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Navigating the Narrows: A Lenten Metaphor

My grandfather’s cottage sits atop an outcrop of Canadian Shield granite in southeastern Ontario. There is no road access. It is a journey of two lakes, and between the lakes lies “the narrows”.

As kids we’d pile into his motorboat at the landing, a weekend worth of groceries packed around us. Poppa would fire up the engine, adjust the throttle, and we’d roar down the first lake, aptly called Long. We’d lean into the spray as the boat raced between towering cliffs of pink-grey granite, high-soaring turkey vultures overhead.

The shoreline tapers at the end of Long Lake and an abandoned beaver dam marks the point of transition into the shallow channel between lakes. The immediate threat was always the fleshy stalks and feathery fronds of aquatic plants entangling the engine’s propellers. Poppa would cut the engine and tilt the motor out of the water.

We’d enter the narrows in silence.

It was we grandkids’ job to keep a lookout for rock shelves and boulder piles while Poppa navigated the danger by poling our way along with an old canoe paddle. Glacial debris from an ice age ago lying submerged just below the water line could damage the underside of the boat.

I’d lean over the side and let my finger cut a “v” in the water, becoming alert in the low light and quiet to this netherworld overhung with fallen birch limbs, shorelines tangled with wild blueberry and poison ivy, frog noses just above the water line, basking turtles, water striders dimpling the glassy surface, the slime green glint of rock bass in the muddy depths below, and everywhere the swampy smell of decomposing matter.

Then suddenly we were through. The bottom would drop away beneath us, bright sun bounce off the waves, and the sky open out onto the wide expanse of Loucks Lake. Poppa would again fire up the engine and off we’d shoot across the bay.

On the far shore sat the cottage, majestic on its perch amidst the pines, a world out of time. Within minutes we’d be diving from the weathered dock and eating baloney sandwiches to our childhood heart’s content.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of a season marking Jesus’ passage through the harrowing narrows of death (and our fear of it), to fullness of life on the other side. He invites us to follow.

This year as I take up the seasonal invitation, I’m reminded of all I learned about navigating life’s narrows over fifty years ago from a small passageway between two lakes in the Kawartha Highlands: slow down, pull up the motor, proceed in silence, watch out for hazards, expect fecundity amidst the decay, travel with others, and most of all, anticipate the deeper magic hidden from view that awaits on the other side.