A tiny Norwegian island north of the Arctic Circle, Sommarøy (“Summer Island”), recently made the news for its “Let’s Stop Time” campaign to create the modern world’s first “time free” zone. Many of its 350 residents signed a petition to do away with clocks, deadlines and closing times during its 70 days of around the clock sunshine this summer.
Lifelong resident Kjell Ove Hveding, whose family has been on the island since 1832, says, “Even after work, the clock takes up your time. People have forgotten how to be impulsive, to decide that the weather is good, the sun is shining, I can just live.”
Amen to that. Even though I have 10 days off from work, I can’t sit still. I’m like a shark; if I stop moving, I’ll die. Kayaking is the perfect solution: keep paddling and do nothing but look at Lake Hallie and enjoy what the Japanese call a “nature bath.”
I have visited this lake since the summer I turned 7. My best friend, Karen Sabaska, grew up here. I nearly drowned in front of her house, a spot I can now see from my kitchen window. We were bobbing — pushing off the sandy bottom and bursting out of the water — when I hit a drop off. Karen pulled me up by the hair. Not so much of a story except when her mom brought me home, Helen told my mother. I would have just as soon left it between the Sabaskas and me. Alone with Mom, she scolded, “What would I have done if you’d drowned.” I would not truly understand until I became a mother myself.
That night I wrote to my older sister in Milwaukee and told her in detail about my new friend and what happened my first time at Karen’s house. Juliann recently gave me back that 1975 letter, which captures in my loopy-just-learned cursive how much I love Karen and Lake Hallie.
Back then I remember thinking, “If I lived out here I’d swim every day.” Now I’ve lived on Lake Hallie for nine years, and I’ve only been swimming once. My 7-year-old self would be appalled. The week of my 51st birthday, I paddle Lake Hallie. The mirror-like water and the fluidity of time conspire to make 30 or 40 years on this lake seem to pass in a few ripples.
At age 11 summers are endless for Karen and me. Seeing each other when we’re not in school is a rare treat. Even though we only live 6 miles apart arrangements must be made and parents asked, unlike our daily bike rides to neighborhood friends.
At Karen’s house, we swim and canoe. I like exploring Lake Hallie, but each time Karen steers us to the middle, stands up and rocks the boat until it sinks. In I go, one hand to my face to protect my thick glasses from sinking to the bottom. This usually happens in front of the cabin where I now live.
Karen remembers it differently. Forty years later, she claims she only dumped me once. “But it was traumatic,” I tease, as if there’s ever much difference between what we remember and what really happened.
As girls at my house in Chippewa Falls, we sleep in a Smokey travel trailer parked in the driveway, like a mini apartment for us. One night Karen and I play cards at the tiny table. Before bedtime we hear banging on the steel trailer. We look at each other, eyes wide. Karen does her best ventriloquism: “You know what I’m gonna do? Get under the table.” Does she think this intruder might read lips? We both slide off the cushions and hide under the table that will soon fold into our bed.
We tremble side by side, eyes flitting from window to locked door. Someone turns the doorknob. Just like in a horror movie, we are too stunned to scream. My heart jumps around inside my nightgown.
Dad’s face appears in the crank-out window: “What’s going on in there?” He unlocks the door with his key and finds us beneath the table. His giggling fills the camper. He’s the same age we are now. Karen and I let out relieved guffaws. Being scared is a part of childhood, but I don’t recall ever feeling more petrified. We will all tell this story till we die.
At age 21 there’s never enough summertime. Karen and I lay in the sun, waitress at night, and drink at Slim’s, where old saddles top the barstools. Sometimes we build bonfires at the cement ruins where her grandpa Clark Hughes’ dancehall, The Hoot, once stood (the Leader-Telegram’s current printing plant). We swim in his quarry ponds, sandy bottom and beer colored water, adjacent to Lake Hallie.
We are on the edge of our adult lives. Karen loves a boy she will eventually marry. At the end of summer, a boy I’m seeing tells me he wants someone else. That day I sit outside at Karen’s house and sob in her arms. I gaze across Lake Hallie at a funky two-story cabin, one that resembles a wedding cake with a tier sliding slightly to one side. Back then, I could not dream I will someday live there with a husband, a man I don’t know I am just two weeks away from meeting. Back then, I could not imagine how happy I’d be.
Now Karen lives in my childhood neighborhood and I’m in hers, the same six miles from each other. We talk on the phone each weekday morning while I’m driving to campus, and she’s tooling around highways in her dump truck. We see each other most weekends, usually for beer at my kitchen counter after she visits her mom — who is just yelling distance across Lake Hallie from me.
Turns out Sommarøy’s “Let’s Stop Time” campaign was a public relations stunt to attract tourists. In the Chippewa Valley, we don’t need months of midnight sun to take islander Hveding’s advice: Put away your watch while the sun is shining. Just live.
I’d like to say Karen and I kayak together often, but the last time was on my 50th birthday. I packed us Lake Hallie mojitos and we toured the lake we’ve been paddling together for over 40 years. Nothing exciting happened and that’s just the way we like it. Who knows what our future selves will look back on — perhaps the night we concocted plans for a zipline from her mom’s house to mine. I hope my 71-year-old self enjoys that ride.