Immersed in the Wild

An ‘open-water’ swimmer finds a risky intimacy with nature.

  • Open-water swimmer Edwin Dobb strokes toward Alcatraz.

    Michael Darter
  • Open-water swimmer Edwin Dobb strokes toward Alcatraz.

    Michael Darter
  • A gray whale swims near Whidbey Island in Puget Sound.

    John Herman and Minette Layne/creative commons at

Although I had been swimming on and off since moving from southwest Montana back to San Francisco in mid-January, my new season officially started on April 17th, the day I turned 60. It was a bright afternoon, the sun partially obscured by high thin clouds, gusts churning the surface of Aquatic Park, a manmade cove bounded by curved piers on the waterfront. That's where I swim, along with others whose notion of a swell time is plying chilly San Francisco Bay while wearing nothing but a cap and a Speedo. And chilly it was that day -- water about 55 degrees, or 30 degrees cooler than the average municipal pool. Whatever pleasures await the cold-water sea swimmer -- and they are incomparable, even, at times, transcendent -- reaching them entails a certain amount of discomfort. Every swim begins with a double leap -- the physical act of plunging into the water, the mental act of deliberately submitting to pain.

How long it takes for the body's internal heat to counteract the penetrating cold varies widely, depending on several factors -- metabolism, conditioning, overall acclimation, how hard one swims. But whether the interim is measured in seconds or minutes, a kind of alchemy is at work, converting the forbidding into the ecstatic. What makes the shift possible is conviction, the belief that eventually the sting will recede, the shock replaced by something that cannot be experienced anywhere else. The longer one is away from cold water, the greater the need for conviction. On that windy afternoon in April, I hadn't been swimming consistently for months. In mediocre shape and not yet generally acclimated, I didn't venture far, following a line of buoys anchored a hundred yards from shore. A full seven minutes passed before the cold loosened its grip.

I completed two laps, then added a few extra buoys, maybe a mile in all. Not bad. Within weeks I'd extend that half-hour inaugural swim into sessions lasting an hour and a half to two hours. I was intent upon that. Leaving the bay wanting to lengthen the swims, wanting to return soon to do so, is how I knew the season had begun. Like any deeply enjoyable activity, distance swimming readily becomes addicting. The high is real. But swimming entails another kind of attraction as well, one whose locus is the medium itself. Since boyhood, I've been drawn to water, especially open water -- rivers, lakes, seas, and in a visceral way. Mere contemplation won't do. The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, I was seized by a desire to taste it, to feel it on my skin, to surrender to it. Exultation is the going, as Emily Dickinson wrote, Of an inland soul to sea. Though the poem refers to sailors, I know well the going it celebrates. I also know well the hunger for going that haunts some land-born souls.

Immersion doesn't entirely satisfy this hunger, which then moves outward, fixing on the horizon, an undulating, ever-receding border between endless sea and endless sky. Past the houses, past the headlands, Into deep eternity! Playing it safe during my birthday escapade, I looked -- rather than swam -- across the cove, toward the opening that connects it to the bay as a whole, where sailboats and ferries, tugs and container ships were visible. After I've increased my stamina and grown accustomed to longer stays, I'll trace successive mile-long circuits, swimming along the interior perimeter. I especially enjoy passing through the opening into the zone where the smaller chop inside the cove mixes with the larger, more energetic chop outside. There I pause and tread water for a spell. Sometimes I tremble slightly, not in response to the cold but in recognition of the wildness of the place, its power, immensity, and indifference to my interests or well-being, which is exhilarating, surprisingly enough, but also scary. I gaze at the Bay Bridge; Treasure, Alcatraz and Angel islands; the Golden Gate Bridge and, beyond that, the Marin Headlands. A crazy yet almost irresistible urge takes hold, the same urge that arises whenever I'm in the ocean, with nothing but water in front of me -- to swim farther out, and farther still.

We all create experiential maps -- singular, emotionally charged geographies in which what holds the world together, giving it form and meaning, is neither calendar time nor geometric space but the lasting impressions certain occasions make upon us. According to these interior bearings, something that occurred, say, 35 years ago and a thousand miles away can possess a stronger presence, and feel closer in every important respect, than what happened yesterday.

My map of the West is noteworthy for its many aquatic benchmarks, starting with formative lake and river swims in Montana. Among the most memorable are nocturnal larks: The moon momentarily suspended in the still surface of a lake; the surrounding silence, so pure that a whisper is the only proper utterance; the water, crystalline by day, now another kind of night, and into whose darkness I let myself sink, slowly, until my lungs can stand it no longer. For sheer excitement, by contrast, it's difficult to top being propelled downstream in a river, headlong, submerged. From the bank I'd first scout a section, making sure it was free of treacherous snags or boulders. Then I'd walk back upstream, enter the river and slip into the current. Surfacing only to take breaths, I'd remain underwater most of the time, as close as possible to the bottom, gliding by surprisingly placid trout.

As much as I savor freshwater swimming, however, the sea's allure is stronger, more insistent -- more primal. Some explain it simply as sublimated nostalgia for the womb, which probably isn't entirely wrong, though it fails to account for my aversion to warm water (and by warm, I mean above 70 degrees). Poet Paul Valery, in an interpretation closer to my tastes, referred to swimming as “fornication avec l'onde.” Leave it to a Frenchman to eroticize his encounters with waves, but one would be hard pressed to find a more sensual experience than being virtually naked while enveloped by water, water that's alive, dynamic, continually changing shape, sometimes gently, other times violently. Of all possible relationships with the natural world, immersion, I believe, is the most intimate -- my skin, every inch of it and all at once, caressed by the sea.

That so much of the Pacific Coast is open to the public makes the West particularly well-suited to those seeking such experiences, and I've taken advantage of the opportunity at every turn. From Canada to Mexico, my ever-expanding aquatic geography includes dozens of unforgettable spots, their names now incantations, that conjure up some of the most satisfying outdoor experiences of my life: Long Beach, Vancouver Island. Ebey's Landing, Puget Sound. Sooes Beach, Makah Reservation, Olympic Peninsula. Oregon Dunes. Limantour Spit, Point Reyes National Seashore. El Capitán State Beach, Calif. Punta Rosarito, Bahia Santa Rosalita, Baja. Whenever I drive coastal highways, I look for promising water. Some days it's enough to crash through the breakers, then turn over on my back and float, eyes closed, arms outstretched, on the tilting swells beyond. Other days I swim until I'm exhausted.

Thirty-five years ago and a thousand miles away: Punta Rosarito, north of Guerrero Negro and Scammon's Lagoon, where every winter West Coast gray whales gather to calve. The trans-peninsular highway was only a year old. Rarely did one see another traveler, and more rarely still another American. Restlessness and curiosity had brought me, my girlfriend, and her two children, ages 4 and 6, halfway down Baja; an appetite for improvisation kept us there. For several weeks, we roamed back and forth between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez, camping in my VW van. Besides being virtually uninhabited back then, both coasts border one of the harshest deserts on Earth, home to little but rock and cacti, beneath an unforgiving sun -- a place of stunning but desolate and sometimes dangerous beauty.

The water also poses risks. One afternoon at Punta Rosarito, after watching sea otters frolic outside the breakers, I swam lazily back to shore. When I reached the shallows, I stood up and walked. I didn't go far before I felt something knifelike drive into the bottom of my right foot, then just as quickly rip out. I'd stepped on the spine of a stingray that had been resting on the bottom. An uncommon mishap. Also a painful one, and something I knew nothing about. Fortunately, we'd befriended a couple, Alfredo and Maria, who owned a café in nearby Rosarito. The kids, alarmed by the trail of blood I'd left behind on the beach, scrambled into the back of the VW while I jumped into the passenger seat. My girlfriend then drove us into town, where Maria added salt and coffee to a pot of water she brought to a boil. Alfredo dipped a compress into the water, then applied it to the puncture, repeating the procedure again and again, slowly drawing out the venom. Ever the thoughtful host, he also produced a bottle of tequila, which we passed back and forth. The pain soon subsided.

The stingray episode was a much-needed reminder that unarmed and unarmored human beings are among the most vulnerable creatures in the marine environment. The rapture of immersion offers no protection against the sea's random cruelty. Cultivating an awareness of the various possible hazards certainly is prudent. And, even better, it heightens the experience, though it can also induce panic, which is the gateway to paralysis -- and worse. So far, I've been fortunate. I've collided with jellyfish, but only the non-stinging and mildly stinging kinds. I've been brushed by harbor seals and found myself in the middle of pelican feeding frenzies, but I've never been head-butted or bitten by a sea lion. Currents have driven me off-course, testing both my composure and my endurance, but I've never been dragged far from shore by a riptide. The more I swim, to be sure, and the more I investigate new swimming locales, the greater the likelihood that something unwanted will happen. But unpredictability -- the possibility of encountering ill-tempered predators, perhaps, or the more common vagaries of abrupt changes in temperature, weather and other conditions -- is precisely what makes the sea wild. Lakes are tamer, pools tamer still. In a bathtub, one is master of the universe. But a universe in which I'm master holds little appeal.

Several years ago, I was staying with a friend in a small town on the southeast shore of Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound. Each morning, before sunup, I walked from her house down to the harbor, then stripped to my suit and swam. It was mid-October. The air was brisk, the water cold, maybe 57, 58, but tranquil, and gin-clear. On the second day, still a few blocks from the Sound, I heard a soft but distinct whooshing sound, then another, like blasts of water from a nozzle.

When I reached the beach, I could scarcely believe my luck: Only a couple hundred yards away, three gray whales were quietly surfacing, exhaling, then diving again, their bowed backs glistening in the early light. To say I swam with those magnificent creatures would be an exaggeration. But for an hour or so I was never far from them, and they lingered in that spot. Afterward I learned why: They were feeding on shrimp that inhabit the sandy bottom there. Evidently, gray whales, migrating south to Baja, frequently detour into Puget Sound. All I knew at the time, however, was that I'd been granted a glimpse of the marvelous -- three whales briefly revealing themselves while, in the distance, under a cloudless sky, the sun rose over the snowbound peaks of the Northern Cascades. I've enjoyed many solitary daybreak swims but none as moving as this one. Completely at the mercy of the sea, I experienced the going in its most exulting form, a condition Dickinson called divine intoxication.

I don't expect every swim to induce intoxication, but having experienced it, not only on this occasion but several others, has made open water all the more alluring. I plan trips according to swimming prospects, the wilder, the better. On a recent drive from San Diego to Montana, I added several new locations to my Western waters chart, including Panguitch Lake, in the mountains of south-central Utah, and Bear Lake, straddling the Utah-Idaho border, both of which I'd visit again, given the chance. Last summer, while I was on a month-long assignment in Bristol Bay, Alaska, streams were prominent. The most entertaining was the Naknek River, which winds from Naknek Lake, inside Katmai National Park, toward King Salmon. Within minutes of my having entered the water, a brown bear -- the Alaskan euphemism for grizzly -- ambled out of the woods and stood up, peering in my direction. Then, more disturbingly, when I turned and headed back to where my truck was parked, the bear shadowed me on the beach, though in a haphazard way, finally pursuing something it spied on the bank. The next day I found another stretch of the Naknek, inside the park, where the only animals to be seen were sockeye salmon migrating upstream to spawn. I swam with them, against the current.

In recent years I've also participated in organized open-water swims, including some masters competitions, but mostly events sponsored by the South End Rowing Club, one of two 140-year-old aquatic institutions (the other being the Dolphin Club) that share a building at Aquatic Park. But organized doesn't mean tame, especially at South End, where I'm a member. We select days and times when the tides are favorable. We rent boats to ferry us to distant jumping-off points. And we arrange for kayak and Zodiac escorts. But the purpose of the additional support, apart from reducing needless risk, is to make it possible to experience the wildest parts of San Francisco Bay -- swimming from the waterfront, say, out to Alcatraz, around the rear of the island, then back to shore; or from the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge to the north; or from Point Bonita Lighthouse, the westernmost spot on the Marin Headlands, on the ocean side of the bridge, back to Aquatic Park. The longing to swim ever farther out remains, an instinctive response that I neither control nor fully comprehend. Even more intense, especially now that I'm 60, is the desire to continue swimming -- swimming robustly -- for all of my remaining days. In August, I, along with a couple dozen other swimmers, will attempt to circumnavigate Pennock Island, located in the Tongass Narrows off Ketchikan, Alaska. An 8.2-mile circuit. Water temperature in the high 50s, low 60s. Aqua incognita. Yet another opportunity to surrender to the sea.

Edwin Dobb teaches narrative writing in the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is the co-writer and co-producer of the documentary film Butte, America, which was broadcast on Independent Lens last fall. He's also a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.


For more information on open water swimming:

Dolphin Club

South End Rowing Club

La Jolla Cove Swim Club

World Open Water Swimming Association

Pacific Open Water group

Swim around Bainbridge blog

Daily News of Open Water Swimming blog

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