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Wild Swimmers Take The Plunge: Part 2

As I noted last month, paddling and swimming are natural complements. What could be more refreshing than a cool dip after a hot day on the water? But "wild swimming" — swimming in natural waters far from the benign supervision of lifeguards — is not without its risks, and I outlined them in my earlier column. Still, there's no delight without some danger, is there? And it's important to keep things in perspective. Sitting at a desk for hours at a time can kill you, and the family car will speed one in every 124 Americans into an untimely grave.* The risks to wild swimmers are as nothing by comparison.   

That said, it's smart to do what you can to keep the odds on your side. So this time around, I'm going to suggest ways to  …

Make Wild Swimming as Safe as It Is Joyous

I'll take it for granted that you can swim. You don't have to be an especially strong swimmer. I'm not. You just have to be able to keep your head above water in reasonable — not too cold, not too rough — conditions, while making slow but steady progress toward some not‑too‑distant goal. And if you can't manage this? It's never too late to learn.

Now let's get down to specifics, beginning with a fundamental question that has as much to do with rights as it does with risks:

Are You Legal?  Most civilized nations afford citizens and visitors the "right to roam." In other words, they give individuals a qualified but enforceable right to traverse private lands (and waters) to which they do not hold title. On the other hand, certain less‑civilized nations — I name no names, but I'll bet you can think of at least one example — hold property rights to be absolute. Which means that every time you stray outside the public ways for any reason, or for none at all, you risk arrest. Or worse.

Should you happen to live or travel in one of these nameless (but well‑known) less‑civilized nations, therefore, you must first make certain you have the right to swim where you wish to swim — before you enter the water. Keep in mind that you'll probably need to rest on shore from time to time, as well. If the shoreline is studded with POSTED signs as far as the eye can see, you'd be wise to go elsewhere.

You're on the right side of the law? Good. The next thing to consider is …

Gearing Up.  Strong swimmers going short distances need only their Speedos (or maybe nothing at all). The rest of us will want to employ some sort of buoyancy aid — this can be anything from a pool noodle (aka "water woggle") to a PFD. And if you're planning to make a day of it — at this point wild swimming becomes "swim hiking" — you'll also need a waterproof pack, or swimsac. (Instructions for making a swimsac can be found at Peter Hayes' Swimhiking website.)

All kitted out? Then it's time to talk …

Buddies.  If safety is your first consideration, never swim alone. You say you're determined togo solo? OK. That's your decision. But make sure you and your loved ones are ready to accept the consequences if things don't go, er, swimmingly. It happens.

In any case, solo swimming isn't for everyone. Children, in particular, need both a PFD and the protection of a parent's watchful eye at all times, and the watching parent must be a competent swimmer in her own right. The famously dismissive "better drowned than duffers" line familiar to readers of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons would ring mighty hollow in the aftermath of a child's death.

And while we're speaking of drowning (and watchful eyes), are you sure you …

Know What a Drowning Person Looks Like?  Cinematic depictions notwithstanding, she likely won't be screaming and flailing about. Drowning is usually a pretty quiet affair. Now you see the victim. And now you don't. That's when you'll be glad you took a lifesaving class.

Of course, your watchful eye needs to be directed heavenward from time to time, as well, because …

Weather Happens.  And whether or not the local forecast warned of its approach, the appearance of a squall line on the horizon is your cue to quit the water. Lightning strikes are never quite as frightening as when they're viewed from the perspective of a swimmer far from shore. Need I say more?

But don't let yourself become so rattled by those black clouds that you gulp down some of the water you're swimming in. In other words ...

Swallow Does Not a Summer Make.  Not a healthy summer, anyway. If you wouldn't drink the water without treating or filtering it first — and you wouldn't, would you? — don't swallow it while you're swimming. Nose clips aren't a bad idea, either, especially in warmish lakes or impoundments. That brain‑eating amoeba I alluded to in my earlier column isn't science fiction. It's plenty real, and as Canoe Country waters heat up, it's possible that the little fellow will be coming to a lake or river near you soon. Don't let this enterprising creature get up your nose.

Next, a couple of cautions from the Department of the Bleedin' Obvious:

Cover Your Feet.  Whether it's a broken beer bottle or the razor‑sharp edge of a mussel shell, you won't want your feet to suffer the unkindest cut of all. Sandals and water shoes are more than a fashion statement. They're essential protective wear for wild swimmers.

And …

Dress for the Water Temperature.  The New Model Climate hasn't yet transformed Canoe Country into the tropics. That happy day comes later. For now, hypothermia remains a possibility. A light shorty wetsuit isn't a bad idea if you'll be spending hours swimming in northern waters.

Finally, a word of …

Advice for Pregnant Swimmers.  Talk to your doctor before hitting the water. There's little agreement about the magnitude of the risks to you or your child, but the stakes couldn't be higher.  

That's enough of perils and pitfalls. To be sure, fortune favors the prepared paddler. But if the idea of wild swimming appeals, don't let my catalog of calamities put you off. It's likely that the most dangerous thing you'll ever do is get into your car for the drive to the lake, and you're not about to throw your car keys away, are you? I didn't think so.

Wild swimming is to canoeing and kayaking what glissading is to alpine mountaineering, a bit of sportive play that allows our animal spirits free rein. But just as glissading isn't without its hazards — Where did that damn crevasse come from!? — wild swimming can get you into the sort of trouble you can't easily get out of. That said, there's no delight without some danger. The key lies in recognizing the risks and taking steps to minimize them. There is joy in the wild waters, after all, and life is for living. So come on in — the water's fine! 

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