Author Carrie Saxifrage writes of the physical triumph of a long distance trek in her environmental memoir “The Big Swim.”
The Big Swim (New Society Publishers, 2015), is a compelling and unusual memoir, where author Carrie Saxifrage seeks out the places where science meets self-discovery. She explores significant subjects, such as sustainable forestry, nature-centered philosophy and First Nations culture to discover that the greatest adventure is learning to align how you live with what you love. The following is from Chapter One, “The Big Swim.”
To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.
I pull myself through a tunnel of silk. The silk pushes on my skin, a light pressure surrounding my body. A billion microscopic bubbles burst against me and buoy me up. Suspended in water, I feel as though I am flying.
Swimmers refer to these sensations as the “water feel.” It’s the reason why people like me don’t wear wet suits or even swimsuits. Although, for this swim, the Big Swim, I have made compromises. My swim partner, Chloe, her father, Noel, and I are swimming from Cortes Island to Quadra Island. They nestle in the inner sea between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, five miles apart as the crow flies.
In June, we studied the 70-page tidal flow charts that show current strength and direction day-by- day and hour-by- hour. August 11 was the only favorable day when we were all available. Slack ebb tide was at 11:30 am. We would be heading due west. If we started swimming at 8 am, we should be able to avoid the strongest currents that endlessly sweep the inner coast waters north and south.
The water temperature is between 18 and 19 degrees Celsius. All summer I have worried about the cold of this swim. My solution is to cut off sleeves from a triathlon suit to protect my fatless arms, and a neoprene swim cap with a chin strap. I have covered my body with lanolin, the heavy golden oil from sheep’s wool that looks and feels like ball-bearing grease. The net result of my helmet-like cap, shiny black arm warmers and glistening naked body is sublimely ridiculous. I look like a dominatrix who dropped her boots and crop into the sea and now has to dive in after them.
First comes the horrid moment of anticipation. Every day this summer, at six in the morning, I have met Chloe at the lake to share this moment. We know to get through it as quickly as possible, to throw our sleep-warm bodies into the chill without hesitation and kick as hard as we can, for heat as well as propulsion. Actually, I am far more aghast at the cold than Chloe. Any description of the perfect body type for open-water swimming describes Chloe: short and compact with well-distributed body fat. I am taller and pear-shaped. Generally I give my lower body an insulting regard, but when I’m swimming, I am grateful for the insulation. From waist to knee, I have never felt cold. As far as my slender upper body goes, Chloe and I swim in different seas. Mine are much, much colder.
Chloe’s father, Noel, is a different creature altogether. His stroke is so swift and powerful, and his chest so expanded from deep breathing, that his upper body seems to glide slightly above the cold water.
I jump off the mother ship, an old-style fishing boat named the Jenny Lynn, into the sea and the shock of cold.
We’ve agreed we have to actually touch Cortes Island before swimming the five-mile channel to Quadra Island. In my moments of hesitation before jumping, Noel has already done this. He glides past in the opposite direction, sleek and regular as a mechanical seal. Chloe and I swim to the nearest rocky outcrop. I cut my fingers on some barnacles (surely this counts), and splash out toward Barry, my husband and guide, who waits in a yellow plastic kayak. He has done this for me before. He is a tech wizard and data lover who has the practical, tender qualities of a mother bird. I flail under his protective wing. He will do everything he can to keep me safe and, more relevantly, to minimize the distance from our starting point to our destination. I depend on him utterly. I am vulnerable and grateful.
After the silky, floating pressures of “water feel,” the next best pleasure comes from the motion of swimming, the reach and pull of my arms. When I’m in the flow, the motion originates in my shoulders and my body sways from side to side with each stroke. It’s a role reversal: usually my thick legs propel my weak upper body through mountain climbs, bike rides and even a marathon. Now my sleek, muscular arms and shoulders are doing the pulling. I’m so proud that they can rise to the occasion, after all those decades of being feeble.
Reach and pull — breathe, reach and pull — breathe, reach and pull — breathe. It’s all I think about. Through repetition, I reach a state of grace, a zone of perfect moments, delicious movement and blessed water feel. If those perfect moments didn’t possess me, I would despair at the infinitude of time and distance ahead.
The state of grace doesn’t last forever. I pop my head up and look around. Marina Island lurks to the south. On the ferry ride, we don’t come into the lee of Marina until close to the end. I realize I haven’t gone very far.
“You’re doing great!” my husband says. “What do you need?”
“Nothing. I’m just looking around.”
The still, overcast day is perfect for the Big Swim. Gigantic clouds hover on distant islands, the sea shine reaches to the far away, rain slants down in grey columns. I’m a human pinprick in a vast rolling fabric. To be small, in open waters, away from humans’ sawing and paving and spewing, returns to me my membership in something more beautiful and more infinitely complicated than humanity. The ocean is the biggest, most mysterious wilderness of all, and I’m in it.
There’s a coast guard boat approaching. I squint through salt-riddled eyes. It’s a scene from a magazine picture, two unbelievably handsome men and a beautiful woman in a huge orange Zodiac wearing big warm smiles and bright orange flotation suits.
“Is she okay?” one shouts, politely.
Barry knows how I feel about the ocean wilds, and he knows how I feel about motor craft. Already, I can smell a thin film of diesel on the water’s surface. He will make them go away.
“She’s doing great,” he says. It’s clearly time to get swimming. I give the sea Mounties a jaunty thumbs-up, and plough back in.
Now there isn’t much to say. It’s cold, but not too cold. If I look up, I can see Chloe a bit behind me. Her parents-in- law are beside her in a skiff with an outboard motor. Noel is way ahead of me. I can’t see him, but I can see his guide boat, a sleek blue kayak. Mostly, I’m just swimming. The states of grace arrive and disappear, swells of energy that lift and drop me, lift and drop me. In a state of grace, I’m fully aware of my most basic self. My spirit and my body are merged. When a state of grace fades, I’m left with my skinny arms and the cold pressing into my kidneys, going for my core.
When I next raise my head, my friend Meredith, who came along for the fun of kayaking, shouts, “You’re two miles in by my chart!”
Distance reminders are a double-edged sword. I’ve done two miles. This is good, a major chunk, but I have three to go. I am less than halfway. This leads to all kinds of unhelpful inner calculations. Am I half spent? Am I getting colder? Can I do this? Why would I do this? What is the point of this?
This Big Swim business was not my idea. I am a come-along. It began four years ago, when Chloe’s husband, Tom, was working on our house. As Barry left for a soccer tournament, he gave me the news.
“Tom’s leaving for the afternoon to go with Chloe and her dad on a Big Swim.”
“From Mary Point to Sarah Point. You should go talk to him.”
I found out they were swimming from Cortes Island to the mainland, about two miles. I hadn’t trained, but I swam a lot. I was pretty sure this was for me, if they’d let me come with them.
They did let me come. My memories of that swim are blurred. I didn’t have a boat to guide me, so I was looking up a lot to see where I was headed. The individual trees on the mainland were discernible from Cortes Island. Every time I looked up, I seemed to be almost there. Two hours of being “almost there” is unbearable. I left my body. It was like being in labor, a deep and ongoing pain made tolerable only by anticipation. But when I finally climbed out at Sarah Point, there was no baby to love. There was just me, with some part of my spirit gone missing. When I got home, I lay down on the sofa until it came back into me, with a nauseating jar.
I skipped the next year’s Big Swim, two miles from Cortes to Hernando, but last year I trained with Chloe and we swam with her father to Mitlenatch Island, a wild islet four miles south of Cortes. It was a blustery day with the current and wind pushing us along. I felt like a flying fish, rising out of the swells for a few beats of the fin, then sinking back into the sea. It was gorgeous, and bitterly cold. The thought of the warm pebbled beach on Mitlenatch kept me going. When I finally crawled onto it, I burrowed into the warm stones. Barry covered my back with more warm stones. When I finally stood up again, the pebbles stuck to the lanolin I had used to coat my body. I was Pebble Woman, Aggregate Woman, Woman of the Tiny Rocks. The wardens of Mitlenatch came bustling over the hill from their cabin and stopped short. It took them a minute to formulate their questions. How did we get there? Why was I covered with pebbles? Would I be swimming back?
Chloe’s father is the proximate cause of the Big Swims. He is a small, quiet man who is the architect of large public buildings, like airports and museums. He swims in the ocean year-round in Vancouver. These are his Big Swims. Chloe and I come along. Chloe comes along sturdily, capably, matter-of- factly, spreading the word around the island so that, when the day of the Big Swim arrives, everyone I see is wishing me good luck. I could never spread our aspirations so widely. I appreciate Chloe’s good health in this regard and bask in the attention it brings me.
If Chloe’s father is the proximate cause, what are the deeper causes of the Big Swim for me? Why, in the words I chattered out to Barry about halfway between islands, do I do this, when it is so damn cold? Maybe the answer is the same as Chloe’s: it’s a patrimony. I remember Massachusetts, 1966, the Boston Marathon, Heartbreak Hill. There’s a stout, short man with a comb-over and burly legs chugging up. He’d be faster walking, but he’s somehow making the distance longer with an effortful jog. The rain is turning to sleet. I’m seven, in a beige fake-fur coat and red polyester mittens connected by elastic through my sleeves. We’ve been standing in the cold for hours, my brother pulling my mittens as far as he can and snapping them back at me. I’m near tears. My mother is wearing nylons, low-heeled pumps and a black sweater dress with a sewn-in vest of bright primary stripes. Her hair is stacked up, her makeup tasteful, a lovely woman in a genteel, amusing world. But she’s cold too.
My father jogs up to where we are waiting by the side of road to cheer him on. I barely recognize him. I’m used to the well-dressed man who exudes certainty regarding the topography of this world and the one beyond. But now he looks awful. White spittle clings to his blue lips. He exhales in explosive puffs, blue terry-cloth headband askew. His silver metallic liner gloves remind me of Mickey Mouse. But he’s in a tunnel of determination. Will he even see us?
We shout “Hey, Dad!” and cheer him on. He glances up, then down, as though he is unable to acknowledge us due to pain. Then he mutters from the side of his mouth, “Get me some hooch.”
My brother runs beside him.
“What did you say, Dad?”
“Get-me- some- hooch,” he spits out, irritated at the precious effort wastefully expended in repeating his request.
My brother runs back to my mom.
“Dad says he wants hooch,” he says, mystified.
“What’s hooch?” I ask.
“Alcohol,” my mom says, carefully neutral.
We stand there in the sleet, stunned. I have never seen my father drink alcohol, ever. He’s a family doctor, a church elder, an example on a pedestal. There’s no drinking up there, ever.
We get the hooch and find him again. He tips back the Dixie cup of vodka proffered by my mom without a blink or sputter.
“More,” he rasps. This time he sloshes it around his mouth then spits it out onto the asphalt. Mom winces. He survives the marathon but loses his toenails. I am left with my childhood confusion as to why he does this horrible thing every single year.
My conscious lesson from this and other similar childhood experiences is to reject my father’s tunnel-like determination in favor of joie de vivre. If I’m not experiencing pleasure, I’m not doing it. Painful acts of endurance just seem pointless.
On the other hand, maybe my swimming comes from a genetic pull. My father engaged the world’s great places with his arduous goals. He water-skied the Volga River in Russia. He ran the route from Marathon to Athens and finished with a triumphant sprint up the Acropolis in shorts that looked like underwear, holding a Sterno can spray-painted gold on a torch while we hid behind pillars. I followed in his footsteps up the Matterhorn. He claimed to do these things for glory, but that explanation never seemed sufficient.
Anyway, I have nothing to prove. For the Big Swim, the balance of sensation is toward pleasure. The water feel, the swim dance, the wild sea, these outweigh the sensation of cold. Yet the question persists: what am I doing out here so far from land?
Sometimes I pull myself through the water fuelled by an anxiety that is as distinct as an outboard motor. It is a dark and desperate force, a combination of untied ends and misspoken words, the sum of my malfeasance in life churning through my body. In the ocean, it all slips away. I’m a devil shedding evil in the cool, bubbly waters.
Romantically speaking, I’m part ocean mammal. I spend time thinking about how real mermaids would actually swim. What if it’s more like a fish than a whale? I can actually feel where my human body tapers to a point at my groin and my dolphin body begins. Sometimes I hold my legs tight together and beat through the water as they do. Whales would greet me if they met me and let me ride a fin. In eye contact with dolphins and seals, I’ve seen my own curiosity reflected there. I’m strongly related to the marine branch of the family tree.
In one of my first memories, I’m four and swimming in a mudhole someone dug for me and my best friend. At five, I dog paddled with my face to the sky and my arms and legs vertically me across the public pool while my older sisters and brothers cheered me on, because our parents had promised a backyard pool once we could all swim a lap. I spent so much time in that pool that my white-blond hair was mossy green. At the beach, I shrieked as my dad catapulted me from his shoulders into the waves, another memory dazzled by sparkling droplets.
Meanwhile, I’m still swimming, somewhere way out in the middle, miles from land in any direction. The sea shines a duller grey as dark clouds approach. Bubbles trail from my fingertips.
When I raise my head the next time, fat drops are plopping all around me. Upside-down teardrops arise from hundreds of tiny, yet expanding circles. The rain makes a small chirping sound.
“Cricket rain,” Barry says.
It’s the title of a friend’s poem. Barry wears neoprene, wet yet warm, attentive yet bored. I find his warm brown eyes through the blur of rain. We smile. I put my head down again.
When I breathe to the left, I see the open strait to the south. When I breathe to the right, I see Barry in the cheery yellow kayak, always about three feet ahead. He never seems to paddle. I must be going really slowly. This negative thought leads me downward. The cold is seeping deeper into me. My peripheral circulation has shut down. My hands, I know, are white. Blood may be struggling to get to my vital organs. Cold is pain. This cold has reached an inescapable level. I tolerate. Then I endure. And I still find those states of grace, the sheath of muscles from spine to shoulder deliciously stretching out as I reach beyond my head, pushing my hands through the water past my torso, finishing the arc of my arms with a final thrust. I enjoy the pleasurable hold of the silky sea. The cold is a fact I can cope with. I swim on and on.
When I lift my head, I can see the bright beige band of Quadra Island’s low-tide beach.
“You’re doing great!” Meredith yells, waving her paddle. “You’re almost there!”
Barry remains knowingly silent. We have covered the sensitivities of “almost there” in other swims because, in my experience, being almost there is by far the worst part. When you are almost there, swimming is all about dragging yourself to the destination. Distance viewed from the water is deceptive, and the shore is still at least thirty minutes away. There is no access to timeless grace. Time and distance, now finite, become intolerable. The cold boldly pierces. Muscles tweak and twinge.
I lift my head to the trusty yellow kayak and ask Barry for a mask and snorkel. Perhaps I will see other life to distract me, to help me with the time ahead. In these seas, I have watched the luminous domes of moon jellies floating past like UFOs through empty space. Lion’s mane jellyfish with shock-inducing stings have floated well beneath me, thick rust-red ruffles trailing from their flowery bodies. I’ve glimpsed deep silver flashes of salmon, schools of small round-bellied perch and even a foot-long squid whose eye focused on me with deep regard. I’ve thrown myself in with the roiling black-and- white bodies of Pacific white-sided dolphins, surrounded by the rasping gurgles of dolphin breath, breathing in their steam.
Here there is nothing. Dark green fades into dark brown. Not even a jellyfish floats by. I am alone in a huge, empty, very cold room.
I begin to watch for the bottom to rise from the depths and change the water hues. But there’s nothing, nothing, nothing, minutes and minutes and minutes of nothing. I lift my head. The beach appears the same distance away. Barry and Meredith hover. The coast guard boat has returned to the vicinity. Our mother ship, the crisp blue-and- white Jenny Lynn, is anchored up ahead. I put my head down and sputter on. I am thoroughly spent. For the first time, the strokes are an act of mind over body. I am not dancing. I am marching, forcing myself, wanting it to end. I am willing, after all, to enter my father’s tunnel of determination. Maybe it goes back beyond him. My doggedness, his doggedness, expresses even older genes. Pioneer women with tight mouths who wear lacy collars and big skirts cheer me on. It’s another state of grace. It builds and ebbs.
Then, finally, the hues change. Dark blobs take shape. Fluid seaweed forms become discernible and brighten until I am above radiant gardens of green, orange, red, yellow, purple, gold and crimson. Brilliant fronds wave beneath me. It is the brightest, most beautiful seaweed I have ever seen. I drift for a moment, soaking in the colors and the fact that I have swum along the ferry route from Cortes to Quadra Island.
I crawl onto the shore, too cold and watery to walk. Everyone cheers; Barry, Meredith, the coast guard and our friends aboard the Jenny Lynn. I sit on the seaweed-covered stones and watch Chloe in the last few minutes of her swim. We cheer again as she stumbles onto shore. She looks terrible, her eyes bloodshot, her face swollen, the coat of lanolin turned white, flecks of seaweed clinging to her naked body.
We climb aboard Chloe’s guide boat, which takes us to the Jenny Lynn. Noel is standing on the deck, arms folded, wrapped in a pale red blanket. He finished his swim an hour ago and looks warm and dignified. The coast guard boat is tied abreast. As we climb aboard, the children gape at us with big eyes. In fact, everyone looks slightly shocked by our appearance. I realize that I must look as bad as Chloe, or worse.
I need help to get aboard. My friend Laura seats me, and one of the coast guard officers sticks two giant warm packs behind my back. I cling to Laura for warmth. She holds me with the physical expertise of a nursing mother.
A coast guard officer appears with a breathing mask. I obediently put it to my mouth, thinking I must be really sick. He explains that the heated air will help me warm up, but the heated air smells stale. It brings me to my senses. I don’t need this stuff. I thank him, hand it back and suck the fresh sea air. Tom hands me a bottle of Glenlivet, which I gratefully accept. The officer scowls.
“You looked just like an ocean baby being born,” Laura’s mother tells me, “all green and blue coming over the gunwale. That lanolin looked like vernix, and you were covered with seaweed. It’s a sight I’ll never forget.”
This reminds me of my ridiculous swim helmet and sleeves. I am recovered enough to become self-conscious and remove them quickly.
The Big Swim is over. It took three hours and forty minutes. There is more Scotch to be drunk, a deep sleep to be had, a celebratory dinner out, a night of dancing at the hall with friends hugging and congratulating me. In retrospect, I think of the Big Swim as an exclamation mark, punctuating the summer.
And I might even understand why I do it. Big Swims make me feel as though I’m part water creature with cool skin and damp hair, fed by elements and ecosystems, creeks and springs. I belong, temporarily, to a vast, cold world where brilliant seaweed banners wave in exultation.For moments on end, I am a perfect creature. And it is such a beautiful world.
Reprinted with permission from The Big Swim by Carrie Saxifrage and published by New Society Publishers, 2015.