Hundreds of baby bullheads, no more than five inches long, swim fruitlessly down the narrow stream to the lake. There’s a mound of sand in their way, and it would require, my cousin estimates, about six feet of digging and several hours of work to get the path clear.
I’m spending a few days at Okoboji with my family at our perennial summer cottage, and about five houses down from us is a small, cattail-lined creek that spills into the lake. The water’s been low recently, though, which has caused a dilemma. Some bullhead swam up the creek to lay eggs, but by the time they hatched and grew large enough to swim into the lake, the water was too low.
My cousin was the one to notice. A future environmental engineer and a recent graduate of MIT, she sees problems and sets to solutions. While most of us would hope it worked out and go back to the dock with our books and sunscreen, she got a shovel this morning and started digging. She showed me her blisters today on the dock, then went down to the creek to check on the fish.
Next thing I see is her sprinting from the creek to the house, running inside, running out, then running back to the water. The six other cousins all follow her, joined soon after by a pilgrimage of the other friends and relations. Soon we’re crowded around the creek, egging on the clusters of bullheads swimming toward the open water. Since she’s left, though, the strong waves have knocked more sand into the pathway she’s cleared, and so my brothers, my cousins and I start digging with our hands, transplanting fistfuls of wet sand onto the beach and we send my youngest cousin for a shovel.
When the way is clear, the fish are too spooked by the new crowd of people shouting, and swim back under the bridge. We keep digging to keep the way clear, and eventually a few intrepid fish lead a group of others toward the water. They wiggle through the shallows toward the opening, and all of us are holding our breath waiting for them to pass through into the water.
There’s an unforeseen problem, though, one that we can’t control. It’s 3 pm and boat traffic is at its peak for the day, and it’s exceptionally windy besides. As hard as the bullheads swim to face the water head-on, the waves knock them back into the creek.
“Nature is hard,” one of our lifelong beach friends said.
Eventually we had to turn away from the bullheads with the intent to return when the water was calmer. We left sandy-footed and a bit disappointed, the image of hundreds of tiny black bullheads in our heads, swimming back and forth, back and forth.