Saturday, October 18, 2008

Day 1: Fort Ward State Park

Today's the first day with some real progress. I swam most of the length of Ft.Ward Park down the hill from my house. About 2/3 of a mile. Nice, especially since things started off so weakly.

Temp: 53F
Wind: calm
Tide: High, +10 ft.
Water: 53F
Visibility: 10-15 feet
11am, Oct 18, 2008
0.64 mile

Cancer magister-Dungeness crab (several)
Oncorhynchus sp-salmon (one juvenile)
Anthopleura elagantissima (lots, the star of the day)

I started gearing up at the boat ramp and immediately ran into trouble, before I even got in the water. The damn zipper on my dry suit got stuck. I stood next to my car, thrashing around trying to pull the zipper shut, and it wasn’t moving. The zipper goes across my upper back, and it’s always hard to pull since it’s waterproof and doesn’t slide easily. It hasn’t been worn much lately, and it was just plain stuck. What a pathetic start to my little under-prepared swim adventure. Grrr…

I decided to swim around Bainbridge Island, and I thought it would take awhile to get ready. Then I changed my mind, and dove in without getting ready. I’m an experienced ocean swimmer and I’ve done quite a bit of snorkeling, but I’m not really a diver. I don’t like cold water, and I really don’t like scuba gear, so I don’t get in the water much these days. I get cold easily so I mostly dive or swim when the water is above 65F. That never happens in Puget Sound, where the year-round temperature tends to be around 52F. Brrr. I took a scuba class once, and never did it again. I couldn’t stand messing with all that heavy and clumsy gear. The result? I don’t have the right gear for this little swim.

I have good gear for windsurfing in cold weather. I have a 3mm drysuit (with the zipper on the back so it doesn’t get in the way). I have thin gloves, hood, and booties, a decent mask and snorkel, and a pair of fins I bought a couple of days ago, just for this swim. The fins are the only good gear I own. I don’t really know how well I can swim in cold water with this gear. I’ll find out if I can ever get the #($&#(^$#(& zipper shut.

Several people have gone by while I’m getting ready, and I’m about to ask for help. Almost nobody dives or swims here, so I’m standing out a bit among the usual runners and walkers. Just as I’m feeling fully pathetic, a woman I know by sight stops and asks if I need help. Maybe she saw me doing the Hokey-Pokey with the zipper. She says her husband always needs help with his drysuit, so thank goodness she’s not too surprised. Even with her help it’s hard, but we finally get it. The omens are looking up, going from very-very bad to at least OK.

Thankfully, she doesn’t ask any questions, since I’m loathe to talk about my plan. I’m swimming alone, not a great idea. I have the wrong gear, and it’s easy to see for anyone who knows what they’re doing. And I’m nearly the only fool that gets in the water here. Even worse, I can’t possibly say I’m going to swim around the island before I even do the first mile. What if I don’t get very far and start to freeze? What if I get creeped out swimming alone in the murky water? I may not make it and I don’t want to embarrass myself by saying I’m going to swim around the island and then backing out after a hundred yards. I just want to slip into the water and see if this trip is going to work out. I’ve been planning to keep it a secret until I get maybe ¼ of the way around the island and have some sense that it’s not going to turn into a joke—the guy who swam 1/1000 of the way around Bainbridge Island.

Thanks, friend, now I can slink into the water and see if this is going to work.

It’s a little cold at first, and then really cold after about a minute. Damn. But after swimming a bit I start to get warm, so far so good. The water isn’t too awfully murky, I can see the bottom in ten feet of water. It’s a bit barren, nothing exciting to see, but I can see far enough to avoid the murky water creepy feeling. Again, so far so good. The dry windsurfing dry suit is fairly good for movement, thin and the shoulders are loose enough to move my arms in a crawl stroke when I’m not looking around. But the dry zipper is semi-rigid so I can’t really stretch out my arms. But it’s fine since I can still move with the big fins.

My plan is to mostly kick and look around, but add a crawl arm stroke to speed up when there’s not much to see. Probably looks funny from shore, but I try not to think about that. I know I’d scratch my head if I ran by.

This is my neighborhood. I run about 3 times per week, average, and I always go down through the park to the boat ramp, on a 1 mile dirt path through the big woods. Then along the water through the park, heading south just like I’m planning today’s swim. It’s an awesome home running route, about the best I’ve ever had. Bald eagles Jan-June, blackberries in the late summer, mountain views whenever it’s clear. Etc. Heaven, basically.

I settle in to a pattern of swim, pause, swim pause. Slow progress but I look back at the boat ramp and see I’ve turned a slight corner and made a good hundred meters or so. OK, this might work. I’ve seen enough to have fun, warmed up a bit, and actually put some distance behind me. This WILL work.

There are fields of sea anemones on the bedrock/boulder/gravel bottom. Carpets of them in some places. The star of the day, Xanthopleura elegantissima, the green sea anemone of the Pacific northwest. Beautiful. And a crab scuttles away, threatening me with it’s claws, the magnificent Cancer magister, Dungeness crab that is just about the best seafood on the planet.

I see plenty of boulders, from a few feet to about 6 feet across, covered with life, the perfect place to see fish. But there are no fish. NO fish. Nothing with fins. This is a bit odd. Yes, I’m in fairly shallow water, but I would expect more fish. Hmmm…. we’ll see. Finally, most of the way through the park, I see a lone fish. Quick, what is it? I slow and dip as placidly as possible, it’s a juvenile salmon. Nice, a glamour boy right off the bat. I’m pleased until it starts seeming weird. I dip a bit closer, then a bit closer, and the little thing doesn’t dart away like it should. I’m used to seeing these fish in rivers, and they are SKITTISH. Maybe they’re different in the ocean. Then it occurs to me. A refugee from the salmon farm up the way? Maybe. I can’t get close enough to tell which species of salmon, so maybe I’m reading too much into a lucky approach. We’ll see.

There is a salmon farm at the end of the park. Big open ocean pens where they raise farmed salmon. The scourge of the ocean for some environmentalists, an abomination of eco-damage. But I can’t hate salmon farms. I hear a lot of bad things, and I wonder. But I don’t hate them. I’m actually curious what I’ll find when I swim by the farm. Oodles of escaped fish, polluting the ocean with their invasive presence? Rotting food souring the water? Maybe aggressive sea lions ready to rip me apart since they’re used to slaughtering anything that swims around the pens? How about a few sharks that scrounge around the farm?

The farm makes me wonder, should I do this swim right? Should I talk to the owners, get permission to swim by. So they don’t wonder what’s up and maybe fire a shot at what looks a tiny bit like a sea lion. So they don’t get mad at me for trespassing, or just grouchy wondering what fool is swimming around their livestock. Do they worry about animal rights saboteurs cutting their nets to free Sammy the salmon? Should I do it right and let them know I’m coming, or just slink by? I should decide soon, since I pulled out fo the water just before I reached the farm, and my plan has me swimming by the farm the next time I get in the water.

I pull out at the end of the park, with a bit of confidence that this swim thing is going to work out. I feel good, heart pumping and the sun shining. I made it as far as I hoped, to the end of the park. It’s a long walk back to my car…I did swim a bit didn’t I?

The mansions of South Beach Road start here. Not mansions by some standards, but they start at $1 million for a fixer-upper and go up into the $millions for low bank waterfront. I’m a water guy, I deserve to live here, don’t I? But it ain’t gonna happen, not in this lifetime.

I know the next 2 miles of shoreline well, part of my running routes. A couple of more days of swimming, and then I’ll go around the South end of Bainbridge and into some places I’ve never seen. Rockier, a bit rougher, and some open water. But I have one good day in and I’m optimistic this swim thing is going to work out.

Walking back my car, I run into some friends. Vanessa and Patrick with their two kids in the jog-stroller, Eric and the little 1 year old girl who’s name escapes me. They’re stopped, talking with Mark and Jenny on their bikes. Hi guys. Yeah, I’m just back from a swim. Jenny knows a group of women who swim up at Fletcher Bay further north on the Island. She might join them in the summer. I wonder who they are, and whether they’ll join me for a swim once I get this thing started.

My fantasy is that I’ll recruit others to swim along, and we’ll get people more interested in saving the ocean around our Island home. In our watery region. There’s a lot that needs to be done to Save the Sound, and I’d love to help. For me, step one is to take a look around.

Next up, the salmon farm.

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