06 May 2021

Water, water everywhere

When a person becomes an all-season swimmer, floater, dipper, swimbler, every body of water one passes by, in the car or on foot, takes on new possibilities. They begin to look like potential dipping spots. In some ways, it’s like any other social phenomenon—the way we begin to notice everywhere the very thing we are wanting or perhaps experiencing ourselves: Suddenly and inexplicably, it seems everyone is pregnant, or drives that color car, or has that pair of sneakers. On the other hand, maybe it is a little different for all-season open water swimmers. For one, many of us are deeply motivated by the physical and psychological effects of swimming in the open. Secondly, it’s not like water isn’t around us. It’s just that we see it with new eyes. We suddenly notice that creek, or canal, or beach, and then begin assessing it for foot access, potential cleanliness, safety, water current, convenience. We post questions on social media boards about swimming holes in that town or that part of the county, state, country, or share tips of good places through word of mouth other ways. It’s as if we open ourselves to new possibilities.

What makes a suitable watering hole anyway? That depends largely on what we are seeking. Roger Deakin in Waterlog, his now classic account of a solo swimming journey through the British Isles, describes swimming spots that to me sound strangely stagnant, or abandoned, or creepily eel-filled, and even harrowing. But his was a pursuit of discovery, of country and of self. For contemporary serious open water swimmers who are training for triathlons or other sporting pursuits, a long shoreline, good proximity to the beach from the water, and manageable water currents matter. And then for slow swimmers like me (there’s a whole global community of us on social media), we’re just looking for some place not too exposed, not too busy with boats, where we can get in slowly, float around, look at nature, catch some sun rays or raindrops, maybe share some gossip if we’re in good company. I personally like a good cove on a lakeshore where the water is not too warm and definitely gin clear (an apt British aphorism, one of many I learned from Deakin), with a spot for a chair and my two bags, maybe some sun. Or I’ll take a saltwater seashore, if I can get into the water safely over sand, rocks, oyster shells and if the water isn’t too gunky at high or low tide, and the area isn’t too exposed.

Lake shoreline with trees at water's edge

A favorite swimming spot on the lakeshore

But these are preferences and being able to satisfy them is a privilege tied to where we live. That said, we outdoor swimmers are a flexible bunch, and some of us (not me!) are quite adventurous, like Deakin. I think the thing that ties us together though is that we all get such pleasure from open water swimming. The pursuit of this particular pleasure expands our perspectives. So we begin to look for additional opportunities to get wet. During the pandemic, this pursuit has added novelty and a sense of adventure to otherwise mundane routines. For me, that expansiveness has felt especially notable during seasonal changes, as we look back and we look forward. For example, as summer turned to fall last year, I was quite engaged with reviewing and documenting the places I’d swum all summer and the new places I’d found (planning the limited hiking and camping we did do, I prioritized bodies of water!). There was a sort of poignancy as the shrinking light and working hours of autumn limited my swimming options but also anticipation as I wondered how much longer I could do it and what I’d have to do to continue as the weather and water became colder. (Let’s just say my friends and I learned some remarkable body-warming strategies.) Then there was the transition from fall to winter, and the excitement of a cold dip to celebrate the new year-- polar bear plunges as they are called locally. I even noted social media posts of really creative wintery plunges around the world, into ice baths in garbage bins in gardens: pandemic conditions inspired creative swimming solutions!  Now we move from spring towards summer and the possibilities get even better in the northern hemisphere. With great excitement, we notice water temperature readings climbing out of the low 40s (F) or low teens (C). A friend reports on some potentially interesting swimming possibilities during a family outing last weekend along our Puget Sound waters (as she ruefully also admits she didn’t think yet to bring her swimming gear with her!). A British islander’s social media posts begin to feature locales different from the quaint village swimming spot she’s photographed all winter. We are paying attention to the water everywhere, looking for our next swimming adventure.

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