photograph by Mark Vandyke

I’ll take a lake.

Falls, Fontana.

A circular one or a curvy one. Wildly irregular or perfectly round. A shoreline ringed ’round with trees, please, dripping with Spanish moss or dropping fall leaves or leaning waterward, rope swing dangling. The water, a smooth horizon, crested with mountains or flat as fields. Townsend, Toxaway. Any lake will do.

Find me one with coves: hidden, secluded, where the banks are rocky, or swampy, or bluffed. Surround it with boulders for sunning. With islands for exploring, and trails for hiking. With a secret spring for sipping. Tuck in some boathouses, listing or level, flat-roofed and squatty, sides softened and blackened, with split tires as bumpers. Kerr, Lure.

Nature-made, man-made, or a little of both. With a stream at one end and a dam at the other. A simple spillway narrow enough to walk across, or wide enough to lean over and wonder at the workings beneath your feet. Come close as you dare in the boat, near the buoys, and shiver at the danger waiting beyond them. James, Junaluska.

The clear waters of Lake Lure are fed by the Rocky Broad River, flowing down through Hickory Nut Gorge. photograph by Emily Chaplin

I’ll take a boat, plain and uncomplicated. Without rigging or radar, just an outboard or oars: a slim slab of Sunfish with scant room for two, an army-green johnboat, or a gliding canoe. Put me on a pontoon, a party barge with sofas, then chug to the lake’s center for a tie-up with friends. I’ll take a booze cruise at dusk, perched on the bow, the better to wave at folks on the shore, enjoying the evening. Then I’ll putter home to supper, the green stern light winking. White, Waccamaw.

I’ll take a lake. No rip currents or chlorine. Where ladder steps are slimed. Where the bottom is sandy, or spiky with stumps. A lake shallow enough for a volleyball net, or so deep that beneath its waters a whole hamlet may sleep. I’ll take a lake, one that carries noises: the shouts of children, the rip of a motor, the quacks and the splashes. With a patch of lily pads dotted with blooms lasting only one day. Pull up the stems and, with the supple green lengths, learn to plait. Norman, Jordan.

Lake James is the uppermost lake on the dammed Catawba River, with perfect beaches for playing. photograph by Jon Eckard

I’ll take a lake house — not palatial, just humble. A cottage or cabin, where the playing cards are limp with perpetual damp. With paint-by-numbers artwork and topography maps on the walls. Where the screens are bowed and the bedspreads are Bates, corded or candlewick. With a porch railing lined with bleached turtle shells, birds’ nests, snake skins, stubby candles, and jars jammed with daisies. Make the porch low, so that nothing grows beneath it but terracotta-tinted anthills, talcum-soft beneath summer-bare soles. Put rocking chairs everywhere. A sofa bed for naps. A kitchen where a jar of sourwood honey — with thick, chewy comb — sits, stickily, in the cupboard. High Rock, Santeetlah.

I’ll take a lake with a ticky-tacky marina. With a concrete floor and a screen door that catches your flip-flop. With fake worms in plastic bags that squish in your grip, or a snow cone in a wafer-thin cup that collapses too soon. A high counter where ghostly eggs float in pink liquid. With Styrofoam coolers stacked to the ceiling, and a clothesline outside strung with velvet rugs of Elvis. Where the gas pumps are round-headed, and the water below them eternally iridescent, shimmering with grill grease or gas, no telling. Sapphire, Summit.

Naturally formed and fed by Big Creek, Lake Waccamaw in Columbus County is the largest of the Carolina Bays. photograph by Geoff Wood

I’ll take a dock. Splintered with age or spongy with AstroTurf. Hoist a hose to the homemade slide and make it wet and slippery. Or a dock floating on oil drums, anchored with cinder blocks. Race toward it with cousins and clamber aboard. Strew inner tubes on it, magnets for horseflies. Toss them into the water, reeking of rubber, to dive through. Or launch a raft and relax. Or straddle a float, like a horse, to play Chicken or Keep Away or King of the Hill. Gather smooth rocks for skipping, or leap off the dock yourself: a cannonball, a jackknife, a flip. Cast a line, catch a fish, and keep it darting in a bucket. Learn to ski on a surface glossy as glass, the ski rope unspooling. Scrunch your toes into the boots and brave the foamed, churning wake. Go wide, stream outward, raise an arm in triumph. Badin, Gaston.

I’ll take a lake at dawn, silent and sleeping but for you, a baby on your hip, a mug in your hand, steam rising on the water. The moment gone quick as a dream. Then give me a high sun, glaring and beating. More sunscreen, more ice, a hot dog with ketchup. I’ll take a lake with thunderheads brewing, a stiff wind to blow them. The heralding droplets, the scurry to gather: towels, floats, sunglasses, books. A rush to the cabin for puzzles and popcorn, with rain thrumming the roof. Then give me a sunset, through the leaves or the mountains. Orange and indigo, fading to black. Then bring out the stars, twinkling, innumerable, and finally that moon, fingernail or full, casting a silvery stripe on the ebony water.

Oh, we love the Atlantic, but it comes in one size only. I’ ll take a lake.

This story was published on

Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.

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