Sunday, August 28, 2011

Swimming Across Crater Lake: The Adventure, The Plan, The Camaraderie

Transcendent. That's the word I'd choose to express my feelings about our Crater Lake swim last weekend. It transcended my expectations in all possible ways. We have been planning this for many many months, training in ever-longer lake swims, making lists of gear and staging, reserving camping spots and buying tickets for the lone boat that travels across the lake to Wizard Island.

For those of you who have never been to Crater Lake: Go. It's one of the wonders of the natural world, and a truly spectacular place. Some of our swimmers and their family members had never been there, so to see their faces when they first caught sight of it was very cool. It is the deepest lake in America at almost 2,000 feet deep, and one of the clearest lakes in the world with visibility well over 100 feet. Our route would take us almost 6.5 miles from Wizard Island (the famous cone-shaped landmark inside the lake) back to the boat dock. A straight shot would've been closer to 5 miles, but we felt it was safer to stay within hailing distance of the shore, just for safety reasons.

There were so many unknowns going into this swim. This year's snowfall had deposited over 600 inches by the end of April, and there was plenty of snow to be seen even in August. That meant the lake temperature might be far below the average for this time of year, which was only in the high 50's to low 60's. Hypothermia was a real possibility, and we agreed that somewhere around 55 degrees was our cutoff point for swimming such a long ways. Weather was another factor, with August you get thunderstorms which can come and go with rapidity. Being stuck in a gigantic bowl of water is not the safest place when lightning strikes, and indeed we were told that the late afternoon storm that deposited some rain on our post-swim barbeque had launched at least seven lightning strikes directly into the lake just an hour or so after we got out. We had swimmers of varying speeds, many of whom had never swam this far before. Myself, I felt like my broken arm in June had left a big question mark over my head. I hadn't been able to swim more than 3 miles in practice before our planned traverse of the caldera. There was also the question of safety: no boat support was allowed, not even an inflatable innertube could be towed along. We had small dry bags that we could swim with, and that was it. They could hold some food, a space blanket, a handwarmer or two, and a two-way radio connecting us to the Rim, but that was it for safety gear. Any emergency we met with, we'd have to handle on our own.

Strangely, while all of our fears about water temperature, weather, ability of swimmers, safety, and gear came to naught, the biggest stumbling block to completing the entire thing was..... boat tickets! We had been told that we could line up to buy tickets only the morning of the trip. Of course, our entire plan hinged on us all getting on the same boat to Wizard Island, and they only run three boats out there per day. Imagine my surprise, when I asked the ticket agent what time we should come to line up for tickets and she said that they'd changed the entire ticket selling system just two days before. Now the tickets were being sold at kiosks up to two days before. They were probably sold out, she informed me. As it turned out, there was only one ticket left. What to do? We brainstormed many possible permutations of our swim, including swimming an out and back, having some of our swimmers start from the island and some from shore (a few had managed to get their hands on advance tickets), and begging the boat captains to commission a separate boat (nixed by the Coast Guard regulations).

Eventually, it came down to the last moment. We snagged the last ticket which brought us up to five. One swimmer bought four tickets on the afternoon boat with the notion of offering to trade morning boat passengers their tickets. That worked for two more. The boat captain himself shifted a couple of staff members to later boats and voila, we were all happy and smiling and headed for the island at 10:00 a.m.

So there we were: the moment had come at last. The water was a brisk 61 near the shore (the captain cautioned us it would be colder out in the middle), and we filled our towable dry bags with snacks, donned our wetsuits, and jumped off the Wizard Island dock for our adventure.

Our plan was to break into three "pods", with color-coordinated caps. We sent the slowest pod off first, the medium pod a little while later, and I brought up the rear with Ethan and Dan, my "white cap" pod-mates. Our first leg took us around the island in about 45 minutes. From there, we sighted on Lao Rock and took off across the deep, and hour-long leg that led us over the bottomless blue, an area where there was 1700 feet of water beneath our wetsuit-clad bodies. The water was so clear, you could look over and see another swimmer like they were moving through glass. It looked as if we were all floating in air, very beautiful and surreal. The light rays converged beneath us in the startling blue water, and at one point we just stopped in the middle all laughing and shouting and just having so much fun. It's like we were all injected with pure joy. We goofed off and took some photos and video there.
After a stop at the rock for some food (no water needed, since we could just drink the lake - now that's purity!), we headed for a deserted beach, another 45 minutes or so away. This was one of the highlights of the journey as we all got out and lounged around on "Aquaduck Beach" (well, as much as one can lounge while wearing a wetsuit, that is!). Such a great company of people to share this journey with!

After that, we did another staggered start with our pods leaving separately toward a point of land, and then our final crossing to the boat dock. All in all, it took us somewhere around 2:40 (for our white pod) and we swam about 6.3 miles, give or take a few yards. We calculated our staggered starts well as each leg of the journey had the white pod gaining on the green and catching up with the yellow so that we all got to each check-in point with a couple minutes of each other. Still, it was amazing how hard it was to see each other across the lake. Since we were down in the caldera, with no noise other than the slap of waves and the breeze, we could sometimes hear our other swimmers but not see them.

All in all, the experience of traversing Crater Lake's caldera was an adventure into the unknown. How many times in your life do you get to embark into the utterly uncertain? Test yourself against nature and your own limitations? Do something where the outcome is not a given? And how many places can you go these days where there are no other humans? Even the summit of Everest has a crowd on any given day in the climbing season. We swam through those pristine waters, we sat on that deserted beach, we looked across the lake and saw nothing but water and sky, heard nothing but wind and waves. Our journey together bonded us as the self-styled "Crater Lake Nine", and a big barbeque later with our family had us all with perma-smiles on our faces that this week since has not erased.

Above all, my gratitude is overwhelming. So many things came together for us to make this swim: an amazing group of athletes and friends, our families who supported us, the helpful people running the boats, the anonymous tourists who kindly traded us their boat tickets, the weather, the water temperature, the good health that kept us all swimming strong. It was like a perfect storm of wonderfulness.


Keen Bean Company said...

What an epic adventure! I am glad it all came together and thank you for sharing - sounds INCREDIBLE!!

midlife_swimmer said...

sounds great... maybe I will come next year ? :) I would be the slow pod.

Ian M said...

Thanks for the post. Sounds like an awesome experience,

juliejulie said...

So cool! And now I don't have to do it, I can just appreciate your adventure. Bonus! Seriously, I'm so impressed and inspired by you all. What a great gift you gave yourselves.

Kathy said...

what a great event! I can't imagine dragging pods but it was really nice to have the pictures (you must have brought your camera in your pod?)

tinaparker87 said...

I would so love to do that swim. I saw Crater lake from a snowmobile and connot imagine swimming in such a beautiful place. Amazing day.

ThreeBoysFull said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ThreeBoysFull said...

What an awesome experience! I love the way you described the clear water. The imagery of other swimmers 'floating' sounds very peaceful. Totally cool.

Thanks for sharing. Have a great week.


Paul said...

What a cool experience. What a beautiful place. I have to say I am jealous. Perhaps one day!

cherelli said...

Wow. What an amazing experience. Crater lake is just a stunning, remarkable place. So glad everything came together for you in the end!

Robin said...

The swim pods really don't create much drag at all. They're very clever inflatable dry bags, and they float between your butt and your feet. The only time I noticed them is when we had some wind and chop that made them bounce around a bit more.

PrinceofClydes said...

Hey Robin,
I enjoyed your account of the swim. I too, find these kinds of adventures into the unknown attractive. I have swum solo across our local lake in the middle of a 21k run spontaneously, not a smart thing to do but it was a thrill. I love your spirit.