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Inside the Outdoors: Waves mix power, magic and mystery

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Wave action on Mille Lacs Sept. 27, 2018. Denton Newman Jr. / PineandLakes.com2 / 2

What is it about moving water that attracts us so irresistibly? Say what you will about a breathlessly still, reflective lake surface "smooth as glass," a state uncommon enough to be worth a remark. It's great for a water skier carving graceful or dramatic arcs and kicking up a "rooster tail" of spray. Or a paddle-boarder making effortless headway and feeling the sensation of being suspended between two mirror-image worlds. Remarkable, yes; but isn't it really water in motion that most captivates us?

Folks who know more about how brains work than I do say that the repetitive, chant-like lapping of waves on shore—or against our boat—has the power to bring serenity to a racing, task-fevered mind; a power not unlike the spiritual practice of meditation. Or perhaps there's a subconscious, unrecognized connection to our having begun life in the aquatic environment of the womb, floating in rhythmic movement during nine months of the most protective shelter we'll ever know. Nor should we forget that an average human is 60 percent water. More than any other molecule, water—constantly moving water—is what we are.

One of my favorite places to appreciate the attraction of moving water is Lake Superior. No other body of water in Minnesota can match its ocean-like immensity. None equals its power, revealed in waves that crash against primitively raw, rocky shores, often driven by winds that sweep mostly unchecked across its 20 million acres of surface.

Several times each year, members of my family who are able to will gather on Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior, for what always feels like an all-too-brief retreat. Sometimes it's mainly to fish. Sometimes it's to witness the change of seasons, as summer blends into fall and leaves begin to change from greens to oranges, reds and yellows. Sometimes it's just to experience the most coastal land and waterscape Minnesota has.

One such recent event found the lake in one of its angry moods. It brought to mind the legendary sinking of the iron ore boat Edmund Fitzgerald during a November gale in 1975. It's been 43 years, but for those who were alive then it seems like yesterday; perhaps it's because of the iconic ballad by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot—The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald—which has remained a staple of easy-listening radio music to this day, at least hereabouts.

We awoke on the last day of our stay to find 10-foot breakers pounding the jagged shoreline, and a frothy surface empty—wisely—of the fishing boats that had dotted it the day before. Along the shore, resort guests clad in foul weather gear followed a walking path that parallels the lake, drawn to be within range of the wind-driven spray from exploding waves.

On a much smaller scale, on the lakes where Minnesotans spend more of their aquatic time, waves run the gamut in size and power; from the gentle, to the dangerous. But no matter how large or small, how dangerous or benign, they are all doing the same thing: transferring energy from one point to another.

We may think that the water in a lake is moving from one shore to another. But only in shallow, near-shore places is the water itself traveling any real distance. For the most part, it is only the energy generated by wind or by seismic forces—like an earth tremor—or by a boat's wake, that moves through a body of water.

Molecules of water at most points in a lake actually stay in nearly the same place, despite the impression that all those marching waves might give us. The water molecules travel in a circular pattern, in a vertical plane. Imagine a wheel on a stationary exercise bike down at the gym and you'll have the general idea.

If the water actually traveled to where the waves seem bound, then in heavy wind conditions most of the water in a lake would end up on the downwind side, and the leeward shore would be "dewatered." But that doesn't happen, because most of the water is not actually going anywhere; the wave and the water are not one and the same.

"But wait," you'll protest. "Water does sometimes come onshore, even causing flooding and destruction. What about hurricanes?" True, to a point. Water loses its circular motion when a wave is slowed or interrupted by an obstruction, whether it's a jetty or breakwater in a harbor, or shoreline shallows that "trip up" a wave, and prevent the completion of that circular cycle. Then, the water actually does tumble forward, sometimes even outside a lake or ocean's normal shoreline boundaries.

But while most of the water stays in virtually the same place, things that are afloat on it, or submerged, respond to the wave and are pushed along by its energy. If the object can resist by its own force, as a fish or a fishing boat might, it can overcome the wave force and travel where it pleases; unless the waves' power is too great. If an object is without propulsion, and is adrift—like that fanciful message-in-a-bottle, or a duck decoy that's lost its anchor—it will go where the wave takes it, and could be cast up on shore.

Like many who have spent much time on or around water, I have a tale or two of events that demonstrated the power of waves. In my early hunting years I hunted from a small, homemade duck boat, which was all I could afford. Just 10 feet long, with a flat bottom—and just a hint of narrowing at the bow—it was a craft best suited to small, placid waters.

But that's not always where the ducks were, so—young and invincible—I regularly took it out on a lake where a v-hull boat would have been safer and more suitable. One afternoon I rowed out to a bulrush island, well away from shore and set out my decoys. As the afternoon wore on the wind began to shift, and grow in intensity. Soon, waves that looked high enough to break over my little duck boat's short sides and transom were marching down the lake.

I had the sense to realize that the waves could outpace my rowing; could break over the transom and swamp me. I eased out of the bulrushes, ignoring my decoys that strained at their anchor lines in the fierce wind. As important as a duck hunter's decoys are, survival came first. I rowed just enough to keep the boat's unseaworthy prow pointed directly into the waves, hoping to shed as much water as possible, and letting the boat be pushed in the general direction of the landing.

Intermittently, I would row with power, at a slight angle to the waves. This gave the boat just enough course correction to come ashore at the landing, and to avoid being blown downlake to the far shore; or perhaps worse. The decoys would have to wait until the wind abated and I could retrieve them the next day. It would be the closest I would come—so far, anyway; knock on wood—to being a duck hunting casualty. Years later I would write a newspaper report on two hunters on much larger Leech Lake who were not so fortunate. They, too, battled wind and waves, but lost, and became Minnesota hunting statistics.

Luckily, we're far more likely to witness the magic and majesty of waves from a safe and comfortable vantage point, than we are to be endangered. Still, just knowing what water in motion is capable of, is a cautionary tale worth the telling; part of its lore and its allure.

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