“Why isn’t our pool heated like the Natatorium?” we asked our swim coach one day. He was also manager at Walla Walla’s Memorial Pool that summer.
He answered, “If you want warm water, take a bath. This is a swimming pool.”
OK, so the title is a little misleading, even when we consider where my cold water swimming began. It didn’t start at any headwaters either. But, hey, the last time was in river headwaters (almost). So there!
It began in Ontario, at Lake of the Woods. I must have been four or five, so technically I wasn’t yet a swimmer. I was a wader, but I neither drowned nor got help, so I did use some sort of swimming effort.
The man who ran the resort told my dad that it had been just two weeks since the ice went out. “Too cold for swimming,” he said, “and if you don’t believe me, at least stay away from that end of the beach.” He pointed to the place he meant.
The lake was still close to freezing. But it was our summer vacation and the sun was warm. Mommy got us into swimsuits to play on the beach while Daddy went fishing. Dad was no better at fishing than I am, so the Northern Pike were pretty safe. I ran and then waded into the big lake with its cold waves. Then I waded a little deeper and wandered in the squishy lake bottom off to the right side of the beach. Mommy must have been looking away for a moment. My sister was playing on the shore a little away from me.
All of a sudden I found out what the resort man meant when he said ‘undertow’. I had been walking on the lake bottom, no problem. Then it wasn’t there. A giant had hold of my leg and was pulling me under the water and deeper into the lake. I remember the absolute fear I was feeling, yet somehow I managed to paddle and pull and found footing again. I scurried back up onto the beach and stayed away from the place that the man said to stay away from. No one saw what happened. And I didn’t tell, because I HAD been warned.
If I had told, they might have started me in swimming lessons before the second time I failed to drown. That wasn’t in a headwater or even in cold water, so never mind. I have never managed to take part in a polar bear club, so let’s get to those mountain streams.
My favorite swimming hole when I was a kid, other than Memorial Pool, was in upper Mill Creek, in the Blue Mountains. It was a spot on the creek where a cliff on the other side and a large boulder made a narrow deep cut, with a gentle back wash and small rocky beach area on our side. Our side being the point accessible from the cabin where we sometimes stayed. The cabin belonged to some friends of my folks. When they decided Dad was working too hard, they’d hand him the keys and tell him to get out of town for a few days. The swimming hole was just below the steep mountainside that we called Indian Ridge—I don’t know why. That’s just what we called the hill. The swimming hole was no more than a mile below the snowmelt that fed Mill Creek. At the times I swam there the current was just enough to be challenging. The cold was the greater challenge—and I loved it. Dad would remind me with the line, “two weeks after the ice went out. That kid’ll swim as soon as it’s liquid.” And I loved it. Jump off the boulder, swim up, float down, swim up, until I felt as cold as the water. And the water was as cold as Mrs. Blake’s glare when she caught us horsing around in the Pioneer Junior High Library. I’d ride the river until I shivered too much, then warm up in the sun and do it all again. And I loved it.
Maybe my fun times in the headwaters of Mill Creek of the Blue Mountains happened after Dad accidentally rode the rapids in the Walla Walla River for a hundred yards without a canoe. That was a scary scene, watching him bouncing off the rocky creek bottom, trying to steer himself to the side, out of the main current. Anyway, if my fun came later, then I must have ignored his fearful warnings and just swam until cold, rested until warm, swam until cold and... until Mom or Dad said it’s time to go. So maybe this all took place before his wild ride.
OK, that’s just kid stuff. Kids will endure some pain if fun and risk go with it. What about thirty or more years later? The scene was quite similar, but this time I’m supposed to be the responsible adult. I’m supposed to re-play Dad’s warnings (once ignored) to another generation of risk-enchanted kids.
It was picnic day with the campers. We hiked up river to a place on the Boulder River with a hole like my favorite spot on Mill Creek, only bigger.
Now, I have to take a moment to explain something. The river I’m telling about flows northward out of the Beartooth Mountains just north of Yellowstone Park. It joins the Yellowstone River at Big Timber, Montana. That’s the real Boulder River. The river I live near today is the other Boulder River, unless you ask my wife Barb. She’ll claim that the Yellowstone tributary is the other and our Jefferson tributary is the real one.
So, we’re at the hole, a few miles down from the high country snow sources of our ‘real’ cascading icy mountain stream. The river is down enough that we can really have a good time. Deep water in the long hole; swift enough to give a good workout; slow enough to let us survive. And colder than… Well, you know.
So, I’m in a reverie of remembering my youth. Over forty years old now, but hey, what the h.. Oh, I’m a counsellor at church camp and a minister, so let’s say “what the heck, then.” I step into the water, boy is it cold, brrr. But then again, cold never stopped me when I was young. So I swim up through the hole, about fifteen yards, float down, swim up again a couple more times. Then I hear the kids standing on the big boulder yelling something. “What?”
They yell again as I float back down. Finally, I catch the words, “Hey, Papa Smurf!”
I get out and dry off. And that's the last of my headwaters swimming.