Open Water Techniques

One bummer about Sitka this summer is that the town didn't have enough money to keep the pool open. When I go to the gym, I look past the dark glass doors and into the hole that once had water and I wish every day that it was full. I spent the last week in Anchorage, finishing my MFA degree. Some of my best friends are in the program. It's hard to be there and it's harder to leave. Being in a low-residency writing program is kind of like being in an in-patient therapy group. For two weeks of the year, the last four years, I have lived with and written with and listened with a small group of eight other nonfiction writers. We know stories about each other that our spouses haven't even heard. We share bathrooms without fans, books scrawled with notes we've written to ourselves and would be too self-conscious to lend to anyone else. Some people have purposely not finished their coursework just so they can be in the program another year.

This time in Anchorage, I found a new pool. I have swum in Anchorage before, in the heavily chlorinated pool at UAA, but the pool I found on the Alaska Pacific University campus is even closer to the dorms and it's a salt water pool. I don't know much about how salt water chlorination works, but I do know that this kind of water stings less and my skin isn't as dry after swimming salted laps.

And I also realize that the longer I struggle against the pain of weight-bearing knees, the more I need to swim. Last spring, returning to New Orleans, I found that the pool at Tulane had been converted to salt water, too. Both places where I've gotten degrees are places where I have found solace in salt, in those repetitions of free and fly, in thinking without speaking, and in contemplation without having to call it something as serious and uncertain as prayer or meditation.

Someone recently recommended that I read Lynne Cox's essays on swimming. I consider her a hero--she broke the men's and women's world records for swimming the English Channel when she was 15 and 16 years old. She was the first person to swim the Bering Strait, separating the U.S. from Russia, thus opening the border between the two countries for the first time in 48 years when she swam without a shark cage or a wet suit or lanolin grease. I've only competed in open-water races a few times in Colorado when people have cheered from the sandy beaches of sun-warmed lakes. But I have jumped into the numbing water up here and felt that thrill of being part of a forbidden body of water, treading above deep black, limbs throwing water fast, and racing, not out of pride but out of instinct.

As I sit here in the library, the water pushes and pulls in and out of the cove a stone's throw from the window. Luke drifts by in his boat, but doesn't know I can see him in here as he shoves halibut carcasses off the swim step with a booted foot. I want to get in the water here, and I've been reading about how different the techniques are between pool swimming and open water swimming. Luke says if I swim in the ocean up here, we'll have to tie a flag to my butt or I'll have to haul a kayak behind me so ships know where I am.

I'm fine with that. It's amazing how little I have known about stroke until I started looking it up--you can be graceful and have a long glide in a pool, but in open water, the chop can cut your forward motion in half. Hips drop, you miss your "catch" (the moment when your hand enters the water and should pull you ahead), you might over-rotate when you lift an arm to take a breath. I wonder what else I've been doing in isolation, in my own easy pools, without knowing that there are techniques for improvement.

It has been cold up here. Rain like a crappy showerhead that neither drenches nor consists. This is not swimming weather, people say, but to Lynne and to me, it is, it always is. "I knew this was a sea of dreams, almost a sacred place," Lynne Cox writes in Swimming to Antarctica, upon arriving at a pool where she will learn to change everything about the way she swims. I think that looking out at the water here, its surface flickering like static on a screen this afternoon, the wake from Luke's boat sending a white line towards these windows where I'm waiting.

I'll be back in Colorado in a week, where it's 100 degrees and I can swim 50 meters without stopping to turn around. I look forward to life in both places, but the coming and going never feels tide-like, natural. I wrench myself from each place, from the friends, from the sea, from the pool behind locked doors, and I know that I'll miss it here too as soon as the islands spread out, bird's eye view--my favorite way to see them--as I'm leaving. Right now, the cruise ship is pulling out of town and the fog is pulling in over Sealing Cove and I can look out this window and see what Lynne means.