As the sun warmed the back of my neck, I floated comfortably in my PFD (life jacket) between our two stand-up paddleboards with a hand resting atop each one. Natalie sat on the far end of one of them as we watched our niece and nephew cautiously tip toe up to the inside edge towards me. They led with a bent knee and one foot lightly touching the deck, weighting their back leg to keep from unexpectedly falling forward into the lake.
It took no urging at all, only what felt like the right positioning in their minds, to leap into the air and nearly land on top of me. With PFDs of their own on, their heads hardly dipped below the surface before quickly emerging back to the air wearing a momentary look of fright that quickly gave way to an open-mouth smile and a scream of laughter.
Lacking an ounce more of strength to pull themselves from the lake, they bee-lined for me, using my feet, knees and hips like rungs on a ladder to step their way out of the lake and back onto the boards. And then they lined themselves up to do it again.
This was the routine for over an hour on Saturday at Devil’s Lake where we had taken our young family members, ages 4 and 5, on an overnight camping trip to one of the busiest state parks I can imagine. We had promised them we’d go paddling during this outing, one that they had both been talking about for weeks, and so we’d had to earn our swimming session with an effort out to the middle of the lake and away from the hordes of other swimmers, kayakers and wind surfers.
As we drifted back towards the beach for a second time, they enjoyed their final plunges and then dutifully assisted us in bringing the boards to shore, careful to protect the fins (which they had helped carry individually like an accessory to the beach when we’d arrived). Wearing towels and focused on hot chocolate around a campfire, we drove a short distance to our campsite — home for the night.
While Natalie and I prepared tinfoil packets to cook in the coals, they scoured the site for small sticks to add to the growing fire and carved nature art into the bare section of our camping spot with a couple of extra stakes we’d found upon arrival (camp booty!) Our version of burgers and veggies wasn’t what they had in mind, yet, after just a few frowned bites we watched as their normal personalities returned in place of the spiraling, starved, exhausted young children that had sat down at the picnic table.
Spooning the last few sips of hot chocolate from their mugs, we left the seats of our camp chairs behind and, with tooth brushes in hand, went on a short walk through the campground to the bathrooms together. By the time we set back for our tent, darkness had settled in and fireflies were sprinkling the forest with their glowing butts and it captured these little ones’ eyes — impressive considering how enamored they were with using their headlamps.
We hung two LED lanterns in the tent while Natalie and I tidied up the site before bed and the oldest told a made-up story to her younger cousin. In the still of a humid summer night, with low murmurs and crackling fires of other campers surrounding us, I stopped and listened. I couldn’t see them or their silhouettes, only the lit shape of the tent, and from it small voices lifting from their sleeping bags into the darkness. It was a sweater dream than anything I could hope for in the slumber ahead.
Lucas Will loves wilderness and enjoys many forms of recreation around the Bay area. Adventure is his middle name. Actually, it’s Frederick. When not outside, he lives in a tiny house with his partner and their dog. You can follow him on Instagram under the handle Alfresco Bum.