Lewis Fields, with mussed gray hair, a trimmed mustache, bifocals, and a stilted gait, walks down a concrete path toward the dock. It’s a cool morning. Six a.m. Quiet. The water is nearly still. Lewis tosses a few things into his speedboat: life jacket, knee brace, back brace, a single ski. “More equipment than a hockey player,” he says. He pushes a lever, lowers the boat into the water, and kicks on the motor, the noise gurgling through the boggy air.
It’s about a five-mile ride across Lake Gaston to the place where the temporary slalom course will be set up this morning. Lewis’s buddy Pat, who’s doing jumping jacks on the dock as the boat approaches, gets to go first. Lewis drives for a few runs, his boat zipping down the middle of the buoys, the cruise control set at 34 miles per hour. Finished, he takes off his glasses and splashes in. Now, it’s Pat’s turn to open the throttle. Lewis rises out of the water and swings wide as the boat gets up to speed. Just before the first buoy, he zips across the wake, leaning back, a slightly strained look on his face, his outside arm coming off of the handle as he arcs nimbly around the buoy. Then back. Then forth. Back. Forth.
The first run, 17 seconds long, is perfect. The second one is not. Lewis lets go of the rope after the second buoy, loses speed, and sinks cartoonishly while Pat whips the boat around. Hitting the water at full speed is akin to bouncing off concrete. Letting go is the safest thing to do when something goes wrong.
“I don’t think he’s gonna quit on that one,” Pat says, just before Lewis can hear him.
“Can’t quit on that one,” Lewis yells a beat later.
On the third run, Lewis lets go of the rope again, and Pat predicts, correctly, that Lewis will quit on this one. Slalom skiing works every muscle (“Like playing tug-of-war with a Chevy,” Pat says), and Lewis’s back is sore. He’s been slowly getting back into his routine, and it’s early in the season anyway. It’s too hard to go full bore. But Lewis is worried — in fact, he’s always worried — that if he quits, that’s it. Not just for this morning. Or this month. But for good. Lewis has two artificial hips. And he’s 67. Once you stop doing something you’ve always done, something that requires mental focus and precise physical strength, the road back quickly becomes too steep.
Lewis was thinking about this just last weekend, when his back ached in a way that it hadn’t before. “I thought I might have to quit skiing,” he tells Pat. But he went out and skied, and his back worked itself out, and the worry, once again, proved hypothetical.
By 7 a.m., Lewis is heading home for coffee, Danishes, and blueberries. He tries to get to his shop by 8. This is his routine nearly every morning, eight months out of the year. He lives in the house between the one built by his father and the one built by his son. He makes his living on the lake. He plays on it. Knows it. Wakes to it every morning. Watches it every evening. The lake is like family. The water level never drops much — just like Lewis’s mood. As he steps off the boat, he looks down at his leg and notices that he forgot to put on his knee brace. “Huh,” he says. “Guess the leg is good.”
• • •
Lewis first became fascinated with slalom skiing when he watched, and later met, Bill Bryant, a local hotshot skier. Holy cow, Lewis thought. That Christmas, his mother gave him a subscription to the American Water Ski Association’s magazine, and he devoured every issue cover to cover. Lewis’s father, Milton, was a lawyer in Rocky Mount, where he was partners with Roy Cooper Sr., the father of the current governor. Perhaps feeling the pull of the lake himself, Milton bought a waterside lot in Lake Gaston’s early days and began developing property there.
In the early 1970s, Lewis married Marie, who had a soft spot for lakes, too. Right after that came the event “that really ruined him,” according to Marie. He watched the national waterskiing championships in Petersburg, Virginia, and that was it.
Lewis already knew he didn’t want a desk job, so he decided to build docks. Milton, who was always involved in side projects, found out that the pile-driving barge being used on marina construction near Bath wasn’t doing the job. So he let Lewis use it to hammer poles down into the soggy bottom of Lake Gaston. A business was born, and Lewis made enough money building docks to keep living on the lake. Marie, however, knew the real reason for his job. “Lewis’s goal,” she says, “was always to water-ski.”
But there’s only so much room on a lake for docks (on Lake Gaston today there are 5,500 docks, by one estimate). Luckily Lewis was handy with an arc welder, which he used to build boat lifts from aluminum and steel. He could ship these boat lifts to any place where water meets land.
Doozie Boat Lifts started in 1984 and took off. Lewis happily sold his dock-building business. By that time, he’d been competing in slalom skiing competitions for a decade. And Marie had become a world-class boat driver, itself a valuable skill, and was the first woman to have the top driving role at the national championships. The couple moved from Milton’s old, gray weekend house on Lizard Creek into a larger one they built next door. You could see water from every window. But the view had started to change.
• • •
Lake Gaston was completed in 1963, created mainly to generate hydroelectric power. In one crucial way, it’s stayed the same ever since: The water level, by regulation, cannot vary by more than a foot, which is different from other lakes that regulate flooding. The water line back then is the water line now.
The lake is 34 miles long, situated between Kerr and Roanoke Rapids lakes, right on the Virginia line. The five counties that surround it have always been rural, and, at first, many locals didn’t realize what the lake would do for their communities. Long ago, one farmer told Lewis: “I wouldn’t give you $100 for 10 Lake Gastons.” Lakefront property in the area was relatively cheap then. For a few thousand dollars, you could buy in and build a house.
When Lewis first started skiing, most of the lake was surrounded by woods — thick forests of pine, dogwood, maple, and poplar. Then, the houses came. Slowly but surely. Bigger and bigger. The new interest was good for Lewis’s business, since the new homes needed boathouses, docks, and lifts. The farmer who’d dismissed Lake Gaston all those years ago? A few years after that conversation, his wife started selling real estate.
The new homes brought more people. More boat traffic. More waves. Lake Gaston is only about a mile and a half across at its widest point, and the wind comes barreling through from west to east. A small ripple or even gentle waves aren’t an issue for a fisherman or a family drifting along the main channel on inner tubes. But even tiny waves can send a slalom skier careening out of control. That means slalom skiing is often relegated to coves and wide, quiet creeks, which are more protected from the wind. On Gaston, boats zip around in every nook and cranny of the lake, throwing a wake in every direction.
Lake Gaston’s problem is every lake’s problem: As the value of lakefront property began to skyrocket, a booming economy sent a boat-buying public onto public waterways like never before. That pushed many competitive skiers, desperate for glassy water, away from public lakes to private ponds and reservoirs, where they could better control the environment. Today, Lewis is one of the last competitive slalom skiers on the lake, and he only does it in the morning because he has to. The raison d’être for his whole lake existence — skiing — is now mostly gone.
For his son, though, a new door had already opened.
• • •
Adam Fields was always smaller than the other kids. That made him competitive. He played tennis and basketball in high school in Warren County, but at first, he wasn’t really into skiing. Lewis wanted him to know how to do it, but didn’t make him do it. He tried to bribe Adam with Nintendo. Ski, and you can play, Lewis told him. Adam would get the skiing out of the way as quickly as possible.
When he was around 10, though, something clicked, and Adam asked his dad for money to enter a competition. As he got a little older, he took an interest in a new water sport that was gaining popularity in the 1990s: wakeboarding. The tricks were bigger. The girls, they liked it.
The sport was perfect for Lake Gaston. The boat goes slower, and the wider board means that small waves can’t dangerously derail a run. Wakeboarding, with its focus on tricks, does not require buoys that can be stolen by pranksters. Adam was hooked.
He trained and trained and became a competitive wakeboarder, which meant that week-in, week-out, he traveled across the country, entering competitions and, in many cases, winning them. Sponsors noticed, and by his 20s, Adam had carved out a lucrative career.
But the career of a competitive wakeboarder can be cruelly short. The pace of the tour circuit is tough: There’s always travel to the next competition, sponsorship obligations, training, more travel, another competition. Athletes who have the most meteoric rise also can have a spectacular fall. If you always win, and then one day you don’t, the money and sponsors disappear. Quickly.
Adam’s rise was more measured. His parents encouraged him, but insisted that they wouldn’t pay for him to become a wakeboarding bum. Adam knew he had to think of a way to stay involved in the sport he loved, even after his competitive days were over.
In 2000, he started teaching from his parents’ home and renting out boats and kayaks from the dock. That grew into his company, AF Wake, in 2006. He opened the business next to Eaton’s Ferry Bridge, where he schedules lessons and sells everything from boards and skis to bikinis and hats.
Now 37, Adam tools around Lake Gaston on a specialized Centurion wakeboarding boat, a $125,000 gleaming red-and-black meteor of fiberglass and aluminum that can maintain its speed down to a tenth of a mile per hour. On this sunny morning, he’s dressed in his usual attire — shirtless, wearing a pair of knock-off Ray-Bans — and teaching one of his best students, Finn Bullock Womble from Mebane. Adam guns the motor and Finn, a board-grabbing, double-flipping phenomenon, takes off across the wake. Finn’s a world champion at age 13. His friend and fellow student Daniel Johnson snaps Instagram shots as they go.
“Those boys are better than me,” Adam says. But he doesn’t need to be good. He just needs to teach well. If he does that, he says, “I never have to stop.”
• • •
Not everyone’s a fan, though. Fishermen don’t like the wake, and some landowners think the waves are eroding their shorelines. Others are envious. Adam says he once got a text from a millionaire neighbor who’d seen him teaching, playing, and driving. “You have a great life,” it read.
Case in point: On a hot, sunny afternoon, the whole family is at Lewis and Marie’s, sitting on the deck, watching the lake. Milton cracks jokes so dry that they take minutes to land. Marie smiles. Adam walks up to the house, followed by a Manhattanite named Lauren who’s here for 10 days to learn directly from Adam how to wakeboard. Later, there will be pizza, and the parents, kids, and students will all sit around a table near the front door and talk about the business. About waves. Cats. Friends. Boats. But before that, Lauren wants to get one more session on the board.
Adam cranks up his old backup boat, which has no speedometer. He doesn’t need it. He keeps the boat at a consistent 14 to 16 miles per hour, perfect for a beginner like Lauren. She steadily gains confidence, slowly trawling back and forth across the wake, Adam stealthily cushioning her landings with subtle dips in speed. Lewis, riding shotgun, points out houses, old and new, the ones where owners have tripled the square footage, and the rare spot where a single-wide still exists. As the sun starts to dip in the sky, Lauren finally lands a new trick: a wake-to-wake jump. The board smacks the twinkling water, Lauren beams, and as they near the dock, Adam wheels around. “That was awesome,” she tells him, bobbing up and down.
“Want to stop?” Adam asks.
“No,” she says. “Keep going.”