If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Wild swimming

The writer, Eric Lucas, swims in a pond at Owl Feather Farm near his home on San Juan Island.
Photo courtesy Eric Lucas

Clearing psychic debris in open water

By Eric Lucas

My 2-year-old Weimaraner, Blue, thinks I need to be rescued. Most other people simply think I need my head examined.

I’ve just plunged off an old Douglas-fir dock into the middle of a farm pond in the middle of a hay meadow in the middle of April, and now I’m neck deep in 16 feet of water that’s, um, chilly. Barely past 50 degrees. Blue paddles out to check on me. What on Earth am I doing?

“Wild swimming.”

That’s the trendy new term for this, especially in Europe — going for a dip in the outdoors far from concrete pools, lifeguards, filtered, heated water and last but not least, chlorine. Open water swimming confers physical, emotional and spiritual benefits that far outweigh any discomfort. In fact, some of us crazy outdoor recreation fanciers actually enjoy it and seek it out. As in:

“Um, Eric, I think that’s ice in the water over there.”

“Invigorating. Bracing. Energizing,” I explain to my friend and backpacking buddy David along the shores of a timberline lake in mid-July. I add that cold, open water swimming increases your white blood cell count (helps fend off anthrax and Ebola); boosts serotonin and dopamine, bio-chemicals that make you feel groovy; engages your parasympathetic nervous system, inducing calm; burns pesky white belly fat cells and creates beneficial brown fat cells … Brown fat? Must be like in bacon, you know.

“What’s not to like,” I conclude.

David rolls his eyes.

He’s a stalwart companion in all things wilderness … We once hauled 60-pound packs up and down a mountain range in southern British Columbia in a trek we have ever since called, “Nine miles of hell.” But show him cold pure water, such as at the lake we reached after those nine miles of hell, and he shrinks like an old party balloon. This is in fact the average human response: Wild water ranges from Arctically cold to dubiously safe to just plain dangerously icky.

You could say the same about shopping malls.

Luckily open water is far more endemic. Here in the Northwest it is literally everywhere; we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Lakes, rivers, ponds, tarns, hot springs and of course the ultimate open wild water, our branch of the world’s largest ocean.

I’ve swum in lakes beneath the shadow of Glacier Peak and rivers running down both sides of Mt. Baker. I’ve plunged 30 feet from a bridge into a Cascade river near Seattle and 25 feet from a cliff into an eastern Washington river far better known for drift-boat floating. In the Yukon, at a remote fly-in lodge, the owner fired up his shoreline wood-fired sauna and once we were parboiled we plunged into the lake, shoving aside leftover winter ice.

And yes, I swim in the Salish Sea; there’s a fine large tidal bay just below my farm, which affords two advantages. First, it’s big and hard to reach so on some days I can, well, just drop trou and plunge in if I happen to be at my mailbox 100 feet away.

Secondly, and much more appealing, is the fact that False Bay is very shallow (thus the name) and most summer days, the late afternoon high tide rolls in across about 100 acres of sun-warmed sand. Presto: Nature’s own heated saltwater pool. I head out to a big rock 100 feet from shore and haul out in the sun like a harbor seal. Once upon a time I used to celebrate New Year’s Day doing this, but I take a more measured approach to holidays now.

Innumerable such bays, inlets and coves like mine line the shores of the Salish Sea in our portion of the West Coast. Aside from the obvious benefits of immersing oneself in salt water — the oceans are the mothers of life itself, and our skin is the largest organ we have — I entertain myself philosophically with the idea that if I embarked on a really, really, really long swim, I’d wind up in Maui.

In my journeys around the world, I’ve gone swimming above the Arctic Circle and far below the Equator. I’ve been in every ocean, save the Arctic; from below sea level to 12,000 feet; in deserts and on glaciers in water ranging from 31 to 124 degrees. Five continents, more than 50 countries, even the middle of major metro areas such as Stockholm, where they take open-water swimming quite seriously and believe it is a crucial element of overall health and wellbeing.

Let’s talk about chlorine for a minute. It may well be quite effective at bacteria control, but so is plutonium. Chlorine is also a ferociously toxic gas that was used in World War I on the battlefields of Europe to kill thousands of people, so if we slosh it into our water — drinking or swimming — what could go wrong? Public health police may argue with me, so let me just focus on a more discrete fact: I have asthma, I’m allergic to chlorine, and I stopped going in public pools decades ago as a result. Swimming ought to help your breathing, not stop it.

As it happens, I own the farm pond in which I most often swim, so I have a pretty thorough grasp of where the water comes from and what’s in it. Winter rains drain through my 10-acre hay meadow into the pond, which at just under an eighth of an acre holds 1 million gallons of water by the time it fills each year at Christmas. After that, four more months of rain flushes any stray zombie fungi and the only hazard is, well, Blue trying to save me by climbing on my shoulders.

That’s the moment we both submerge, and for grins I head down to the bottom 16 feet below. Just to clear out the psychic debris of modern life, which dissolves almost instantly in wild open water. x

Eric Lucas lives on a small farm on San Juan Island, where he grows organic hay, beans, squash and apples.