Sometime during the pandemic, 2020
My Hundred Acre Wood: An Underwater Experiment
In April, after a month without swimming, I was feeling desperate for an outdoor adventure and some exercise. Like so many others, I’d lost access to the things that brought me joy and sanity.
Mountain biking or hiking on narrow trails didn’t seem wise, the pools were closed, the mountain reservoir would not thaw out for several months. So, on a whim, I decided to head out to the Great Salt Lake State Park Marina to attempt to swim in the cool 52 degree Salty Lake.
Written and recounted by our Wottermen Ambassadors, Seth Horowitz, open water swimmer, deep thinker and one of the Friends of The Salt Lake
Although I have lived here 30+ years I have spent very little time in, on or near the lake and had no idea what I was missing. Over those 30 years I have spent a lot of time exploring the natural places in Utah. The mountains and desert of Utah have captured my attention while the Great Salt Lake rarely even registered except for perhaps an occasional glance of a beautiful sunset far away in the distance.
What started as a pandemic whim, has turned into an obsession. Most weekdays you can find me and my swim partner walking down the marina boat ramp and diving into the Salty Lake at around 6:30 AM.
“When the north wind blows bathing in Salt Lake is a glorious baptism, for then it is all wildly awake with waves, blooming like a prairie in snowy crystal foam. Plunging confidently into the midst of the grand uproar you are hugged and welcomed and swim without effort, rocking and whirling up and down and round in delightful rhythm while the wind sings in chorus and the cool, fragrant brine searches every fibre of your body, and at the end of your excursion you are tossed ashore with a glad God-speed, braced and salted and clean as a saint.”
~John Muir June 27,1877
Hundred acre wood
My “Hundred Acre wood” My perspective and experience swimming this Spring and Summer has been transformative. Each morning when I enter the Great Salt Lake State Park I leave behind one world for a new world. I feel like Christopher Robin when he traveled through a magic portal to the Hundred Acre Wood, an amazing world filled with new friends, discoveries and realizations about life. How is it that I could have missed it for the first 30 years I have lived in this beautiful state? The world I enter has magical sunrises, and an incredible, underappreciated ecosystem.
I usually arrive in the dark a little groggy and still sipping my warm coffee. With the morning chill in the air I might exchange a few words with my swim partners and capture a quick photo of the morning sky, put on my cap and goggles, and make initial observations about the conditions as I look at the flagpole and walk down the boat ramp. I quickly enter the water where the cold water shocks me awake into a sense of heightened awareness. After the initial shock I am enveloped by water. I slowly acclimatize to the cool water and shockingly strong salinity as I begin my stroke and settle into a rhythm as I exit the marina. After exiting the marina, I swim to the first red buoy and pause to effortlessly float and take in the exquisite sunrise and morning light. A few inches above lake level, my eyes fight the glare of the rising sun, as I sight on the deep buoy line to the east towards Saltair. As I turn the corner to head out the channel towards Antelope Island, I start to realize the vastness of this Great Salt Lake and the surrounding mountain landscape. With few boats, no recreational fishing and limited mass appeal the lake can be a place of great solitude. On some early mornings it is amazing to think that my swimming partner and I might be the only humans out in this massive body of water. Gone are the popular lakeside resort of Saltair and Blackrock Beach of the last century. In contrast, the reservoirs in the nearby mountains often feel like Disneyland and are being loved to death by recreationalists hoping to escape reality on these relative pea size man made bodies of water.
The lake itself seems to have emotions and moods; one day it is calm and so glassy you could seemingly cut it with a diamond the next day a wind from the North may create angry seas with winds and waves and currents as large as a stormy ocean. I have observed a unique characteristic that I can only describe as heavy and dense water. This “density” combined with the Lakes size and shallow depth contribute to unique wave energy quite different from those I have experienced swimming in other bodies of water. The duration, direction and speed of the wind all contribute to these GSL “moods”.
As my body churns along the surface of the lake, I casually observe the vibrancy of the ecosystem through the lense of my goggles. I have observed the cycles of the Brine Shrimp; unobscured clear waters one week followed by slicks of orange egg the next week. Shortly after, the great number of tiny sea creatures obscure the water clarity and view of the lake bed. In the peak of summer incomprehensible numbers of brine flies feed off the nutrient rich algae and can form clouds so thick it is hard for the swimmer to avoid inhaling them. Although a great annoyance to us swimmers, it is clear these brine flies provide an endless source of food to the many birds which delight in the morning light and breeze. As we swim further out in the lake mirage-like flocks of seagulls appear bobbing on the water or playfully flying above the lake’s surface. Between April and September, I have observed a rather dramatic drop in the water level. As the lake level drops, a favorite offshore swim route that deviates off the deep water boat channel became unswimmable when my stroke was impeded by the shallow reef. I have observed so many things in the 70+ days I have immersed myself in the lake this year. Each and every one of those observations have been a gift.
Distance OpenWater swimmers often talk of having a lot of time inside their heads. As I enter into a meditative state during my swims; my mind wanders across thoughts from mundane to profound. My mind escapes reality, but also finds great clarity and creative inspiration as I glide through this vast Salty Lake. In this meditative state I came to realize that connecting with the Great Salt Lake in such an intimate and whole way is implicitly tied to my earlier experiences when I was coming of age in Upstate New York. While churning through the Lake, especially when the water is cold and when the waves are big, my mind often wanders to memories of my dad jumping into streams, river lakes, and the ocean no matter how cold or rough. While swimming my mind also wanders to my teenage years when I spent time volunteering with a sloop club that took people out sailing on another underappreciated body of water, the Hudson River. Much like the Great Salt Lake, the Hudson River of my youth in the 70s and 80s was underappreciated and suffered from major human caused ecological duress. Although a beautiful natural and wild estuary it suffered from a lack of stewardship much like the Great Salt Lake.