Coeur D’Alene Waters
The light blue
windbreaker begins as a speck of nothingness far out on the waters of Lake
Coeur d’Alene. From shore, it seems a trace of outboard gasoline in the
water washes over the grain of color. As the rower pulls past Sparrow
Point, he is part of the reflection of the sky in the water. The boat
moves closer, surging in under the steady thrust and pull of his arms.
The outline of a far away jacket is apparent against the wake-sized
swells. Finally the shape of Matt Worthson rowing an old skiff comes
clear. The oars move slow but solid, without pausing.
Every day for years,
Worthson has rowed halfway across Lake Coeur d’Alene. Worthson does not
usually row all the way out to the Polish rocks. He does not row
regularly, so that his body will become accustomed to the pull -- he rows
far enough to remind him of the strength that's gone.
Twenty odd years ago, in
1962, Worthson was Idaho state wrestling champion. Under the blurring of
middle age, a certain power still remains in his shoulders and chest.
Worthson has worked to stay strong, looking younger than his years, even
now, at forty-seven years old.
Deputy Matt Worthson is a
lieutenant in the Sheriff’s department. It is a job he has had for a long
time. It is a job he often considers leaving. There is only so long one
can keep going. He doesn't like to feel himself staying in place.
If he doesn't move on, he
feels that eventually he will come back to the parts of his life he wants
to avoid. He’ll repeat himself, and he feels he will like himself even
less the second time around. One of those times is on his mind.
Four years ago, Matt
Worthson lost his job. Then they gave it back. What the department
decided about the accident was not the truth of it. They said he had not
been awake when the two cars collided. There were other explanations as
He knows the truth. It
is one of his secrets.
The things that keep him
in Coeur d’Alene are things that in this part of the country only come
with a uniform: his own car, his own office, a working schedule he makes
for himself. And he is not often asked to think, in this job. For a long
time, that has been reward enough to keep him here.
There is also the boat.
It is mostly his by now. Worthson is the only sheriff’s deputy in Joiner
County, Idaho, to ever use the old skiff. When he rows hard enough to
hear the oarlocks tear at the wood, he remembers how long he’s been
When he was suspended for
three months, he stopped coming to the lake. Rowing has not been the same
since. Even before he lost the election for County Sheriff, it was not
the same. He thinks that it is different because many things have left
his life since then. He has been glad to see them go. He keeps thinking
that the feeling will come back, the old feeling of the oars in his hands,
moving him forward.
The accident and the
election seem connected for people who know him only from the newspapers.
Those in town who know him well discount what the newspapers said about
him then. He has never told anyone that the two events are also connected
But he has remained with
the Sheriff's department. The uniform brings a responsibility that holds
things together. It has kept him "dry," as they say in the
meetings. And it allows him to use the boat. These are not small things.
Worthson began rowing in
the lake years ago, when he took his son fishing early on summer mornings.
It is one of the places his wife, Sall, will not go with him. After all,
this boat is small, too old to be reliable, barely big enough for a man
and a boy. It is his alone. For all he knows, City Hall has entirely
forgotten the boat.
By now, the wood is
cracked and splintered all along the port side, as if some great fish
smashed against the side when it was pulled from the depths.
Matt can not remember
catching any fish worth keeping.
Each spring, the Coeur
d’Alene city seal and the waterproof "Property of Joiner County"
decal are replaced by maintenance men, but any name has long since worn
off the bow end. Twice in the past three years, Worthson has himself
patched leaks in the hull, and repainted the wood. He does his best to
On odd occasions, the
boat is needed by the County. Once a pickup trailer full of huckleberry
baskets and Russ Syler’s half-drunk teenage daughter, Sheila, tipped its
load into the east end of the lake. Matt happened to be rowing when
someone decided they needed a rowboat to retrieve the floating
huckleberries. But the Syler girl could swim, and by the time Matt came
to shore all the huckleberries were underwater and sinking fast.
There have been other
accidents, more serious, most of them pulled out by motorboats. Over the
years, swimmers have drowned in these waters: a child here, a cramped
marathoner there. That was before they closed the entire west side of the
lake to swimming. In time long past, even the rowboat was used for
regular lifesaving patrols. Near the west end of the lake, where the
Spokane river flows out, the currents are very dangerous.
Matt Worthson has helped
pull enough bodies out of the lake to not be surprised any longer when
people think water must be safe because it is clear and blue as the north
Idaho sky in summer. It is an attitude that he imagines disappears
sometime between the current taking you and the first inhalation of water.
The leaving of it would be, he thinks, something unexpected, surprising.
This afternoon, an echo
of that panic comes over him when the balance of the boat alters under
him. The movement is solid, as if a heavy waterlogged thing is slipping
under the gunwhale, submerging itself. For some reason he can not place,
Worthson connects this sound to fishing, and looks at the port side, where
the wood is splintered. The bottom of the boat scrapes again over
something soft and rotten, moving in the current.
It strikes him that there
could be another body in the lake.
" Who are you, who
are you then?" Matt mutters, and back-paddles hard with the oars. A
round shape like a forehead lies immobile in the waves, tied somehow to a
long smooth form with hair, covered by rags and broken wood. He
back-paddles again and the boat moves far enough for him to see the great
pale shape of the largest Polish rock beside him. Things shift then.
The Polish rocks and
their debris are all around him. In front of the boat is only a mass of
twigs and currents moving against the rocks. Leaves and debris without a
Except for him, there is
no one in the lake at all.
In the failing light, he
can see that nothing is there. He's scraped over a log between two of the
He is past the point he
usually stops. He is near the Polish rocks, where the currents change.
Things catch here and hold for a time, rotting and sinking into the lake
bottom. It is the best bass water in the Coeur d'Alene.
During much of the
year, the rocks are underwater. When the water level drops in late summer
the Polish rocks emerge white, like capped swimmer’s heads, drowned
things. He had forgotten what they looked like this time of year.
The idea of what he could
have seen is still on his mind when he moves the boat back towards shore.
The sky is streaked now with lines of deep violet. He thinks of soot or
grease. A jet contrail has lanced them across some time ago, leaving
pockets of spreading white behind. He sees in one of the large vapor
clouds a face, turning itself away from the shoreline. He can just make
out a muted profile: an eye, an ear, nose, a cheekbone, before the sky
eats it into the shades of a bruise. He pulls on the oars again, and
feels the strain.
By the time he manages to
get the boat all the way from the Polish rocks to the dock, he is too
tired to care what his eyes see in the water, in the darkening sky.
Worthson thinks of his
son. His son, Michael Doug, is in town for dinner tonight, after almost
four years away. Matt cannot remember the last time they’d eaten dinner
together. He does not know if Michael left because of him, or because of
other, less pressing problems. Matt hopes a few of the problems have been
solved by now, although he doesn't have much faith that this would change
anything. There would be new problems. Michael made his own.
But it matters to Matt to
see him. His son Michael has just driven in from Oregon with a girlfriend
that morning. Worthson's thoughts of Michael have softened somehow while
he's been gone.
He imagines, even, that
his son might be waiting for him, wanting him back. This moves him across
the lake. His son is anxious to see him; yet he will be late again.
There is no way to get there faster. Worthson still has to move the boat
off the water.
When he reaches the north
end of the boardwalk the wearing of the oars has settled into the muscles
of his shoulders. The municipal dock and the city boathouse stand out of
the water, leaning into one another.
The beach is steep and
gritty like pumice there at the Coeur d’Alene municipal dock and Matt
drags the boat all the way up the sandy verge to chain it up. This night,
he moves stiffly, as if he's left his strength out at the Polish rocks.
The fatigue can be seen in the time he takes to chain the rowboat up to
the dry piling on shore.
There are some things
that cannot be maintained all the way.