There is only one place in North Dakota where the altitude requires a forced yawn to pop your ears in order to stabilize the pressure that builds during ascent. These are the Turtle Mountains. This is the only area for miles that can be described as ‘wooded’. Everything else is wheat and highway.
Driving there takes about an hour and a half from my hometown. Our family cabin resides next to Lake Metigoshe, nestled in the forest of the Turtle Mountain region. Metigoshe is the biggest of the area’s lakes, and a good portion of it is technically located in Canada.
“Alcohol down!” shouts my dad over the grumbling motor of our ancient pontoon. I think “pontoon” is technically the term for the metal tubes that support the platform of the boat, but we’re not much bothered by technicalities. Ours has two long benches parallel to these supports, the driver’s seat, a small table and a bench that runs along the back. Too many folks at the front means any waves from passing speedboats or even particularly windy days will catch on the weighed down bow. Booze cruisin’ on the lake is allowed (why drinking and driving is so heavily monitored on land yet law enforcement looks the other way when it occurs on water where there are A) no lanes, B) no speed limits, C) a risk of sinking, D) a risk of drowning, makes no sense to me). Except in the Canadian area of the lake. The Canadian ‘Game and Fish Department’ take this rule seriously. As soon as we enter international waters—there is no official marker, my dad estimates the distinction by means of a particular oak across the bay and the adornment of maple leaf flags on every surface of every cabin—we make sure to set any adult beverages below eye level, tucking them behind our feet or under life jackets.
“All clear!” comes the captain’s call as we exit Canadian territory. Sunburnt arms reach to retrieve beers and ciders. Condensation on the sides of bottles attract stray sunflower seed hulls.
“That one. I’ve always loved that one. Look at the dormer windows and the green shingles. It’s just so lakey.” My mom says, pointing at a lakefront property. She’s always on the lookout for the perfect cabin.
“It’s good, but I don’t like the honey-stain. I want something a little more red,” replies my dad. He’s removed his shirt and cracker crumbs are sticking to his graying chest hair. He spends much of his summer working outdoors and has a fairly even tan except for the deep smoking-wrinkles that run down his cheeks. If he puffs his face out so the grooves flatten, they are stark white.
My parents don’t agree on much except watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond and cozy-cottage style architecture. The recent oil boom and subsequent instant-riches of North Dakota has meant a lot of new multi-level cabins with stone slab patios and numerous watercrafts parked on the beach outside.
“Who’d want to clean that every weekend? I don’t even like doing the dishes up here. Can you imagine trying to clean all those windows?” my mom admonishes in disgust. She’d attempted to pull her hair in a ponytail to keep it off her shoulders, but wisps are beginning to come loose. Her swimsuit straps are stretched across her freckled shoulders. She’s generally barefoot in the summer, her toenails colored a muted strawberry.
“Plus everybody keeps chopping down the trees and pouring concrete. You need a good lawn up here. There’s never anybody home either. They spend all that money, raise our property taxes, and never show up. That’s not what lakin’s all about,” my dad steers into a new bay.
From far away, passing boatists probably imagine our cabin is the cozy ideal. It has beautiful chestnut wood siding. The gutters are painted dark green to match the lattice work below the deck. The lawn is mowed, albeit scattered with chairs and gossip magazines.
My parents hope that the cabin will meet a natural disaster so they can rebuild. The place has existed for a mighty long time given its questionable origins. We don’t know who built it or how it’s managed to stay upright. The foundations include several crumbling cinderblocks and mostly cobwebs. During rainy evenings we play “find the leak”. Each year we add at least two more buckets to the game.
“Girls, come look at how much the floor’s tilted now,” my dad inevitably mentions once a weekend. The contracting and expanding of wood in damp and hot months causes the bathroom floor to shift, a change his eagle eyes never fail to register. “I’ll bet that toilet’s tilted another thirty degrees since last summer.”
My dad rarely sits during the weekends. He says the cabin is his one true escape, the only place he can relax, but at every turn he’s holding a weed-wacker or a paintbrush. He never asks if we want to help chop wood or stain the deck. I don’t think it’s exclusion on account that he only has three daughters, rather simply his own way of clearing his head. Sharing his love of Metigoshe is his most obvious way of expressing tenderness. He’s the first to usher us out to watch a baby fawn. He’s the one who keeps the hummingbird feeders full of sugar water. Observation of change appeals to him in a strong way.
Amongst the many Schmidt home-videos—a gratuitous stack of VHS tapes collecting dust in the basement—plenty take place at Der Schmidt Haus (a nod to our German heritage, this moniker is painted on plenty of surfaces of the cabin). Toddler Kristin, my twin sister, calls out to me across the sand. Metigoshe’s water levels are dependent on run off from Canada. Most of our childhood occurred during a drought that left lake levels low and provided a wide beach.
“Let me see, Krissy,” inspects Grandma, “Yep. Stomp on it.”
“Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.” Kristin uses her foot while I use a plastic shovel to eradicate whatever creature has invaded our sacred property.
Mom would always try to encourage us to respect nature. But nature itself isn’t kind. Mosquitos are a problem in the Turtle Mountains. They feast on campers, pets, and wildlife. The damp environment provides plenty of puddles for egg-laying. Citronella candles don’t deter mosquitos. Nor does the gallon of bug repellant I coat myself in every weekend. Our only savior is the dragonflies.
It took me plenty of years to appreciate them. They’d storm our bay almost exclusively. Dragonfly weekend is the first true mark of summer. Thousands of nymphs crawl out of Lake Metigoshe where they’ve waited, submerged in the water, until the weather conditions are right. The creatures my sister took great pleasure in stomping in that family video were dragonfly nymphs. At this point they are scaly, ugly, and look as if they are coated in dirty tissue paper. A dragonfly’s wings cannot open until it has shed this shell. The insects align themselves in great columns amongst the bark of trees. Hordes of them cling to the rusted mesh of screen doors on the cabins that surround the lake. Any surface with sufficient texture lures the sodden creatures.
I remember inspecting them as they attached their spindly legs to the chicken wire my parents had lined the elevated deck with when we were children. While accidents are expected at the cabin, my mom was incredibly wary of us crawling below the railing to our doom.
I helped my dad inspect the cabin roof last summer. By ‘help’ I mean he left the ladder unattended and I climbed up to see the view. The roof slopes in odd spots, the shingles have shifted after being battered by wind and blizzards and determined squirrels who runs across the expanse every morning—collecting acorns from a gnarled oak on the East side of the cabin, to their stash somewhere on the West.
“It seems a lot smaller from up here.” I announce, scraping olive-colored moss off a torn shingle with the front of my sandal.
“It’s getting to be more work than it’s worth. We’re just playing keep-up at this point. Stay at least two feet away from the edge. You’re making me nervous.”
How my parents could ever imagine replacing this testament to family history, I cannot fathom. The green shag carpet, the wood paneling, the Big Mouth Billy Bass hanging behind the bright orange fireplace—its Americana kitsch like Hollywood or a very specific kind of museum could never re-create.
Some dragonflies don’t make it beyond the first stages. If they can’t find a safe place to climb, they run the risk of being trod on. Once securely attached, a dragonfly will emerge from its casing. They fall backwards out of their shell, arms crossed—like a mummy emerging from a sarcophagus or an astronaut whose sleeping bag has come undone in space. Free to maneuver, their crumpled wings lengthen and shudder as they prepare for flight.
Occasionally, a novice dragonfly will dive too close to the lake’s surface. Nevermind survival of the fittest, I happily spend the weekend rescuing the poor darlings. Once when I was five years old, a neighbors’ dog knocked me into the lake. I knew how to swim, but I wasn’t expecting the blow and I panicked until someone pulled me up by the loops of my jeans. A drowning dragonfly will grasp onto the end of an extended twig. I’ll wade into the lake up to my knees or lie on my belly across the dock to reach those in peril. I safely deposit the bug in a sunny spot, specifically designated to rehabilitate sodden insects. They crawl onto the grass with gratitude and let their wings dry.
There’s something incredibly fragile about the creatures, something about how they are entirely reliant on their environment despite all the indirect hostility nature has in store. The air is cluttered with tentative first-time fliers. When the sun is shining, the light seeps through their translucent wings and casts delicate silhouettes on the ground. These iridescent creatures bear little resemblance to their previous state. The shells that have been shed remain affixed to every vertical surface for the remainder of the summer. As children, they terrified my sisters and me. We didn’t understand that they were empty. They crunched if you brushed up against them. We couldn’t connect the relation between the dragonflies that landed on our fingertips if we stood still for long enough and the miniscule monsters attached to the side of the gazebo that stared at us through crusty, unblinking eyes.
One spring, a massive wind storm swept through the mountains. The biggest damage occurred to the great Aspen tree in the middle of our yard. One of the tallest in the bay, the gusts had tipped it over. This should have been the cabin’s undoing had the deck railing not stopped it from falling further. Cleaning the damage, dragonfly shells fell like snow. The bark of the Aspen had been their favorite location to sun. Each gloved hand removing debris crushed generations’ worth of shells. Accumulation. That’s what makes Metigoshe special. Each year another stray spoon finds its way into our cutlery drawer, another layer of paint maintains the cabin’s cracking façade, more nymph shells line the lake’s landscape.
We always leave our cabin on Sundays when the sun is low and the horizon seems like a myth. Confronted with the miles of flat always makes me squeamish and reluctant to head home. Right before you drive out of the mountains, the steep hill winding down emerges over a treeless ridge. The whole of North Dakota stretches in front of you in segregated patches of sepia. This filter makes the mountains seem so much more enchanting – with their bright blues and greens, slightly hidden, slightly dangerous and safe at the same time. Lake Metigoshe is full to the brim with nostalgia and stinky fish and plush seaweed and somewhere deep below, dragonflies ready to emerge.