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for people who care about the West

Summer swimming in a Washington lake

 

When I was a kid, I swam all summer in backyard pools and at the city park, lessons in the morning, wildness all afternoon. My bare feet grew calluses, my hair turned brittle green, my shoulders got broad, my Lycra suits disintegrated. And then I left home.

I've lived in this mountain town for a very long time now. There's no pool here, no pool for miles. There is a beautiful lake, sure, gorgeous. The water reflects tall firs and blue sky and mossy cascade-draped cliffs, but it is very cold. Jump in on the hottest August day, and you'll lose your breath. You can't stay in five minutes. Sometimes you can't jump in at all.

There are problems with living in one place too long. You know everyone, and they know you. You carry grudges from battles long forgotten. Sometimes you get bored. Sometimes you sit around the campfire telling stories about people and realize they have all left or died, and you think: I am way too young for this. Something has to change.

Last summer, something did.

A friend persuaded me to sign up for a triathlon. And since there's no pool in town, that meant I'd have to train in the lake. I'd owned a wetsuit before, a kid-sized Spider-Man getup for which I'd traded a raincoat, but it wasn't very warm. This time, I got serious. I bought a new wetsuit, thick and sleek and buoyant, and added booties, gloves and heavy scuba hood. Suddenly, I could stay in.

I swam to one submerged log to rest, then, as I grew stronger, to another, then another. I swam around a grassy island, past nesting geese and a hidden fort made by kids. At first I was afraid. I feared an asthma attack, feared getting cold, feared a motorboat moving too fast might mow me down. Over time, I settled in and breathed easier.

There's an expansiveness that, until now, I've only ever felt high in the mountains, a punch-drunk openheartedness that makes me wish that everyone I've ever loved could be right there, right then, for that sunset or that meadow or, in this case, for the stretched-out soothe of swimming through open water. Breathe right to see the sun-glimmered surface. Breathe left to see still snowy peaks. Away from shore, everything seems new.

Sometimes I'd look down through clear water and see a large peace symbol, 15 or 20 feet across, made of river rocks set in the sand by short-term neighbors one winter when the lake was drawn down. The neighbors are long gone, but the peace symbol remains. I always tried to find it, and sometimes I couldn't. When I did, it felt like a good omen.

Here's the truth. You think you know a place inside out. You think you can't change your perspective, but you can. You think you're alone, but you're not.

Now, in our lake, there's a small group of us who swim regularly. One evening we swam away from a campfire birthday party at dusk. Dogs barked on distant shores. An osprey perched atop a cottonwood snag.  Flocks of gulls circled like swifts, wide white shrouds against granite, then spiraled out of view. One Sunday, we swam across the lake, nearly a mile, with paddleboard escorts. We swam, unwittingly, with our arms in perfect sync, like marchers in a parade, like birds in flight. We reached the far shore and rested on a smooth slab of rock beneath Indian pictographs painted centuries before. Then we turned for home, no longer in perfect sync, finding our own separate courses, but still in the same cold water, still in it together.

I kept swimming into fall until one morning, even with all the gear – wetsuit, booties, gloves, hood, goggles – my face hit the water and the sting came as a shock. I told myself: Keep swimming, you'll get used to it. I stopped at the first log to catch my breath and take in the view: yellow alders on the hillsides, red vine maples in steep chutes, blue sky bluer than summer, bluer than anything, and the lake reflecting it all. It was beautiful, yes, stunning. But it hurt too much.

I turned and swam hard for home.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and swims in Stehekin, Washington. Her most recent book is Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness.