I’ve learned that Shetek means pelican in Ojibwe, just as I’ve learned that “going to the lake” for many Minnesotans involves a drive north, a boat or a pair of Jet Skis, and a stay within a roof and sturdy walls that protect bathtubs and microwaves and TVs. I didn’t know any of these things when I was growing up. When my parents announced we were going to The Lake, I only knew our family station wagon—stuffed with gallons of water, bags of licorice, bottles of bug spray and suntan lotion, and rolled-up sleeping bags—was headed south. That we’d drive through prairie to get there. That my brother and I would spot the far-off glints of blue just moments before we’d turn left, and there ahead of us would be The Lake.
The final approach was a magical thing for my brother and me. To get to our camp—for we didn’t have a cabin—we had to pass over three dikes, causeways that linked the mainland to a peninsula, and then one island to another. They were strange and wonderful structures, built with boulders and fieldstones by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. In my time, their edges were consistently lined by men in lawn chairs and children in bathing suits fishing for dinner, and as we passed them, we watched their luck, thinking of our own. The first island, Valhalla, passed by in a blur of weekend campers and beach towels hung on temporary clotheslines. Then another dike, usually awash in the setting sun’s light. And then Keeley Island, our island, its name sounding in my ears like a promise.
When we reached Keeley and made the turn south, tall oaks darkened the narrow road and heightened our anticipation. Then finally—finally—our lot’s open gate came into view. With the car windows down and my arms flung out and waving hello, my dad would ease our car off the pavement, onto the grass, and next to a blazing campfire with all of my mom’s relatives laughing around it.
Now that I’m older, I imagine my family was viewed as a bit strange by our fellow islanders. By the early 2000s, all the neighbors were properly housed in cabins or homes with registered mailboxes. But my grandma and grandpa, two of the island’s earliest landowners, had long before decided against a cabin. Although they’d thinned their two acres of thick oak, ash, and cottonwood trees when they purchased the land in 1956, they’d left the spirit of the place wild. For a long time, the only structure that didn’t fold up or drive out come autumn was an outhouse.
We lived twelve hours a day in our swimming suits there. Outside of sleep, the only time we retreated to our campers and tents was during thunderstorms—and even then, we would wave ecstatically to each other from our screened doorways, amazed and bursting at the exuberance of rain.
Directly across from us was Lake Shetek State Park. During the day, we could see its beachfront swarming with splashing swimmers, and could often hear their cheers and screams. We called to them sometimes, floating out as far as we dared on our air mattresses, although they felt a hundred miles away.
At night, my cousins, brother, and I—sated on hot dogs and s’mores—would pull on sweatshirts and jeans and venture from the bonfire to the lakeshore. In the dark, the laughter of park visitors traveled across the water as easily as smoke, and instead of their splashes, we recognized their movements by the small orange flames that dotted the opposite bank.
We’d pad softly out onto the dock, toward the flames, toward the vast stillness that separated our two shores, and let the dark and its sounds swallow us. We listened to the lapping of the lake against the dock’s poles or the sides of the boat. Then the trilling of toads. The chirping of crickets. Owls. Mosquitoes whining toward our ears. And occasionally, out in the lake, a fish would jump. On those summer nights, it seemed as if even the stars hummed. If a word came across to us from the other side of the lake, we didn’t call back. We wouldn’t disturb the night beyond our whispers.
Eventually, a deep chill would send us into tents, into sleeping bags set out for us upon dried air mattresses, and we’d sleep the sleep of bears tucked inside caves.
Many dreams later, we might hear the skittering footsteps of a squirrel or chipmunk. A woodpecker knocking on a tree. But I’d only fully wake when I heard the high-low, double note of the male black-capped chickadee—feee-beee! To me, nothing sounded like The Lake more than this bird’s song.
I’d peel back my coverings then. Without disturbing my brother or mom or dad, I’d lift myself to my elbow and slip my head under the nearest tent window flap. I kept my eyes closed at first. But I knew the sun was there in the same way one feels the presence of a warm cloth.
Everywhere the birds were singing.
When I could no longer wait, I opened my eyes to the most magical part of a day at The Lake: sunrise over the water, a shimmering bowl filled with gold.
In actuality, the water in Lake Shetek is not characteristically beautiful. It’s not clear like many northern lakes, and its surface turns green in August with blue-green algae blooms, the result of shallow depth, nutrient-rich run-off, and the area’s naturally organic soil. But I didn’t care about those things as a six-year-old or a twelve-year-old or a twenty-year-old at six o’clock in the morning. I knew only that this lake was a gift, a place burnished by the sights and sounds of wildness, and that on some mornings, if I was lucky, I’d see a flock of floating pelicans silhouetted against the dawn.