Winter Backcountry Hike-in Swimming: When experience is in deficit, make smart decisions and learn

Swim flop. That pretty much sums up my most recent adventure into the mountains. However, things are not always as they seem. While I (cough, cough), didn’t swim on this trip, I learned a ton about my solo comfort level in the backcountry mountain snow in search of a winter swimming paradise, the reality of winter swimming in the mountains, and that meeting interesting people is something I’ll never take for granted.

Cooper Lake

Started out with a plan to go to Cooper Lake, turns out the snow East of the pass was much more than West. I haven’t driven my current vehicle through a winter yet, wasn’t sure how the Tangerine Submarine behaved in the snow, so got to a point I didn’t feel comfortable and pulled over in the next mountain turnaround. The hike to the lake was 2 miles + the swim and since I didn’t leave early enough, maybe had a couple detours along the way, risked not making back before dark. I figured hiking back alone with wet hair in 26 degrees, two miles in the dark in an area I wasn’t familiar, with the potential for weather most coming in overnight, and no cell service was not a sharpest tool in the shed idea. So I sat, pulled out my paper map, turned around and went to happily explore nearby Salmon La Sac River. Swim attempt 1 – fail.

Cle Elum Lake

After a good hour on the river, I decided I’d go to Cle Elum Lake to swim. I knew the water level was low as I already explored the North end of the lake on a short detour up to Cooper Lake, but figured the South end would have somewhere to get in. I ended up at a boat launch, walked down to the lake and grossed out. Nasty mud, water was not something that looked like a good swimming time, so I opted out. I knew it was a reservoir and there’s not much water that grosses me out (I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve swam through sewage at Alki), but this took the cake. I was also concerned with the instability of the earth below the reservoir, if I swam would I sink? Would I be able to get out? Not anything I wanted to know about, so I opted to go back to my paper map. Swim attempt 2 – fail.

Lake Easton

I’ve wanted to swim here all summer! Looking the map, I couldn’t really find anything interesting so I stopped in at Keg Cellar Tavern [“Keg” sounds like a good name with reasonable people :o) ] to ask some of the locals if there were spots around I didn’t know about. After a moment of awkward silence and being given the “you’re crazy” look, they reaffirmed there was nothing, so Lake Eason it was. So excited to finally get there, a beautiful drive through the park, and what did I find…. NO WATER!!! Maybe lots of other people already knew this, but I’m new to the whole mountain lakes/reservoir thing and had no idea the water level dropped so much. It’s rising in Lake Samm so I just assumed there would be water. I decided to explore a little because the bottom of lakes exposed are still pretty cool. I saw the swim lines still out on the sand, the buoy chained to the bottom lying like a ghost town, saw lots of tracks, and remnants of the lake in streams. After about 30 minutes of exploration, back to my car and the map. Swim attempt 3 – fail.

Gold Creek Pond

It was nearly 3:00pm and by this time I knew swimming was not going to be in my future, so I decided to drive over to Gold Creek Pond. The pictures I saw earlier this year made it look absolutely beautiful, but no swimming or fishing allowed, which is unfortunate because this is basically a cold water swimmer’s paradise. The water is super clear, a beautiful aqua green hue, an island in the middle, mountains in the background and lots of wildlife. Perfect except for the fact it is an old gravel pit, which poses a huge hazard for unstable bottoms creating sudden sink holes and trace toxins left over from the gravel mining days. The trail is short around the lake and paved, so I thought it would just be a good ole leg stretch type of stroll.

When I got there, it was absolutely beautiful, gorgeous, stunning, but not what I was looking for with regards to relaxation. It was photo shoot galore, high school senior photos, college student photos, engagement photos, baby photos, kids and dogs running everywhere, women in high heels…. It was just too much. My intent of a nice relaxing stroll was overshadowed by the crowds and eye raising antics of the photographers trying to get a good shot. People were picking limbs off trees for wreaths, letting their dogs poop on the path not cleaning up after them, leaving the poop bags on the trail, leaving pop bottles, leftover food, it was unfortunate. I like to think of myself as a steward of the forest, sea, animals and nature. It was really heartbreaking to see such a beautiful place trashed by people wanting a good photo. While it’s not the pack-in/pack-out type place, you should still aim for that or throw your stuff in the trash can. Relaxing sunset stroll – fail.

What I Learned – Making smart choices when your experience is in deficit

Though on the surface it seemed like a failed trip, I woke up this morning and one of the first things I thought was that I’m warm in my covers and this morning could have been very different had I not made smart, calculated choices yesterday.

My experience as a swimmer allows me to make choices about the water. Whether it’s the temperature I’m swimming in, the time in the water, or conditions that may seem risky to others, my experience is at the forefront of every decision I make. I know myself, I’ve practiced, and I’ve built a base of experience that allows those relative high risk situations to rank differently on the risk scale for me. I also know what to do when I get in trouble and how to approach the situation and am very aware there are always things you can’t plan for. Because of my experience base, I can afford to be less risk adverse than someone with less experience per say.

Take climbing for example, at which I have very little knowledge. Climbing without ropes is inherently dangerous, but to the experienced climber, the risk of ultimately falling to your death is lower than someone new to climbing such as myself. Granted it could happen, but the repetitions of routes, knowledge of conditions, practice runs with ropes, etc, allows the experienced climber to make an educated, calculated decision on what the level of risk is for him or her compared to their experience.

For me, I’m still new to hiking, solo backcountry hike-in swimventuring, and definitely mountain snow (what can I say, Michigan doesn’t exactly have mountains). I knew that I could not afford to make risky choices and for that I am thankful. My knowledge deficit offset my desire to go to Cooper Lake and being risk adverse in this situation was the right call. What I did learn was where my comfort level hiking solo in the backcountry, specifically in the snow, is at this point in time and now I can use that as a baseline moving forward. I urge anyone trying something new to really think about and assess their experience level to allowable risk tolerance and if you aren’t comfortable, stop, think and reassess. There’s no shame in changing course. Adventure lesson learned number 1 – success.

What I Learned – Reality of winter swimming in the mountains

This may have been a no brainer to people familiar with the mountains, hiking, winter activities and probably a majority of the general population, but to an optimistic newbie that can’t wait to learn as much as she can about backcountry hike-in swimming, I was bound and determined to find something! I mean not all the water can be frozen (it probably is). Not all the reservoirs and lakes can be dry (they probably are). The lakes can’t all be inaccessible for day hikes (news flash….) Herein lies the reality of winter swimming in the mountains, it may not be possible (gulp). It was only my first winter trip, but I learned even though you wish, hope and believe, sometimes your plan isn’t going to work, you accept it, move forward and then find something else fun to do. 

Though I couldn’t swim, I got one heck of a reality check, regrouped and had an awesome time exploring Salmon La Sac River, some offshoot trails, the dried up lake beds, re-emphasizing the continuing need to educate people about the environment, and how we treat the land around us. I also forgot how much I love the winter, love the snow, and learned 26 degrees isn’t really that bad! I got to explore some great campgrounds on the way back and drive through them at my own pace since they were all vacant to see where I want to camp next year. Overall, I had fun, I explored new places, and I gained perspective. Adventure lesson learned number 2 – success.

What I learned – It takes all types

I really and I mean REALLY wanted to enjoy my time at Gold Creek Pond. Especially since it’s a critical habitat conservation area, I had the perception it was a place for all to enjoy and respect nature. After walking the trail through photographer central, honestly the more I walked, the more disappointed I became. I totally get why people choose to take their pictures there, is gorgeous, and who knows, maybe if I were in their situation I would too, but where I’m at in my life I saw what was occurring through a different lens.

Then I met this couple, Shoko and Scott. I was nearing the end of my stroll when they offered to take my picture and I take theirs. I’m always a little cautious about meeting people in the mountains, especially when I’m alone, but considering everyone, their mother, brother and photographer was there, it seemed fine. They had a beautiful dog, Mowgli, too (some sort of pit mix) and who can resist a cute pooch?! We started chatting and turns out they live across the way and spend almost all their time hiking in the mountains. We talked about Scott’s time in the Navy and Shoko’s swimming with her fins, we had a fantastic conversation. We exchanged numbers and I hope to see them again one day. They mentioned they don’t meet too many interesting people at that park (not to blame them, I can understand why, but I’m totally taking my nephew there when he comes to visit) and I thought they were interesting too, so it was a really great way to end the trip. In meeting them, I learned that being open to people and taking genuine interest can make anything enjoyable. Adventure lesson learned number 3 – success.

The Wander Continues

I’m fortunate to be comfortable enough to explore solo, have the knowledge and restraint to challenge my own comfort level, view risk aversion with perspective, and to be open to meeting and enjoying people I come across on the journey. With each adventure, I find it more and more true that things aren’t always what they seem. What may appear to be a flop could exactly be where your mind was meant to be. Each time I go into the wilderness, I learn. Each time I’m tested and faced with a something I may not be ready for. Each time I venture out alone, I make a new relationship with someone on the trail. In the end, each time I venture into the wilderness, my faith grows in that wandering without direction has lead my soul to the right place.

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