We heard it all night long, whipping through the trees and slapping the lake violently against the uneven shore line. Storms and camping do not go together like bread and butter, so we were grateful the clouds had finished dumping their payload and the wind had resorted to merely flinging droplets from sodden trees by the time we emerged from our beleaguered tent.
We, my three children and I, didn’t notice it until well after our damp breakfast and their father’s departure for work. There had been no shimmering sparkle of sun on the lake to draw our eyes in that direction, so it was almost by accident that the little spot of red awash in a sea of grey sky and water caught our attention. But there it was – our little red beach bucket with a bright yellow handle, floundering and listing precariously several meters off shore.
We watched it for a while, like a silent audience to a slow-motion disaster movie. The waves tossed it about, teasing it with the promise of a safe ride to shore, then maliciously steering a course for the middle of the lake. One rogue wave or another pelting downpour and our little red bucket would surely go the way of the Titanic. Not a comforting thought.
There were other thoughts, too, tugging with increasing persistence as we watched that circle of red on watery grey. Thoughts about the culverts just down from our campsite where the lake drained into a moderately sized river of no particular name that rippled quickly along until it met up with the lumbering Parsnip River. Thoughts about the fact that the Parsnip eventually joins the mighty Peace River, which muscles its way to the Slave River and on to the massive Mackenzie River, which got its name from the famous explorer William Mackenzie who followed it to ‘discover’ the Arctic Ocean. Yikes!!!! Our little red bucket could end up marooned in the frozen wastelands of the Arctic??!!!
And so began a desperate attempt to rescue a lonely, half-drowned little red bucket from the cruel fates of nature.
Attempt number one involved finding long sticks, small logs really, to try hook onto the handle for a daring airlift, but the stick-logs were either too short or too heavy. We rallied together to come up with another contingency plan, my youngest son becoming increasingly distraught about the loss of this suddenly-the-most-favourite-toy-ever which by now was bobbing heavily, drunkenly, steadily in the direction of the culverts.
Attempt number two involved a divide-and-conquer maneuver. Two of us would bushwhack along the shoreline, keeping a constant eye on Little Red to monitor his position and vital signs; the other two would race half a kilometre, give or take, down the gravel road to the culverts and wait there with a fishing net. It was a fool-proof plan. Rescue was imminent.
Except for the fact that the handle on the fishing net was just inches too short to reach Little Red, who by then was sinking even lower towards his brim as the current swished him through the culvert beneath us.
This was a disaster worthy of intense nail-biting and hand-wringing. Our only chance now lay in a wide eddy where the water swirled somewhat lazily before it was whisked away to the menacing Arctic watershed.
Attempt number three was more of a desperate reaction than an organized plan. So far, none of us had even remotely thought to question the sanity of trying to rescue a $2.00 plastic beach toy; we were in this together and our mission would be successful.
My oldest son and I sprinted back to the campsite while my daughter and youngest son paced the road over the culverts, willing Little Red to linger in the eddy. Please don’t drown and don’t go down the river. Not the river. Not the Arctic Ocean. Please, please…
Back at the campsite, I hurriedly pumped air into a sagging inner tube while my son, shivering in the cool dampness of a summer day that had never warmed, donned his swim trunks and still-wet-from-the-day-before water shoes. It had taken us too long to complete these tasks, and now running back to the culvert seemed inadequate and ponderously slow. We would never get there in time. With a burst of inspiration, JC grabbed his bike, threaded himself through the inner tube and awkwardly careened down the road, towel flopping behind him like a floundering cape, the bouncing inner tube intermittently blocking his vision.
The situation at the culvert was dire. Little Red was still in the eddy…but just barely.
As if he had practiced the maneuver in countless search-and-rescue training scenarios, JC skidded to a stop, dropped and dismounted the bike simultaneously, tossed the towel aside, and launched himself and the tube into the river, gasping only slightly as the cold water invaded his swim trunks. He began paddling furiously with his hands to cross the main current and reach Little Red who by now was only seconds from exiting the back-eddy. The watchers-on-the-culvert above might as well have been in the final sixty seconds of a tied seventh game in the Stanley Cup final. The tension was that palpable.
So it was only natural that a spontaneous boisterous cheer erupted when JC, unable to keep the round tube going in a straight line, performed a nifty backhand snatch that lifted Little Red up, up and away from a watery grave, Arctic or otherwise. We had done it!! We had rescued our little red bucket, yellow handle and all.
Life has moved on, and ironically none of us have any idea whatever happened to that little red bucket. Like many childhood toys, it simply disappeared (probably not in the Arctic Ocean). But that morning remains as one of our most treasured family camping trip memories, not because of any inherent value in the bucket we ‘rescued,’ but because of the infinite value of simply ‘doing life’ together as a family. In his novels centred on the residents of fictitious Port William, Wendell Berry develops the concept of a ‘membership’ – of families and neighbours working together, caring, supporting, celebrating, and sharing a sense of purpose and place. It is this feeling of membership that lingers warmly in my spirit when I think about our long-ago adventure with that silly red bucket.
Yes, life has moved on, and our family has faced storms that left us awash and listing in a sea of grey, where membership was stretched thread-thin by pressures in all directions. It seems we have grieved more than we have celebrated. We have failed each other. We have had to apologize. We have had to forgive. We have been hurt and angry and disappointed and discouraged and overwhelmed. We have realized that rescuing little red buckets has very little in common with attempting to rescue an actual life. We have faced painful, hard things and aching, heart-rending moments.
But we are still a family. And as a family we can choose to cultivate the things that maintain membership and community: gentleness and gratitude, respect and honour, grace and humility, giving and giving and giving some more, living love and living loved.
Today I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this family, this membership, God has blessed me with. I’m grateful for a little red bucket and many other treasured memories. I’m grateful for the ways that He continues to heal our broken places and to keep us from being washed away in the potentially disastrous currents of daily living.
I’m so very grateful. Sola Gratia