Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Scratch This Off My Bucket List

Yesterday morning I was awake at four o' clock thinking about the swim across the Columbia River. By 5:30 a.m. I was making a protein smoothy to fortify myself for the task. My husband drove me to town to check in with the crowd of swimmers at 6:00 a.m.

This is significant in that I have never, ever been a morning person. The months that I baked at a cafe in town, arriving at the kitchen at 7:00 a.m. was the closest I ever came to being a morning person. During those months I marveled at the morning world that I had never really experienced. The distinctive morning radio programs in the car, judging my timeliness by where the radio personalities were in their morning routine of schtick; the sunrises; the quality of the air; the waking up of the world. I usually sleep through all this.

You morning people who are possibly tsk tsking me don't know the advantages of being a night owl. The quiet sleeping house at midnight when I can work or craft or read without interruption or threat of interruption has been the biggest one. But it's a morning world and I've always known it and felt the discrimination.

So here I am at 6 a.m., the sun just beginning to glow, the air chilly and crisp, getting ready to exert myself physically in 64 degree water for 1.1 mile with 400 other morning people.

Understand that that was the most significant part of my feat. If I had been swimming the river at 3:00 in the afternoon it would have been no big deal at all!

I had never before done the Roy Webster Cross Channel Swim and had no idea how it worked or what I was supposed to do to prepare so I just made my best guesses and followed the crowd. I checked in at the chamber of commerce (who was running the event), eschewed their offer of banana and energy bar, squeezed myself into my son's surfing wet suit and hopped on the shuttle that took the swimmers to the pier where the sternwheeler was docked.

My husband took my clothing back to the car and went to Starbucks to wait for me.

The swimmers were divided into "flights" of ten who would jump off the boat together, group by group. I was in flight 31 so I went to the top deck. I watched as other swimmers walked up the plank and boarded the boat. I was completely amazed at the variety of humanity who were participating in this event.

There were fit, athletic types in wet suits and goggles to be sure but there were also many, many people that did not look so fit or able to swim a choppy river for a mile. Many were wearing only a swim suit, shivering in the 55 degree air. Some were wearing black plastic trash bags which baffled me. Another swimmer told me the bag was a disposable wind breaker since we could take nothing on the boat that we would want back later. I asked why some people were wearing clothing, I even saw a couple fur coats, and was told that all the clothing left on the boat would be donated to Goodwill. I saw a young man wearing a tuxedo but I was never able to determine if he swam in it or left it on the sternwheeler.

I saw young and old, adolescents and grandparents, boarding the boat to swim in the event. There was a lady in a black swim suit who was quite overweight and needed help walking. There was another large lady with a prosthetic leg! She's going to swim the river? After the swim my sons saw her emerge at the shore where she was met with her leg and a chair at the water's edge. Way to go!

So maybe this thing isn't really that challenging after all?

The sternwheeler took us up river and tied to a barge near the Washington side. Immediately sailboats and pleasure boats, kayakers and stand-up paddle boaters began taking their positions to edge the route we were to take. The county sheriff's water crafts started motoring around the area with their lights flashing.  An angled, arching swimming lane began to emerge, though not very distinctly. Off on the distant shore there was an area of orange and red that marked our finishing line.

I was starting to tremble from cold or excitement as I stood on the outside upper deck watching the activity. The majority of swimmers were inside the heated boat and it was a crowded party atmosphere in there. I jumped up and down in place and swung my arms to warm up my muscles.

Finally the swimmers began jumping off the lower deck in flights. The first swimmer to emerge had a large inflated plastic alligator tied to himself. I was told that this pair has always been the first in the water and the first out of the water. As the man swam the alligator skimmed along the surface behind him, leading the pack across the Columbia.

All the swimmers were wearing orange swim caps with their flight number on them. As group after group jumped in the water and set out, the water soon became a sea of bobbing orange globes that slowly spread down the swimming lane toward shore.

I decided to head to the bathroom for one last quick stop before it was my turn. After I mashed my body back into the wetsuit, I stayed on the now emptied-out lower deck to wait my turn. The flight numbers weren't being called out and I wondered how I would know when it was my turn. I put on my cap and suddenly heard someone say the number 32. What? I'm 31! Did I miss it?? As my brain was calculating what to do I heard someone yell 31! 31! 31! Yikes! That's me!! I was not ready but ran to the opening, apologies spilling out. The rest of the flight was waiting to jump and weren't allowed to because one imbecile was not ready.

One, two, three! Nine people jumped in the water. I was trying to decide if I should put on my fins, my swimming goggles or just jump.  

You have to get in the water!

Okay, jump it is!

I plunged in, grasping my fins in hand. The water was ten degrees warmer than the air so there was no cold shock. When I popped out on the surface the river immediately began slapping me in the face for my incompetence. I did an armless backstroke to get away from the boat so the next group could jump, all the while sputtering and choking as the river continued to punish me. I think the nearby paddle boaters probably thought this was one swimmer they were going to end up pulling out. I managed to get my fins on and my glasses in place without swallowing a gallon of river water.

Whenever I swim, whether doing laps in the pool or crossing Lost Lake, the first half of the swim is always the most difficult part. It takes about twenty minutes for my body to get into a rhythm and for my muscles to warm up. If I am tired at all it is during the first part of the swim. At some point I am suddenly energized and the inner Mark Spitz comes out. I can go on forever. I've enjoyed the open water swims because there is no stopping. No walls to turn me around. No pauses to change direction. Just keep going. The problem with this in open water is that inevitably I end up swimming the wrong direction and if I don't stop there is no painted line to correct me. I have to pause, locate my goal point and reorient myself.

The Columbia had a 1/2 knot current that morning, just enough to cause people to leave the swim channel if they weren't pausing to redirect. The paddle boarders and kayakers were kept busy chasing people that were heading off to Portland on the current. I got redirected a couple times myself. Swim left! Swim left! Stay to the left of the sailboats and keep heading toward the orange goal line.

While swimming there was no thought about the depth of the water, the fish below or the distance to go. Just swim. And try not to bump into the others doing the same. Back stroke. Free style. Breast stroke. Eventually, when the rhythm is found, all free style, watching for other swimmer's legs underwater.

As I passed a big sailboat I paused to get my bearings. A happy-go-lucky style swimmer that I had seen on the sternwheeler wearing nothing but a speedo was bobbing in the water near me. He pointed out a man on the sailboat chilling in a hammock watching the flotilla of orange caps. Look at that guy! Someone needs to splash him!

Before I knew it the shore was just before me. There were hundreds of people gathered to cheer each swimmer as they emerged from the water and an announcer on a microphone encouraging the crowd.

The bottom was rocky so there were helpers stationed near shore to help anyone feeling wobbly while trying to get their land legs under them.

My husband with camera in hand and four of my sons greeted me on shore with pats on the back.

The bright sunshine reflected the joyous mood on shore as more swimmers accomplished their feat . I gave the staff my number so they knew I had made it out, got the commemorative t-shirt and mingled with the celebrators.

The motel on shore that was hosting the event provided a few rooms for swimmers to shower and change. There were also hot drinks and sandwiches waiting for the finishers.

I joined my husband and boys for a lovely breakfast at a restaurant overlooking the water.

I'm ready to do it again next year. Anyone want to join me?


  1. Wow! Good for you! Is it wrong that most of the things on my bucket list require no physical exertion on my part?

  2. Way to go, Mom! That's a pretty exciting accomplishment!

  3. How wonderful! I am so impressed with you for doing this (getting up at that hour). Congratulations.

  4. Wow! Way to go! I am not a swimmer, although I am a morning person; so that swim is very impressive!

  5. Way to go! Pretty impressive, I'll say. You should do it every year now and recruit some of your children to do it with you. I am a morning person (and also a night owl)who likes to swim, but not in cold water or weather!

  6. I want to join! :) I am so not in shape though to do anything like that and I am 24!! This is great! You are inspiring.

  7. If I can do it, anyone can! Come on down!


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