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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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September 15, 2019

7/27/2019 7:30:00 AM
The Lake Where You Live
Comfortably numb
Ted Rulseh

The family that owns the cottage next door has arrived for a week of vacation here at Birch Lake. I hear the thump of car doors, the bang of a wood-frame screen door, children's voices, and then big splashes and whoops of celebration down on the water.

I am here perhaps 350 days a year, and yet a part of me envies those neighbors. I remember when my wife and kids and I came each August to a rented cabin on this lake. I looked forward for months to that one blessed week away from work and the phone, deep undercover. More than that, I treasured the arrival at Jung's Cottages and the cabin called Lakeside.

Soon as I parked the car, the kids would grab their duffle bags, rush inside and emerge in their swimsuits. The screen door, bang. Hurried barefoot steps down the railroad-tie stairway. Then onto the pier and into the water, splash.

For a while I'd watch them from the shaded deck, each breath of pine-scented air like a nip of elixir. Then I'd help Noelle carry in the suitcases, toy and book bags, the sewing machine, and other niceties with which we had fully loaded the car.

While Noelle organized the cabin, I'd launch the boat, get out my fishing gear and rig my rods, basking in thoughts of a week in this special place, good fishing just outside the door, quiet roads on which to ride my bicycle, mellow evenings reading books by lamplight.

Now we live on Birch Lake, and I envy those neighbors just arriving. I envy them that moment of pulse-slowing peace, that vision of days immersed in the sigh of wind through pines and oaks, of loon calls, of silent sunsets.

You go from tourist to resident and things change. Lo and behold, there are still just 24 hours in a day. Work consumes many of them; more are claimed by the mandatories that go with earning a living and running a household. Life, which once you came here to escape, has followed you north and moved right in.

It's not as though I've lost appreciation for this place I grew, as a visitor, to love. It's just that things familiar, no matter how ideal, inevitably shed some of their capacity to charm. Have I grown, as the song would have it, "comfortably numb"? The question asks itself on those occasions when the neighbors pull in.

Then the week passes and it's Sunday. As I sit on our lakefront deck, I hear the scape of metal on sand as the neighbors pull their boat onto shore. Through the leaves I glimpse their comings and goings as they pack their belongings.

I recall how it felt, leaving Jung's Cottages early on Saturday, standing on the deck for a long moment, car keys in hand, silently lamenting how fast the week flew by, coming to grips with the reality of a full year before seeing this place again.

Now from next door I hear the thump of car doors, the starting of an engine, and the crunch of tires on gravel as the neighbors drive away. I look out at Birch Lake, a vision in shimmering blue through gaps in sunlit trees. The boat waits at the pier, bobbing gently. Suddenly I'm not envious at all.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, "A Lakeside Companion," published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at

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