Thursday, August 22, 2013

In a blue moon

A quick paint sketch of our view across the lake, cloud forming a creature before the moon.
Never has a restroom light seemed so inviting. We swam back toward it.
"What a coupla Boy Scouts!" is how swim buddy Doug admonished himself and me. And we are.

Old Boy Scouts, just looking for a place to swim under the full moon — a blue moon, not to return for two more years — in our home water. Which we did Tuesday, but not without prickles.

Because I mistook Doug's swim proposal for the September full moon, I neglected to invite any other usual suspects like the last time.

Last time, we swam at Folsom Lake, but a swim there now would require a 500 yard downhill hike across a spooky moonscape (is that ironic?) to very low, too-warm water. We went to Lake Natoma instead.

Of the three entrances to Lake Natoma, only the lower lake has parking just outside park boundaries. We pulled into the ride-share lot (with my wife Nancy and daughter Maura to join in the adventure and watch over us) to find the park gates still open, long after sunset. Hmmm.

The blue moon — also called the green corn moon, the full red moon and my favorite, the full sturgeon moon — was no moon at all, barely a smudge behind the flat sheet of dark cloud. Already this swim has a bad moon rising.

Doug ran back to his car to get his little blinking diver's light to attach to his swim goggles for the night swim. The rest of us continued into the park, where a couple of vehicles with their lights on remained. We had expected everything empty, dark and locked down. One vehicle turned away onto the lane that separates the main parking lots. The other one headed toward us.

Sure enough, a park ranger. We glowed in the motion-sensor lights of the restrooms we had just passed.

"The parking is off limits to vehicles and pedestrians now," said the ranger through her passenger window.

The parking? Do you mean the park? As pedestrians, we are not really parking. I played stupid.

"So … we can't walk in then?"

"No," said the ranger, repeating her statement. The parking is off limits.

It was like the Second Amendment, so strangely constructed I could interpret it to my favor if need be. You know, just in case I got hauled into court for swimming the lake. Your honor, I would say, I was not technically parking, so I was OK.

Doug jogged back through the shadows with his diver's blinker and escaped the ranger's notice. We walked back out, checked the ride-share parking lot, noticed the park gates finally closed … and went back into the park.

By then we imagined eyes on us — of the ranger parked somewhere out in the shadows, scanning with binoculars … of night patrol (that probably doesn't exist) at the amber-lit aquatic center across the inlet at the lower lake … of undercover rangers still at large in the park, or across the lake on the bike trail, nabbing trespassers.

"We better go stealth," said Doug. We wore our blinkies but kept them off. All the glow sticks, already activated, remained suppressed in Maura's plastic grocery bag. Nancy and Maura sat in the shadows as Doug and I slipped into the water — just about where a young man had drowned late in the evening a month before.

Even without the full moon, lower Natoma is not dark. Hazel Avenue is an overpass lifting over the dam, lit on each side by the amber sodium lights. A Chevron™® station and a McDonalds®© bloom white across the avenue from the park entrance. The city of Folsom glows to the east. The spire of the Mormon Temple lights up like a Christmas tree above the oak forest.

We were disappointed.

The water, though, was dark but for the bubbles of our wake. Doug designated 100 strokes to get out of the inlet and get our bearing, then we picked a saddle in the hills across the lake and swam toward it 200 strokes at a time. Doug cut his speed — it had to have killed him! — to stay near my side so searching for each other wouldn't be difficult. I counted strokes, trying to keep my mind off the giant white prehistoric sturgeons that don't even exist in the lake.

Two-hundred strokes, stop. Two-hundred strokes, stop. We were across, standing on the slippery rocks. The hillside behind us radiated softly.

Doug and me, post swim. Maura photo
As familiar as we are with the lake, we were still uncertain of landmarks in the uncertain light. The moon drifted out of the clouds, which formed a giant hand, then a lurching creature. Across the lake, the amber light of a restroom above the beach became our Polaris. We started across on 200-stroke beads. A bicyclist on the trail behind us with a powerful searchlight swept the beam up the hill, then across the lake, over our heads. Park ranger, you think? Nah, just someone on his bike, checking for skunks, I bet.

"Hear that?" Doug said on our stop, midway across the lake. Crisp, like radio chatter, people talking, somewhere on the water, invisible.

"There!" I said, pointing to the two lights on an eastern ridge which I suddenly transformed into the double-hulled chase boat from the aquatic center, bearing down on us. "Let's get to shore!"

"No, wait," said Doug. The lights, of course, never moved, remaining streetlights somewhere in the distance. The voices, though, drew nearer. Finally we saw the moving dark shadow across more dark shadows. A couple in a kayak, headed for shore. We let them pass, swimming breaststroke for a while before resuming our freestyle.

Nancy and Maura reported the lake alive with people, even though none of us was supposed to be there. Two kayaks slipped into the inlet and took out somewhere in the darkness; we saw the paddlers later in the ride-share lot, tying their boats to their car. A standup paddler carried her board out of the water and passed Nancy and Maura, who were lying on the beach to avoid detection. Nancy devised alibis in case a ranger found them.

The full-moon swim was a nice change, because swimming lately has felt like a chore. Though I have not swum open water long, it's long enough to know I go through these periods of malaise, and they pass. I can't help wonder about their source, though.

I wonder if it's the notorious and creative swims I've been reading about lately. This is the season for them. I wonder if psychologically I'm making myself victim of their herculean successes.

Daily, and sometimes multiple times daily, swimmers are crossing the English Channel. One woman yesterday, Wendy Trehiou from the Island of Jersey, swam across the channel and back again. It took her 39 hours of continuous swimming.

Not only that:
  • A 20-year-old kid named Owen O'Keefe just swam 37 miles down the River Blackwater in County Cork in the south of Ireland — that's shortly after he swam 41 miles around the island of Jersey.
  • Gábor Mólnar, a Hungarian living in Ireland, just swam 30 miles down the River Koros in his native country.
  • A Utah native, Gordon Gridley, completed the Catalina Channel crossing of about 20 miles.
  • Two English swimmers, Kate Robarts and Zoe Sadler, just completed double crossings, 21 miles, of Lake Windermere, England's longest lake.
  • An team of 40 swimmers from Russia, Ireland, South Africa, Italy, the United States, Latvia, Estonia, Chile, Poland, England, Argentina and Argentina last week completed a five-day, 60-mile swim across the Bering Strait between the United States and Russia, in 41-degree water. 
  • The same week, Nejib Belhidi completed his 2.4-mile swim between Little Diomede and Big Diomede islands in the Bering Sea.
  • A tight group of Orange County swimmers recently attempted swimming around 27 piers in 24 hours, from Santa Barbara to San Diego counties. In the end, only one of the 14 was able to complete all 27, and it took longer than planned. Still.
  • A team from the Bay Area-based Night Train Swimmers today embarked on a 228-mile relay swim from Point Concepcion to San Diego, hoping to set a new record for distance relay.
That's an incomplete list. Almost all the swimmers are raising money for charity.

In our night swim, I think of Gridley telling his support crew not to tell him how far he had swim or how close he was to his goal. "I just want to put my face in the water and swim," he said.

Here I am, in this short "pootle," as some of my virtual swim friends call it, struggling along for a mile and a half or so, out of rhythm, out of breath, wanting to know when I can stop, finding their feats beyond imagination. I can manage a mere fraction of what they accomplish.

And yet, I think, the bubbles seeming to fluoresce beneath me as I swim in darkness, maybe there's some more I can do. Maybe farther, maybe better, maybe for someone else's sake.

What's next?

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