The day is bright and cold and a wind cuts across the channel. The sky is the kind of clear blue that only happens when the air temperature hovers around zero. The winter swimmers gather, hoods up against the cold, hands jammed into pockets. Across the Salish Sea the Coast mountains rise against the sky, and an orange and white Coast guard rescue boat bobs at anchor – waves sluicing against its dark sides. A raft of sea lions honks and barks a boat length or two away from the craft. There’s a dozen or more, large black smudges bobbing in the grey sea.
Kristy, the most experienced swimmer, talks about swimming out on the other side of Newscastle-Sayshutsun – coming upon sea lions, swimming with them. She warns against this. Getting too close. She was scared, she says, and wouldn’t want to repeat it. These are okay, she says, they are far enough away. We just don’t want to get too close.
I am willing to go along with this, trusting her, trusting her experience and overall goodhearted common sense, but I feel a ripple of fear. This location is wilder that other places I’ve swum. The sea more open, the day, more unpredictable. Plus, sea lions – they are loud, their barking definitely conveys a warning. Territorial.
I’d heard there was a sea lion in the harbour a few days ago, a Facebook friend warning me about taking a dip there. Of course, I googled “Sea Lion attacks on humans.” Very rare, but they do happen. Especially the males, in mating season. Is it mating season, I wonder? I have no clue. Trusting Kristy, I peel off the flannel pajama bottoms I have on over my bathing suit and begin strapping on my neoprene gloves. I check my kit— towel, warm socks, boots, standing by. I place round stones on my gear to keep it safe from the wind. I stow my glasses and iPhone in the pocket of my beach bag and reluctantly drop my dryrobe onto one of the many logs scattered along this piece of coast. My skin prickles with the cold. Our smiles widen as we make our way to the water’s edge. It’s mid-January, and the sea is slate. The sea lion barking is incessant as we wade in. Passersby on the beach stop to look. I can imagine their thoughts, “These women are nuts” or possibly, “These women are brave” or, more likely, “WTF?”.
The water is cold. Beyond cold really. This is the temperature of absolute purity.
So, why do I swim in the wild, in winter, in the Salish Sea? I think the answer is in the final sentence of the opening essay. There is a purity in immersing my body into the icy sea, freeing my mind from anything beyond the absolute connection with my skin, the salt, and the cold that brings me fully into the present moment. That moment contains sky and sea, and the wonder of being able to do the hard thing— to swim with my own resistance, to be with discomfort, to find my edges and then push just so slightly beyond them. For me, wild swimming is not about endurance, or badassery. It is about surrender. It is about being willing to surrender to being fully human, with all its limitations. Paddling up to my neck in a frigid sea in midwinter, floating in the midst of the vast unknowable ocean, I become certain of belonging to something much bigger than myself. I am reminded of my smallness. This is a healthy perspective, bringing me into reverence for the rest of the planet, and the power of nature that governs it.
In the water, in extreme conditions, I am also certain of my own mortality, knowing that if I stay in too long, let the current carry me too far, disrespect the territory of other creatures, I am risking my neck. I am, after all, only human. Remembering my own humanity makes me more compassionate toward others, and also toward myself. These days, humility and compassion can be in short supply. Wild swimming is a way to stock up on these essential characteristics.
The women I swim with are sea goddesses. We gather at the full moon, safely, and wade into the rippling dark. Some whoop with joy, or shock. Some count the seconds as they turn into minutes. Some bring their children, or their mothers. We dry off quickly afterward, bundle ourselves into warm cars, elated, hearts alive with the feel of the blood beating through our bodies. Sharing the hard thing, cheering each other on, remembering our essential goodness.
Interested in taking the plunge? To find out more and to check out the safety concerns visit the Outdoor Swimming Society website. They have many excellent tips for getting started. If you are on Vancouver Island or in the Nanaimo area and would like to join us, please connect with me.