Friday, 27 April 2012

Last Summer at Yellow Lake

At Yellow Lake's publication date is 6 weeks away, so it's probably time I mentioned the book itself, or rather, its setting....

Most of this post consists of something I wrote many months ago--on the second of July, 2011. I wrote it while sitting at the dining room table of my family's lake cabin in Wisconsin, the fictionalised setting for At Yellow Lake.

Here it is:

2nd July 2011

There is a real Yellow Lake, and a cabin in the woods, that was built by my grandfather on land that has been in my family since the 1930’s. The experience of spending all my summers in a place that was home-but-not-home, a place that I loved more than any other plot of land, was part of the seed that led to At Yellow Lake being written.

The story of At Yellow Lake’s long and tumultuous journey to publication is another story.
Today, I’m writing about the real Yellow Lake, the real cabin. Last night, after the day I e-mailed final changes to the layout copy of At Yellow Lake to Emily, my editor, a tornado hit the cabin. (Note: It turned out that a tornado didn’t hit us: 100 mph straight line winds did). Not an imaginary tornado, not a metaphorical one, but a real one that sounded like a freight train, turned the sky green, ripped up every single tree on our large, forested lot and pummelled the poor cabin (and its sole inhabitant—me—who cowered in a closet under what I think what I think is my mother’s old sewing cabinet) in a merciless onslaught.

The tornado hit without warning. My mother called from 200 miles south saying that she’d heard there might be severe weather in Northern Wisconsin and that I should check with the local news for information and warnings. After quickly rolling my eyes at her over-reaction (how many severe weather warnings had we toughed it out over the decades? My lack of concern seemed justified when the Minneapolis TV news station issued a “severe thunderstorm watch” for Burnett County. A watch is a pretty low-level warning, meaning that the weather conditions are such that a severe thunderstorm (heavy lighting, torrential rain, high winds, hail, etc) is possible. Despite being completely unconcerned by the “watch” I thought (after the electricity, and the satellite TV went out) that closing a few windows would be a good idea.

I made it as far as the kitchen. In the 20 seconds it took me to walk from my chair in the living room, the wind came out of nowhere and something had struck—a porch window smashed, and through the kitchen window I saw a massive tree branch crack and crash to the ground. Ten seconds later I was in the upper bedroom, barricading myself into a closet by shoving a dresser in front of the door as best as I could, and burrowing into a corner.

I am not exaggerating the suddenness or the ferocity of the storm. Thankfully, I heard none of the carnage that was happening outside the cabin. I did not hear the snapping in two of dozens of 75 feet high pine trees. I didn’t hear the 100 year old oak trees crashing around the cabin, onto the roof. I didn’t hear the neighbour’s pontoon boat being flipped into the air, and being swept out onto the lake  (I did discover the lid to his boat’s chemical toilet while on my first post-storm swim). I didn’t hear the detached garage collapse into a flat pile of  shingles and splintered timbers. 

I heard nothing but the ear-shattering noise at the centre of all the havoc: I can only describe this as sounding like very, very large engine or motor wrapping me up in an aural cocoon.  The classic description of noise a tornado makes that it sounds like a freight train.  As I cowered, I asked myself: “Does that sound like a train?” My panic-addled thought brain was actually trying determine what type of train it was—freight or passenger, diesel or coal. Well, it was a freight train, but it wasn’t too close. Seriously. That was the answer I came up with. I also remembered that trains could travel at break-neck speeds and I had no way of knowing whether this train was moving closer to me and the cabin or away from us.

Curled up in a little ball (well, as little as I could make myself....) I could only wait it out. Most people, when describing a relatively brief yet utterly terrifying experience say of their ordeal that “it seemed like it lasted forever."  I felt the opposite. I felt that the winds would last forever, and I was actually surprised when they didn't.  Hunkering, swearing and praying in a closet seemed not an aberration, but the new normality. It was as if this is how I would stay forever. On the floor, curled up, waiting...

I was shocked at how quickly it was all over.



That sounds odd, I know, but I feel a similar thing now, writing several days later about the changes I’m observing outside the window that looks out over the lake. It seems a long tme ago that the cabin was sheltered from the summer’ sun’s searing rays by a thick canopy of branches and leaves. It feels as if these fallen trees that are now obscuring the view of the lake have always been here, and another lifetime ago that things were “normal” and I felt safe and secure.     

2 July, 2011  Yellow Lake


  1. We had a tree fall on the house when I was a teenager and I found that scary enough. This must have been terrifying but it also sounds a wonderfully peaceful place. What a great place to write

  2. Sounds absolutely terrifying - glad you survived!

  3. Yes, I was never really in any danger because the house remained intact. The main damage was the loss of all our trees. So terrifying AND heartbreaking...but it could have been much worse.

  4. My god. What a terrible experience. The weird thing about disaster is the aftermath of normality. When you go back and it's as if it never happened. I can't believe you went for a swim so soon after. Think of where that chemical toilet lid had been. And is the cabin okay now?

  5. Yes, that toilet experience wasn't a good one...the lake is the only thing that hasn't changed there, so it was important to get in.

    Next week I'll show pictures of what it's like now. There are no trees. None. The grass is gone, due to the clean-up operation. The house itself is fine, but the landscape is totally and utterly trashed, and the setting is what made the house, if you know what I mean. In 30 years it will be back to normal! More on this next week...

  6. We hear so much about this kind of storm but (thankfully) few of us experience them. I'm glad you survived but understand your sadness about the trees. It reminded me of seeing bushland that had been devastated by fire in Australia when I was a child.

  7. Amanda, it seems silly to worry about anything other than the loss of human life when such an event occurs (especially in a year when so many people lost their lives in natural catastrophes) But still...

  8. Thanks for comments, people...I'll be writing more about this next week.

  9. Jane, I'm glad you're safe, but I'm so sorry about the damage and the changed landscape. What a terrifying experience! I've been through tornado season in Wisconsin, but never had one go right over my head like that.