Small lake open boats are nothing compared to the huge yachts you see tied up in the slips along the East coast or in California, but even on little lakes, anything larger than a canoe has always been impressive. Kind of like hamburgers. When I was a kid we never ate in a restaurant. But on Alpine Day or Strawberry Day or the 24th of July we would get a hamburger and it would taste so good that the wonder of it never went away. So when people speak of McDonald's in a condescending tone it doesn't bother me at all. I'll drive up to the takeout window with anybody.

It was the same with boats. I remember once we rented a little green plywood boat at Fish Lake. You'd have thought heaven had arrived early! Never much of a fisherman, I laid back and just felt the sway of it. Wonderful, wonderful.Coupled with this awe for boats is a sad inability to hook them to a trailer hitch or fix a plugged gas line. Ownership, then, is not an option. Still, anything with an inboard looks like real class. And a cabin. Wow. Closed, lying at night with the porthole open, a full moon, rocking back and forth, the sound of water lapping against the edges. I've never experienced it, but I can imagine the feeling quite vividly.

Recently with three other couples and assorted kids we rented a boat for the day at Sweetwater and under the wise calendaring of Tag, by five o'clock everyone was having their fill. I had been out a few times - not driving - but out, skittering over the beautiful blue surface in a blur and feeling the cool spray against my face.

Then suddenly, I was with three or four of the kids and was the captain and it was a different ball game. A mile from shore, sitting dead in the water waiting for a water skier to slip on an errant ski, a bit of breeze rising, enough to lift little breakers and stir up a tense mood, and I thought, what if we ran out of gas right now, or the engine quit or something. A helpless feeling, somewhat like when you are in the water with the skis on. The water seems so deep and wide and you seem so small in it. Now the mystery encompassed the boat, and the shoreline seemed so distant, and our fiberglass shell so tiny and vulnerable.

Yet every day is like this, only we are so used to it that we don't feel uncomfortable with it, only at times when our fragileness is thrown into perspective - hurling along a freeway, for example, at 65 miles an hour, passing huge rigs going just as fast the other way and missing each other by only three or four feet. If you thought about it too hard you'd never go near a car.

It's the same with boats.

So even though I don't have a boat parked out by the garage, or in a storage unit somewhere, it's a good thing that I went in with the others and rented the boat last week and went out on the lake and felt the power of the water and the wind and the terrible feeling of being swept powerless into oblivion. Water skiing is much too exhilarating to miss if the opportunity to try it presents itself.

There are lots of experiences that we could easily miss if we didn't risk it all from time to time. And like they say, there ain't any of us going to get out of it alive anyway.

* Dennis Smith is an artist and writer living in Highland.