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The water also poses risks. One afternoon at Punta Rosarito, after watching sea otters frolic outside the breakers, I swam lazily back to shore. When I reached the shallows, I stood up and walked. I didn't go far before I felt something knifelike drive into the bottom of my right foot, then just as quickly rip out. I'd stepped on the spine of a stingray that had been resting on the bottom. An uncommon mishap. Also a painful one, and something I knew nothing about. Fortunately, we'd befriended a couple, Alfredo and Maria, who owned a café in nearby Rosarito. The kids, alarmed by the trail of blood I'd left behind on the beach, scrambled into the back of the VW while I jumped into the passenger seat. My girlfriend then drove us into town, where Maria added salt and coffee to a pot of water she brought to a boil. Alfredo dipped a compress into the water, then applied it to the puncture, repeating the procedure again and again, slowly drawing out the venom. Ever the thoughtful host, he also produced a bottle of tequila, which we passed back and forth. The pain soon subsided.
The stingray episode was a much-needed reminder that unarmed and unarmored human beings are among the most vulnerable creatures in the marine environment. The rapture of immersion offers no protection against the sea's random cruelty. Cultivating an awareness of the various possible hazards certainly is prudent. And, even better, it heightens the experience, though it can also induce panic, which is the gateway to paralysis—and worse. So far, I've been fortunate. I've collided with jellyfish, but only the non-stinging and mildly stinging kinds. I've been brushed by harbor seals and found myself in the middle of pelican feeding frenzies, but I've never been head-butted or bitten by a sea lion. Currents have driven me off-course, testing both my composure and my endurance, but I've never been dragged far from shore by a riptide. The more I swim, to be sure, and the more I investigate new swimming locales, the greater the likelihood that something unwanted will happen. But unpredictability—the possibility of encountering ill-tempered predators, perhaps, or the more common vagaries of abrupt changes in temperature, weather and other conditions—is precisely what makes the sea wild. Lakes are tamer, pools tamer still. In a bathtub, one is master of the universe. But a universe in which I'm master holds little appeal.
Several years ago, I was staying with a friend in a small town on the southeast shore of Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound. Each morning, before sunup, I walked from her house down to the harbor, then stripped to my suit and swam. It was mid-October. The air was brisk, the water cold, maybe 57, 58, but tranquil, and gin-clear. On the second day, still a few blocks from the Sound, I heard a soft but distinct whooshing sound, then another, like blasts of water from a nozzle.
When I reached the beach, I could scarcely believe my luck: Only a couple hundred yards away, three gray whales were quietly surfacing, exhaling, then diving again, their bowed backs glistening in the early light. To say I swam with those magnificent creatures would be an exaggeration. But for an hour or so I was never far from them, and they lingered in that spot. Afterward I learned why: They were feeding on shrimp that inhabit the sandy bottom there. Evidently, gray whales, migrating south to Baja, frequently detour into Puget Sound. All I knew at the time, however, was that I'd been granted a glimpse of the marvelous—three whales briefly revealing themselves while, in the distance, under a cloudless sky, the sun rose over the snowbound peaks of the Northern Cascades. I've enjoyed many solitary daybreak swims but none as moving as this one. Completely at the mercy of the sea, I experienced the going in its most exulting form, a condition Dickinson called divine intoxication.
I don't expect every swim to induce intoxication, but having experienced it, not only on this occasion but several others, has made open water all the more alluring. I plan trips according to swimming prospects, the wilder, the better. On a recent drive from San Diego to Montana, I added several new locations to my Western waters chart, including Panguitch Lake, in the mountains of south-central Utah, and Bear Lake, straddling the Utah-Idaho border, both of which I'd visit again, given the chance. Last summer, while I was on a month-long assignment in Bristol Bay, Alaska, streams were prominent. The most entertaining was the Naknek River, which winds from Naknek Lake, inside Katmai National Park, toward King Salmon. Within minutes of my having entered the water, a brown bear—the Alaskan euphemism for grizzly—ambled out of the woods and stood up, peering in my direction. Then, more disturbingly, when I turned and headed back to where my truck was parked, the bear shadowed me on the beach, though in a haphazard way, finally pursuing something it spied on the bank. The next day I found another stretch of the Naknek, inside the park, where the only animals to be seen were sockeye salmon migrating upstream to spawn. I swam with them, against the current.
In recent years I've also participated in organized open-water swims, including some masters competitions, but mostly events sponsored by the South End Rowing Club, one of two 140-year-old aquatic institutions (the other being the Dolphin Club) that share a building at Aquatic Park. But organized doesn't mean tame, especially at South End, where I'm a member. We select days and times when the tides are favorable. We rent boats to ferry us to distant jumping-off points. And we arrange for kayak and Zodiac escorts. But the purpose of the additional support, apart from reducing needless risk, is to make it possible to experience the wildest parts of San Francisco Bay—swimming from the waterfront, say, out to Alcatraz, around the rear of the island, then back to shore; or from the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge to the north; or from Point Bonita Lighthouse, the westernmost spot on the Marin Headlands, on the ocean side of the bridge, back to Aquatic Park. The longing to swim ever farther out remains, an instinctive response that I neither control nor fully comprehend. Even more intense, especially now that I'm 60, is the desire to continue swimming—swimming robustly—for all of my remaining days. In August, I, along with a couple dozen other swimmers, will attempt to circumnavigate Pennock Island, located in the Tongass Narrows off Ketchikan, Alaska. An 8.2-mile circuit. Water temperature in the high 50s, low 60s. Aqua incognita. Yet another opportunity to surrender to the sea.
Edwin Dobb teaches narrative writing in the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is the co-writer and co-producer of the documentary film Butte, America. He's also a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.
This article originally appeared in High Country News.