned homeward. The wind, now directly from the south, whipped the waves into whitecaps. The fifteen-horse Johnson labored against the wind and waves. The covered bow plowed into the surf, and water splashed over the windshield into the cockpit.
“Curt!” I yelled, “Grab the wheel. I’ll put up the top.”
With Curt at the helm, I raised the top and snapped it in place. The clear plastic side curtains were stiff from storage and argued with me on each snap.
Curt’s eyes were wide with fear by the time I took back the wheel. The waves rose four feet high and crashed over the bow. It reminded me of an old war movie showing a submarine dive. As far as I could tell we were losing ground. The boat would climb a wave, bow raised, and then pitch down the other side, bow down. Whenever the bow dropped, the propeller lifted out of the water, and the engine screamed. The boat pointed south, but we drifted north. The vessel yawed left and right, pitched up and down, and rolled from side to side on all three axes. This couldn’t be worse. High wind, deep water, and lots of fetch.
“Let’s put on our life vests.”
Curt nodded, teeth chattering. The cold front had dropped the air temperature twenty degrees or more. Soaked tee shirts and shorts were no protection for the wind and the cold. The vests would help, but that’s not why I had us put them on.
“We’re going to come around,” I shouted. “We’ll try heading downwind.”
I came about and headed north. The boat handled better, but there was a problem. We were rapidly running out of lake. A large promontory loomed ahead. There were no beaches on Moosehead Lake. Only rocks. Big rocks. Big rocks and granite boulders.
I tried slowing down, I even tried reverse, but waves crashed over the open transom, flooding the cockpit. The pair of five-gallon gas tanks floated around our feet. The boat wallowed under the additional weight.
“Grab the bait bucket,” I yelled in Curt’s ear. “The cooler. Anything. Start bailing!”
He jumped to and began bailing. We neared the rocks, so I turned into the wind again. The rocks were only twenty feet away. Waves now five feet high pounded the rocks and sprayed more water in the cockpit, keeping Curt busy. I feathered the engine, timing my power pulses to when the prop was in the water, backing off when it lay naked in the rain. The boat drifted back close to the rocks, and then inched forward. It closed in on the rocks, and then edged away. If the propeller hit the rocks, we were done for. We continued this death dance for 45 minutes until the wind abated. Finally, we were able to make headway and slowly headed south.
I shook all over, and not from the cold. My hands and arms ached. As did my head.
“Dad, what was that?”
“That, son, was a squall. A forty mile-an-hour wind, in one hundred feet of water, with fifteen miles of fetch making big waves.”
Two hours passed before we made it back to the camp. We kept our life vests on. I barely found it in the semi-darkness. Mary Lou waited on the dock for us with a lantern. She was frantic.
“Are you all right? I was worried sick. Look at you! You get right in here and get out of those wet clothes.”
Mary Lou bundled us into the camp where we dried off and changed. Meridith clucked over her younger brother, making him cocoa. We devoured Mary Lou’s chili and cornbread while Curt and I told described our harrowing experience. We settled in by the fire.
“We’ve had enough excitement for one day,” Mary Lou said. “We’re staying in tonight for some family fun. We have a new card came to play—it’s called Fetch.”
Curt and I looked at each another and smiled