The Big Fish

Canadian Shield lakes are cold and fish lurk in their murk. How wonderful, then, that Roosevelt read Francis Bacon and that I watched Magnum PI.


My knee bumps Something Unidentified. Weed? Rock?  Submerged log? Trailing bit of half-rotted rope attached to an old buoy? I can’t tell. But maybe, just maybe, it was a Big Fish. With this thought, I gasp reflexively, taking on water only to cough it back up. Flailing frantically, I inadvertently back away from the shore: a Good Thing. In deeper water, my extremities are no longer under assault, allowing my pounding heart to subside to something closer to its normal in-the-water pace.

Head held resolutely out of the water, I have been making good progress towards the islet out in the middle of the bay.  My modified breaststroke won’t win any points for technical or artistic merit, but it keeps water out of my eyes, except for the occasional errant wave. My base breathing is a tad elevated, less from exertion than from anxiety driven by my inability to see into the murky depths below my face.

Murkiness: it is not what I am accustomed to. Growing up suburban, my early exposure to bodies of water larger than a bathtub was mostly swimming pools, where you could not only see but also touch bottom if you needed to. This safe and surprise-free environment contrasted sharply with my childhood lake experiences: deer flies (biting me), fish (jumping at me), and leeches (affixing to me).

To this day, dark lake water that is over my head ramps up my heart rate — a function partly of the near-absolute-zero temperature, sure, but also of the inability to see the bottom and what might be lurking there. After paddling around for a few moments, I acclimatize mentally and physically, doing fine until Something Unidentified brushes my legs. Then the cold hand of fear squeezes the very breath out of my lungs, and the rationality out of my brain.

About four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon wrote: Nothing is to be feared but fear itself. Not quite one hundred years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to make it a rallying cry for his generation: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Thus inspired, I have determined to brave the swim out to the islet in the bay. It is not the swim itself that I fear, but the Big Fish I might meet along the way. And what a baby thing that is, to be afraid of fish that are probably as intent on avoiding me as I am them.

How can you be afraid of fish? I berate myself as I plough through the water. Nobody is afraid of fish.  And with that, my subconscious steps up.

Don’t you worry about all those big fish down there?

It is the early 1980s, and Thomas Magnum (of the then-popular TV series, Magnum PI) has just pushed his sea kayak out the helicopter door and is getting set to jump after it. As his pilot buddy, Theodore Calvin, hovers obligingly above the waves several miles off Oahu, Magnum glances back and scoffs at T.C.’s question.

No, of course not.

And then he’s gone, sploosh, into the drink. But as he rights the kayak, scrambles aboard it, and looks from side to side, his unease is evident on his face.

Damn that T.C., comes the voice-over representing Magnum’s thoughts, I never thought about the big fish!

Approximated from memory, this scene is, nonetheless, exactly typical of the series’ depiction of he-man behaviour combined with self-deprecation. How could you not love a guy who had what it took to go kayaking by himself for several miles in open ocean, yet who also worried about the Big Fish under all that water?

As I round the far shore of the islet and embark on the homeward stretch, I decide I can cut myself some slack. With due respect to Francis and Franklin, we all can.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Well, OK – that, and the Big Fish.

It may be a philosophy made for the quintessential 1980’s guy, but I like it too.

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4 Responses to The Big Fish

  1. Marion says:

    I think I remember that Magnum episode! Although I remember a surfboard … was that the one where he gets swept out into the ocean by a big current?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Marion – I think the swept-away-on-a-surfboard episode must have been a different one. In the one I remember, he was training for an Iron Man competition or somesuch that involved sea kayaking over a ridiculous distance.

  2. Jim taylor says:

    The murkiness of your lake water may be of benefit. Joan and I once went snorkeling in an extinct crater in the Galapagos. Along the shore, beautiful underwater flora and fauna. Then we pushed out another ten feet or so, and the bottom dropped away to nothingness — it just went down, and down…. Joan has a phobia about heights. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen someone go backwards while wearing swim fins! Sometimes NOT being able to see what’s down there — or even not down there — is a preferable choice.
    Thanks for bringing back memories of Magnum, though.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Yes, I think I might have been back-finning with Joan! It’s a good point – I think I can handle anything as long as I know about it (uncertainty being the worst), but that might not be so. An extreme example illustrates: I expect most of us prefer not to know when we’re going to die. We actually do better with the future being murky….

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