April Swimming

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I did not intend it when I pulled into the car park at Walden on the first of two near 80 degrees days. I intended to walk around the pond to take a photo of a particular stump I have been monitoring on the shoreline directly across from the main beach.
Ice Fort Cove is the point to which I swim during the summer and years ago I remember this stump being almost completely immersed in water. Over the past three or four years as the water level of the pond has decreased alarmingly, the stump has crept closer and closer to the shore so that over the past year the water has abandoned it completely. I have been taking series of photos of it since January 2016.* (The feature of a post to come). So when I wandered down the ramp to the sand that warm spring afternoon I was not thinking about swimming at all. I was wondering whether with the recent addition of more rain to April’s total, that stump had retreated to the water once more.

When I returned to the main beach after my walk I could not resist slipping off my shoes and wading into the water. It felt so warm compared to two weeks ago when I had taken that first dip over Easter.
As I sat on the stone wall waiting to meet a friend I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. If I raced home and grabbed my swimsuit I could come back and go for a quick swim and still be on time for my next commitment. I sat on the warm stones basking in the afternoon sun, the idea expanding like a flower unfolding in my brain.

At first I was only contemplating another plunge, a few quick strokes, flip over on my back and swimming back to shore. But after talking to my friend, a fellow swimmer about to do his third swim for the season, like the idea itself, I started visualizing more. The defining factor would be time.

When I arrived back at Walden in my swimsuit I had just enough time for a 10 minute swim, and without a wetsuit in the 57 degree water I figured that would be plenty….

All the variables of my situation were streaming through my mind …. I had not been swimming more than twice since early March … My body was not acclimatized to cold water …. I am not carrying much natural insulation …. Last year’s shoulder injury is still nagging on occasions …. It’s impossible to tell (initially) one immerses in cold water how it is affecting the body. It is a cumulative effect in any case …. Would my limbs cramp up or in the least not propel me forward? …. The thoughts raced faster and faster and the only way to test them was to put on my neoprene cap, my goggles and gloves and head for the water’s edge. Which is exactly what I did.

It was cold. I felt it run down every rib to my abdomen. I felt it on the back of my neck. I felt the soles of my feet etched in cold. After I had swum out a little I felt my hamstrings tighten as if they had only just realized they were working under the duress of the cold. I willed them to keep working anyway. My arms, in and out of the water felt uniformly … cold … Even the sun’s warmth could not penetrate it. But as I continued to swim the cold ceased to bother me. Its clutch on my psyche lessened and I wanted to go on. I knew better. One can get into trouble if one goes beyond what can be tolerated. I reminded myself I am acclimatizing. I turned at my assigned point and headed back to shore.

The following day, another 80 degree day, I did it again. And it came together better. I swam a little further and it felt a little less jarring on my body; the cold, the familiar but unaccustomed stroke. Then the weather turned. The clouds rolled in, the wind picked up a bitter chill from the north, and the rain came down. And I don’t know when it will be 80 degrees again.

Skiing and Swimming Walden Style

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A week ago Walden was covered in snow and ice. I had a wonderful Sunday afternoon cross country skiing with a friend through Walden Woods. We stopped to take photos of the sun sparkling through the trees or to discuss which of the myriad of criss crossing tracks we should follow. And at the end of our outing, following the ridge on the southern shore of the pond back to the main road, I looked out over the pond, which had been water until three days before.
“It usually freezes over by the end of the first week of January,” I remarked, remember all the years I had been coming to Walden, and the year, thirteen years ago, when I had been swimming until the ice took the water away.

But by the time I visited Walden again on Friday, the ice was all but gone.
When I walked down onto the sand I bumped into a swimming buddy who had just finished his icy dip! Mike had walked around to Red Cross Beach so he could avoid the wind, swum across the pond to avoid the ice. “It can cut you up pretty bad,” we exchanged thoughts on the matter. “And you can’t see it when you are swimming either.” I added, (having had the misfortune to have collided more than once with the sharp edge of the ice back in 2004). Mike had swum back to the beach on the other side of a large segment of ice that divided the pond in two parts.
I was impressed. Mike wasn’t “blue” and he was making complete sense. Even in November I would sometimes get so cold I couldn’t “get my mouth around my words” properly.

This morning, Sunday, I went back to Walden again. It was a chilly walk, especially along the shaded shore. When I was finishing my walk I found an unoccupied chair and swimming gear on the wall, the gathering place for all the swimmers in season. A small crowd had gathered at the far end of Red Cross Beach. Instantly I knew why. I strained my eyes and sure enough, a tiny black head in the water, watching where he was going arms rotating. It had to be Mike. And he had an audience.

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Tuesday at Walden

 

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This is what I remember.
It was a day where the world wore red and blue. Sky and worn out autumn leaves turned from green to orange to yellow before finally settling red.
Even the water couldn’t make up her mind, reflecting the richness of heaven’s blue and earth’s russet red leaves deep inside her.
It was a day where friends gathered on the beach to celebrate the unusual warmth in the November air. Air which was soon to be replaced by a bleak grey morning following the sun’s downing and rising again.

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It was a day when the pond was so still that I hardly dared to make a mark in her as I clumsily glided through her cold caverns. As I watched to my right the light dance on golden sand and to my left streak in thin dark lines racing back and forth across the water surface – constant motion going nowhere.

 

What I remember is cold. My back, despite the windless day and the warmth of the sun. So as I swim further and further into the middle of the pond I am engulfed by it.
What I remember is the lack of rhythm in me. Is this how it will end? I ask myself. This last swim. An anticlimax after all the strength I have poured into this water, gliding and sliding through Walden these past months. No great epiphany to hold me through the raw sleet of winter? I go on, not ready to give up on it yet.
I remember cold. My hands. My head. It starts to ache. It is surely over for me now. Brain freeze. I pray it is transitory and will lift when I lift my head out of the cold. I lift my head now.

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This is what I see. A fringe of deep rich red, the reflection of the last of the autumnal trees curling around the shoreline. I am watching it unfurl as I edge closer and closer. Cold. So far from shore. The beach house blazing white in light beckoning me home. I know I can make it home.
I trust I can make it home.

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Reflections in Fluid Thought.

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During these last weeks, these last days that I will venture into the cold waters of Walden I become obsessed. At once I feel the frenetic urge to avoid the cold, especially as I sneak one lazy foot out from under the bedcovers after the other, but as I move more into the morning, my cup of coffee waking me and my day beginning to take shape and plan, I start to feel the edge of desire and need to find solace from the rattle of traffic and appointments. It is then that thought of Walden’s soothing company becomes a salve for my soul.

That is why despite the chill I find myself again nearing Thoreau Cove on the cloudy but warm Wednesday afternoon last week. That, plus the experience that my heightened senses gift me as my body calms and focuses inward as I swim.

The water is placid today. And the sun’s momentary disappearance behind the increasing patches of cloud give it a steely silver grey tone. It rolls off my body like a spearhead. I become engrossed in watching it every turn of my head, wanting to stroke its smooth sheen surface. I want to paint this scene and have it with me all winter, the fading fall colors of the trees, the showering sparkles of light that spray off my rising arms as I turn, that spearhead of water rising above me.
The swim back to the main beach is always a challenge. It seems longer than the outward journey and once I leave the protection of the cove there is little distraction in the choppiness of the water that absorbs my mind like cove does, until I swim adjacent to the sandy expanse of Red Cross beach. There a rhythm takes hold and I am transformed into a metronomic machine. I become the observer and the actor.

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As my head turns to the unfaltering rhythm of my stroke I see to my left, on the sand a group of walkers marching two by two down the length of the beach. To my right, the willowy reflections of the trees bend weeping into the still waters below the sun, a ball of fiery silver sparkles shooting branches of light in all directions. To my left, the last of the walkers, straggling and the now deserted sand, deep wet yellow. Right again and the shimmer of tree tenticles reaching out to touch me. And me, the cold, knifing into my bones. And the rhythm of my hands and my feet beating water. Breathing.

The Clash of the Seasons

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Nothing feels like such an abrupt assault to the body as a change in weather conditions such as Boston has experienced this past week. From sun and seventy degrees a week ago to gale force winds, rain and forty degrees today… Yet not only the body, but the mind is also reeling… It is not yet November.
And I have not finished swimming for the season (or so I think!) I hear a voice in my head rebelling against my truncated sojourns into Walden’s depths.
Yet today I am standing on the shore of Thoreau Cove in my winter coat and beanie, my sneakers planted firmly on wet sand, breathing deeply, feeling the cold damp air wrap itself around my fingers. The rain drops are needling my face and my eyes are closed against the blur of vapor filled air. I am walking, the first of many winter walks I imagine as my visits here take on a different shape to fit the season. It is too cold and bleak to swim and I am not alone in thinking this. There are no swimmers at the pond this morning. The wall is vacant of towels and bags. The beach is deserted. I only pass a couple of groups of walkers clad as I am in winter coats and hats on the path adorned with its colorful, now sodden leaves.

I listen the whisper of the water, or it roaring, depending on where I am listening from; Where have you gone? it asks. Will you be back? And I wonder too… Will I swim again? Tomorrow? Next week? To say a proper good bye until next Spring.

It was only Tuesday that I swum last. The weather wasn’t great. Temperature in the forties and cloudy. But the water felt fine. I put an extra shirt under my wetsuit and wore light neoprene gloves to combat the windy day. You learn these things, how the elements will affect you. But when I got out and tried to take my gloves off my hands were too weak. It was the cold… When that happens I know it is near the end for me.

So why even think of going back?

It is the memory of swimming into Thoreau Cove. The water calming and suddenly feeling I am gliding like a skiff along her surface. Sleek and smooth and unbelievably gracefully. I want to hold my breath because I have found some synchronicity inside the water. I have become it. And when I turn my head there are fine slender lines, green, blue and silver, streaming along the water surface just as I am. Perhaps I also am a slender silver line streaming along the water surface, like the light from distant headlights move along a road. I am part of this and it is perfect. I hardly dare to breathe for fear of disturbing the synchronicity.
That is why I want to go back. To find that place again. To feel both the exhilaration and the tranquility of existing inside it.

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Blustery Walden

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I was out of town this weekend so returning to Walden on the blustery Sunday afternoon to find throngs of family and friend groups walking around the pond, but not one swimmer bag slouching on the wall, I wondered if the water temperature had taken a nose dive while I had been away and all the swimmers left for the season.
But despite my lack of sleep and the constant companionship of a migraine headache, I put on my wetsuit, spread my towel on the sand, between gusts of wind blowing it back at me, and lay down to stretch. Somehow it felt safer from sand level. The roaring water racing toward the shore (as if it couldn’t reach it fast enough,) the whirlwind of confetti leaves circling like swallows swooping the earth, all seemed to pass me by. I curled my arm over my body warming my shoulder, first one side then rolling over to gaze down the other end of the beach, while i rotated the other, convincing myself the wind was not as strong as it had seemed when I had been walking down the ramp to the pond.
Then I put on my cap and goggles and headed for the water. I’ve swum in water this wild before, I reminded myself. It will distract me from the cold.

At first the tempest did not seem to fierce. I could easily time my breathing so as not to catch a gulp of water. And after the initial shock, even the water did not feel too cold. I settled into a rhythm, keeping close to the edge of the pond and watching the groups of Sunday strollers keep pace with me (and pass me) as we wandered down the length of Walden in our respective fashions. When I reached Sandy Point the water calmed. There was another wetsuit clad figure in the shallows, and perhaps another on the sand. I did not stop, just watched the gathering of people and glided past feeling a sense of achievement in being there. I had intended to turn back but the reflection of the sun on the mirror smooth water was too enticing, so even though I was aware of the chill edging down my spine and my promise of one more stroke before the turn, I constantly broke the promise I had just made.
But when I lost the sun I got the impetus I needed to start my retreat.

Swimming back already slightly cold is a test of strength. Mental and physical. But I knew the wind was with me. I distracted myself by again watching the people strolling along the shore. I wondered if they saw me. What they think of those black arms flung out of the water only to return to it moments later. The wild water tossing me up and dropping me down. I had no idea whether I was going forward or sidewards or anywhere at all. And if I looked up to see how far I had to go, all I saw was a wall of water coming at me. In front, on my right, on my left; swirls of green and sparkles of silver caught in the sun on the right, or just darkness on the left.

I know my strength. It is in not letting any of this stop me. The power is in the doing. So I continue to thrash at the water with one wayward arm after the other and beat at her surface with one ice block foot then the other, allowing her power to toss me without fighting it, while making small adjustments so I don’t beach myself on the sandbank at Red Cross Beach or end up on the wilder middle region of the pond. I know I am making progress, though I don’t feel it.
But I am beginning to feel alive with this challenge and the cold has receded to a far unnoticed part of me. Only to revisit when I get to the shore and stand to walk across the sand, wet and exposed to all her frenzy.

My Many Last Swims

When I found out I would be traveling to Australia to attend my father’s funeral I went to Walden. Gloves and socks, silk underwear, a neoprene hat and wetsuit, all the protective layers making the preparations as long as the swim itself. The water is now low 50’s and my swim has necessarily become shorter.

My daughter accompanied me. She watched with amusement as I methodically layered neoprene on silk, vaselined my lips and pulled the thick clumsy diving gloves and velcro’ed them tight around my wrist.
Then Kari set out running and I set out swimming and we planned to meet back at the beach and have lunch.
I swam for about half and hour. The silk next to my skin kept me warm, and only my face felt the real bite of the water. So much that when we met back on shore I spoke with a drawl, finding it difficult to make my mouth do what I intended. Kari laughed as we stood in the breezy sunny afternoon taking photos.

The car has become my change room since the temperature cooled, especially on sunny days when it affords more warmth than the cold bathroom block that is Walden’s only shelter. Kari sat in the trunk watching as I stripped layer on layer of wet gear onto the towel I placed on the ground beside it and quickly replaced it with my fleece jacket and jeans.

“Why don’t we just have lunch here,” I suggested. Our time was tight, as is usually the way when the end point of the day is an airport departure.

Since I have been in Fremantle I have been swimming in a 50 meter outdoor pool, slightly heated as the coming summer has not hit full force yet. It was wonderful to feel the water against my skin, to feel I could focus on the stroke, not the continual monitoring of cold against skin that I automatically do to ensure I am not becoming hypothermic….the danger in Walden at this time of year.

But I miss the freedom of the open water. I miss the feeling of utter joy Walden brings, the sense of gliding untethered in an oasis, the reflection of sky and forest and the vivid colors of fall, a carpet rippling from where I disturb the calm of the natural world. And I wonder, will I go back into the cold water when I return to Boston?

I don’t know, but I guess I will find out soon enough….

Kari, watching me change and our picnic in the car!

Kari, watching me change and our picnic in the car!

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My 'previous' final swim ...with some of my cold water swimming buddies

My ‘previous’ final swim …with some of my cold water swimming buddies

Farewell Walden (for now!)

Farewell Walden (for now!)