Summer swimming in a Washington lake

  • Lake Chelan, Washington, where the author swims, when it's not too cold.

    Deby Dixon
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.