5 Long, Hot Miles in Lake Chelan
DATE OF SWIM: 8/24/19
Another self-organized swim adventure featuring golden dusty hills, warm water paired with a wetsuit, and a dramatic exit via kayak once exhaustion struck.
Ever since reading Iris Granville's memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman's Search for Balance, I've been infatuated with the idea of Lake Chelan and Stehekin. Really, I think you could say my infatuation with Stehekin started when I was 10, playing "prairie girls" with my best friend in our backyard (using nasturtiums as a secret elixir and cure all for our pretend brother with diphtheria). Stehekin is an idyllic mountain town nestled at the base of the North Cascade National Park, 55 miles down at the end of Lake Chelan, what feels like a preserved pioneer land. Home to 75 full-time residents, Stehekin is only accessible by boat (or hiking in). There is no real grocery store, no reliable internet service, and no cell phone service. All food and mail gets shipped on a boat, and in high season there are only two boats which travel daily from Stehekin to Chelan. The trip on the express boat takes 2 hours 45 minutes from Chelan - just to give you a sense of remoteness. Oh, very importantly - Stehkein might not have all of the creature comforts, but it does have the obvious essential - a famous pastry shop.
I knew I wanted to make a trip of visiting Stehekin this summer - and I'd get my swim on (and well-deserved pastry eating) while I was at it!
I wasn't quite sure where to start with this one. Lake Chelan is massive - 55 miles total. I knew I wanted to check out Chelan proper in addition to Stehekin. Often times planning swim trips can feel daunting without a lot of knowledge of the area. At first I played with the idea of packrafting and swimming along the Lakeshore Trail. Eventually, I decided that was too ambitious for never having been to Chelan. Instead, I asked my swim community's Facebook group where to swim and got a few responses. I did a bit of research myself and saw that various Lake Chelan community organizations were hosting a 1.5 mile swim from Manson Bay to Willow Point Park on September 7 - the "Lake Chelan Swim." This sounded perfect, but I wanted to swim more.
I contacted the Race Director via email and communicated with her to get a sense of a good 3 to 6 mile swim route that I could accomplish while on vacation in Chelan. She advised to start the swim at Manson Bay Park and to swim to Willow Point Park and then turn around to go back to Manson Bay for a 5K. I asked her where to go if I wanted to do a longer route. She suggested to just keep swimming and then turn around to go back to Manson Bay. I also asked her the best place to rent a kayak in Manson - it wasn't the easiest thing to find out myself via the internet. She told me that Shoreline Watercraft rented kayaks right at Manson Bay. A few weeks before the trip, I called and reserved one for the big day!
A Long, Sunny Swim and Dramatic Kayak Exit
My boyfriend and I arrived in Manson, picked up the kayak and I got geared up. I decided to wear the wetsuit because I was aiming for my longest swim yet - 6 miles. I wasn't sure if I'd get really cold after being in the water that long. I chatted with the lifeguard and tried to converse through earplugs (always awkward). Eventually, I hopped in the water and started swimming.
And I kept swimming.
And kept swimming.
I'm not sure what I hoped for (to catch the impossible glimpse of Stehekin? to see all of the glorious glaciers of the North Cascades if I kept swimming long enough?), but eventually a swim exhaustion I've never felt before took hold.
I'd been planning on swimming only a 5K for a while, but after my Lake Wenatchee 4 mile swim, I decided it made sense to shoot for a longer distance. A 10K was a bit ambitious - at 1,100 feet above sea level, in a hot black wetsuit, and in a lake - I was exhausted from the lack of buoyancy and noticeably more labored breathing.
By about mile 4, I took off my wetsuit thinking maybe that would help get me past Willow Point again to Manson Bay.
I began to swim without the wetsuit and felt all of the little waves and currents looping around my body - the water was very turbulent. I could feel why I had become so tired.
Again, the mental challenge of swimming came to the forefront of my mind. Keep swimming, just keep swimming, I told myself. In times when it feels really hard, I like to recall one of the last things my mom said to me - "keep swimming, it's good for you." It always keeps me going.
Eventually the point I was sighting came closer. I knew it would always come closer if I just kept moving one arm in front of the other, and kept breathing.
I decided I'd make it to Willow Point. I kept swimming.
For five minutes.
Eventually, I yelled to my boyfriend that I wanted to get on the kayak with him (it was a one-person kayak). The discomfort no longer felt worth it. We made an emergency exit at a private dock, I climbed on a ladder and he helped me sit in the front of the kayak. I tried to row at first, but my arms were too tired. Eventually he took over and we rowed to Willow Point together. I jumped out after reaching the ladder of yet another private dock, yelling to a woman watching me intently that "I needed to just use the ladder!"
My boyfriend rowed back to Manson Bay without me and I chatted with the woman, clearly the owner of the dock. I told her about my swim, which felt triumphant despite not getting to a 10K. She told me that she saw the woman who swam 50 miles down Lake Chelan (Emily von Jentzen). I couldn't believe it - 5 miles was hard enough. Fifty sounded brutal.
This swim was a true lesson in knowing my boundaries, realizing when enough is enough and when my body needs a rest.
An Infatuation Realized
Later in the trip, we made it to Stehekin. The water was colder downlake than uplake and it felt glorious to swim without a wetsuit and dive and jump. After an 8 mile backpack and 6,000 feet elevation gain, the first thing we did was jump in the turquoise blue lake.
We spoke to a local who explained he swam "the triangle" (approx. 2 miles) for years with other locals in Stehekin. I fantasized about living in a place as gorgeous and peaceful as Stehekin, swimming in crystal clear blue water every day.
For now, I'll take adventure destination swims!