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Jack's Take: October reflections on lake swimming

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Photo by Jack Hilovsky
Photo by Jack Hilovsky

This morning I joined my friend Grady and several other pals for a dawn swim in Lake Washington. We met at Madison Beach a bit after 7 a.m., the sun still asleep behind the Cascade Mountains but soon to rise.

This wasn't some impulsive act on our part. We've been open-water swimming for over 20 years. Typically, we begin in mid to late June, once the water hits the 66-degree mark, though some brave souls in the group start in April or May, depending on the weather and lake temperature.

For me, Labor Day signals the approaching end of my outdoor swims. The days grow shorter, and the sun sits lower on the horizon in the late afternoon, casting shadows on the water.

Maybe that's one reason why I enjoy morning swims. If we're lucky and manage to avoid the June gloom/marine fog, the sun emerges from behind the mountains when we're halfway to the Seattle Tennis Club, our destination before heading back to Madison Beach. On those clear days, my front crawl is interrupted by brief glimpses of Mt. Rainier in the distance as I lift my head out of the water to spot my southern trajectory. After all these years, the majestic view of that mountain rising from the lake in which I'm floating continues to be a breathtaking one.

Thus far, despite the smoke, it's been a warmer, sunnier October, and a longer swim season than last year. Still, I find it necessary at this late date to wear a wetsuit. I've acquired a little tummy thanks to the pandemic, but not nearly enough of an extra layer to protect against hypothermia. I'm amazed that several swim friends can hop into the lake with no more than a Speedo or some thin-layered bathing suit and sprint the 1-1/2 miles round-trip without a shiver. I note that, unlike their wetsuited comrades, they stop for a briefer break at the halfway point before racing back to shore and doing a quick change into warm clothes.

This time in the water is almost a sacred pastime for me. It is humbling being enveloped by the lake, being overshadowed by a distant mountain, and feeling the warmth of the sun or the chaotic flip of waves rushing over as you reach into the depths of a watery unknown. I'm so small compared to the natural world.

In August, our swim group lost a friend who was a co-founder of our LGBTQ+ team and likewise enjoyed the thrill of swimming in the open water. One afternoon he suffered a heart event that caused him to lose consciousness and later led to asphyxiation. Too late, several paddleboarders pulled him out of Lake Washington and attempted to revive him, to no avail, until the fire department arrived.

One month later, we celebrated Rick's life on the shores where he and the rest of us experienced so much solace and inspiration. I spoke of how we could always find our friend's spirit here, where so many of us discovered a joy and peace, in friendship and on our own solo paths, across the waves, through the wind, under the sun, and yes, sometimes in the fog.

I was reminded of how song can capture the beauty of nature and our experience of it, while viewing a Sunday morning tribute to singer-songwriter John Denver, who died after losing control and crashing his experimental aircraft into Monterrey Bay 25 years ago this month. As a kid, Denver's popular hits "Country Roads, Take Me Home," "Sunshine on My Shoulder," and "Rocky Mountain High" transported me to a place I'd never been before. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and his music became a backdrop to the yearning I had to experience the beauty and adventure of the West.

The past month, as I've swum in Lake Washington these gorgeous mornings, I reflect on how enriched my life has been thanks to my love of the water and the call to adventure and beauty that Denver's songs epitomized. I think of Rick and how we'll miss him, but also how he died doing something he loved. May we all be so lucky.

Jack Hilovsky is an author, actor, and blogger who has made his home in Seattle since 1986. His first book, RJ, Farrah and Me: A Young Man's Gay Odyssey from the Inside Out, was published in June 2022. It can be found at Madison Books, Nook & Cranny, and University Bookstore, among other local booksellers.