I have been a swimmer for as long as I can remember. I have always savored the freedom of pulling off your clothes and jumping in the water, enjoyed the escape into a different world. I belonged in that world even if I couldn’t stay underwater as long or swim as fast as the other creatures. Diving down to hide before launching a surprise attack on my unsuspecting sister, fighting my natural buoyancy, taught me how to control my body.
I have swum in a wetsuit exactly two times. The first time I felt like an invader in the water, like I didn’t really belong there. I had on this suit that made me feel claustrophobic and it made the process of getting in and out of the water an ordeal. I couldn’t get more than a few inches below the surface and treading water and playing was harder than it should have been. Since so many people told me that they feel safer and more comfortable in the water in a wetsuit I decided to give it a second chance. That wetsuit has been sitting on my bathroom floor ever since.
When I arrived in Sitka for the Change Your Latitude race last weekend, I didn’t think much of my choice to swim in the same attire I had since I was a baby. The water wasn’t terribly cold (similar temperature as San Francisco in the spring or fall, mid 50s) and I had signed up for the 3k race which is well within my limits. Prior to the race some of the local swimmers took us out to swim around an island. It was beautiful, the water was warm and clear, and for the first time in my life I was told I was swimming naked.
I’ve been skinny dipping plenty of times before so whenever I read about naked swimming, I simply assumed they meant actually going naked. I never thought that this selkie skin was considered the norm. I started to think about all the thin pieces of fabric I have shed over the years and the experiences I have had because of it. I lost the tent years ago because I felt uncomfortable not being more aware of my surroundings. The same security that many people feel tucked away inside their tent, away from the outside, made me nervous. Losing that thin piece of fabric has let me fall asleep under a blanket of stars in the dark deserts of Utah and watch the northern lights on a beach in Iceland. I have startled day hikers who inadvertently wandered next to my hammock, not realizing that anyone was there. Often camping alone, losing that thin piece of fabric offered me the safety of knowing that I could see what was going on around me, becoming a part of the environment instead of just an interloper.
As I hung in my hammock overlooking the beach in Glacier Bay, I thought about a conversation I had had earlier with a group of guys camping a little ways down the beach from me. They were worried about me, alone, exposed to the world, concerned that I would be attacked by a bear. In my mind, that thin piece of fabric offered no protection from a bear. If anything, I rationalized to myself, it forced me to make smarter decisions about safety and allowed any curious creatures to look in as I slept and realize there was nothing to worry about. A week later, another camper in my area had his tent swiped by a curious bear. There was no food in the tent, and the bear ran off as soon as this guy woke up and started making noise. Even after hearing that story and seeing the slashed tent, I still felt more comfortable without the illusion of safety that that thin piece of fabric offered.
As I hiked through a brand new forest, growing from land that had been covered in thick ice only decades before, it struck me that as the glacier retreats, slowly and naturally, the land adapts and turns its newly realized nakedness into a brand new environment, supporting an entire ecosystem. But tear away that thin piece of fabric too quickly and it can all collapse. I would never suggest that someone ditch the wetsuit if they are otherwise unprepared to swim in the cold. Someone out camping in the rain shouldn’t simply ditch the tent because it’s fascinating to watch a storm if they don’t have a well placed tarp or convenient cave to shelter in. When the glacier retreats too quickly, that newly naked earth crumbles.
As I walked out of the lush moss of the forest and onto the rocks, recently exposed by the retreat of a glacier, I couldn’t help but think of the little boy who, upon seeing the naked emperor walking down the street, shouted “But he hasn’t got anything on!” Seeing for myself just how much the glacier could change the landscape, in such a short time, I grew sad. Sad that so many people still look at this and pretend that they can see the emperor’s elaborate clothes, sad that once this barren landscape is exposed it will be very hard to reverse it, sad that the lush rain forests that cover southeastern Alaska won’t have a chance to grow here. This thin piece of ice was all that protected the ground beneath it. Instead of methodically transitioning to an ice-free existence, the land was exposed rapidly before it was adequately prepared to thrive.
I left Alaska aware of how exposing my life actually allows me to grow into the environment instead of simply coexisting in it. Next time I jump in the water I will savor that first moment, when you can feel yourself passing from one world into another. There is nothing protecting me from it, nothing to keep me safe, nothing to take away the joy of belonging.
Note about the Change Your Latitude race:
The crew organizing the race was phenomenal. They arranged group swims in the week leading up to the race, hosted a delicious salmon bake, and put on a very well organized and safe race. I am definitely going to return and encourage my swim friends to do so as well. Living in Northern California I am fortunate to have year round access to good weather and cool water. This makes it really easy to acclimate to the cold and never need a wetsuit. Before this race I had never spent much time with swimmers who used wetsuits, so rather than dig my heels in and defend the “naked” stance, I decided to ask questions and learn what held people back from the freedom that I felt naked. That was where I finally realized the theme that would tie this trip together for me.