St. Patrick, Where Art Thou?


St. Patrick, Where Art Thou?

Just recently, I posted a piece that recalled the blessing in my life and thousands of others, that was Holy Name Retreat House on Chamber's Island.  This story is the only not-so-fond memory that I have of that place.

Since Chamber's Island is what its name implies, it is only accessible by boat.  One of the most intriguing geographical features of Chamber's Island is that the island itself includes a lake (Mackaysee Lake), and there are a couple of small islands in Mackaysee Lake.  So, it is possible to take a boat to Chamber's Island, and then, get in a smaller boat on the island to paddle out (no motors allowed on Mackaysee Lake) to one of its smaller islands. 

One of my favorite things to do is paddle.  Currently, my paddling is done when I am in my kayak, but for almost 50 years all my paddling was done in a canoe.  Since I enjoy paddling, it was no surprise that one of my favorite things about Chambers Island was that the retreat house kept two canoes and a small row boat pulled up on the beach for use during any down time from the retreat schedule.  My absolute favorite way to start the day was to sneak out very early as the daylight was just starting to gnaw away at the darkness with my breviary in hand.  I would then paddle one of the canoes out to the middle of the lake, turn the bow so I was facing east, and watch the sun rise through and then finally over the tall white pines.  I had plenty of time to then pray the Divine Office and Morning Prayer and paddle back to the retreat house just as the other retreatants were beginning to stir from their beds.

That was my intention on a particular morning.  I had invited my wife Michelle along, but she opted for another hour of sleep.  I went down to the water’s edge alone, and noticed that both canoes had been turned over because there had been some rain in the area the day before our arrival.  Of the two canoes, one was fiberglass and the other aluminum.  I preferred the aluminum canoe because it had a keel which made it easier to steer and it was also more stable.  The fiberglass canoe was flatbottomed, so I found it to be a little too tippy for my taste.  I prefer not to end a good paddle with an unintended swim.  So, I grabbed a paddle and a life jacket from the nearby shed, flipped the aluminum canoe over and pushed it into the lake.  I got in, and paddle-in-hand began to glide almost effortlessly across the smooth, mirrored surface of the lake as the morning breeze had not yet stirred. 

I should state one more thing at this point for the inexperienced paddler.  Every canoe has a front and a rear.  You can tell the front seat because it is set back far enough from the bow to allow the person in that seat who is facing the bow, some leg room.  The rear seat is pushed back more closely against the stern since the person’s legs sitting in that seat already face into the middle of the canoe.  Whenever I paddle a canoe solo, however, I always position myself in what should be the front seat, but facing what is technically the wrong direction.  What this does is it keeps the front half of the canoe in the water.  If a lone paddler were to sit in what normally would be considered the rear seat, the front of the canoe would come up out of the water which would make the canoe much harder to keep straight, especially if there is a wind as it is almost like having a sail that catches the breeze. 

I was about twenty minutes into my paddle when some movement caught my eye.  There was about an inch gap in the front bulkhead.  The largest spider I had ever seen in Wisconsin came creeping out of that gap.  Although this was a 17-foot canoe, that still leaves a spider and a person just so much room to share.  I don’t know what the spider thought, but I immediately sized up the space as much too small for the both of us.  The spider crept cautiously out from his hiding place for about three feet or so.  I kept paddling with my eyes now no longer scanning the view of lilies in bloom, or for an eagle passing overhead; my eyes were locked on that spider.  After about five minutes the spider suddenly began scurrying along the side of the canoe towards me.  Almost instinctively I banged the paddle against the canoe.  The spider reversed direction and disappeared back into that crevice in the bulkhead. 

I didn’t have much time to breathe easier as the spider re-emerged just a few minutes later.  Again, he scurried along the side of the canoe towards me.  I waited for him to get close enough as I hoped that I could squish him with the paddle.  I missed, but the spider at least retreated for a second time.  My eyes again fixed on that crevice.

At that point I did hear an eagle scream loudly to herald the morning and I glanced upward to watch him fly over.  He headed toward the far shore and began circling and fishing for his breakfast.  By the time I looked again at the bow, something just looked weird.  What was that?  Then, it inched outward a bit more.  What was emerging from that crevice was not the dreaded spider; it was a snake.

Now, maybe I should pause here just to explain that I fear snakes.  I refuse to even look at them when they are supposedly safely behind glass in a zoo.  Any visiting we did at any zoo with our children when they were young either skipped the reptile house altogether, or my wife took the children in while I waited outside.  So, if I stated earlier that the canoe was much too small for a spider and I, imagine how much smaller the allotted space seemed for me and a snake! 

Again, I banged on the side of the canoe with the paddle and the snake retracted.  I needed a plan.  I glanced over to my left and noticed that the bigger of the two islands in the lake was only about ten minutes of hard paddling away.  I turned left and dug as deep as I could with each stroke.  I only stopped once to hit the side of the canoe as the snake had tried to come back out again.  I prayed for the snake to be patient.

The snake was patient and it was certainly less than ten minutes when the canoe slid up into the sand on the tiny island.  I jumped out, grabbed my end, spun the canoe around and dragged it ashore.  Then I flipped the canoe over.  I had surmised that both the spider and the snake had crawled up into that bulkhead crevice when the canoe was tipped over on the beach by the retreat house.  That way they both took shelter from those mid-week rains.

My plan worked.  I had stepped back about ten yards or so, and after about 10 minutes I watched the snake, which proved to be a fox snake, stick his head out and size up the situation from his perspective.  The coast looked clear.  Slowly he crawled out further and further until he plopped down on the ground.  I moved in quickly to the canoe, grabbed it and flipped it back upright, so that the snake could not retreat back up into the bulkhead.  The snake decided quickly that not only the canoe, but the island was too small for the both of us and he headed out, swimming for the far shore.  I watched him until he was out of sight in case he changed his mind and his direction. 

I was pleased with my ingenuity and success, and intended to slide the canoe back out into the lake to continue my paddle when I noticed a second snake had emerged out six inches from the bulkhead.  I flipped the canoe upside down again and stepped back again.  This time it took longer.  I began wondering if I would be able to get back to the retreat house before breakfast.  One thing I did know was that I was not getting back into that canoe with a known stowaway of the creepy kind aboard.  After about twenty minutes snake number two, a garter snake, re-emerged and slowly worked his way out and dropped to the ground.  Again, I quickly flipped the canoe back upright.  Snake number two decided to try island living.  A cold chill along my spine made me shudder as he slithered towards the bunch of trees that huddled about twenty yards away.

I quickly pushed the canoe off the beach, launched and paddled hard for the retreat house.  I wish I could say that I was relieved, but I couldn’t help wondering whether there was room for a third snake in that bulkhead.  Also I had no idea where, if anywhere, the spider had gone.  If he was still aboard, he never showed himself again, which was fine with me.

I stowed the paddle and lifejacket in the shed and walked up the hill towards the retreat house.  I was thinking that I had been baptized at St. Patrick’s in Green Bay, and I was now assigned there as deacon.  I had the opportunity to go on retreat to Ireland where I visited the beloved Saint’s grave and I even preached at the Cathedral named for him.  Since he was so good at driving away snakes, I wondered momentarily why he had abandoned me in this way. 

It was only then that it occurred to me that if Michelle had decided to rise early and accompany me, I would have been seated in the back and she in the front.  That would have meant that all creatures great and small that emerged from that bulkhead that morning would have come out from behind me unseen, and crawled and/or slithered right between my feet.  I don’t know whether my faith that morning would have been enough to allow me to walk on the water, but I am pretty sure I would have given it a try!       

His Peace <><

Deacon Dan                       

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash