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Tag: lakes

Observing Elaine

This is the story of the mid-night gap in my observation log, the missing three hours of Elaine Howley’s 32.3 mile Pend Oreille swim on 30-31 July 2014.


The boat was running. The sky was blushing. Elaine was swimming. I was laughing.

It was dawn, or just about to be. I zipped my light sweater up to the top against the morning’s stiffening breeze. Wearing nothing else except a small wet swim suit, the sweater was both insufficient and more than enough. It could have been worse. The night could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.

I looked down at her from where I sat, piloting a small grey boat alongside my swimmer. It was just the two of us for the moment. The kayaker, crew, and both big boats had all dropped back to regroup after the night’s events. As I watched Elaine swim, I thought I could see her looking back at me with every breath she took. I smiled at her, as if to say, glad that’s over. The smile grew into a laugh, uncontrollable. A laugh that was drowned out by the small two-stroke pushing me along, and the splash of Elaine’s unceasing arms pushing her along.


Three hours earlier, I stood on the top deck of our escort houseboat, snacking on Brie and olives and iced tea to ward off sleep. A sliver of new moon had left us shortly after sunset, and the stars above now gave just enough light to hint at the size of the mountains looming over us. Black silhouettes on a blacker background. The only other light came from our houseboat. Cozy and safe and bright. To shake off the sleep and give Elaine some company, at two hours past midnight I stuck a glowstick in my goggle straps and jumped off the bow to swim with her.

Night swimming isn’t bad once you’ve done it a few times. Getting used to the dark is easy. And good thing, because fifteen minutes after I joined Elaine, the lights on the houseboat flickered and died. Go on, yelled Eric, the organizer who put this swim together. Go on, it is just the generator, we’ll be back with you in a minute.

So we went on, Elaine between the kayak and me. We went on for ten or fifteen minutes this way, and I kept looking back at the house boat, watching its few remaining lights get smaller. When we stopped for the first time, we assessed our situation. Elaine had enough food to last for a while, and I’d been paying attention to the navigation and we all agreed on a course: hug the point up ahead, then we begin to cross the lake. So we went on.

When we stopped again, the houseboat was but a speck of light, discernible from the blinding stars overhead only by its position at the surface of the smooth lake. For a while now I’d been thinking of turning back to get the small grey dinghy tied up behind the houseboat, but it was too late. There was over a mile of pitch blackness between them and the three of us. Elaine told us she was very glad we were both with her. The kayaker said the same thing. I quietly pictured us huddled on shore, waiting to be rescued by some hikers in the morning.

I thought this would be a good time to share the punch line to a joke I’d told Elaine three hours prior. Something to lighten our dark situation. How many tickles does it take to make a squid laugh? was the joke. We went on.

We rounded the point on the east side of the lake and made a slight right turn. We picked our course by the mountains and navigation lights ahead, and we stuck to it. They’d know where to find us when they got the boat running again. I thought of the other joke I’d told to Elaine earlier that evening whose punchline was still waiting to be heard, although this joke would not be concluded just yet.What happens when a red ship hits a blue ship?  It would be bad form to talk about crews being marooned, given our present circumstances.

Looking back again, we saw what appeared to be a flashlight moving near the speck that was once a houseboat. Did they finally launch the dinghy? Yes, fifteen minutes later it arrived. We’d been without a boat for about an hour, about two miles.

Eric and the cameraman were in the dinghy, looking down at us. The engine died and I immediately climbed in. I was surprised to see these two, of all the people on our crew. Eric had told me only a few hours ago he didn’t know how to operate a boat, and the cameraman was just along for the ride. Did you bring me a towel? Or dry clothes? How about food for Elaine, a VHF radio, a cellphone, a big flashlight, her crew, or anything useful? Well, at least we had two headlamps and a boat that worked.

I grabbed the starter cord and pulled. Nothing. I’d started this boat a dozen times since the swim began and now, in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night, Elaine was once again swimming away from a broken boat. I tried everything I could think of, which isn’t a lot since I’m not a mechanic. Finally, as Eric’s headlamp swung across the motor, I figured it out. The white line in the water trailing behind the boat perfectly illustrated the importance of securing the painter.

My goggles were still sitting on my forehead. I slid them back on and flopped in the lake. A few minutes later, the bow line was unwrapped from the prop, and I was back in the boat with the motor running, begging Eric to keep the light out of my eyes so I could find Elaine in the dark.

Meanwhile, a call had been made from the houseboat to Bruce, a guy with another boat. He’d woken up, untied his boat, and now we could see him zipping down the lake in our general direction. Having no way to get his attention except two small headlamps, we watched him zip right by. As we followed Elaine, Bruce made his way to the houseboat, and then traced our route back to find us.

He’d brought me a sweater and a muffin, plus some more crew and spare food for Elaine. Still no phone or radio. I asked him to return to the houseboat and get everything – everything we’d need to finish the remaining ten-plus hours of the swim, then come back. In particular, I wanted him to bring my orange dry-bag with my phone and GPS inside. After all, I was here to observe, and my documentation was lacking at the moment. Plus, a phone and GPS would be really handy right now.

We settled into our routine. Elaine was swimming. Eric was talking. The cameraman was filming. I was reflecting.

When Bruce returned, about two-and-a-half hours after I first jumped in to swim that night, he brought news that the houseboat was running and on its way. A few minutes later, with the crew reassembling on the houseboat, I was free to sit quietly in the dinghy and observe Elaine swimming under the dusty-red sky. That’s when the laughter started.

It could have been worse. But it wasn’t. Elaine was still swimming.

Pend Oreille swim – route

Tomorrow evening, Elaine Howley will embark on a 32.3 mile swim across the length of Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. She will begin in the southwestern most part of Buttonhook Bay, Farragut Park and swim up to City Beach Park in Sandpoint. The swim will be done following the Marathon Swimming Federation standard rules for a solo swim.

This route poses an interesting challenge in declaring an official distance, since the shortest straight line between start and finish includes several mountains and a few train tracks. This route presented  here is best described as the “shortest swimmable route.” It takes into account the local terrain and turns its way across the lake using the shortest distance between multiple points. Distance from shore along the bends in the route vary between 25 and 150m.

Pend Oreille route

Precise start and end locations are yet to be determined, however deviations of up to 250m make no significant difference to the overall course length.

The Google Earth .kmz file is available for your use.

The Lake

On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, with less than a month to go before 8 Bridges, I was in the pool starting up a long workout. I’d gone for a long swim in the Puget Sound the day before, but with temperatures hovering around 51F, by “long swim” I mean just over 4k. Not nearly long enough. So I resigned myself to getting some much needed yardage in the pool on that dreary overcast Sunday.

But reverting to long pool swims at this time of year is difficult, having open water so close and accessible and relatively warm. Somewhere in the midst of the first kilometer I gave up. But around that same time I had a beautiful revelation. 8 Bridges is not a cold water swim, nor is it a salt water swim, so why wasn’t I training in Lake Washington? Pride and preference and lack of imagination.

The next afternoon, I headed over to Seward Park to try it out. And it worked! That day was my longest swim of the season, completing two laps of the 2.4 mile circumference peninsula. It felt so good to be able to get into that peaceful mental state where movement comes without thinking and there is no other reality besides the aqueous one all around.

That mental place is somewhere I haven’t been in a long time. The Puget Sound is beautiful, exhilarating, and downright fun, but swimming in the Sound can be dangerous if you go too far. Survival requires thought, and the Sound requires survival. In warm waters of the Lake, there was no fear of hypothermia, no need to figure out the tides and currents and if I’d make it back in time. There was only swimming: stroke after stroke after analyzed, critiqued, and perfected stroke.

With June Gloom yet to show up and a bright sun shining down on the Lake’s low-60 degree water for the two following weekends, there was no reason to hold back. The first weekend of June I swam three laps on Saturday with another two on Sunday. Then four laps and three the next weekend. This was new to me, back to back long swims, but this is what 8 Bridges is, times 7 (or times 6, or times 3.5, depending on your method of calculation). This is the training I needed, not a glorious swim with starfish or a dismal swim in a small pool.

I chose Seward Park because it provided short intervals across a dockless stretch of shoreline where figuring distance would be easy, and where friends could come and go with me as they pleased. In the five swims and fourteen laps, Steph joined for four, Dan and Melissa for three, Alison for two, and Dave for one. Their company was wonderful; it kept me on pace and helped me forget what a lonely, dull place is the back of Seward Park, and what a gross body of water are the shallows near the start and finish.

Yeah, the Lake isn’t the greatest of lakes. Pretty soon the water will be up in the 70s, and I’ve had enough of dodging boats in the anchorage of Andrew’s Bay, and more than  enough of the duck itch (swimmer’s itch) I’ve been scratching at for a few weeks now. It’ll be a while before I go back.

While I’m looking forward to my return to the clear, cool, life-filled waters of Alki Beach, I will miss being able to swim for hours and hours the way one can in warmer waters.

Oh and this: Please don’t feed the ducks!