My wife and I once drove from Montana to Seattle for a wedding at a farm that hosts such ceremonies. En route, we found a good place to change into our fancy clothes -- a thicket alongside the Snohomish River. OK, we're a little eccentric. But at the river, we met a guy who was even more eccentric. He pulled off the country road, stripped down to swim trunks, donned fins and a snorkeling mask, waded into the river and swam slowly back and forth.
Come to find out, he'd adopted that stretch of the Snohomish, regularly cleaning up the old fishing lines, hooks and other trash that collects on the river bottom. He turned out to be an HCN subscriber, which wasn't too surprising. We regularly run into subscribers while hanging out in various obscure thickets around the West.
The guy -- whose name escapes me because I didn't write it down, and if I don't write names down, they tend to vanish -- described a vivid scene that I'll never forget. During the yearly salmon migration, he would snorkel downriver as thousands of salmon swam up from the ocean. Crowds of the huge, prehistoric-looking fish would loom before his face, seemingly aiming for a head-on collision, and at the last second, the salmon would veer right and left, allowing him to pass through their ranks. He would swim a mile or more amid the salmon. Whoa.
Working with writer Eddie Dobb on his cover-story essay for this issue of HCN, I learned that there's a term for this activity: Open-water swimming. Open-water swimmers do their thing in many wonderful ways. They do endurance swims on challenging stretches, including the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the Amazon River, the English Channel, the Bering Strait and Antarctic waters. They compete in races in seas, lakes and rivers. They include scientists researching marine life, tourists who pay $119 for guided "snorkeling among salmon" in Western Canada's Campbell River, and Mark Powell, who's blogging about "underwater touring" around Washington's Bainbridge Island.
Dobb's essay captures the essence of open-water swimming: not its competitive angles, but the unmatched intimacy with the wild that it offers. Between the lines, he's also writing about the need to preserve wild waters and landscapes.
It's unusual for High Country News to have a deeply personal sea-level essay on our cover. But over time we've expanded our coverage from the Intermountain West to the Pacific Coast, while enhancing our mix of news and analysis with other forms of excellent writing. At times, we've considered changing our name to reflect our expanded focus. But we've been High Country News for 40 years now and, as noted in the opening paragraph, some of us have trouble learning new names. Besides, the "high country" encompasses so much more than just geography. So we'll stick with our name, regardless of the map. We figure it's another aspect of our collective eccentricity.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.