A group of friends and I make an annual camping trip to Banks Lake in Eastern Washington. What would’ve been a desert valley, thanks to the Grand Coulee Dam, is an oasis for visitors today, who enjoy water sports and comfortable campgrounds amidst the region’s high rocky plateaus. Our group is lured into a four-hour drive by the cliffs majestically jutting out of the lake and temperatures reaching the 90s on any given summer day. This trip, however, was burdened with inconsistent weather; a slow drizzle would intensify into a thunder storm within minutes—forcing the group to improvise shelter under tarps—only to peer at a bright sky moments later.
With reckless abandon, we launch a rented pontoon boat from our campsite on the lake, which at that moment is smooth as silk, the weather clear.
There’s a 20-foot high cliff rising up from the middle of the lake; it’s hugged by high, imposing rock faces that form a semi-private area of Banks Lake. It’s a favorite spot we return to each year. Friends climb a steep path to the top of the cliff to dive off from while others barbeque, sunbathe, or swim nearby. For a little while, it’s our own slice of paradise.
Hours pass. A friend points out storm clouds approaching in the distance; grey and menacing. We pack and load our supplies– “pull up anchor” so to speak and head off.
No sooner are we on our way, the wind picks up. We reach for extra clothes and pull up hoodies. The waves start to churn vigorously, rocking the pontoon. We plant our feet down. A drizzle progresses quickly to a downpour. We squint against the raindrops, beating relentlessly on our backs and faces. The temperature drops, the wind howls, lightening pierces the sky, rattling our nerves. Bam! Bam! I hear a rough, jagged rattle. I look up to see our canopy is trembling furiously in the wind. Two friends grasp its metal bars and brace themselves. Another friend in the back is shaking uncontrollably from the cold rain—he’s wearing nothing but swimming trunks, hugging himself tightly. We place a wet towel across his back, and hold a tray over his head to ward off the downpour. The pontoon moves mercilessly slow. We glance nervously at each other and scan the shore for our campsite that never seems to come.
Nothing could feel worse, until then, it does.
A wave hits at just the right angle in the front to rush an immense tide of cold water into the boat. The pontoon’s bow sinks into the lake under the weight. My friend seated in the front, slides and collapses full body into the water. Only a rail stops him from slipping into the lake. I stand in the center of the boat and am thrust forward sliding waist-deep in water towards my friend in the front. People seated in the back, rush forward grasping at anything to hold onto. Chilly water completely fills the boat.
My husband, the pontoon’s captain, reverses gears and the bow rears back from its abyss in the lake. Water rushes out of the ship as quickly as it entered.
We pull each other up, gasping and getting our footing back. We look back to see a cooler float away. “What was in it?” someone asks. “Oh no, the beer’s gone!” another answers. We laugh, but make no move to retrieve it. My husband yells, “Grab the lifejackets under the seats!” We quickly assess the majority of people on the boat couldn’t swim, including myself. No one wore vests. With the urgency of a sinking ship, everyone packs on life vests, cinching them tightly against their chests.
We still tremble from our ordeal and the freezing weather, but crack the occasional joke—one about how Cambodians can’t swim—to keep things light. The rain still pours sideways, and the wind continues to howl. We aren’t out of the woods yet. We all face the front of the boat, vigilant.
We make it back to our campsite, exhausted. My knees almost buckle stepping foot on shore. I feel traumatized. I still see the front gate of the pontoon swing ominously open underwater, greeting me with the dark, chilly lake beyond.
My friends and I re-tell that story over and over. It will surely go down into the lore of our group, to be recounted many years from now. Strangely, with each retelling, it gets funnier: the friend whose instinct meant grabbing the cooler full of beer so it wouldn’t be lost to the lake; or the one cooler we lost to the waves that was coincidentally full of the trip’s meals. I think the light-heartedness of how we recount the incident helps heal our anxiety over what happened—and what could have happened.
And in truth, this accident, as harrowing as it is described, wasn’t so bad. I don’t mean to make light of what happened. But, my husband is an experienced captain, the pontoon wasn’t on a trajectory to flip, and we had each other.
We encounter many dramatic ordeals in our lives, and at the moment, yes, it can feel life-or-death. But sometimes, in recollection, we realize it isn’t the end of the world. We survive. And, if taken with humor and perspective, it won’t be in just surviving, but in overcoming.
We even saved the cooler with beer to celebrate.