Tuesday, 29 April 2008


My husband and I went hiking along the river the other day. I'm a terrible klutz who can trip over her own shadow, so I tend not to veer off the trail. And yet, perversely, when I see a precipitous path off a well-marked trail, part of me longs to pursue it. At one point the rather tame trail we were on branched into two. One prong was clearly marked DANGER -- TAKE CARE, as it ran along a precipitous slab of sandstone that jutted out over the river, while the other ran between the safer side of the stone and a grove of conifers.

We took the safer path, but a tiny part of me wanted to try the hard one -- for the challenge, the sheer exhileration you get from taking your life in your hands. And it made me remember Devil's Lake in Wisconsin.

Almost seven years ago, on our eldest daughter's tenth birthday, I decided to swim across Devil's Lake. We were traveling across the States at the time, stopping to visit friends and relatives, and on our daughter's birthday we happened to be in Wisconsin visiting my best friend from fourth grade.

For those of you who haven't had the privilege of experiencing long-distance car travel with children, let me assure you that while it has its moments, some of them last a little too long. By the time we hit Wisconsin, my stress levels were elevated and I desperately needed to let off steam. As we ate our picnic by the side of the lake, I sized it up. It looked to be about a mile across, and as I have swum several miles in one go, I knew I could easily swim across, then swim back.

"Anyone want to swim across?" I asked a good hour after our picnic finished.

Nobody did.

I tested the water, and it was a little chilly, but I knew that was no problem. For a long distance swim, cold water is what you're after; warm water will make you overheat in no time.

"Well, I'm going to give it a go." My friends had seen swimmers in the lake before; they knew it was safe. It was the middle of May, and no one else was swimming in it, but the sight of that expanse of glittering water was too much for me: I had to try it.

I stripped down to my swimsuit and put my goggles around my neck. "Okay -- see you all later!"

God, the water was cold. I swam for about ten minutes, watching as my friends and family on the shore grew more and more distant. Then I saw my husband wade into the lake and swim after me. "If you're determined to do this, I might as well do it with you."

We swam side by side. It was a beautifully warm day with starched popcorn clouds in a pale blue sky, but by the time we got to the middle of the lake, I had made a discovery: the water was the temperature of newly melted ice and I could not feel my feet.

"Can you feel your feet?" I called out to my husband.

"No," he shouted. "Because it's f***ing cold!"

"Just keep swimming, I guess," I managed.


And so we did. Our friends and children were specks on the distant shore; we could no longer even tell if they were waving. We swam and we swam and we swam, and when I looked ahead, I could not see that the opposite shore was growing any closer.

In retrospect, it could not have taken us over two hours to get across -- possibly it was less. But in my mind's eye, I am swimming there even now. At one point, I thought that we would never reach the other side. My arms and legs, vainly struggling against the water, seemed not to propel me forward. I kept my eyes on my husband, who like me was working hard to keep up a steady, sustainable pace, and I had the horrible thought that we would both die, on our daughter's tenth birthday, frozen in the middle of a Wisconsin lake because of my foolishness.

And then to my amazement, the opposite shore grew closer, and as it did, the water grew shallower and warmer until we could see rocks and algae underneath. Our feet found the rocky bottom and clumsily we began to wade to the shore. I felt remarkably uncoordinated and confused; later I realized that this was because of hypothermia.

A man on the shore watched us in amazement as we stumbled towards him. "Where did you come from?" he asked.

We pointed across the lake and his jaw dropped. "Not from over there?" he enquired, pointing to the adjoining beach. We shook our heads.

"There were people out there in wet suits yesterday," he told us. "The lake only just thawed last week."

Jesus, Joseph and Mary, we'd had no idea.

The man drove us back to the other side in his SUV. I feebly suggested that we could swim back after a rest, but my husband wisely nixed this.

"So where are you guys from?" the man asked us.

"Well, I'm from California."

There was a long, pregnant silence during which I distinctly heard his eyes roll. I'm willing to bet that this story has made the rounds in Wisconsin, so if you're from there and you happen to have heard about this, we're the idiots who swam across Devil's Lake the day after it thawed.

There's a lesson in this of course. Life is all about risk. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't swim across Devil's Lake in the middle of May. But not every experience in life can be vetted, approached cautiously, then rejected for its potential danger. Sometimes you're going to just jump right in and give it a go -- and find yourself wishing with all your heart that you'd let discretion be the better part of valor.

But you can't give up; you really can't. You might just make it to the other side.



Kim Ayres said...

When you no longer take risks, you're just waiting for the day you die.

debra said...

What a great story, Mary. Sometimes life presents us with lakes and we have to keep swimming to the other side.

kathie said...

Mary, this is so great. I'm laughing, crying. I can just imagine the guy's thoughts...just melted last week? That's incredible. I grew up swimming and I hated swimming in cold water more than anything. Not good when the first half of summer swimming in PA is always a frigid affair. But I know what you mean. Maybe we can meet for a swim sometime. Though lets be sure the thaw's at least a few weeks old. Oh, yeah, my family drove across country twice when I was a kid. There is nothing like it--both good and bad stuff. I'm sure you can imagine that my parents' hoarding habits figure into the trips somehow...I'll just let you imagine how.

Cindy said...

I wouldn't have been tempted to swim, but I've made my share of questionable choices like this. I commend you!

There was an article in a recent New Yorker (4/21/2008) that you'll want to see. Apparently it's possible to swim in extreme cold -- you may be pleased to know you're not alone. Here's a link to the abstract: "A Dip in the Cold."

Charles Gramlich said...

I'll almost always take the path less traveled, but I'm not swimming a lake in May anywhere.

Carole said...

I will admit to the desperate need to hear the moral of the story.

But I just want to say, YOU LOSE. I couldn't swim across a five foot kiddie pool. You are not the most unathletic of the two of us.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I agree, though nowadays I confine my risks to biting off the bottom of my ice cream cones and planting out my sweet peas before all danger of a frost is past. Catch me sitting around waiting for the day I die!

Debra -- That's what it feels like just now with moody teenagers around. I have to remind myself that the other side may well be there; that I may even start to enjoy the swim more often than not at some point. But you've already done this, so you know better than I!

Kathie -- We felt like such fools. In fact I was the one who really felt idiotic; my good man kept wondering if the water only felt warm around the edges, but I scorned his cautious approach.

Now I'm trying to picture your car on a cross-continental trip. Oodles of camping equipment? An extra cooking stove? Two spare sleeping bags and half a dozen flashlights? Your parents fascinate me as much as my own!

Cindy -- I used to entertain ideas about joining a group of women who swam to Alcatraz from San Francisco every year. I was invited to go with them by a fellow swimmer, but it was finally the thought of biting seals that put me off. And that water is COLD! In Japan, every winter a group of mainly old men go swimming in icy water. No way in God's green earth am I going to do that, but I'm grateful for that New Yorker article all the same!

Charles -- Someone else with more sense than I have. Welcome to the club -- it's got a hugh membership!

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- (Great minds think alike: you and I were writing at the exact same time!)

When it comes to swimming, I have to admit it: I may not be one of the best, but I am no slouch. And when it comes to long-distance swimming, I've only met a few people who can go on longer than I can. This doesn't have much to do with my athletic ability; most people just get bored and get out of the water.

However, remember: You have managed a homerun! I could sooner fly to the moon on a vacuum cleaner than run a homerun.

Monique said...

What an adventure. You could have died there.

Danette Haworth said...

Another wonderful post! Good job, Mary.

The Anti-Wife said...

I thought swimming a mile a day in a pool during grad school was great. You make me look like a real piker. And your daughter is lucky she's not an orphan.

Kara said...

this is why the middle states suck.

yep. i said it.

Mary Witzl said...

Monique -- We were keenly aware of that. It made us all the more determined to keep a steady, even pace and try not to panic.

Danette -- Thanks, but I don't come out looking too smart in this, do I? Posting this almost took more guts than the swim.

Anti-wife -- Ah, but you haven't seen HOW I swim! My husband tells me I don't look as graceful as I feel. I hope no one ever videos me swimming. I don't want to know the truth.

Kara -- But Wisconsin is so beautiful! Now Kansas on the other hand -- I'll never forget crossing Kansas in the summer. It doesn't seem fair that a place that cold in the winter could be that hot in the summer.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Calculating the risks we confront in our lives, challenging ourselves, gives us a sense of accomplishment which is important for our survival and growth.

Choosing which risks we decide to take on is one of the aspects that differentiates us from others. I, for one, would NEVER have chosen to attempt such a swim. Yet many others would not have done what I have - launch myself out of an airplane from 12,000 feet... repeatedly.

Attempting (and surviving) the risks we take makes us the unique individuals we are. And all of us love to hear those stories!

Ello said...

Wow Mary! You are ballsy! There is no way I would have made it even halfway, I hate being cold! You are such a trooper!

susie said...

too funny. I'm actually from Madison, which is about an hour away from d.lake! I'll think of you this summer as we're camping there....in August when the water's warm :)

Angela said...

*shivers* Scar-y. And I'm totally impressed. I mean, being from Califoria, you'd think that if anything, the waters would seem impossibly frigid, not a little 'chilly.'

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- Wow, sky-diving!

My sister, being terrified of heights, decided that she would try sky-diving. She jumped several times, finally quitting when she hit the ground too hard and broke her ankle. By that time she felt that she had conquered her fear.

Oddly, I am not afraid of heights and am fine with flying, but I do not want to jump from a plane. I am a weenie about my ankles! But I too love hearing others' stories of derring-do.

Ello -- I hate being cold too -- I really do! My husband went hiking up in the Highlands in the dead of winter and almost froze to death. I would have DIED. I have terrible circulation and cannot take extreme cold. But swimming is different: you get really warm, and cold water feels quite refreshing. Ice water, however, is a different matter. We're lucky we lived to tell the tale.

Susie -- My friend lives in Madison too, and we drove out to Devil's Lake that day. She and her husband had an idea that it was a little early to swim in the lake, but they were completely unaware that it had just thawed.

Madison is just beautiful. It is one of our favorite cities and you are lucky to live there! (Especially now that winter is over...)

Angela -- I might have had more of a clue if I were from Northern California. Along the edge, the water was only a little chilly. I knew that once I started swimming, the temperature would be fine. What I didn't realize was that the temperature in the middle would be icy. Boy, did I feel like a jack-ass when I found out...

Donna said...

The story was absolutely wonderful!! Perhaps Not to you two poor swimmers!!! Thanks for visiting my blog! I'll be back for more!lol...night!!hugs

marshymallow said...

Wow. Being responsible for a two-ton killing machine (a.k.a. and automobile) is enough for me. Although i've done some rather...ummm... is "unpremeditated" a word? i like it better than "thoughtless." Anyway, some things involving horses and fences, so i expect i'm not one to talk. It's just the risks you're most comfortable with, i guess.

That doesn't make any sense, does it?

Carolie said...

What a great story, Mary! And wow...swimming miles, plural. I'm so impressed! I was a Junior Olympic swimmer as a kid, and swimming a mile was a long undertaking. Swimming more than one mile, in dark, cold water...well, I'm in awe. (Not as much at the cold as at the distance, and at the scariness of dark water. Can you tell I have a phobia?)

I really love where you went with the story. It wasn't just the narrative of your adventure that got to me as it was the conclusions you drew from the experience. Hee hee...I bet the lesson is especially meaningful now, while dealing with a headstrong teenager and thinking back to the leap of faith and risk choices parents take when they decide to be parents. I have faith that you and she will make it to the other side. Just keep swimming!

p.s. -- Hi to Susie, my cousin in Madison, who commented above!

Katie Alender said...

I'll file this away and use it for a future incident of paranoia!

Mary Witzl said...

Donna -- Thank you! Actually, once we had gotten across, we were okay, and we enjoyed telling this story and impressing everyone with our idiocy.

I still can't get over the fact that Willy Nelson is 75. It just doesn't seem right...

Marshymallow -- You're right: driving and show-jumping are plenty scary. I only just learned to drive after a lifetime of cycling, walking and public transport. I still resent having to use the car, but I was pretty proud to pass my road test. Horses, however, are just for looking at as far as I'm concerned. I'm impressed that you can show jump!

Carolie -- The only sport I can engage in with any sort of aptitude is swimming, and the truth is that I'm not all that great. As a junior Olympic swimmer, I'm betting you swam FAST and WELL. I do okay, but I am not a slick swimmer; I see myself as the tortoise rather than a hare. I pace myself and thus can keep on for a good distance.

As for dark water, it scares the heck out of me. I did my best not to think about it in Devil's Lake and I told myself that there were no sharks there. The man who gave us the ride back did tell us that there were biting fish, but I want to think he was just teasing us. Maybe Susie can find out for me this summer! My husband found that the most terrifying -- the thought of fish coming and snacking on us as we swam.

And yes, raising teenagers is a lot like swimming that lake was. Tough going, hard to see what progress we were making, and a lot easier to do with two people...

Katie -- But we got to the other side! It wasn't that bad, really. Are you afraid of dark water too?

-eve- said...

Wow. Another good story.... You must be so fit...! Both of you had so much perseverance, to have to keep on swimming on .... I'd have been wondering if it were further to go on, or go back ;-)

Phil said...

A good read. Taking risks is all about living. Kim's right:when you no longer take risks, you're just waiting to die.