In the bright morning sun and cool breeze, Mike put-puttered the rental pontoon away from the dock and steered toward the middle of Shagawa Lake. Our family—Mike and I, our two kids Alex and Amy, and our dog named Foster— settled in for a lounge on the water after a week of exploring Ely, MN, our summer road trip destination.
“I want to go on an island,” Amy, age 11, announced.
“You’ll have to swim to it because we can’t get too close with the pontoon,” I said. Small rocky bumps and large pine-covered islands dotted the lake. Sharp, shallow rocks ringed those islands, like anti-moats.
Zipping on her life vest, Amy beamed. Clearly the swim was not a problem and with the vest on she could go on her own.
When we were several pontoon lengths from a pair of islands, Mike lowered the anchor off the bow. Amy stepped down the pontoon ladder into the water and swam for a rock island. Alex, age 13, remained indecisive about joining her.
As I watched Amy swim, I felt that familiar feeling of wanting to make sure she was safe, to send someone with her. My joyful, curious daughter glanced back to smile before focusing again on her destination and I said nothing.
She didn’t need us to be anywhere other than standing on that anchored pontoon.
Amy climbed onto the smooth, sun-warmed chunk of bedrock. She glowed, standing tall, raising her arms and sticking her tongue out the side of her mouth in her usual goofy pose for the camera.
“I’m going to the island, too,” said Alex. As both kids swam for the island, I turned to Mike, “I was tempted to ask you to go with them, but they don’t really need us out there, do they?”
“Nope,” he said and I leaned into his shoulder. Amy and Alex were well on their way to not needing us, a fact that both delighted and distressed me. I wondered what they would find at the island of mossy rocks and scraggly pines.
Barely two barefoot steps onto the island, Amy howled, “Ow! Something stung me! I stepped on a bee!”
In mere seconds, I cycled through a blur of reactions. Crud, there goes our relaxing afternoon…I need to dive in, fully clothed, to rescue her! What if she has an allergic reaction like my dad did when he swallowed a bee and had to be rushed to the emergency room?!
“It hurts!” Amy yelled from the island that now seemed miles away. In a long-practiced adaptation of mine to balance the emotional scales, I became calm and focused.
“You have to swim back. You need to get in the water and swim back to the pontoon.”
Amy grimaced, but reentered the lake, pulling herself through the water with her arms, her right leg dragging behind. “It hurts when I move my leg.”
“Just keep swimming, honey. You’re almost here. You’re doing great.”
She wouldn’t step on the ladder, so Mike and I grabbed her hands to pull her up until I could reach under her arms, hugging her soaking wet body to mine and lifting her onto the pontoon. That’s when the tears started. Big gasping sobs.
She sat and lifted her foot. There, on the soft pad of the bottom of her right foot dangled the bee stinger and its gooey venom sac. I scraped it out. A piece of the stinger remained in her skin, the spot hot, red and swollen.
“Are you breathing okay?” I asked. She nodded. I checked for hives and found none, meaning no crazed hospital dash at pontoon top speed.
“I want Foster!” she wept. Since Foster was a puppy, she’s licked the tears from Amy’s face. As I dug through our bags for something to extract the last bit of stinger, Foster licked her cheeks, nose and chin and Amy’s crying slowed.
Alex found his Swiss army knife that had tweezers and he even had a band-aid in his waterproof hiking kit. I removed the last of the stinger and had Amy dangle her feet in the water, the coldest available substance.
After a few minutes, we dried her feet, applied the band-aid and Amy stretched out on the pontoon bench seat. I draped her big pink beach towel across her and handed her The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, one of her favorite books. Still in pain and understandably grumpy, Amy retreated into her book while we pulled up the anchor to relocate away from Bee Sting Island. Over the next two hours, we snacked on cheese and crackers while watching two loons, one adult and one juvenile, diving and emerging. They called back and forth to an adult loon further away. We never knew where the loons would come up next, but we looked and looked and pointed excitedly when they bobbed to the surface.
By the time we returned to shore, Amy was walking with no problem.
“Will you still explore islands, Amy?”
“Yeah. Of course. But I’m gonna wear shoes next time.”
And next time life stabs her with a barbed stinger, whether I’m there or not, I hope she’ll remember to find comfort in doggie kisses, a beloved book, and the joy of gazing across the water to see where the loons will surface.