The Joyous Wilderness of Urban Swimming

adventure journal lake washington

There are older Hmong women fishing on edge of the dock and I don’t think they know what to make of me as I slip out of my shorts and flip-flops. I stand barefoot in puddle of their bait runoff and shake off the cold for a second before diving in.

If you try, you can taste the city in the water, grit and silt and whatever is running off the I-90 bridge, but I’d rather not. Once my goggles get foggy enough to blur the buildings of Bellevue in the distance I can trick myself into thinking that I’m not surrounded by sprawl and people, that Lake Washington is a wilderness and I am alone.

There are mountains if you keep driving east across that bridge, lakes that few people see, and dense, complicated forests. It’s wilderness with a capital W, designated and lightly touched. But there are a bunch of miles between here and there, too many for a Tuesday morning. And I’ve found that a lot of the things I like about wilderness – solitude, a physical rhythm, even a little bit of fear – I can get underwater.

I’ve been a swimmer since the second grade, but until now I’ve never lived in a city where open water was a possibility. When I was growing up, the water in the Charles River and Boston Harbor was untouchable. We pounded laps in the basement pool at the Y. At night we’d stand on the railings of the bridge between Harvard and Allston and try to spot rats. Urban legend said the chemicals in the water made them glow in the dark.

Now, from my house in Seattle, I can walk four blocks and slip into something that’s murky but swimmable. People who grew up around the lake say to shower right after you get out, and last summer toxic algae crowded the shallows and closed the beaches for a few weeks, but even in its grossness, even when creepy strands of overgrown milfoil grab at my ankles, the open water feels like a gift.

Sometimes I’m not exactly sure what it is I like about wilderness, if it’s the isolation or the awe, the idea that you are onto something amazing that other people don’t really know about. I’m learning that I don’t always need to go too far to get that feeling. Even Thoreau in his quest for solitude could walk back to his mom’s house in Concord. And in the morning, when fog starts to peel off the edge of the water and the peak of Mount Rainier is hanging in the distance, I get that, exactly, real hard. I’d like to describe it to the fisherladies on the end of the dock, but instead we smile and nod awkwardly and I pull my cap on.

The lake isn’t pristine, not by a long shot, but it’s bigger than I am and unknown to me. Once, head down, brain somewhere else, I caught a flash of orange the size of a small dog out of the corner of my eye. Someone must have released their backyard koi into the lake. Turns out they grow in proportion to the body of water they’re kept it. Turns out you can scream underwater.

But that little undercurrent of fear is a part it, too. I swim back to the dock, dodge the filament of fishing line, and pull myself up the ladder. Inside of an hour I’ll be sitting at my desk, lake water washed out of my hair and internet streaming in through my eyeholes, not even a little bit wild. But I’ll still feel the early morning tickle of milfoil, and the shiver that comes with it.

Photo of Lake Washington by Anthony Starks

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