I’m sitting in a canoe in the middle of a lake. It is completely dark. I can feel my body shivering and my teeth chattering, and it could be the cool night air, but more likely it’s dread—being outdoors at night and surrounded by unfathomable dark water are two of my deepest fears. Combined, they muddy my mind with panic and regret. I’m frozen in place, scared to move. My canoeing partner, a stranger I met a few minutes before we set off, is unaware she is paddling solo.
I’m on a two-hour starlit paddle with Wanderlust Tours but, right now, I’m not sure I’m going to last the distance. This haunting pool of bottomless dark water is Hosmer Lake, one of 12 found in the Cascade Lakes region near Bend, Oregon. Getting even this far required me to push through the panic, determined to experience something new and completely outside my comfort zone. But at this moment, as I sit in the blackness in a boat on the water, I question my choice.
Slowly, my eyes begin to adjust to my surroundings. I take a deep breath and begin to paddle just as our tour guide, Courtney, instructs us to create a human-boat barge by grasping onto each other’s canoes. She invites us to turn off our headlamps and commit to sitting in the darkness in complete silence. For three full minutes.
I shudder, choking down the lump in my throat that barely contains a scream. I hug myself tight, counting down the seconds of each minute in my mind, attempting to comfort myself until it’s all over. I can feel the coolness of the paddle resting across my lap, and I try to stop shivering, afraid it will plunge into the dark water.
My focus is shifted by Courtney pointing to the stars and, in a whisper, asking if we can see the Big Dipper. I exhale deeply and tilt my head upwards. I find the constellation immediately, impressed by how bright the stars look against the darkness here in the Cascades, away from the glow of the city lights of Bend. I see the Milky Way smearing its speckles of stars across the night sky. I begin to hear the faint croaking of frogs, and I notice how fresh the air smells. My senses are heightened, and I find myself soaking in every minute of the experience.
Courtney traces her finger along the stars and shows us the outline of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, also known as the Big Dipper. And then Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, which culminates in the North Star. Our human raft remains intact for a few minutes more, as we chat quietly and study the stars, and I realize I’ve stopped thinking about the darkness. I am settled into my surroundings. The fear—at least for now—has retreated, and I surprise myself when I feel sad that our moonlit paddle is almost over.
Single file, we weave our canoes back through the reeds and winding waterways. I enjoy finding my rhythm with a stranger as we paddle through the darkness, relying on each other. No longer plagued by anxiety at the darkness enveloping me, I feel proud. My fears have been conquered. And, like the child who steps off their first roller coaster ride, all I want is to do it all over again.