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I swim. That's what I do, who I am.

Uncas Lake and others in New England

This is one of my favorite pictures of myself. The grin is great, my hair is long, I am talking to someone who loves Uncas too, but most of all I am in the water--that lake's water.

Roger's Lake in Old Lyme is okay, depending. I took a bar of Ivory there (just a mile away) during the blackout following Hurricane Gloria. Gotta be grateful for that.

One is used to driving distances to do anything in Connecticut, but I think Bigelow Hollow is only slightly closer to Storrs than Uncas. It's a lovely lake and quite clean, considering that motors are permitted upon it. But those motors mean long-distance swims can be risky.

I couldn't begin to list the other lakes I've swum in New England. Well, yes I could. I just couldn't complete it--and wouldn't want to. There's a quite nice one in Cape Cod whose name I forget that I was glad to find: salty from ocean and sticky from camping, cool fresh water felt better than a shower.

And I nearly swam in Lake Champlain, early one morning when I was desperate to be clean, having camped in a field after a Grateful Dead show in a dirt airfield. After seeing the lake, I decided to look around for a shower. Happily, the campground did have hot, powerful coin-ops.

Not in New England but nearly: Lake Placid and Lake Copras. Cold, clean, beautiful. In the latter grow tadpoles that I was sure RDC was exaggerating but that indeed do grow about as big around as tennis balls. Also in New York State, a small lake on someone's property whose name I don't even know. Camping with a group of people for a weekend, I had to get away for a spell, and swam laps in a little pond. This encouraged others to join me, at which point the pond got silty with being stirred up. But the owners of the land had said, jokingly, that they were looking forward to some skinny-dipping in exchange for the camping. I didn't dip, not then, not there. But I did swim, which sustained me even if titillated no one else.

White Sands Beach

I don't have any pictures of myself in the water here. The best time of year to swim in Long Island Sound is September, when the summer people have left, when the water is warmest, the air is clearest, and the beach is emptiest. Plus the surf has a chance of being higher than a foot or so. It used to be you could walk the mile out the peninsula to Griswold Point, but the winter storms of 1992 cut through the thin little spit of land and now Griswold Point is an island you can wade to. At the Point, you can see the roil of water where the River meets the Sound, roiliest when the tide is high. Looking upriver, you can swim to Great Island if you're strong enough to overcome the race--not too racy, really--of the cove pulling itself into the river. On the west side of the river stand two lighthouses off Fenwick Point, a neighborhood famous for housing Katharine Hepburn. I like to clarify that since she's lived there all her life, she deserves to.

The Connecticut River and others in New England

The first time I swam in this was not deliberate. I was climbing the rocks along the bank between Ely's Ferry Road and Hamburg Cove and fell in, just before sunset one summer evening. I wore a sundress with my car keys in the pocket and my Tigger pendant around my neck, and the pendant loved me too much to break away and kindly cotton dress kept a good hold on the keys. I also thought to wave cheerily to a passing motorboat whose occupants apparently had noticed my tumble and now wanted to make sure I was whole.

The second time was deliberate--and desperate. I was home for my mother's wedding, and home for me means swimming in natural water. I took a swimming break, despite my mother's warning that really, the river isn't clean. And it's not. Can you say "agricultural runoff"? I knew you could! However, I figure I have a pretty high tolerance for whatever bacteria there are, since the difference between the river's water that far downstream and my beach's water, so close to the estuary, is minimal.

The first time I entered LEB's house was to live there for a week before school started, working at Scheduling. Behind her dogful, catful, LEBful house flows the Mount Hope, which adds to its other perfections (I'm Mr. Collins!*). Strategic placement (and displacement) of smallish boulders has created a swimming channel, shoulder-deep and of usable length. Furthermore, no one is ever there. Perfect.

* Mr. Collins tends to overpraise and tells Elizabeth her refusal to accept him (presumably modesty) "adds to her other perfections." I realized I quote him here, but I do not overpraise.

Someone wanted me to visit him one birthday weekend, which I agreed to do if swimming would be available--I always swim on my birthday. He said yes, so I went along with him, leaving my car behind. Once at his house, he said we probably wouldn't swim--he didn't like to, it wasn't important (to him), he didn't know where to go (in northwestern Connecticut? Tell us another). May I say this was ohso typical of him--any of these objections, if voiced before he trapped me carless, would have altered my decision. I put my foot down, he claimed shrewishly, and held him to his promise. We swam in a small river in Roxbury. I love fresh water with a current.

off race pointAtlantic Ocean

I haven't been to Misquamicut, Rhode Island, in years, but that was my first ocean experience, as a child. Actual waves and an undertow--ocean! The Sound, so shallow and mild, offers nothing like this (in good weather).

My first experience of real open ocean happened along a bird sanctuary on the south side of Martha's Vineyard when I was 13. I still recall that as one of the best beach days of my life. The beach was empty, the sand was great for castles, and the water was cold and scary and deep and could have had actual sharks in it.

My favorite open ocean thus far is the Atlantic off Race Point at the northern end, kind of the wrist, of Cape Cod. It is butt-clenchingly cold, even in August, although I do swim there in June. The rest of the ocean, all along the National Seashore on the eastern side of the forearm of Cape Cod, also offers fine swimming. Another reason I love Cape Cod is that I have only positive memories of it and going there is always a treat. While I cherish my Old Lyme hallowed places more, no place I grew up in can be presumed free of painful hurtful memory.
A few miles away from Race Point but named differently is Cape Cod Bay, along which Provincetown is built (the palm of Cape Cod). This is a useful piece of water for docking whale-watching boats (in Provincetown) and for quick swims across the street from a boarding house. Farther south, near Wellfleet, low tide exposes broad stretches of rippling sand for carefree capering.

There is also the ocean off Delray Beach, Florida. Ocean you can swim in all year long without losing extremities! What a good idea. I chide DMB for getting so acclimated that she, a native of Connecticut, still swims only in the summer.

Rocky Mountain Lakes

Grand LakeJust below Loveland PassEastern Colorado is arid and flat. Denver is on the eastern plains. You do the math: are there any lakes? Just before we moved, we saw footage on CNN of Cherry Creek Reservoir in Denver and I saw trees, mountains, people swimming. Thank the trees, I thought, I can swim in natural, if dammed, water, in Denver. Then I saw the reservoir in real life and decided to enjoy only Cherry Creek State Park's bike trails and nature sanctuary. There's another reservoir in the southwest metro area and I explored that one summer day. That's when I learned that all the reservoirs list their levels of harmless bacteria. Which means they have a reason to do so. Sigh.

The first time we visited CLH in Aspen, she took us to the Maroon Bells, the eponymously named mountains Ansel Adams made famous. A light rain fell in the mountain meadow and puckered the surface of the icy, crystal pond that was gradually becoming the meadow. Driving from Denver, we'd come over Independence Pass and for the first time I saw snow a) in August and b) below me in August. The next day, at the Maroon Bells, I was still adjusting to the shock living somewhere winter came nearly year-round. CLH and didn't swim in that mountain pond, but we agreed we would have if it'd been sunny. Almost any water temperature is bearable if you can warm up in the sun afterward.

Over our first anniversary we camped in Rocky Mountain National Park and when we left, came out the west (Pacific) side of the Divide, which is not so arid. Lakes! Here were certainly lakes! My first endeavor was Shadow Mountain Lake. Bald eagles scoped the water as I shucked my overalls, a good sign. I dove into the water, water shaded by broadleaf deciduous trees (which don't thrive in Denver). And I dove right out again. I who have swum off Race Point in June knew that if I stayed in that water, my muscles would ceases to obey me in about two minutes flat. Sigh.

But the next summer, I gave Grand Lake a try. Grand Lake is the largest natural lake in Colorado, and to exist at all therefore must be at a hefty altitude. Its northern end has a shallow little bay, and this I tried. This is my lake of choice in Colorado. Motors ply these waters too, but they're clean nevertheless. I can swim parallel to the bank, about 15 feet out, safe from motors and free from chlorine, then emerge and restore circulation under the strong mountain sun. That's a good lake. It's not even impossibly cold: children dabbled and RDC joined me.

Also the next summer, we camped in Glacier National Park. We made few stops along the way except for Flathead Lake, quite near the Park. Bald eagles lived along it, too; on one dead tree we saw perhaps six. Another good sign. I wondered if Glacier would have swimmable lakes, either legally or physiologically possible--the name Glacier, after all, bodes not well for comfy swimming. Flathead was warm, at least relative to what I expected. The month was August, the water was shallow, the weather was sunny, and the altitude only about 4000 feet, I think. Toasty.

We arrived in the Park Sunday evening, having left Denver Friday afternoon, slept in the car just east of Grand Teton that night, browsed through Yellowstone National Park Saturday, camped along the Yellowstone River Saturday night, and hastened northwestward through Montana all Sunday. We had not had a proper shower since Friday morning. We set up camp on the west, wetter side of the Park, near Lake MacDonald, and Monday hiked through a near rainforest up to a lake with three glaciers melting into it. There we did not swim. Monday evening when we got back, we wanted to be clean. Badly. We were about to meet the coldest lake in the world (that is, in my world, so far). I donned my bathing suit and topped it with a big sundress. We took thirsty towels and warm fresh clothes. We gathered up comb and biodegradable soap. We set out. The Band-Aid approach was the only one to take, besides that our city feet didn't want our bodies to wade in on the rocky bottom, and so in we dove. And came up screaming, this being the best manner to cope with cold water immersion. And bathing suits only keep you colder in cold water, I'm convinced. So we got clean all over, clean and goose-pimply. A big dress is so useful. So here was a lake, though not one I would swim in recreationally (at 4:00, when the sun isn't quite as warm as it could be), here on the wetter, west side of the park. Wet. Wet = mosquitoes. I miss Connecticut's natural water, but I don't miss mosquitoes. Tuesday morning we crossed Going-to-the-Sun Road and stayed the rest of the week on the dryer, east side of the park (in a campground with coin-op showers). Without lakes. And without mosquitoes. But with bears,which was another story.

Pacific Ocean, 1998

When I visited CLH in San Francisco, I had my little notebook with me (and Jazz, but no camera). I walked from CLH's apartment to the Exploratorium to San Francisco Bay, along the Bay to Fort Point, up the hill and under the Golden Gate Bridge, and finally with bated breath I climbed a little rise. At the top of the rise, standing at the top of a cliff, all I could write was Meriwether Lewis:

11:45 I have seen the Ocian

I needed to touch that ocean, though. Somehow, despite my dress, despite resisting the pain of dragging my eyes away from that water and toward the business at my feet (and hands), I found my way down the cliff. Achieving the beach, I touched and tasted and waded in that ocean, southward along Golden Gate National Seashore. I clambered over rocks and saw a few scattered people enjoying the sand sun and surf au naturel. The next thing I wrote in my notebook was an hour later:

12:45 I have swum butt-knekkid in the Ocian

In the first statement, I had no words of my own to express the profound beauty and soul-deep peace I felt upon first feasting my eyes on the Pacific Ocean, so I used Lewis's. The contrast between the sober joy of the first and irreverence of the second statement inspired me to laughter as I wrote it. I love me.

On the north, and clothing-optional, end of Baker Beach, therefore, I skinned down and swam. No current could seize me away, no shark could bite me, or if any did, it wouldn't matter. This is why I live, to swim as I am meant to swim, naked and free and joyous. Those moments comprise perhaps the happiest I have ever been in my life. I am so grateful to myself for being brave and unashamed to follow my amphibian soul this way.

Pacific northwest, 1999: Lake Crescent and off Orcas Island


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Last modified 12 December 1998

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