Lake Woebegone

When I was a pup coming up, if you made the East High School Boys' Varsity Soccer Team, you landed in City Park Lake. I do not know if this tradition persists, but ten years ago, it was a given — as intrinsic to the institution as fights in the front hallway where girls would rip out each other's barrettes. (Seriously, you'd see barrettes with clumps of hair on the floor as you came to class one morning and think, "Goddamn, I missed another one!")

Here's how the soccer initiation would go down. A few days after the squad lists came out, our coach would tell the captains to take the players on a run through City Park, adding something like, "I don't want anyone thrown in the lake," to remove herself from any legal liability. At this point, whatever Eddie Haskell was captain would assure her that no such thing could possibly occur, nor had the thought even crossed his mind, and off we'd run directly for Ferril Lake, or at least the small offshoot that lies along 17th Avenue. One by one we'd leap into the lake, swim across it and be welcomed to varsity. And if you ran from this tradition, you were tackled and thrown in the lake. So it was much wiser to simply grin and bear it.

Yes, it sounds quaint, like something out of Mark Twain, another delicious glimpse of ephemeral Americana, but here's what magicians call the reveal: The lake was fucking disgusting. It was disgusting in the way that John McCain looks like a skeleton. Which is to say, very much so. There were syringes and condom wrappers along the banks, broken bottles and grocery carts lodged in the mud. I vividly recall one resister who was hurled into the sludge, only to scream out in pain: He'd sliced his foot open on a piece of glass at the bottom of the lake, a fortuitous start to any varsity soccer career.

My tactic was to tuck my legs against my chest and swim across without ever touching the disgusting goo at the bottom. This plan worked smashingly, protecting my soft little goal-scoring legs. Unfortunately, a day after my dip, I developed an inexplicable bump on my neck that remained there — not kidding — for a year. I showed it to a doctor, who shrugged his shoulders and asked, "Well, does it hurt if I poke it?" He poked it, it didn't hurt, and for him the matter was settled.

When my friends and I were seniors, the tables turned and we dutifully threw those underclassmen bitches into the lake — only to have a Denver Department of Parks and Recreation truck roll up. We started chanting "Thunderbolts," a reference to Manual, our rival high school, and a brilliant evasive maneuver designed to throw the parks workers off our scent. But they didn't seem mad so much as concerned.

"Are you swimming in that lake?" one asked.

We didn't respond.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," he continued. "The other day we pulled out a dead, bloated beaver this big!"

He parted his hands like a fisherman showing the size of his catch, and we all cringed — though we certainly weren't surprised.

Because the lake was foul then like it is foul today. Except now, after a $28 million reconstruction of the fountain in the center of the lake, as well as the installation of a drainage system, it's vile in a whole new way: naturally.

Giant blooms of green algae have taken over the lake this summer. They huddle atop it like the film in a keg cup left sitting in the garage several days after the party. Experts blame the algae invasion on everything from the recent reconstruction to the heat to the nitrogen levels to the goose shit, but none of that matters. Because the only thing that matters to anyone in this city this summer is how it will look for — all together now — the Democratic National Convention.

Despite efforts last week to vacuum up the algae, I'm pretty sure the lake will continue to look terrifying and creepy and awesome for months, and I look forward to the day, several years from now, when all the little Park Hill comic-book artists hit us with their many scary tales of "It Came From Ferril Lake."

What's really impressive, though, is that people continue to fish the lake. I was there this past weekend, and the old-timers were all in their lawn chairs, fishing away. When those guys disappear, I'll get nervous — because maybe whatever they've been eating from the lake has finally killed them. But in the meantime, you varsity hopefuls, get ready for one hell of a fall. If you thought the syringes and benign tumors were bad, just wait till the algae gets your ass.