4.35 Mile Loop Around Blake Island, WA
DATE OF SWIM: 9/26/20
This swim featured an fast ferry Argosy cruise from downtown Seattle to the island marina, turquoise blue water, orange madronas lining the coast, rough chop on half the island, purple crabs, plentiful sea anemones, bull kelp and only one lions mane jellyfish! After the swim, the mermaids enjoyed beers, clam chowder, hot token showers and a beautiful view of the Puget Sound.
Photo Courtesy of Gonorthwest.com
The 4.35 Mile Route
Escape the City to a Forested Island
Blake Island, a 475-acre marine park with miles of hiking trails, is only accessible by boat. I never knew how I'd get there, even though we stare at the island from across Seattle daily. Blake Island is in the background of all of our Puget Sound swims. I have a friend who told me he used to sail to it in a sailboat that his dad made. It seemed like a dreamy, distant and remote yet so close paradise. I thought maybe I'd never go, I definitely would not brave kayaking or paddleboarding to it from the city.
Blake Island boasts a tourist attraction named Tillicum Village, which contains a longhouse with a museum, gift shop and concession stand with cocktails and food. It also has a first come first serve campground and hot token showers! It sounded like an OWS paradise! A bit of history: the magical island is the birthplace of Chief Sealth (born 1786) and was inhabited as a camping ground by the Suquamish Indian Tribe; the city of Seattle is named after Chief Sealth.
Over the summer, I heard of other star swimmers in my swim group who swam a loop of the island, arriving to it via the Argosy Fast Ferry to Blake Island which departs from Pier 54 in downtown Seattle and only takes 27 minutes. I never knew before that Argosy had a trip to Blake Island! Here was my chance to finally visit it!
A group of friends and I decided to go on September 26th about a month prior, not having any sense of what the weather would be on that day. We needed to book our tickets (10 am departure, 4:30 return to Seattle) on the ferry since they could sell out as they were limiting the number of people on each trip to 10 due to COVID-19 regulations. Apparently, we later learned that we were also going to Blake Island on the last weekend of the Argosy fast ferry schedule and the cafe being open before it closed for the winter! Our timing could not be more perfect. The week of the swim came, and the forecast looked dismal and rainy. The day came, and the sun was shining! Oh, predictably, unpredictable PNW weather!
We arrived after a blustery boat trip and suited up by the marina and longhouse. We chatted about how we weren't sure we'd be able to swim the full 4.35 miles right now due to acclimatization challenges (the water is a lot colder now than in the summer!) and the distance. If I've learned anything about OWS in the sound, if you don't keep up regular swimming at least 1-2x a week, you lose your cold water conditioning pretty quickly. I had just swam twice the week of the big swim, but prior to that was on a road trip lounging in hot springs for two weeks! I felt pretty out of the game overall.
We decided to play it by ear, as luckily Blake Island has a perimeter trail (4 miles) which has three areas to reach the water (the main camping site, south beach entrance, and the marina). We decided to keep this swim low pressure - we'd see how we were feeling and go from there. So many times I've set very high expectations for myself with swimming and then been disappointed. I've learned through various swims that the best thing is to listen to your body, only you know your true limits. I always view this as the most successful outcome of all - so even if this means cutting it short, at least I listened to what I needed.
We decided to swim a counter-clock-wise loop with the current starting from the marina and ending at the marina. We stored our warm clothes and buckets by the marina, covered in plastic bags in case it rained. Likely against the rules, we walked to the Argosy dock and jumped off to start the swim! It was hard to resist a spectacle of a start. We swam quickly out of the marina to avoid any incoming or outgoing boats.
The beginning of the swim was easy and calm, we even had a seal friend on the way! However, as soon as we turned the point by the beach and camping area, we entered a long stretch of strong southerly winds that created major chop for us to fight against. I thought numerous times about getting out and cutting it short (this is one of the disadvantages of not setting high expectations, it can feel easier to quit). I was worried I didn't eat a big enough breakfast for the swim, my ear plugs were not working properly, and I ripped my swim cap before the swim so I had to borrow one from my friend that was pretty tight on my head. I have a notoriously large head (no hats fit me). I was also already somewhat cold. In short, I was uncomfortable.
I have to say that a couple of things kept me going here:
1) My strong desire to swim this route.
2) The purple crabs, anemones, all of the creatures!
3) My strong intention to see the full island, I love loop swims!
4) My intention to slow down, pace properly and just take it bit by bit. The choppy stretch felt impossibly long as the wind created huge waves, but I just told myself I'd eventually get there if I took it slow and at my own pace.
5) My swim friends encouraging me to keep going even as I complained of discomfort.
6) My never-ending sense of adventure. I didn't know what would be on the other side of the long stretch! I hoped if anything, the wind would die down and we'd swim easier.
Moving Through Discomfort
As we eventually rounded the point (at about 2 miles), we got to the south end that is notorious for difficult currents. We got out and ate some snacks (a Luna bar and Clif Bloks), walked about 100 yards until it looked like the eddies and currents were more manageable again and would actually move us, and then hopped back in. I started to almost immediately feel sick and slightly dizzy likely due to a combination of the seemingly endless chop that we just endured, eating too much too quickly, and cold water filling in my ears due to my faulty silicone earplugs.
Again, I almost bailed. I told my swim partner I might get out and walk from the south point back to the marina. I have to say, her strength and resolution to keep going is what really kept me motivated here. Otherwise, the discomfort just wasn't worth it anymore to me. This is where sometimes friends can put things into perspective. I kept going - the discomfort was enough to move through. I knew at this point I was already nearly halfway done with the swim and the hardest part, through the chop, was over.
From here on, we cruised with the current towards the marina!
My arms started to feel tired by 4 miles as we rounded the point by the marina and stopped to take some final swim photos with my boyfriend and friends. We pushed on and eventually emerged triumphantly out of the same water that we jumped into 3.5 hours ago!
Swims like this one teach me that sometimes we have to push through discomfort, sometimes we don't. The importance is knowing this limit, when too much is too much and when you can handle more. I think this is one of the biggest gifts that swimming has given me; a self-awareness that is more attune, as well as kinder and more forgiving of myself.
Rocky Raccoon: Caught Graham-Cracker Handed
When I got back from the swim, my friends told me that a raccoon had attacked the graham crackers I kept in my buoy and bucket. Graham cracker crumbs were everywhere, all over my swim parka and in my bag. The little raccoon culprit was still nearby.
I later overheard later a woman working at the longhouse tell a story to a couple about how there were less raccoons this season because bald eagles were snatching them up and eating them (timed perfectly sometimes with people getting off the Argosy Cruise, "Welcome to Blake Island!"). It was a bit of dark humor but I appreciated the laugh. Poor raccoons though, even if they ate my graham crackers. The way they move reminds me a lot of cats!
Blake Island: An OWS Paradise
After the swim, I felt a bit loopy from being in the water so long. I didn't bring any water on the swim itself. I highly recommend packing a bike water bottle in a buoy for long swims, they're lighter than a standard Nalgene! I forgot to do it this time around!
However, I was pretty happy that I completed the loop! It reminded me how much years (2+) of cold water acclimation at this point has made a difference in my ability to swim longer distances, even with the wetsuit, in colder temps.
Post-swim, I took a short, hot shower with tokens (3 minutes for $1) I bought from a vending machine at the Ranger Station, it was glorious! It's not often that a cold swim ends that quickly with a hot shower!
After dressing in the warm clothes I stored in the buoy, I went to the longhouse and bought a fish sandwich, clam chowder, a side salad and a beer. The beer went straight to my head so I had to drink it slowly, and only about half. My friends and I chatted about the swim and looked out at the sound while sitting on red Adirondack chairs. The trip was my idea of a perfect Saturday and a perfect swim adventure. I can't wait to make this a regular route next summer!
Tips to Repeat the Route!
Book a round trip ticket with Argosy ahead of time for at least 6 hours on the island.
Plan to swim with friends that you can pace with, I don't ever recommend swimming in new water without someone who swims your pace near you.
Store your buoy with warm clothes and water near the marina, but don't leave food in it! You will be sorry!
Swim with fins if you want, my friends did! I'm sure it helped a great deal in the major chop.
Plan to swim counter-clockwise from the marina around the island. However, we had some swim friends do the clockwise route. Even though their swim went well, I think having the majority of the swim with the current works best. Apparently no matter what, you're going to encounter chop on some edge of the island unless there is zero wind. The captain on the Argosy cruise told us counter-clockwise is typically best due to the currents near Vashon Island.
Pack your buoy with water in a bike water bottle and food that is easy to digest and contains electrolytes (my favorite are Clif Bloks). Don't eat too much too quickly even if you're starving! You might get nauseous, especially if you're encountering chop and waves.
Time your trip with happy hour on the island! After the swim, get a cocktail or food at the longhouse and sit outside by the water!
If you have to get out at any point and walk, do so either at the camping beach on the north end of the island, south end, or marina. The perimeter trail loops around the island, but I didn't realize until I got there that the cliffs were very high to climb up if you wanted to get out. You would need to get out at the designated areas that have access to the trail, otherwise it would be too difficult.
Be careful of stinging nettles! They're apparently all over the island.
After the boat ride back to Seattle, stop to get khachapuri at Skalka: Georgian Bakery in Pioneer Square. Khachapuri is the best post-swim or post-anything food ever. It consists of a hot bread boat (similar to pizza crust dough) with a raw egg, butter and cheese floating in the boat. You mix the egg around and then rip off pieces of the bread to dip it in the cheese. The khachapuri at Skalka was decadent and the perfect swim dinner.
Have fun! Listen to your body! Be easy on yourself and enjoy the views.