Swimming Alaska: Adventure, Excitement, Vulnerability, and Solitude in Nature

It’s hard to express how much I enjoyed the Change Your Latitude – 57˚ N Challenge, one of the northernmost open water swims. The swim itself, a combined 10k/6k/3k/1k open water swim located in beautiful Sitka, Alaska and organized by  Baranof Barracuda Swim Club, is fantastic in itself because of how inclusive the event is. With the variety of distances, a loop course, and the ability to swim with or without a wetsuit, buoy or no buoy, the amount of people new to experienced vary significantly making the diverse nature of the swimmers even more evident. I’ve always been proud of my open water group in Seattle, the Notorious Alki Swimmers (NAS), for being so inclusive of everyone regardless of ability or swim goal. If you love the water and want to experience the joy of water, we accept you. This same spirit I found in Sitka.

This swim I have wanted to do for the past three years, but something always came up, which was usually another swim or major channel crossing that I had to prioritize. After completing the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming last year, this was my year of fun and I made sure to prioritize fun in every sense of the word! It didn’t matter to me if it was a 1 mile swim or 10k, if it was on my list in the past, it was on my fun list this year. I prioritized travel swims and destination swims, trained kind of sort of when I wanted to and made sure to back off when I didn’t want to swim. I began hiking, trying new things, and did zero major swim planning. After such a long four years of training hard, then harder, then hardest to the point of exhaustion, this year of fun was my commitment to myself to put the joy of swimming back in focus. I didn’t really care how difficult the swim would be due to lack of training and prioritizing fun, I simply wanted to commit to a year of doing whatever I wanted to do. I can suffer a bit, as long as it is fun!

Alaska! I don’t think I need to say much more than that….. oh yeah, except adventure swimming in Alaska! I’ve always been fascinated by Alaska, but have NEVER gone in the summer, only the winter. Why? I don’t know, it’s just how it ended up and let me tell you what, summer in Alaska is AMAZING! Sitka has been a place I’ve always wanted to visit since watching The Proposal with Sandra Bullock, because she’s awesome, and Sitka looked amazing. As soon as the race opened, I registered and booked my plane ticket. I was fortunate to have Alison and Erik tag along, fellow NASers, and my friend Claude volunteered to be my kayaker for the 10k. Why a 10k if I wasn’t going to be training? Simple, it was the same price as the 3 and 6k (gotta get the most out of my money) and gave me more time in the water to see wildlife. I’ve always wanted to swim with a whale, I figured Alaska would give me a fair shot at it.

What I was most excited about though, beyond the swim, was the four days leading up to the swim. These were Adventure Swim days where you were taken out by volunteers who had fishing boats to some of the remote islands of coastal Alaska. The trips were always weather dependent, which is totally understandable, and were available to all interested swimmers for a suggested donation of $20 minimum to benefit the swim club putting on the event (they are worth every donated dollar and more – emphasis on MORE).

Close your eyes and imagine…. You get on a boat in the early evening, the sun just starting to make that golden hazy glare off the sea’s surface. You and a bunch of other swimmers board a boat in swimsuits, sweatpants and parkas heading off to a destination you only found out about a few hours prior. You don’t know exactly where you’re going as the boat heads off the marina dock, but you take a seat out front with your camera and smile as the smell of the sea hits your senses. You feel a slight salty wind and head into the fog. Beyond the fog as it lifts, you see water as turquoise and emerald as you’ve ever seen and head towards a remote island surrounded by water and trees. You navigate down canals around the island with clearings in the forest from mountain snow and glacial melt just waiting to see if you can spot a bear catching fresh salmon. Every now and then a houseboat tucked away in a small cove comes into sight, remote and tranquil among the sea. After about 30 to 40 minutes you reach your destination, a nondescript area among complete silence. It’s you, the swimmers and the sea. You jump in and start swimming.

Each route was approximately 3k around the island and you had about an hour to an hour and a half to complete the route. Some swimmers swam with their pod of people, others like myself, swam alone, exploring the seafloor taking pictures of the abalone and muscle beds, the multitude of sea star varieties and green anemones that shone like a full moon in the dead of night. The fish swam about you and every now and then you would see a sea lion dive down in the distance. The canal around the island opened up wider and eventually opened up into the Sitka Sound, wide, free and void of motors, voices, and noise. There was you, the water, and a vast expanse of view from the surface that can only be experienced at eye level with the water line. It was beautiful, more beautiful than anything I’ve ever experienced before or witnessed.

It left me with a feeling of vulnerability yet at the same time the feeling I was meant to be in that place at that moment. The feeling that where I was, was exactly where I was supposed to be. The confidence in swimming alone, the comfort with sea life and the wild, the familiarity of the cold, the push and pull of the tide, the relationship I’ve built with the ocean…. Everything I had been working on for years was leading up to this moment. Though I said it’s hard to describe, the physical characteristics of the swim and land are easy, it’s the feeling that is indescribable. I’ve spoke about the water feeling like your first love in past blog posts and this trip proved to be no different. I was wrapped in the biggest hug by Alaska waters, a hug I last felt as I first saw the expanse of the English Channel from the shores of Dover. At no point was I ever scared or nervous, the only feeling was a feeling that I was home, back in the sea and wilderness where I feel my feels the most.

And those were just the Adventure Swims! Then there was Sitka and let me tell you what, it was (as I’ve already said) AMAZING… I’m kind of waiting for grammar check to pull up an error that I’ve used the word AMAZING too many times in one post, but it was just that, AMAZING! The city and marina were so charming and there is plenty to do when you start to look. The shops have some great local and native souvenirs, arts and crafts. The fresh fish and food you can almost taste just from the scent of it. The marina animals, sunset, live music, and walking around are beyond compare. Then there’s all the attractions and educational opportunities such as the Alaska Raptor Center and Kootznahoo – Fortress of the Bear, each which take in injured or orphaned animals with the goal of rehabilitation and release. For those animals that cannot be released, they are given an amazing habitat to live out the rest of their lives.

Lastly, there’s tons of parks to visit (many we didn’t get to) as well as hiking and trails. Sitka lies on the edge of the Tongass National Forest, which has many hiking trails within walking distance or a short taxi ride to the trailhead. After the swim, we took the day to hike in the back country in addition to some well-established trails and discovered beautiful cascading waterfalls that would dwarf a high-rise. We walked through lush Jurassic Park-like vegetation, dense low ground vegetation, rock cliffs dripping with moss, and through a canopy of conifers so fresh you could smell the air all around you (my loud sniffing alone would have scared away any bears in the area). We saw mountain lakes clear, fresh and cold as could be and walked along the stone path at the water’s surface. A short 10 yards up stone stairs and the path opened up into a micro-climate temperate desert with cracks in the mud as it baked under the sun, short topped trees, and 360-degree views of crags and peaks. It was a hiker’s paradise, a trail to ourselves, and if you’re wondering, no bears (we had the bear spray too).

The swim itself was challenging for me for many reasons. I knew it would be given my lack of training, the seasickness from the boat ride the day before, and lack of being able to keep any food down. I managed as I always do, saw lots of fish and sea lions, had a great time with my kayaker, Claude, around the course. We watched a cruise ship come in and had a great post-race meal. I finished, I achieved my two primary goals of, 1) having fun, and 2) seeing wildlife. The ability to knock out a 10k regardless of time with minimal training, lots of talking at every feed, break and opportunity as well as two days of kissing the porcelain throne was cherries on top of the finish.

I set out for adventure and it was everything I wanted it to be and more. It gave me a chance to reconnect with nature and everything I love about solitude and the sea as well as solitude in the forest, something I am learning a lot about this year. I got to spent valuable time with great friends who I love with all my heart and feel so fortunate to have Alison, Erik and Claude in my life. Sitka, you also now have a spot forever engraved and I can’t wait to share time with you in the future and share everything you have to offer with more of my friends.

Until next time…. xoxoxo with all my swimmy love,

Melissa

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More photos from the swim, hike and town exploration on my Images & Videos page.

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