As I pulled into the perfectly empty parking lot at Twin Lakes Park, for what would probably be my last dive of the season, I reflected upon my storied history with this small lake.
North Twin is far from the only or most interesting lake in this part of Michigan, but it is minutes from my house. It has no boats and is wonderfully quiet even during the peak tourist season – when most lakes in this part of Northern Michigan are filled with the ominous whine of propellers.
For decades it was a popular party destination for high school seniors. Isolated, surrounded by hills, and just a few miles down the road from the senior high school it hosted a lot of alcohol-fueled sex and late night skinny dipping.
Back in 2014, a local high school senior drowned in North Twin as his girlfriend watched helplessly from shore. It was the third such drowning in as many years. The county commission took action.
They installed life rings, an emergency phone, warning signs. They defined a miserable, tiny, swim area with a $100 fine for anyone who swam outside of it. (‘swam’ being a generous term for what one might manage in an area about the size of a large kiddie pool). The next year they doubled down and made the fine enforceable by any park staff.
A Nest of Intrigue
The county commissioner who instigated this swim ban was a controversial figure, to put it mildly. As I sought a way to reopen the lake to freediving I heard things that began to infringe upon my credulity. Allegations about her personal and professional life not to exclude murder, bribery, sabotage, espionage, blackmail, etc. Her husband was the terror of our public pool – with lawsuits, and accusations of assault, infidelity, intimidation…
I tried to stay focused. I wrote an opinion piece about the lake for the local paper. I was invited to speak on a radio talk show. I needed to keep it simple.
In the waiting room at the radio station, I held my breath. Not in anticipation of being on the air – but because it lowers my voice. It worked. I sounded AMAZING!! I remembered and used everyone’s first names. I was relaxed and at ease. “Well, John..” I replied when asked what I thought made this tiny, innocuous lake so dangerous, “North Twin is filled with water… and water can be dangerous..” I was smooth and unflappable – even when the much-maligned commissioner ‘mysteriously’ called in during my interview. “We have to stop meeting like this..” I said – with terrifying aplomb. “There is room for compromise,” said she.
The host was visibly disappointed by the lack of acrimony.
In my quest to understand all points-of-view I took a walk around North Twin (Normally I find land-based activities near a dive-able body of water excruciating). I stopped on a wooded trail and looked out across the lake. My eyes were drawn to a manmade object not far from shore – a small wooden cross. Fallen at an angle and partially submerged under low cedar limbs, it had part of a name, worn and faded by the elements, two dates, and something about ‘angel’s wings’…
I felt like I’d walked smack into a forcefield of devastating grief. I understood why these families had pushed to close the lake. They had to do something with the pain.
This helped shake me loose from all the politics. I retooled my approach with a larger, more compassionate perspective.
An advisor in the camp of the enemy
Meanwhile, at the community pool, I’d begun sharing a lane with the commissioner’s husband. He liked that I was underwater, and admired my monofin technique. We both liked that nobody else would get in the lane with us.
My approach began to find its form. Not a battle of personalities. Not Politics. Not Constitutional Rights: No defining adversarial relationships. I would take people at their word. I would try to understand and would stay focused on my very simple objective; diving.
One day as I left the pool after a workout I saw the feared commissioner sitting with her back to me in the Parks & Rec director’s office. I continued out to my car but suddenly, as though attached by a giant bungee cord, found myself snapped back into the pool building, into the office, and into a chair directly opposite her. “Sheesh,” I thought.. “that was abrupt”.
I settled my monofin against the side of the chair (prepared to use it as a shield should she attack) and tried to compose myself. “I really want to get you back into that lake..” she said. Momentarily nonplussed by her friendly opening gambit, I was nonetheless ready with the arduously boiled-down result of months of research, thought, personality profiling, and consultation with various experts; “What if we require wetsuits outside the swim area?”
I was prepared to sell the idea, but she did it for me; mentioning flotation, insulation, ease of identification for park staff, and the fact that most serious and competent swimmers were likely to own such suits. “I like that idea!” she replied. She agreed to assign a local attorney (an avid recreational swimmer who’d also written a piece for the newspaper about the swim ban) to write an ordinance. She would sponsor it in the next commission meeting.
It failed to pass.
I’d thought it might. When the attorney ran his ordinance by me I saw something that raised a red flag. He’d included life jackets. I imagined the commissioners, already paranoid about liability, picturing unattended toddlers slipping out of their life jackets and into the lake’s haunted depths. I’d dismissed my reservations because the author had experience with these sorts of things and I did not, but this was exactly why it didn’t pass.
On the upside, I now felt more confident in my readout of the commission’s thinking.
The problem was, due to commission rules, ‘my’ commissioner could not sponsor a re-write. Thus began the search for a new sponsor.
There was the ‘Tea Party’ faction – open carrying during commission meetings, they decried the swim ban as government overreach, but would not sponsor my ordinance because they thought it lent legitimacy to the original ban.
Everyone else’s thinking was governed by two fairly straightforward factors; liability, and a desire for the entire political drama to go away. I needed them to buy into how wetsuits would free them of culpability while eliminating public outcry from the swimming community (basically me and the attorney – everyone else just grumbled quietly and swam elsewhere) and from those who thought the lake dangerous.
I polished my rewrite with specifics organized around what would be practical and tolerable for serious recreational swimmers. It gave the proposal some authoritative technical cachet while placing a minimal burden on, well.. frankly; me.
My new friend (and head of the commission btw) found another commissioner willing to sponsor the amended ordinance. Resolving to make this a full-court press, I put on my power coat and went to the fateful meeting to make my case.
It was a slog. North Twin Lake was the last item on the docket. I sat through four hours of surprisingly amicable discussion about stuff I had less than no interest in. I was, however, pleasantly surprised at how well everyone got along. I was expecting a barrel of gnashing eels – tirelessly lunging for each other’s throats – but things were smooth and personable. I began to think this might be easy…
A Change of Mood
By and by, my compatriot – the attorney/swimmer – and I stepped up to the podium. “North Twin Lake,” someone said. The atmosphere changed, abruptly, like frost forming suddenly on a window. It became contentious, edgy, and problematic.
The commissioner who’d agreed to sponsor my rewrite read it aloud. I tried to stay clear of the largely ego-driven theater of complexity that ensued. After seemingly interminable grandstanding, haggling, righteous proclamations, and variously annoying proposed nonsense it somehow passed. A sigh of relief did not, however, have time to escape my lips…
Last Ditch Attempt at Failure
Someone suggested a requirement to file a ‘recreational plan’ 48 hours prior to swimming. Really!? I leaned into the microphone and, as everyone was talking, interrupted…loudly. “Uh…” (Waited for everybody to shut up..sort of – I did, after all, have volume on my side.) “If you are suggesting I file a ‘recreational plan’ every time I want to go diving in this tiny little lake… THAT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN..” Silence.
I placed my hands on the podium and awaited blowback. It never came. Instead, they all started bickering with one another. ‘What the hell?’ I thought. It began to seem there was some kind of demon infesting the situation that just wanted to keep things as complicated as possible.
Despairing and near the end of my capacity for nonsense, I saw someone in my peripheral vision trying to get my attention. It was the Parks and Recreation director. She mimed a phone and mouthed the words ‘call me’… I fled the muttering cacophony and called her the next day. Once clear of the political infestation we got it sorted quickly: A posted disclaimer and a sign-up sheet in a waterproof bin on site.
Fast Forward: The Pandemic Dives
2020 has been an interesting year for diving. It started for me in the second largest barrier reef in the world and evolved into a greater appreciation for the smallest body of water I’ve ever dived in.
In this season of Covid-19, manic reactionary tourism, political upheaval, and disruption of routines; North Twin Lake has been a quietly inspiring refuge. Darting dragonflies, soaring Northern Buteos, oddly curious turtles, huge bass, constellations of tiny jellyfish, and brilliantly colored freshwater sunfish all grace its imperturbable stillness.
One Sunday after a long monofin sprint I was sitting in the sun on my favorite partially submerged log, looking for turtle noses on the mirror-like surface, and marveling at the stunning precision of dragonflies. Gradually I began to notice musical overtones shifting eerily with the wind and echoing off the trees. After a moment I realized the source of these ethereal sounds was a Ukrainian church choir in the park pavilion across the lake. I looked down at my monofin and thought ‘What a coincidence!’.