Open Water: A Community, Gift, and Teacher

Ready to jump in the water for another Portage Bay swim. And yes, that is the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs (SMEA) building in the background. (Photo credit: Joey Murphy)


As I step outside into the 36°F weather, I am awkwardly half-running to limit the amount of time I spend exposed to the frigid air. I reach the end of the dock where the water is gently lapping back and forth. I slowly lower my body down a ladder, trying to steady my breath as I adjust to the cold limb by limb. When I’m up to my chest, I push off the last runge and start swimming in the open waters of Portage Bay. This is my latest quarantine hobby: open water swimming.

It started this summer with me floating around Portage Bay on a unicorn floaty. I’m fortunate to live in an apartment behind a row of houseboats where the rent in no way matches the cost of the waterfront view. Following an afternoon of floating, the water would often carry me downstream. Instead of trying to paddle the unwieldy unicorn home, it became easier to jump in the water and tow it behind me.

Soon this evolved into me wanting to swim without the unicorn, for exercise and a mental release. So one day, I donned goggles and a swim cap and jumped in for a swim. I very quickly ran into a huge issue: all I saw through my goggles was a dark nothingness below. I could not get over the eerie feeling of my legs dangling over a black hole that my brain was convinced wanted to suck me under. So instead I swam like an old granny at the pool, doing breaststroke with my head out of the water. To add to my turmoil, every once in a while, I would see some green vegetation coming to the surface that I knew I did NOT want to touch. This too invoked potentially irrational fears, such as of vines wrapping around my legs, pulling me to the lake floor and digesting me like a Venus flytrap. My swims became limited to back and forth laps a few hundred yards from the dock, my beacon of safety. I felt no better than doing laps at a pool.

Roasting marshmallows with my mom on one of our many camping trips. Even though we constantly fought for space on our small chair (i.e. the cooler) we always shared a great love of being outside. (Photo credit: Chris McKeown)


My fears were frustrating to me. I knew the odds of my nightmares coming true were next to none. Why was it that I felt utterly at home in a forest, but ten feet from the shore I’d lose all sense of rationality? I realized that it was my parents who taught me that the forests, mountains, and deserts were safe. On summer camping trips they showed me that the buzzing bugs and tall grasses wouldn’t hurt me, that these worlds are wondrous. I had grown up in a family that was welcomed into these spaces, a privilege I benefited from while others continue to face barriers to equitable access.

I recognized that I didn’t need to face my fears of open water alone, that a community could help me. It turns out there’s a very active open water swimming community in Seattle. I shared my fears on a forum and was astounded by the responses. Many commented with how they had overcome similar fears and some offered to swim with me. That’s how I met my first swim buddy, Stephanie, a total swimming goddess who swims everyday and everywhere!

The first time I swam with Stephanie, I explained how I just couldn’t bring myself to look under the water. She dove in and quickly resurfaced, saying, “Oh, the water’s not very deep here.” I was so confused as all I could ever see was a dark pit of doom. She suggested we switch goggles, and that’s when we realized my goggles were tinted. Wearing Stephanie’s goggles, I could see the water was remarkably clear and like she said, the bottom was no deeper than the deep end of a swimming pool. But as soon as one fear was resolved it was replaced with another. Turns out there aren’t isolated patches of the evil green vegetation but that the entire floor of Portage Bay is covered in it! Milfoil, as I soon learned, is a prolific introduced species in Washington and an inevitable part of lake swimming.

Milfoil: tall, feathery, and the bane of my existence. (Photo credit: Bas Kerssome rights reserved)


As I swam with Stephanie again and again, my fears of death and strangulation were continually disproved. I met others in the community and tried swimming in different spots such as Alki Beach. My comfort and confidence grew with each swim. I still have little panic attacks about the milfoil every now and then, but they come less and less often.

As my personal fears subside, I’m able to take in more of the scenery below me. When I swim at Alki Beach, I see a vibrant diversity of life, from colorful sea pens to red rock crabs hiding in eelgrass. I always thought I’d have to leave the city and drive to remote locations to see such natural beauty, but I’m often swimming 50 paces from a Starbucks. As the growing attention on the environmental justice movement has called into question the white-centric conservation philosophers we’ve so often celebrated and their meaning of “wilderness,” my experiences swimming have caused me to reconsider my own meaning of the concept:

Portage Bay is entirely surrounded by urban infrastructure. It has also been completely re-engineered by the digging of the Montlake Cut, which provided Seattleites with a direct connection from Lake Washington to the Sound. However, the Montlake Cut also caused Lake Washington’s level to drop by nine feet, drying out the Black River and depriving Coast Salish people of a crucial source of physical and emotional nourishment.

Prior to swimming in Portage Bay, I would have never called a place so inexplicably tied to both human care and damage as “wild.” But now I cannot deny the feeling of unabandoned joy and adventure I associate with it. This place is just as deserving of my gratitude as the top of Mount Rainier, milfoil included. The only way I can answer the question of what is wilderness is to say that it’s a gift: a gift that has challenged me to overcome fear, and a gift that has forced me to consider the environment from new perspectives.

The open water swimming community has even connected me with SMEA alumnus Guillermo Gomez, whose cohort was the second ever graduating class. (Photo credit: Janice Albert)


As I wrap up the final months of my master’s degree here at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, the water has most unexpectedly become another teacher for me. I came to SMEA with a background in atmospheric sciences and admit I was initially more interested in the “environmental” aspect of the program than the “marine.” While I enjoyed my courses and expanding my atmospheric knowledge into the marine realm, I never felt an intimate connection to the course material. However, physically experiencing the push and pull between the atmosphere and water through swimming has been transformative; it’s like I’m witnessing all my classroom knowledge come to life. I love seeing how a windy day can influence the swell, causing the water to churn and turn murky; or how the slipping sunlight of autumn makes the waters colder, limits photosynthesis, and slows the milfoil’s growth. While these are such basic scientific concepts, it’s powerful to experience them with my own body.

Open water swimming has become so much more than my quarantine hobby. It’s a community, a gift, and a teacher–and I look forward to continuing to grow from it.

Next week in Currents, my friend and colleague, Katy Bland, will share how the water too has become a teacher to her after a 40-day canoe trip through the waterways of New England.

Author’s note: If you are interested in taking up open water swimming as a hobby, please note there are many important safety recommendations I follow that I did not discuss in detail. For example, I never swim alone, I always swim along a shoreline, and I always wear a bright inflatable buoy to make myself visible to watercraft.

Sea pens, named for their resemblance to a pen-and-quill, are a beautiful gift to see when swimming in the Sound. (Photo credit: Amanda Winans)