I remember the first time I smelled an ocean. It was the Atlantic, off of Daytona Beach, and my family had just driven from Disney World in a rented, white Lincoln Towncar. The sea was rough, filled with kelp, mostly gross. I went swimming, but I didn’t like the beach, I didn’t like the water–not the way it tasted nor the way it looked nor the way it smelled– and I certainly didn’t leave the beach that day thinking that the Atlantic ocean was something I should get to know. The year was 1985.
It wasn’t until 1997 that I went back, this time not to the Atlantic side but to the Gulf, and I found the tamer water much more interesting. Kelp didn’t wrap around my legs when I swam, and I didn’t get the sense of danger that I was overwhelmed by some 12 years prior. I liked the Gulf side, and so I went back, again and again, from that day until this day. One year, I was greeted by the noxious onslaught of Red Tide. Most other years it was just the sweet smell of the salty backwaters that met me, that somewhat stinky, somewhat spoiled smell that emits from exposed muddy bottomed flats, a smell made by dead organisms of all sorts slowly decaying back into the salty bottom. While some find that smell off-putting, to me that smell is a welcome sign that I have left behind, if momentarily, a cold climate and traded for a warmer one.
Delavan Lake has a smell to it. It does. Don’t get all bent out of shape about it, Delavan, the truth of this matter is that you smell. It isn’t the sweet smell of the rotting backwaters of western Florida, it’s just the smell of dead fish intermixed with dead seaweed, wrapped in between an empty bag of Funyons. I used to live near enough to the Northwestern shore of Delavan Lake. When I lived there, at times I’d go for a walk. Some of those walks led me just down North Shore Drive, and around some fields and woods, and back again. Other walks, I’d venture down a nearby road and walk along the corner of Delavan Lake for a spell. This was a horrible thing for me to do, because Delavan Lake, at least in that corner, smelled like all this dead and evil. It smelled like nothing should ever smell, even if I would submit to the smell every now and again and throw a five weight line to some eager panfish.
I fish plenty of rivers. Most of these rivers are more like streams, and these small streams do not smell like much. Even if they did, it’s impossible to smell what the water smells like when surrounded by a field where cows graze, on account of the cow pies that they leave to bake in the sun. Other rivers I fish, those of the Root, the Pike, and the Milwaukee; those rivers smell, all right. They don’t smell sweet like the gulf waters, nor do they smell like dead things of all varieties like the water in that corner of Delavan Lake, nor do they smell of manure like the streams. They smell like a toxic mix of sewer run off, garbage, and sad desperation. These are rivers that have been forced to flow through urban areas, and these rivers so badly wish they could flow somewhere else. They flow, from West to East, and as they flow through cities they pick up all the things that are bad and then deliver it downstream into Lake Michigan. I’d give quite a bit of money to have a chance to know what Steelhead fishing on the Root River was like back in 1850. I’d need to bring with some modern medical supplies, a rifle, and my cell phone, but I’d still like to go.
What exactly is water supposed to smell like? Every lake, every river, and every ocean answers that question differently. Ask that question to Geneva and Geneva will answer as though on Jeopardy, with another question: Who says a lake is supposed to smell like anything? And that, Alex, is the right answer. There are moments when areas of Geneva will smell as any other lake. There are. Certain corners that give way to oncoming winds are apt to smell like whatever algae bloom has just occurred, but the general smell around the lake on any given day is exactly nothing. There might be a dead fish here and there, and if you’re downwind of said dead fish then you’re going to smell that fish, but that’s the case anywhere. What we’re after here is the true smell of the lake, of any lake, and my olfactory sense tells me that Geneva smells as pure and clean as anything ever could, which is to say that it smells like nothing.