A Morning Swim

text and photos by Jessica Stammen

It is six o’clock on Saturday, July 31st and six swimmers – accompanied by one kayak, one canoe, one paddleboard, and one dog named Trapper – touch toes to water at the start of a six mile journey.  From the boat launch at Norton’s Pond in Lincolnville we will travel through The Narrow’s into Megunticook Lake.  Following Fernald’s Neck to its end we will cross the lake’s southern-most waters into Barrett’s Cove in Camden.  The sun is just rising.  The water, warmer than the air, is blanketed by sea smoke.  Such beauty is almost a sin to disturb; but as the boats shove off they are welcomed by nature’s grace.  Trapper is calm and quiet.

“Swimming: it’s almost like sleeping,” I suggest.  The group laughs quietly; it is an ellipses to the hilarity erupting from our nervous anticipation during the car ride over.  Piled into one car, we turned up the Wood Brothers and exclaimed how ridiculous we’d look if we were pulled over.  We were stacked on each other’s laps, the stickiness of our wetsuits making minor adjustments for comfort impossible.  “Where you headed?” the officer would be forced to ask our amorphous mass of black neoprene.  Six faces difficult to distinguish beyond swim cap color would respond in unison: “To swim six miles!”

Brendan admitted he was in the car only because he thought this was a set up, a sick joke. He, the strongest swimmer among us, asked, “Who swims six miles?”

“Swimming: it’s almost like sleeping.”  Probably not the punch line Brendan hoped for.  It was, however, the mantra a few friends and I invented four years earlier when I first learned to swim in open waters.  It motivated our early morning plunges because, honestly, none of us were morning people – especially not hey-let’s-go-jump-in-cold-water morning people.  But at six o’clock boat traffic was rare and surface conditions glassy; we had to convince ourselves that an easy, measured stroke would induce a contemplative state as if still lying in bed.  Sure.  By the time we realized it was wet and not warm tucked over our heads it was too late.  Eventually the body would generate heat as it worked, the mind would clear, and the day would begin.  And this is what got us in the water.

Though one can certainly enter into a meditative zone, swimming is surely nothing like sleeping – and this is what keeps me in the water.  This is why I am here, now, pronouncing a benediction as we gently begin to trace our fingertips over the surface of the pond.  Swimming six miles is an intense and intimate way to know a place; and knowing is not dreaming.  I am here now.  I am fully awake. I breath over my right shoulder.  Look at the sun breaching the tree line. Three strokes and I breath over my left.  Oh the moon is still out!  Amazing. Stroke, stroke, stroke.  Smoke dissolving.  The silhouette of Shannon’s shoulder is gliding by. Stroke, stroke, stroke. Cabin windows catching sunlight.  What a morning …

Stroke by stroke my body travels the watery landscape and feels it flow by.  Between the sharp glints of breath and light there are the muffled depths that facilitate travel inwards.  I remember Throreau who wrote of “lakes of light in which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”  In my mind’s eye I see myself as if from the top of Maiden’s Cliff where I have stood overlooking this pond and lake thinking, I know this place, the entire length and the breadth of it. I measure nature by my self, traversing it with my body; but nature also measures me.  This place, this body of water, surrounds me now.  It knows me.

My thoughts are suddenly interrupted by voices and bright spots of color.  Caps converge – orange, hot pink, lime green and blue swirl – between the hunter and red hulls of the boats that hem us in on either side, front and back.  After just fifteen minutes our group has stopped to congratulate itself on the first.  Half.  Mile!  Laughter erupts again.  “Shhhh!  Shh!”  The lake effect surely sends our excitement into the ear of every summer sleeper on Norton’s Pond, word-for-word.

Just look!  Smiles and dawn shine on the water’s surface.  The crisp cloudless blue of summer in Maine surrounds us.  This is where we live.  This is what we get to do.  How could we not swim six miles?  Our kayaker, Helen, wishes she could jump in and join.

With five and a half miles yet to go Mish suggests we keep moving.  Good idea.  Our paddle boarder Kea is like a statue walking the way on the water before us.  We put our heads down and use her to sight as we swim towards the back of the pond and into The Narrows.  My thoughts drift back to the depths.  My breath bubbles out in a slow, measured hum and then quickly catches itself again as I tilt up under the crook of my elbow.  Out, in.  Out, in.  Smooth, sharp.  Muffled, clear.  This is also the pattern of individual contemplation punctuated by chatty cacophony that continues throughout the rest of the swim.  We seem to stop every half-mile.

Quiet.  And then a loon attack that, from Drew’s retelling, was quite the sight to behold.  The great bird reared onto its hind legs and danced across the water at Kathy and I who had veered well off to the left of our swim group and into the loon’s family territory.  We were completely oblivious, our heads underwater.  We hear it was a close call.

Once again quiet.  We reach the top of Fernald’s Neck, now three miles in.  Stopped in the sun we break out the hot tea, hot cocoa and coffee.  Shannon passes around the “chunks of energy” she provisioned at the co-op.  Long distance swimmers burn an absurd amount of calories.  Helen brilliantly tied two glittery inner tubes to tug behind her kayak – “rest stops.”  Kathy crawls up on one to stretch her back.  Shannon takes a turn on Kea’s paddleboard to stretch her calves.  We are slightly less chatty.  We take care of business so we can keep moving.  The swim is starting to feel long, though not at all burdensome.

Traveling down the long neck of preserved land there is one sweep of cove after another.  No cabins, no docks.  Just the deep and ruddy backlit cliffs, crags and tree tops.  I swear I can identify all the major pine branches along this stretch.  The sun continues to rise higher and soon I am swimming in and out of bright flashes.  Am I being massaged or assaulted by the light?

Cheryl paddles to shore a few times to let Trapper off for a pee break, but then both boats pull over with their ballast of water bottles, bananas and blueberries.  It’s time for our last break before the final push.  Sitting on a warm rock we plan our final crossing into Barrett’s Cove.  I am the slowest in the pack but now I will have to swim strong; we must stay close as we head away from one shore and towards another.  It’s about nine o’clock.  More boats and a bit of breeze have created some chop on the surface.  We continue to marvel at the morning, now with a twinge of melancholy.

Six miles is the marathon of swimming and by the time we finish our trek it will have taken us four hours and our skin will seem permanently raisined.  Yet measured against the geologic time it took for glaciers to retreat and carve the fingers of land that formed this place … Measured even against the length of one Maine summer, a season that seems so short … Four hours is a blink, a splash, a quick breath in.  Measured against ourselves we are amazed.  None of us are super swimmers.  Most of us see each other in the slow lanes at the pool in the winter, and occasionally for short morning swims in the summer.  Like a dream we can hardly remember how we got here, what possessed us to do such a thing.  And yet here we are, wide awake, diving off the rocky spit and back into the water.

We love this lake.  We love where we live.  And we could swim all day.  Maybe we will …