Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Critter Crawl swimmers get the signal to start, riding the tide to the left into town. Photo courtesy of skh.
The Ladder – oh, The Ladder!
Early in the swim, past the Coast Guard station. I'm pulling my orange
Butt Buoy™® in the center. Photo courtesy of Lynn Carlin.
  • As in choked off, all our paths but one blocked on our way to the Humboldt Bay Critter Crawl in Eureka.

    Highway 20 off Interstate 5, our preference, was cut off by the fast-spreading Rocky Fire against Clear Lake, covering 64,000 acres and driving out 12,000 residents.

    Highway 36 out of Red Bluff, which we took last year and didn't like, solely and unfairly because of a lunch proprietor, was closed as firefighters battled a string of fires along its route.

    If Highway 299 out of Redding turned out to be closed too, we were going to decide then whether we could muster enough madness to risk continuing to Yreka, or maybe even up into Oregon, and work our way south again to the ocean.

    But we didn't have to succumb. Though open, 299 revealed a hellscape of fires raging to the south. Smoke flattened mountain ridges into vast burned edges of paper, sepia in front of umber in front of deathly dark gray, against a tobacco-stained sky. The sun became a neon disk that smoke eventually swallowed. Night fell early.

    The fires, once Somewhere Over There, marked by the distant bank of dirty fog off to the west, were upon us.

    Everywhere the smoke smothered, filling our car, obscuring the lights of Weaverville and Junction City and Salyer and Burnt Ranch and Willow Creek. Fire engines crowded around most of the hotels, spilled out of the grocery story parking lots. Townsfolk walked around in the nuclear summer, having little choice.

    "We're off for fun on the coast, la de da," I couldn't help thinking as we passed. "The best of luck with all your homes and loved ones. Tootles!"
  • As in choked down a delicious Mexican skillet breakfast at a place in Eureka called Kristina's, which we patronized last year as one of the few places open on a Sunday. (Don't blame Eureka; blame us, California's worst explorers).

    It was my only worry about swimming Sunday morning: Having enough fuel.

    I had swum last year's inaugural event, created by veterinarian and swimmer Sarah Green to benefit the North Coast Marine Mammal Center, and had no problem flying with the flood tide along the 4.5-mile route from the bay mouth into the city marina.

    I just didn't want to run down before I ran aground. The big breakfast did the trick.

    The world, being warmer, meant I didn't have to fear the water temperature. The bay was only a few degrees lower than Lake Natoma this time of year — last year the bay was almost 10 degrees colder.
  • As in choked, or gagged, on the salt water of the bay, having been away from the ocean for months.

    The color of serpentine, swirled and pocked, the water filled my mouth and roughened my throat, and chafed my arms. I coughed and retched it out, and loved every moment, this too-rare chance to return to the ocean.

    It also meant reuniting with swimmers I've gotten to know in the last few years: Rob Dumouchel who showed me what it's like to swim Avila Beach down near San Luis Obispo, and who now lives in the Eureka area; Allison Bayne, kayaker extraordinaire; Lisa Amarao and Cathy Harrington, teammates on the 24-hour swim relay in San Francisco Bay; Chris Blakeslee, a Channel swimmer and swim ambassador known to other swimmers as El Sharko; Sarah and her co-conspirator in business and life and this swim, Bill Wood.

    Their event had doubled in size, revealing Eureka's open-water swimming possibilities to us outsiders.

    Despite the tide, I found it hard to sense my movement through the water, the bay being wide and the landmarks unfamiliar, pulp mills — is that the same one or a different one? — to the left and Eureka to the right. I resorted to counting strokes to gauge distance, distantly remembering last year's effort required roughly 4,000 strokes.

    Carol, who kayaked for me, kept the line, and I followed her and sighted on stand-up paddlers ahead. Carol's line alerted me not to get swept by tide too far left of our destination.

    Jellyfish lay in the bay, but I missed them all, didn't even learn about them until after. I plowed through clump after clump of eel grass, the blade of one scratching my arm; I imagined it was a jellyfish sting.

    My wife Nancy watched from the M/V Madaket, a boat that's been plying the bay for 105 years. It's the last of a fleet of ferries that used to transport workers to the sawmills on the spit that forms Humboldt Bay. Sarah furnished the boat for spectators.

    When I saw the marina, I used what was left in me to try and overtake the swimmer ahead. I managed to close the distance. It wasn't a race: My favorite kind of swim event.
  • As in choked, or lost my nerve, with The Ladder. I remembered The Ladder from last year. It's painted yellow this year, which really didn't help. If anything, it loomed larger in my thoughts toward the finish, a sunny lemon spectre.

    Swimmers have to climb the ladder onto a boat slip at the end. It holds onto the dock like a grappling hook, untethered.

    I'd almost rather have swum back against the tide than climbed The Ladder. It leaned in under my weight as I climbed, my body going under the dock. Swimmers stood on the dock watching me; a crowd behind me in the parking lot cheered the swimmers, watching me.

    Success depended on my using what strength was left over from the swim, and on some deft shift of bulk, which substituted for upper body strength. I moved my arms at the right moment over the top of the ladder, flopping like a beached sea elephant, pushing myself ahead an inch until I could work a knee onto the dock, and then the rest of me.

    I hoped no one was taking video.

    Behind me, swimmers coming in were swept sidelong by tide, running aground in shallow water below the parking lot. I wanted to have run aground too.

    Behind me, too, I could finally sense the distance we had just traveled. The starting point lay far away, around a corner of the city, impossible to see from our finish at Woodley Island.
  • As in choked up, to find myself awash in kind words over the shirt I got to design for this year's Critter Crawl, and to hear people appreciate the puzzle pieces of positive and negative space, revealing critters mammalian and avian and human.

    It was more than reward to see so many swimmers already wearing their shirts before swim instructions began.
  • As in choked up about leaving too soon. Having raced to the swim, we had to race back, taking
    Highway 101 south around the fires, the land turning to leather as summer wanes, the rivers dwindling to rivulets.

    We are taking our time next year.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience Shawn. Great read! I felt as if I was right there with you in the water, but I will have to live vicariously through you. Thanks again and hope you will be able to come again next year!

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience Shawn. Great read! I felt as if I was right there with you in the water, but I will have to live vicariously through you. Thanks again and hope you will be able to come again next year!

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience Shawn. Great read! I felt as if I was right there with you in the water, but I will have to live vicariously through you. Thanks again and hope you will be able to come again next year!

  4. It's 5 am here in NE Florida. In a few minutes heading to the coast for a sunrise swim. I love this piece Shawn. Sets my spirit. Way to wake up.