Cumulus clouds drifted past a pale sun, a chilly day for swimming, but I couldn’t resist traveling to the lake for a good soaking. I yearned for the solace I’d find there. I invited my nine-year-old granddaughter, Annie, to join me. She needed the large expanse of water, time to stretch her limbs and move freely.
Annie was a Paradise Camp Fire survivor. In the six months since the deadly blaze, her family had moved from a one-bedroom apartment with other family members, to three different motels. After that, her household of five settled into an RV on a lot at her stepfather’s work. Her father, my son, Jake, had lost his home, too. Because he was now staying with my husband and me, Annie and her younger sister frequented our home each weekend. It was Annie’s week for a special visit on her own.
Annie was weary of cramped, trailer living. As a hyperactive child, she craved a place to skip and scurry. Our cabin was small, but there was a half-acre yard, perfect for running through the sprinklers or playing tag. On this day, Annie needed to expend more energy than usual. Her lips quivered, “I hate being indoors and sitting on my bed all day. I’d rather go to school and do math than spend one more minute in the trailer,” she said. At school there was recess. At home, play outdoors was restricted due to buses and cars on the lot where their RV was parked.
“Summer’s coming soon,” I said, “Then you can visit more often.” We lived an hour away from Chico, where Annie’s family was temporarily sheltered. I tossed towels, swim-noodles, camp chairs and a cooler filled with blueberries, croissants and juice into the back of my Jeep. As we bounced down the cracked and crumbled road headed toward the lake, occasional bursts of sunlight popped through the clouds.
Lake Francis lies at the border of Tahoe National Forest. Tall pines, willows, and thick stands of cattails surround the shoreline. Annie and I found a perfect spot: a flat space under the pines with a grassy, green bank. Already in our swimsuits, we strolled to the water and waded in. We wobbled over sharp stones in our winter-softened feet, but once past the rock, the lake bottom turned to slime, “It feels like I’m walking on bird poop,” Annie said.
“It’s gooey, red clay,” I said, as my feet sank into sticky softness. Holding our noodles, Annie and I moved easily through the warm shallows, but when we stepped deeper, where water hit our hips, cold flooded out the warmth; “We’ll have to dunk in,” I said. Annie, always ready to please, held my hand. We counted, “one, two, three,” and plunged into the icy lake. Annie popped up like a Jack-in-the-Box; her teeth chattered, and goosebumps covered her arms.
After a year without swimming, Annie was fearful, so we practiced paddling and kicking in the shoal where she could touch the bottom; “You’re doing great, “I said. “You’re swimming. Just hold your noodle underneath your arms for support.”
“I’m swimming. I’m swimming,” Annie said, as her lips curved into a joyful smile. As her confidence grew, we swam in deeper waters. The clouds overhead parted and the sun lit the waves with golden ribbons. Our arms moved like butterflies; our legs kicked like frogs. I showed Annie how to float on her back, head facing the sun, eyes closed, arms extended. We were free and buoyant, and for a while, silent, as the tranquil sensation of the water’s ripples rocked us gently toward the reeds. And eventually, into a small flock of geese who flapped their wings and honked, breaking our calm.
For over an hour, we swam with the geese, drifted with the current, and splashed in the shallows. As clouds covered the sun, the water turned cold, but we hesitated to leave. After a while, Annie began to shake and shiver. Her lips blue, I suggested it was time to go. I wrapped her in towels and a fleece blanket, placed a woolen cap on her head. She slipped on her flip-flops and walked toward the Jeep. I pulled down the tailgate and helped her into the back, then turned on the engine and heater. Annie tugged off her wet swimsuit and I draped her in a sweater. The windows steamed as Annie ate croissants and blueberries that stained her fingers dark purple. We soaked up the warmth inside the Jeep until our goosebumps faded.
Later, as we drove home in the toasty car, I imagined other adventures for Annie: kayaking on the lake, hiking the path along the Yuba River, lying on sun-warmed granite boulders in the river’s emerald pools.
I knew that Annie’s home-life would be difficult for some time, as housing was impossible to find. The promised FEMA mobile home parks for the Camp Fire survivors were slow in coming. The first small park opened just weeks ago. More home parks were planned, but it was hard to find sites to place so many temporary housing units. It would take many more months to find acceptable locations and install the necessary infrastructure, like water, sewer and electricity. I’d hoped our forays into nature would give Annie some space to play and release her excess energy, and possibly, a place for grounding in an unpredictable world.
From the back seat, I heard Annie’s soft breaths. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I noticed her closed eyes as she cuddled in her blanket. Calm and relaxed, I sank into my seat, savoring the moment.
Kandi Maxwell lives in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. She has been an English teacher, backcountry and rock-climbing guide, musician, and recreation therapist. Her stories are published in Hippocampus Magazine, KYSO Flash, The Door is Ajar, The Offbeat, The Raven’s Perch and many other literary journals and print anthologies.