late swimmer

“The lake of my mind, unbroken by oars…” (Virginia Woolf, from The Waves)

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I learned to swim at the age of 6 and as a child, I lived for water. Summers in lakes, the ocean, the shallows of Englishman River where my family camped. Lived for the clarity of immersion, the moment when you release your attachment to ground and push off into water. Later, as a teenager, I used to ride my horse to Island View Beach on the Saanich Peninsula. I’d take off his saddle and ride him into the water. Sometimes I thought we could push right on to James Island. He loved the chuck as much as I did.

But for years I didn’t swim much. The lake near us where we took our children daily in summer is lovely but the little wild beach became tame and the local regional district trucked in sand, expanded the parking lot, and it was harder and harder for me to want to join my husband on his daily swim in late afternoon. I didn’t like the changes. I missed parting the hardhack and mint to enter the water, missed finding a clump of grass or a warm rock to sit on after a swim. When my children came home in summer, they headed down to the lake each day, sometimes twice, and while I didn’t join them very often (except when we took our little boat out to one of the islands for a picnic), I felt that the planets were all properly aligned when I saw the towels draped on railings and smelled the wild scent of the lake on their skin when they hugged me.

But then I had some health issues that prevented me from taking my regular walk and I missed the exercise. I’d already sent John to the local pool–this was November of 2016– because I knew he was worried and I wanted him to channel the stress into something relaxing. I didn’t want to swim in the pool for some of the same reasons I gave up the lake. I don’t like crowds. But then I did join him, in January of 2017, and discovered there are seldom crowds at the Pender Harbour pool in winter. I swam 3 times a week, a kilometer each time, and found myself more and more attached to the experience. A few people would ask me, How much do you do?, meaning, how far, how long, and when I told them 50 lengths, they were impressed. Imagine! I liked the sense of myself as a swimmer. My mum loved to swim and one of my favourite photographs of her was taken by my dad on Gonzales Beach in Victoria where they rented a little house and learned to be parents.

mum on gonzales beach

Once I’d become habituated to regular swimming, I wanted to go the lake again. But not in late afternoon when the beach area is filled with people and reckless young men who bring their jet skis to the shore and others who ignore the signs saying No Boats and tie theirs up to branches of cedar. Well, what about mornings, said John. What an idea. So we began to go down around 8:00 or 8:30 when no one was there except the friendly man hired by the regional district to collect garbage and clean the outhouse and rake the sand. I don’t have a device to tell me how far I swim but I think it’s about 3/4 of a km. And we go almost every day in summer.

This morning was so lovely. It’s not sunny, except in fits and starts. But the water was so green and clear, the air clean, the cedars laden with cones, and not a single boat on the lake. A cutthroat trout jumped 3 times right in front of us and swallows dipped over the surface of the water, probably feeding on the same hatch as the trout. Later in summer, we’ll see tracks in the sand when we come down — deer, even a bear last year, wanting what we want: solitude, the old sense of the lake before the crowds, its cool welcoming licks against the shore.

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when a book is a companion

bucket list

This is where I swim most mornings from late June until October. I love the water and have been swimming in this lake since 1980. There have been some changes around the lake but not many. My children swam daily, in summers, all the years they lived here and returning, it still brings them to its shores at least once a day. I’ve always understood that it was once an ocean inlet and that the water at the very bottom is salty. I know it’s deep. And one summer there were jelly-fish in the lake. One summer, leeches. Cutthroat trout. Last week I saw loons, a family of them, and there are mergansers, mallards, heron, eagles, Canada geese, stands of huge firs and cedars along the lake, little pockets of wild mint, arbutus, hardhack (which is blooming now), a few of the beautiful Pacific rhododendrons at the far end by the ecological reserve, Nootka roses, sweet gale, and whew, I didn’t mean to write the lake shore but it seems I have. This is partly because I’m reading the most wonderfully companionable book right now, Jessica J. Lee’s Turning: A Year in the Water, in which she details the lakes she swims in around Berlin over the course of a year, sometimes cutting through the ice to make a place large enough for her to submerge her body for a brief dip.

Jessica is an environmental historian, tracing landscape changes on Hampstead Heath in London, and part of the book’s narrative follows her as she works on her dissertation. She says, “I”m not trained as a scientist, but an environmental historian must be adaptable. For this reason, I jump between history, ethnograph(y) and botany. Archives, interviews and plant keys. As a swimmer, limnology is another kind of key. A way to read the lakes.” And this is a thread that guides the reader as it guides the author. Water quality and how it shapes the experience of someone swimming the lakes is affected by so many things and we see them from the perspective of a woman who notices the plants, algae, mushrooms by the shore, plantings near the shores, whether the water bodies are naturally-occurring or anthropogenic (old quarries and so on), and how widely the lakes are used seasonally.

She is interested in language, too, and how it shapes our understanding of a landscape.

It starts with a marsh. Birch wood gives way to straight, skinny alder, sunken deep in the marsh along the River Briese, which cuts north of the city. A successful stage between swamp and forest, this Erlenbruchwald is known in English as a ‘carr’. Like ‘Berlin’, ‘carr’ basically means ‘swamp’.

[As an aside: I wondered at the etymology of Briese. Was the river named for Bri(e)seis, the woman taken by Agamemnon from Achilles in the Iliad? But no, it seems the root is “breza”, an Old Slavonic word for birch…]

Turning is about swimming, yes, and it’s about love, about estrangement—from our bodies, from our families—and how we make that turn back to wholeness. It’s no accident that Jessica’s swims are always towards the centres of the lakes. On a swim just before flying to Canada for Christmas:

I slip into the water and it’s exactly as I expect: bracing cold, the metallic feeling of its grey sliding over me. I swim out to the centre, counting my strokes, longing to be out and dry away. I count to sixty and then turn back. Better things wait for me in the days ahead: warmth, light and respite from the grey of the city. When I come back, I hope it will have turned to white.

The book takes us through the places (Canada, Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg, London and Hampstead Heath’s Ladies’ Pond), plunges us into  lakes while reminding us of their unique seasonal stratifications, and is the most congenial book to read after a morning swim in Ruby Lake where the water is green and familiar. I have two short chapters to go and I’m going to make them last. And I must confess that the author’s bold habit of swimming in winter might just be infectious. Here’s what our lake looked like two winters ago, on New Year’s Eve:

arthur at ruby lake

It’s tempting.