This week we are showcasing a few of the finalists of the Our Waters, Our Future writing contest, which sought short stories depicting positive futures for water and people in south-central Wisconsin. The winning story was published in Madison Magazine; read it online or in their June print edition.
The views reflected in this story do not reflect the views of the Water Sustainability and Climate project nor the UW-Madison in general.
The Unexpected Frog
Story by Jacob Grace
Morgan raced down to the edge of the lake, her pigtails dancing in the soft morning sunlight. Grasping the end of her kayak, she eased it gently off of its platform into the water. She gave the straps of her life jacket a final pull, remembering her teacher’s words: “Tug til it’s snug as a hug!” Then she eagerly climbed inside the kayak, gently pushed off from shore, and began paddling towards school.
Morgan loved being out on the lake, especially first thing in the morning. The air was cool and crisp, and the soft pink sunlight spilled across the lake from shore to shore. In the distance she could see the university laboratory she had visited with her classmates during Soil Year and the spinning wind turbines that her class had climbed during Air Year. She could even picture the prairie, far on the other side of the lake, where she and the other students had helped with a prescribed burn during Fire Year. But Morgan thought that this year of school was her favorite. Sometimes Ms. Lewis still called it “fourth grade,” but that sounded so old-fashioned to Morgan. She preferred its real name: Water Year.
As Morgan paddled farther out into the lake, her paddle making gentle “skloop, skloop” noises in the still water, she began to see the distant shapes of other students drawing closer. Every student’s kayak looked a little bit different – each one had been built for them by high school students the previous year – but each kayak had the same design printed on the side: a man with a long beard clinging to the top of a swaying conifer tree. Underneath were the words “John Muir Outdoor School.”
Far behind her, Morgan could see her friend Xander near the shore. Xander always seemed to be running late! Ahead of her a wide floating platform was coming into view, and the shape of her teacher, Ms. Lewis, was visible. Standing next to Ms. Lewis was a man that Morgan had never seen before. He wore a large, curvy cowboy hat, a dark green life vest, and had a thick moustache that almost covered his mouth. As Morgan reached the platform and began greeting her friends and classmates, they all kept glancing at the stranger, wondering what he was doing there.
“Good morning, everyone!” Ms. Lewis greeted them as they clambered out of their boats, unpacking book bags and lunch boxes and tying kayaks to the platform. “Let’s circle up and get started. What shall we sing this morning?”
“Old Man River?” someone suggested.
“Singing in the Rain!” another shouted.
“Yea!” Morgan called out. It was a class favorite.
“Perfect,” smiled Ms. Lewis.
The students arranged themselves into a circle beside Ms. Lewis and the stranger. She hummed a note and they began.
“Singing in the rain!” Morgan sang with all her heart. “Singing in the rain!”
She loved clear mornings like this one, but she also liked the rainy mornings when the class pulled on their rain gear and huddled together for lessons, looking out at the dazzling patterns of raindrops on the water.
“What a glorious feeling…” A deep voice joined the rest, and the students looked up at the stranger, who had closed his eyes and was singing along. “And I’m happy again!”
They finished their song just as Xander’s boat bumped against the edge of the platform. Morgan ducked out of the circle to help him tie up his kayak, and the rest of the class began arranging their things on the classroom platform.
“Morgan!” Xander motioned her closer with a loud whisper. “I found something!”
As Morgan moved alongside his kayak, blocking it from the view of the class, Xander reached into the depths of his kayak and pulled out a water bottle. “Easy, little guy,” he said softly, starting to unscrew the lid.
“Xander…” Morgan hissed, “What have you got? You know what Ms. Lewis said about the snapping turtle—”
“No, this is important, really!” Xander whispered back. “I found a frog this morning that I’d never seen before!”
Xander raised the lid, and Morgan peered in. Sitting at the bottom of Xander’s water bottle in a small pool of water was a large speckled frog, blinking up at them. Morgan had to agree that this frog didn’t look like any she had seen or learned about in class – it was covered with large brown spots, and between the spots it was almost white.
“We should look him up in one of the field guides,” Morgan whispered urgently to Xander, because she could hear that the class was getting settled for a lesson. “And we should do it quick, because I don’t think he should be in there very long. He can breathe, right?”
“Yea,” Xander replied. “The lid has a drinking hole, and I left it open.”
“Alright class,” they heard Ms. Lewis’s voice. “We have everyone but Morgan and Xander. Can you two join us, please?”
“You grab a field guide!” Xander hissed, clambering out of his kayak. “I’ll keep an eye on him.” Clutching the water bottle to his chest, Xander hastily found a seat in the circle right next to the stranger in the cowboy hat.
“I’m sure you’ve all noticed,” smiled Ms. Lewis, “that we have a guest this morning!” Morgan hurriedly snatched a guide to amphibians from the class bookshelf and found a seat. “He’s visiting us all the way from the Colorado Watershed! Mr. Powell, would you like to tell us about what brought you here?”
“Certainly,” Mr. Powell said in his deep voice. Beneath his thick moustache, the students could see he was smiling. “I’m here to learn more about your school! A lot of people are interested in the way you do things here at John Muir Elementary. I work for a school in the Colorado Watershed that would like to have a Water Year like you all do, but we’re not quite sure how. So I’m here to get ideas.”
Morgan paged feverishly through the field guide as Ms. Lewis got their attention. “Why don’t we go around the circle and each tell Mr. Powell what we think is the most important part of Water Year,” she said. “Xander, would you like to start?”
Xander gave a startled look and gripped his water bottle more tightly. “Need to think about it,” he muttered, before widening his eyes at Morgan in a “hurry up” sort of way. Morgan nodded and quickly flipped through a section about tree frogs as the next student spoke up.
“I think the most important part of Water Year,” he began nervously, staring at his feet, “is how we built this platform together, out of leftover materials.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Powell, listening closely. “Ms. Lewis told me about that. What part did you like working on the most?”
“The pontoons,” the boy smiled. “We had to remember a lot of stuff from Air Year.”
“Good job, Micah,” Ms. Lewis said. “Who’s next?”
“My favorite part,” said a girl next to Micah, “is getting to be outside every day. My mom says she wishes she could be outside this much.”
“Have your parents ever visited your class?” Mr. Powell asked.
“They’ve seen pictures,” the girl answered. “My mom doesn’t like to go offline for very long. But she says it makes her wish she could be in the fourth grade again!” She laughed. Ms. Lewis and Mr. Powell did not.
“A lot of parents in my area want programs like this,” Mr. Powell said. “They want to give their kids opportunities that they never had.”
“I think the best part of Water Year is going swimming,” grinned the next student in line. Other kids were nodding and smiling.
“I think we’d all agree with that one,” Ms. Lewis chuckled. “Can you think of something else important?”
“Umm…” The boy frowned as Morgan hurriedly scanned a page about rare toads. “Oh, yea, I know! When we helped take down that dam on the river! That was so cool seeing all that water come pouring out!”
“Restoration week was a lot of work though,” another student said. “And they weren’t even done when we left!”
“Yea,” shrugged the first boy, “but it was still cool to see.”
“A lot of things are dammed up where I’m from,” Mr. Powell added in his deep voice. “That’s the problem with taking down a dam: there’s a whole lotta ugly, nasty, mucky stuff that’s gotta come out before things can start running free again.”
Ms. Lewis was nodding, wearing that serious expression that adults sometimes had.
“We’re working on it,” she said quietly. “These kids have seen how much work restoration is, and I know they’re up to the challenge.”
“Can I go now?” whined the next girl in line, as Morgan flipped frantically through the final pages of the book. “I know what mine is and I’ve been waiting and waiting!”
“Thank you for waiting, Sophi,” Ms. Lewis said. “What is it?”
“The most important thing about Water Year,” said Sophi slowly and clearly, as if she was explaining something very complicated, “is that water is our teacher! Remember when you said that, Ms. Lewis? You said that water just doesn’t use words, and so a lot of people don’t pay attention. But it’s already taught us all kinds of stuff about chemistry and construction and art—”
Morgan’s face lit up, because she had finally found what she was looking for. “The crawfish frog,” she read silently to herself, “is a large frog with a light background and closely-set brown spots, historically found in the southern Mississippi Watershed. It is a critically threatened species that depends on healthy native prairies to survive.”
But she was interrupted by a fit of coughing. Mr. Powell had turned sideways to cough over his shoulder, deep coughs that shook the whole platform and made dancing ripples on the lake surface. Taking a gulp of air, Mr. Powell glanced down at Xander, sitting next to him.
“D’you mind if I—” he coughed another deep cough and gestured at Xander’s water bottle, “—had a drink? Might help—” He coughed some more. Xander glanced frantically at Morgan.
“I don’t think so,” he said nervously, clutching his bottle to his chest. “Xander,” Ms. Lewis said sternly. “Let’s share with our guest.”
Morgan made an anxious noise as Mr. Powell took hold of Xander’s water bottle and raised it to his lips. “Ms. Lewis—” she began, but Mr. Powell had already tipped back his head and let some water drain into his mouth. He gave a final cough and cleared his throat. Then a strange look came over his face.
Mr. Powell grimaced, smacked his lips, and wrinkled his nose. With all eyes on him, he began unscrewing the lid of the water bottle. Morgan and Xander watched in panic. Mr. Powell raised the lid and peered into the water bottle for several seconds. Then he began to laugh, deep booming laughs that made the entire platform shake again. As everyone stared at him, he gently tipped the water bottle in front of him, and the big speckled frog plopped out.
Now the entire class began to laugh, even Ms. Lewis. Mr. Powell’s laugh was the loudest of all. The frog took two long jumps and then launched itself back into the lake.
“And that,” Mr. Powell cried over the uncontrollable laughter, “is why you should always ask before you take something – and listen if the answer is no!”
Morgan was clutching her sides, unable to stop giggling. She watched the lake surface ripple as the platform shook with laughter, and it was almost as if the lake was laughing along with them. Yes, she decided, Water Year was definitely her favorite.
Jacob Grace is a Master’s student in the UW-Madison Agroecology Program. He enjoys kayaking, ice skating, and skiing on Lake Mendota and Lake Monona.