Lake Natoma got emptier.
We'd been swimming together several times a week for 2 1/2 years. Doug's leaving for his native New England to help with his grandchildren.
"Fast" Karl left earlier this month. Though he had only been swimming with us for seven months, he was dedicated, and his dedication inspired even if his speed deflated.
On his last swam before heading for work somewhere in the Rockies, he laced twice the length of Lake Natoma, about 10 miles. Notre Dame swimmer; whatcha gonna do?
Karl's a mountain man who found California's ways strange. I don't think he's coming back. Except, of course, to swim the length of Tahoe, 21 miles, later this summer.
What did good ol' Heraclitus say? "You could not step twice in the same river."
To which I add, "Not even with the same toes."
Change: The only constant.
Toes come and toes go.
Sarah had already joined our core group of rogues before Doug and Karl took flight. It wasn't until she said it out loud that we finally acted on our shoulda-coulda-wouldas, swimming longer distances regularly. Once a week for the last month, Sarah has swum the length of the lake, and small various and sundry of us have joined in.
The length used to be a daunting once-a-year enterprise, borne out on the Fourth of July. Now it's oh-so-slowly becoming a routine change in routine.
David's the iron man now, literally and figuratively. We've been swimming together longer than I have with Doug; in fact, I think it was a winter morning on upper Natoma when Doug first joined David and me.
David is the exception to every rule: An Iron Man©® triathlete who eschews triathleticism … a wetsuit wearer who defies conventional wisdom and swims just about as fast without one, when we can get him to … the polite smiling contrarian who I guess really meant it when he said he wouldn't pay the measly $10 annual fee to our meetup.com group.
That's how we all met, though, through the Sacramento Swimming Enthusiasts page on the meetup.com site.
But we've become an ad hoc splinter cell, using text messages to gather, rather than the site. We're the few who like upper Natoma chiefly, where the water spilling directly from the bottom of Folsom Lake is always a little colder. It's much less crowded, free of beachgoers. Few rowing crews make it all the way up here, most staying on the 2,000-meter race course at the lower lake.
We're the few who swim Natoma year-round. Most swimmers on the meetup.com site prefer the lower lake during the evenings (too warm, too crowded) or what's left of dwindling Folsom Lake, where gather the three forks of the American River that release into Natoma.
I've met so many meetup people on my scheduled swims, whom I see once or twice more and then never again. They either decide against open water swimming, or figure out the group's not competitive and I certainly am not going to give them much of a race, or join the Folsom/lower Natoma/evening swim crowd.
It got me thinking of those who stuck out the cold water with me in the four years I've swum Natoma:
- Jim, whom I met at one of my first meetup.com swims, a Polar Bear event in mid-February. I forgot my goggles, my wife urged me to ask Jim for an extra pair, and we struck up an immediate friendship. Jim's the one who showed me not to take the open water so seriously, to revel in the realization that few people enjoy this or want to.
When I first hit the winter choppy water of Folsom Lake I wanted to quit for good, and Jim's the one who told me to swim 10 stroke at a time, get my bearings, swim 10 more, and keep going — to let time get me used to the new adventure. I think of his help every time I swim through heavy water with confidence and a semblance of ease.
We swam together most of two years, and many times he brought fast Kathy, a champion open water swimmer, which was a commitment since they had to come from two counties over. I swam in several open-water races with them that first year.
Jim got a different job and different obligations, and Kathy's life changed around. I haven't seen them in a long while, nor have I raced since then.
- Brad, whom I still see, though he's more rogue than us, preferring mostly to swim on his own, and swim great distances. I first saw Brad at one of the Polar Bear swims four years ago. All of us huddled at the shore in our wetsuits, tentative penguins, when suddenly came Brad in just swim briefs and goggles, diving in and swimming away into the foggy chill while we stood and stared.
Until that moment, I thought it may have been illegal to swim without a wetsuit. But I soon resolved to swim that way since I hated wearing my neoprene, and weaned myself out of it, shedding it for five, then 10, then 15 minutes in the cold water after each group swim.
I still swim with Brad on occasion. It feels weird to drive home after my swim knowing he'll still be in for a couple of hours more. He's swum the length of Tahoe, and a mile in freezing water; whatcha gonna do?
- Stacy and I were the first long-term rogues, swimming off the meetup.com grid and venturing northeast to upper Natoma. It was exotic water when we first tried it out. Few boats and of course no swimmers, the only noise coming from the aggressive domestic geese that had been released to the wild to cadge visitors for food.
Every swim was discovery and serendipity as we learned where the water was deep and where shallow. We learned to endure the cold water for longer and longer distances, and swim against current. We established routes under the new bridge, and downstream to Texas Hill, a little island where once Texas miners had come to dry-dig for gold.
We swam many times when Stacy wasn't running or doing cross-fit workouts. We even swam the length of the lake one Fourth of July, me with my inflatable butt buoy and him with a modified boogie board he called his party boat, sailing behind him. It had a flag and a foam noodle arch and a stretch net to hold his food to the board. Even with a long fin below, the party boat capsized in the wind.
Stacy once left for Tennessee to run a 30-mile race with his sister, and never really came back to swimming.
- Ryan made the fastest ever transition from heavily wetsuited swimmer to skin swimmer — 10 minutes. He's a concert organist from Canada who showed up one day in a thick wetsuit with some sort of shirt over it, gloves, booties and what looked like deep-sea diver's cowl.
You don't need all of that, we said. Or, really, any of it.
OK, said Ryan and in one swim he became a skin swimmer. He was just about the most joyful open water enthusiast, but he disappeared after a couple of months.
- Susie, her hair and smile dazzlingly white, also loved to whoop and holler and express on our behalf of the wonder of open water swimming. I think she sticks to the evenings and lower Natoma swims these days.
- Helen, whom I met in the early days. I don't think she swims much anymore, but she probably doesn't have time, seeing how she now runs races of 50 and 100 miles regularly.
- Myron, who was running the meetup.com group and cheerfully organizing Polar Bear swims and other activities, but who moved on to other things.
- Patti, who runs the group now and puts a lot of energy into keeping the group going.
- Special guest stars: Dave came all the way from Cork, Ireland, to swim in Upper Natoma last summer. Suzie, an ultra-marathon swimmer who launched the 24-hour relay swim in San Francisco Bay, last summer brought another marathon swimmer, Roxie, to explore upper Natoma. They laughed as they swim in too-shallow water past the first bridge and had to stand up on the slippery rocks.
Lisa made a great arc through the northwest last week and stopped by my lake on her way home to the Bay Area. Lisa and David and Karl and I swam as part of team at Suzie's 24-hour relay swim in February.
Nejib came from Tunisia swam lower Natoma last year, cold but not cold enough swim for peace in the Bering Strait. It didn't matter: He swim four kilometers in 39-degree water along the International Date Line. for his eventual 4-kilometer swim in the frigid water of the Bering Strait, a swim for peace.
- Kate, completing her residency at a nearby hospital, swam almost every day with us for five weeks. We'd met at the 24-hour relay swim. She pushed our distance a bit to get her ready for a swim across Tahoe later this summer.
Late in our swims, she said she didn't like swimming under the bridges. Lisa said she didn't like the shadow the bridge cast through the green water.
We've come to know the scary plants are just plants, the shallows just riprap, the current just something to relax in and pierce through for half again as many strokes, the chop just a fun reminder of being present in the water.
- I'm forgetting or misplacing some names, I know. The various Dans, Steve, Sean, all fast. Haven't seen them in a long time.
The only thing I could beat Doug at is cold-water endurance. Fortified with bioprene, I'd keep going while he'd turn back, and if we'd planned it right I'd leave my Thermos® of boiling water in his car so he could fight the intense shivers with a cup of cocoa. After winter swims it takes us a good 40 minutes of jumping up and down in the parking lot and sloshing hot cocoa all over ourselves before we're even ready to drive for hot coffee.
These days, though, with even the coldest water hanging in the low 60s Fahrenheit, Doug would swim well past our turnaround point and double back to meet me when I hit that point. The Thermos™ of hot water is more reflex these days; I pack it but we don't use it.
A go-getter whose actions speak louder than words, Doug has already created a meetup group in his homeland, New England Open Water, and has a swim already planned next weekend in Thoreau's Walden Pond. Twenty "BigWataSwimmas" have already joined.
The core group at upper Natoma has changed and shifted. Though I've been lucky of late to swim with someone else, I'll probably end up swimming by myself again many times. I know I'll swim many, many times with David and Sarah and Patti, and that a new swimmer or two will show and join our group. Most will leave after awhile. A precious few nuts will stick around for long run, and we'll keep on swimming, finding new routes, new swim adventures, different lives to talk about over coffee or beers.
That's the way it's been, the way it will be.