The water feels cold enough to endanger me, like it could abruptly gum up my vital organs, cryogenically preserving me for future generations to enjoy. That it’s only up to my ankles at this point feels like something I should mention. Just back after a couple of weeks out west (temps in the 90s), I’m learning again what I already knew, or should have known: this was a less than ideal time to skip two weeks of swimming, particularly if you swim every day, which provides a buffer, making the incrementally dropping temperature almost imperceptible and therefore, bearable.
There comes a time in the summer life of every Vermont glacial pond that it’s easier getting in than getting out. Usually at some point after mid-August you can expect at least a few days where the temperature drops sufficiently to render the air cooler than the water. These are the delicious days, when stepping into the pond feels like stepping into a warm bath. The days we rely on to help us endure ever-darkening Decembers, when the wood stove provides our only solace. The problem this September afternoon is those days are long gone. Both the air and the water are flirting with the upper 50s — not the best day to swim.
North Country summers are short enough to begin with, but 2019 has been like a dinner guest arriving 90 minutes late, announcing he’s now a gluten-free, vegan, and leaving before dessert because he has another appointment. Swimmers — I among them — struggle to get into the water in early June and desperately try to hang on post-Labor Day to prolong the season, even if only for a few days.
And if your masochism lasts beyond mid-September, rewards await, particularly if you crave solitude. Bugs and crowds are essentially gone; kids have returned to school, dramatically reducing the decibel level; and often, if you’re lucky, the hillsides around you slowly begin their transition to autumn colors and your swim becomes almost mystical.
Over the past decade, I’ve been able to swim well into the fall — the first week in October not out of the question. It feels like an accomplishment, although I realize intellectually that being stubborn isn’t necessarily a virtue. I can rationalize it into being a kind of discipline, but it’s far simpler than that. I just like it. Jumping into frigid water when you know the warmth of the car heater is waiting on shore and a hot shower is only a mile up the road, seems almost reasonable. Like hitting your head, knowing you can stop whenever you want to.
The only danger I’ve ever encountered happened several years ago when I was working on 100 days in a row and didn’t want to interrupt that quest (didn’t quite make it). When I got to the pond after work, a cold front had come through, rendering the surface nearly invisible under a thick cloud of swirling mist. Easing myself in, the water felt strangely warm, probably because the air temperature had been dropping quickly, likely in the low-40s by now. When I reached my turn-around point, I noticed a few things: the warmth of the water was an illusion, it was extremely cold; the pinging on my head indicated the rain had turned to sleet; and I’d lost sight of the shore, not quite sure which way I needed to swim. Thankfully, my sense of direction worked, but I’d never swim in those conditions again.
When I finally immerse myself this day, it’s in more of an awkward lurch than a dive, as though my intention is to merely skim the surface like a portly hydroplane. Needless to say, that fails emphatically and I quickly learn the silky water of mid-August has become barbed wire in the interim. I momentarily submerge, every cell in my body is messaging “Mayday, Mayday ... abort ... abort.” A couple of tentative strokes and I lose feeling in my extremities, including my head and face. I don’t know if my head is technically an extremity, but for the first time ever I get a literal translation of numbskull.
I could (should?) wear a wet suit as suggested by my wife and friends, but I stubbornly refuse, explaining that it wouldn’t be the same; that it would compromise the purity of my experience (full disclosure: I believe my personal diameter, wrapped in latex. looks like a clogged radiator hose).
But after a few minutes in the water, it becomes less threatening; bordering on tolerable. I realize I’m back in the sweet spot that I love so much. Completely alone now, save the wailing of a distant loon, a kingfisher flitting from tree to tree, and even a bonus flock of geese high above, getting out while the getting’s good, I’m content. I see a clutch of red maple leaves above the boulder-strewn shore as I slowly drift by, and I realize something that never entered my mind when I first stepped into the pond: I’m gonna do this again tomorrow.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.