The Lake and I are not off to a good start.
My wetsuit is more buoyant than expected and hitting the water is like flopping onto a rug. Then my heavy tank settles and flips me over to face the sky – grey clouds are rolling in over the blue – and I must be making a racket with my thrashing – really, I’m flapping with my arms and legs at the water, trying to right myself – but can’t hear a damn thing since my hood has suctioned itself over my ears and cuts out everything but the rasp of my regulator and the thumping of my pulse. My right fin is slipping off. I can’t reach it. Most dive accidents happen at the surface.
Wait, I think. Remember the fundamental rule. Relax and breathe.
I lie still and float on my back. I breathe evenly. Slowly me and my suit and all the other alien accouterments on my body adjust to one another, and rather than an ungainly turtle on dry land I become something more like a graceful turtle in the sea, because when my pulse and air intake even out so does my brain and suddenly it’s easy as pie to coordinate my limbs. I flip onto my stomach, work a finger in at the back of my fin, pull the heel up snug, loosen my limbs, and adjust my mask and regulator.
A descent into dark water is like entering a room wearing a blindfold. You can sense the space and know your general direction, but know nothing of the terrain. In some cases, if diving from an anchored boat as here, you can follow the anchor line down; you can draw yourself down hand over hand.
At forty feet is a thermocline and instantly the temperature drops ten degrees, and my seven-millimeter wetsuit is about as effective as tissue paper. Five minutes without any suit at all in this water could kill a horse. Superior is all drama.
But there, tucked another fifty feet down under the invisible plane of the thermocline, throwing off its own faint aura of rusty light, is the hull of a boat upright on the bottom. I descend directly over the wheelhouse, and beyond are cargo hatches and railings and what might be a little crane for loading and unloading, all perfectly preserved. The aft tower is but a dark shadow.
This is a little ship, not a great freighter like the Edmund Fitzgerald. The story of its sinking is non-violent: no one died, the ship having been anchored and its crew mostly ashore when a northeaster’ came rolling down from Canada. It foundered quickly and has been sitting here, perfectly preserved in 120 feet of water, for almost fifteen years. The boat will likely sit there for another hundred or more. The cold slows time to a crawl – world without end.
My cousin Ben is with me on this trip and he is trying for his Advanced Open Water dive certification, for which he must perform a simple math problem at depth.
The deeper a diver goes, the more rapidly nitrogen builds in the body and what results is a state of nitrogen narcosis, that famous rapture of the deep. Slowed reaction times, disregard for personal safety, etc. – it is like being drunk. Nitrogen narcosis can be deadly when you’re ninety feet down, so it’s important to be able to recognize the onset and stay mindful.
When I completed this same task for my AOW certification, I ended up solving a long division problem as if it were an addition problem. Math is not my strong suit.
Now we touch down and kneel on the deck. Ben is handed a white plastic slate with his problem on it. He stares for a second, scribbles with a waterproof pencil, and hands the slate back to the divemaster, who looks and shakes his head and writes: solve. We all peer at the slate, our heads bumping and hair mingling. We laugh in bursts of bubbles. Ben only recopied the problem. It takes a few more minutes of scribbling before he gets a gold star.
Our little group swims the length of the ship, peering through the railings out at the void and down at the cargo hatches and up at three silvery Lake trout sheltering in the crane. Some ships are scuttled, especially in warmer latitudes, to form an artificial reef where fish and other sea life can thrive and we divers can watch. But here Earth is a strange and brutal planet, and the natives are few.
Pretty soon Ben and I are shivering uncontrollably. We work back to the wheelhouse and the anchor line.
Before the thermocline, before the return of sunlight and of warmth, I pause and look at the disappearing wreck. Forever on the edge between life and afterlife; a ghost in the water.
It seems to hold down an answer, but I do not know the question.