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Water World Two

Island Life

I sort of remember last time saying something about a partial report from Arizona in need of completion. As it is, sort of remembering is kind of how it is these days, which I believe can at least partly be attributed to creeping old fartism, combined with a certain lack of urgency in many of my filing systems. Most times, when there is an uncertainty factor that also creeps in, I usually go back to check, which in this case has indicated that I do need to finish a report from the wet and dry desert and a swimming event we attended there. The first of four days had passed when the deadline for this space was almost at hand, as it is once again, and so write we must.

While pretty much all swimming events are concerned with elapsed time, it is apparent that the S.C.A.R. open water swim is more about distance and completion and the camaraderie that comes from all that than it is about split second time readouts and energy bursting dashes across the finish line. In all four swims at Saguaro, Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt Lakes, the finish is the string of buoys that stretch across the water a good distance from the dam the swim goes to each day. There are no bleachers or grandstands or legions of timing officials- just a pontoon boat with a couple of event officials asking what the number of the swimmer is who is finishing and someone to enter that on a tablet along with a finish time. There is also usually at least one other pontoon boat there waiting and collecting the finishers as they come in, and then it leaves for the staging area when it has reached its  max capacity of weary finishers. At the second days end, I heard there was also a curious rattlesnake that swam by with no one in the water either threatened of aware of its presence.

This second day was, from my perspective, the most dramatic in terms of scenery, as it thoroughly lived up to its lake’s namesake- Canyon. Pretty much from start to finish the course of this swim was edged in shear rock faces and ragged shorelines which changed around each twist and turn along the way. Some might say that as the safety support kayaker for Wendy, I should perhaps be keeping an eye on her progress throughout the day, to which I would respond that I am- with my ears. One can tell volumes about what and how a swimmer is doing just by listening. There are certain sounds that can tell you what is happening in the water beside you- how each stroke enters the water along with the beat and force of the kick speaks volumes about how a swimmer is doing and feeling, and of course the very existence of a watery beat and splash indicates that there is someone still swimming next to you, so you are able to do a bit of sight seeing and picture taking between watching ahead in the water for obstacles like driftwood, floats or, very rarely- snakes. There is also the need to keep an eye on your watch to know when each feeding is coming up so you can have the drinks bottle and energy gels ready while picking a spot that might be out of a wind gust area or not in front of a trailing swimmer coming from behind and on a different feeding schedule. Since the kayaker is also doing the navigating on these longer swims, one is also picking routes that hopefully are the shortest distances between points. You are also there to keep tabs on where all the competition is and whether a better line might mean getting to the finish faster because we covered less distance than they did. Day two saw the completion of the second nine mile swim in two days, with the big one- seventeen miles- on the agenda for the next day, but first there was the need for food and rest.

As the sun lit up the curtains the next morning, one could hear a sound outside that was not a welcome one. Being still fairly early, any indication of wind was not encouraging, since when it comes before the sun has warmed things up a bit that usually means things could only get worse, which they did. Wendy had been complaining of a sore shoulder and hip from fighting some wind and waves on day two, and the two flags on the pole outside our window were already standing straight out, indicating that the day could be spent swimming and paddling directly into it. There was also the issue of the daily time limit, where each day’s swims were given a time where swimmers who had not yet completed the course would be pulled from the water. The thought of beating herself up all day, possibly making her shoulder worse and then not being able to swim the next day while at the same not completing the third day’s swim weighed in heavily that morning, and with the wind only looking stronger after breakfast it was decided that we would sit this day out and finish up strong on Saturday.

This turned out to be a wise choice. Around two that afternoon the first swimmers began crossing the wide part of the lake in front of the motel where we were staying. This was a little beyond the halfway point, and with it being relatively unsheltered from the wind, whitecaps were the norm across the lake surface all day. While the swimmers were battling the incessant waves, the kayakers struggled against both waves and wind, with a few flipping over and many having to be towed back to their swimmers, having temporarily lost the battle of the gusts and leaving their swimmers without fuel or guidance. In the end, only four of twenty eight starters finished the day, which was at least some sort of vindication for having opted for dry land instead of doing battle on what might as well have been the high seas.

Day four broke bright and calm, with many- if not all- looking to the lake and asking why it could not have been this pleasant just 24 hours before. While it was ideal conditions right then, there was a still a bit of weather concern since the final leg was also a late evening and night swim, and the winds still had plenty of time to kick up before the first swimmer hit the water. My biggest concern at this point was whether or not I would have enough time to trick out my boat with the lights we had brought along. Harkening back to the nights we had spent out in the dark of the Black Rock Desert at Burning Man, I had gone out in search of appropriately waterproof lighting to make the boat both visible and, of course, stylin’. A few weeks before we left for the race I had found strands of green and blue waterproof LED’s and a solar, inflatable light that glowed in a number of either solitary or changing colors. I also found two strap-on red lights suited for handlebars and all-weather cycling. Everything on board could also blink. With a roll of waterproof , clear gorilla tape and plenty of time, I hit the water with the deck ringed with green and blue and a bike light on either end (just inside the drip cups) of the paddle. With the sun sinking toward the hills that contained the final dam goal on Roosevelt Lake, we headed out into a warm and calm evening, waiting for the darkness to arrive.

Just a few years ago, Wendy did her first 10K swim and had approached it as a monumental goal. This last swim was also a 10K, but having also done two nine milers already that week, this swim did not seem anywhere near as intimidating. I could tell from the sound of her swimming that she was feeling good that night. She had a faster cadence and the stroke sounded more assured- the day of recovery had helped quite a bit. When the afterglow was all that was let of the day’s sun, and the lights on the back of Wendy’s bathing cap and suit started to glow more prominently I switched  on all the onboard lighting. As it got darker, Wendy’s lights for some reason reminded me of the movie ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’, as you could see the flash of her green and blue both above and below the surface as she stroked ever forward kind of like the lights on Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. She told me afterward that she could see the lights of my kayak through the water as well, and they made her navigation easier than expected as I aimed for the beacon on top of the bridge just before the dam and its string of warning buoys that waited at the finish. The only thing missing in this drive to the finish was some pulsing techno with a driving beat to take us home- we are looking for some waterproof speakers for next year.