Rockaway and outer Blakely Harbor offer great fun, and adventure in getting cold thanks to a wardrobe malfunction. Harlequin ducks perch on the rocks, sending a message about how wild is the ocean, even within spitting distance of a suburban living room.
photo: Eagle Harbor and Mt. Baker
This swim has lessons about the wild, and I wouldn't be getting them diving to a selected point of interest. My ocean traverse of the island has me testing the wildness of the ocean all along the route, and finding it wild all over.
I'm now fully addicted to this swim, and already wondering what the hell I'm going to do with myself when I'm done. Presumptuous of me at mile 7 out of 53.
New problems await just ahead, and not all of them about wildness. Development may intrude as I enter Eagle Harbor and Baingridge's port activity. Like the armored superfund site and how do I get past the harbor docks? What about the ferry maintenance yard, buildings on a maze of pilings? Do I swim under right at the shore, or around into the harbor proper, where the boats roam? Are there cables to snag the unwary swimmer? We'll see. Maybe I shouldn't be looking ahead just yet. Will you all bail me out of jail after the cops wonder what a diver is doing under the ferry boats that carry thousands of commuters each day?
air temp: 45F
water temp: 50F
Nov. 23, 12:30pm sunny
wind from the north, light
medium-high tide, rising
visibility 10-30 feet
today's distance: 1.46 mile
total so far: 7.81 miles
crab vs. crab battle royal
First the drysuit hokey-pokey gets worse. The zipper is getting harder and harder to zip, and it finally fails. Sproing..the zipper pull breaks off leaving me trapped in a half-mast zipper with no way to open or close it. I can't swim and I can't get out. A quick executive decision to make, do we cut the drysuit or try to work the zipper loose? It's clear and calm and I want to swim. Scissors, please.
I prevail on my patient and bemused wife E, asking her to delay the trip taking my 4 year old child C to a birthday party (imagine how much fun that is!). Please, get me out of this $#(*& broken drysuit?! Pretty please? At first she says of course, but then 5-10 minutes later with the snips and scissors failing to cut through the sturdy waterproof zipper and C really eager to go, we're all ready for this zipper adventure to end.
Finally, sturdier snips get through the metal/rubber zipper and I'm free to peel out of the sweaty skin-tight rubber suit(I was a bit thinner when I bought the thing 15 years ago). Sadly, there's a saga to begin over the "what do I do now" ennui that ensues once I stare at my trustry drysuit that now looks suspiciously like garbage. I'm not ready to give up yet, even though I probably should. Maybe I can get a sponsor to give me a new suit. But until then...
I slide into my old wetsuit (which is falling apart and even so would be barely adequate if it was in good shape) and head for the beach. Dammit, nothing will stop me from swimming after waiting 4 days for a chance to go, spending 45 minutes trying to get ready, and looking outside at a perfectly calm sunny Sunday morning. An ocean awaiting and no way to swim? I don't think so. (Note: the decision to go out with a minimal wetsuit will matter later, during a long swim in water that's gotten colder. Brrr...)
Rockaway Beach presents a problem...ACCESS. It's hard to get to the ocean without trespassing, and I face a LONG walk for either the entry or exit.
I have a strategy for this leg, park in the middle, bushwhack down a small bluff in my wetsuit and booties, trespass to get in the water, swim, hope for a reasonable exit, and then have a one mile walk back on the road. Not a great strategy, but it's the best I can do for this piece of water.
The parking is fine, at a small park with legal water access. But I can't get in here, it's in the middle of today's swim. I walk up the hill and to the top of the bluff over the water and look for a way down. If I can't bushwhack down, it's a loooong walk around by road to get the the beach below the bluff, west down Hall's Hill Road and back east on Seaborn. You can see all of this on the map, my bushwhack started from the intersection of Halls Hill Rd and Rockaway Bluff Rd. It's not too hard to beat through the bushes, I wander a bit and make it down near my entry point, saving about a mile of walking.
As expected, there's no legal entry, but a slink through a construction site arouses no ire and I'm in. Ah...at last. Cold, clear water, gravelly beach, underwater again. The flood of cold water pours through the cracks in my dead wetsuit, but I convince myself that it'll warm up in a minute and feel better soon.
I'll swim a bit to warm up. Under the docks and look, there's bags of oysters under the last dock. Someone growing out some oysters, or holding them to eat later. Yum. More oysters here in outer Blakely Harbor than anywhere else on my route so far.
After a few short minutes, I'm warmer and past the houses, to a surprising little stretch of wild water. No houses, no roads, just a bluff and fairly quick dropoff to 15 feet of water. I've got my best visibility so far, I can see far out to either side and the bottom is clear at 20 feet. I can see distance and feel big water here, finally. Thick eelgrass carpets the patches of sand, bedrock ribs rise up and hold lots of life, and there are surfperch darting about.
I enter a school of small, needle-like fish, about 4-5 inches long and spotted. Tubesnouts everywhere! The school goes as far as I can see in either direction, hovering over the bottom with the fish spaced fairly evenly at a body-length distance from their neighbors, heads all pointing east up the harbor. The swim slowly, and I float motionless hoping they'll get used to me. They do and ease closer, and begin to mill about a bit, breaking formation. I can get within touching distance, but I just drift and watch dreamily. The sight of this many fish always feels grand and rich. A profusion of life.
As I pull up to the corner, turing north to Rockaway Beach, the swell rises up to about a foot, the water turns murkier, a current runs against me, and the rough rocky bottom sends lumps up near the water's surface. I have to watch the pitch of the waves to stay off the rocks. It's not exactly difficult, since it's Puget Sound, but I do actually have to notice what's around me to stay safe. An end to the pleasant hospitality of the last stretch of water. It's a bit of work to round the corner.
Here's the park at the south end of Rockaway Beach Rd, and there's my car. With a bit of a chill setting in I think about getting out. My hands and feet are getting a tiny bit distant-feeling, but I check in with my body and the core feels good. I'm not too cold overall. I'll swim on.
photo: Rockaway Beach from the little park
The beach is nice, although absolutely frosted with houses and nearly no space in-between. It's mixed gravel and bedrock bottom. The wave action makes me bounce a bit, but it's still the Sound and it doesn't really qualify as rough water.
I find a couple of fascinating animal scenes.
First, harlequin ducks! The absolute stars of the duck world, I've seen them diving in mountain streams before, an amazing thing to watch. One favorite day with harlequins was in Olympic National Park in the Elwha River above the endangered dams. Nice to write that, the dams will be coming down soon. Demolish dams, baby, demolish dams!!! OK, I don't mean that, just demolish bad dams that destroy rivers without producing sufficient benefits, like the Elwha dams.
These fantastic and wild ducks are perched on a rock in front of modern suburbia, they don't seem to fit in. But ocean is ocean, and the harlequins testify to what I'm beginning to learn...the wild is close to the surface in the ocean. Much closer to the surface than almost anything on land. This is a funny wild, I can be there within sight of a suburban living room, with a warm crackling fire and a football game on TV. But down here, with only my eyse poking out of the water, I'm in the wild. With my silent sentry friends on the rock, guarding my wild.
photo: Eagle Harbor mouth
Then, one of the most amazing things I've ever seen, the crab vs. crab smackdown.
I saw a dungeness crab that looked funny. Looking closer in about 8 feet of water, I see 3 claws. Now wait, crabs don't have 3 claws. Looking closer I see the dungeness crab has a smaller spider crab on it's back, and is proceeding to try to dismantle the spider crabs belly plates. The spider crab is waving one claw and trying to fight back, but it's not getting much grip on it's larger rival. I think I know how this story ends. Dungeness is winning.
I've rarely seen such a natural fight to the death in nature, and never anything this dramatic. Wow. I have a thought to watch through to the end, but I think it better to leave them to their struggle and swim on.
I'm a mile out from my entry, or more, and I start looking for an exit. There's no place to get out except people's very small yards. The houses have maybe 10 feet between them, so to walk through these yards would be fairly intrusive if anyone's home. I'm not keen on this type of trespass, I don't want to scare or bother anyone. I swim on and keep peeking out looking for a wide yard to duck through.
Finally, the shore starts to turn to a bluff and I can see the walled-off superfund site ahead. The old creosote plant with it's metal beaches (now that's a story for the next swim).
I've got to get out. I choose a small beach with a house that looks deserted. I scoot onto the beach, pull off my fins, gloves and hood (to show a bit of human form to the world). Trying to remove gear, I notice that my hands and feet are cold. OK, numb in fact. I'm officially cold. Using two gnarled claws, I get the gear off and try to walk up the hill. Barely feeling my feet, it's a bit tough to walk. I have to assume there's something down there on the end of my legs. I can barely feel the ground, and only in the middle of my feet. The toes are long gone.
I set my teeth to chattering on purpose, just to test. I've done this before, cold on a mountain. It's my personal test of how cold I am. If I'm cold, the chattering will often continue and be a bit hard to stop. No problem, the teeth chattering stops as soon as I quit forcing it. I'm cold, but no real problem. Except the stumping along issue and the house ahead.
I slip between two houses where there's a bit of a gap, I'm not right next to any windows. Then I see I need to follow a driveway to get up the bluff, so I duck into a driveway, pad up to the street, and I'm good, no alarm raised and I have a decent walk back to the car. Turns out to be a mile in the 45F air, so I don't really warm up walking.
Taking off the wetsuit is a bit hard with two claws, but soon I'm in the car and away to a hot shower.
What to do next time? Tackle the drysuit repair issue, and in the interim maybe wear my shorty wetsuit under the decomposing full wetsuit and get better gloves.
This cold thing is for the invertebrates that don't mind being 50F, me, I don't like it.