Swimming the distance: a challenge for cottagers

Published: June 8, 2020

Crane Lake swimmers Crane Lake swimmers. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

No quick dips here! Whether they take on a distance swimming challenge or flutter kick their way around the whole lake, these swimmers go the extra mile—or 30!

To swim or not to swim was never really a question. It was the audacity of the idea that evolved slowly, a project so consuming that the cottagers planned the finish with military precision. As it turned out, the finish didn’t exactly happen as planned.

But let’s start at the beginning. The location: Crane Lake, about 15 km south of Parry Sound, Ont. Deep, dark, and clean and surrounded by thick pine forest, half of it Crown land, it’s the last lake in a series that flows down the Blackstone River into Georgian Bay. The characters: a core group of about 10 cottagers, now mostly retired and looking for a project. The plan: an epic swim, covering 45 km.

“We’d already swum the length of the lake,” Monica Gemeinhardt explains, and someone came up with the idea of swimming around the lake. They decided to take it easy, in stages, recording their route along the lake’s shoreline on a map and marking off each section of the perimeter as they completed it. At first, there was no hurry, no deadline. (That came later.) “We all like to swim. We were doing long swims anyway. We just had to make it official.”

Crane Lake map
Crane Lake map. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Not that an “official” swim at the cottage is unusual. The day a child or grandchild makes it across open water to a special rock or other landmark is a right of passage, a cause for celebration. For some, the accomplishment turns into an annual event, as it did for a group of cottagers at Pointe au Baril, Ont., on Georgian Bay, who participate in the White Star Swim every summer. Founder Faye White started it in the early ’90s for her daughters, Brooke and Devon, who were about 11 and 10 years old and looking for adventure.

“We always wanted to swim somewhere,” says Brooke, now 38. “We were lucky, our parents were happy to jump in the boat and accompany us.” For the White Star challenge, the sisters launched from a rock in front of their cottage and swam about three kilometres across open water and a busy boat channel to the front dock of the Ojibway Club, a local gathering place for cottagers. At first, there were just the two of them, but a few years later, when Brooke and Devon became counsellors at the club’s children’s camp, they introduced the campers to the White Star Swim. Faye created medals for the kids and made a special plaque for the event. Everyone who finished got a medal. Anyone under the age of 15 who completed the swim also had their name added to the plaque.

For a while after that, the swim was dormant. Then, three years ago, Faye resurrected it. Now adults participate, and everyone collects a medal for finishing. Devon and Brooke’s older sister, Sarah, who was in her twenties when the swim started, completed it for the first time last year. To get the word out, each summer “we put up flyers hoping that everyone will come to it,” says Brooke. Her son Bryce completed it for the first time when he was eight and again last year at 10. His name is on the plaque along with his mom’s.

The first time that 54-year-old cottager Doug Alderdice participated in the White Star Swim, in 2015, it wasn’t his first endurance challenge. “I did the crazy thing with a Tough Mudder event the year before, and I thought I’d try a distance swim,” he says. The Tough Mudder was easier. “When you are doing obstacles you can stop. But even when you stop in swimming, you’re still treading water, and you can’t touch bottom.” At least according to the Whites’ rules: no touching the bottom, no hanging on to the side of the boat, and no PFDs, though swimmers can use a swim float (see “Distance Swimming: Be Visible!” below). “Usually, when we swim at the cottage, we use flippers,” Doug says. “So I asked Faye the first year if I could use flippers, and she said, ‘Uh, no.’ The biggest surprise was that I finished.”

The attraction of open-water distance swimming may be incomprehensible to cottagers whose skills are limited to floating with a pool noodle. Even those who are hooked on the sport admit the activity can be extreme. That includes Elaine Davidson, of Naramata, B.C., who assembled the Crazy Canucks relay team that successfully swam the English Channel in 2016. When the British boat pilot accompanying them expressed surprise that none of the Canadians had ocean experience, she told him that Okanagan Lake provided all the training they needed. “I said, ‘It is a big Canadian lake with winds and all kinds of weather patterns. We were well prepared. Besides, I know some crazy people.’ ”

Crane Lake swimmers
Crane Lake swimmers. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Crazy is how one would-be rescuer might describe her. At 61 years old, she challenged herself to a “swim streak” this year: a daily swim from May to October, without a wetsuit, followed by a celebratory handstand before she emerged from the water. On one of her swims, “I went out and around a point out of sight,” Elaine says, “and when I returned about an hour later, a woman on the beach was dialling 911. She couldn’t understand why any person would want to do this in October.”

Meanwhile, in 2016, another “crazy” swimmer, U.S. Ultraman competitor Adam Ellenstein, swam a record 106.6 km, from Vernon, B.C., to Penticton, in just less than 41 hours. One of his goals was to spotlight Okanagan Lake as an ideal place to swim, no surprise to Elaine and other local cabin owners.

Elaine herself chose to live in this quiet community on the southeast shore of the lake because of its proximity to Penticton, a hot spot of Ironman training and competition (she has competed in three Ironman events). She grows raspberries, which she sells to the local winery. The hot summers are good for both raspberries and swimming, she says, though the water doesn’t warm up much, hovering around 20 degrees.

In addition to cold temperatures, open-water swimmers can face oncoming wind and waves. During the Channel swim, Elaine’s Crazy Canucks braved two-metre swells. “You start to feel the rhythm of the waves, and you know when to breathe,” she says cheerfully. “Sometimes if the waves and wind are the right way, you can body surf. On placid, calm days, it’s boring.”

Will water snakes come near humans when swimming?

Boring it may be at times, but swimming has been a lifelong addiction for Elaine. It was at the family cottage in Kincardine, Ont., that she became entranced with long swims. “Dad would row beside us. I loved swimming right from the start and have super-fond memories of the cottage and Dad and that rowboat.”

Rowboat, kayak, canoe, powerboat—however they come, spotters are indispensable to the safety of those in the water. The Whites ask each swimmer in the White Star Swim to bring their own spotter boat, as swimmers invariably get spread out. One year, a participant had an asthma attack while swimming. Her puffer was in the boat, but she reluctantly asked to be pulled from the water. Even when you’re fully supported, an open-water challenge is deeply personal. It can lift you to exhilarating heights or end in soul-crushing disappointment.

Still, the Crane Lakers talk about their perimeter swim as if it’s normal to circumnavigate a lake with 50-plus kilometres of shoreline and multiple bays and inlets, not to mention a government dam. Just like it was normal for one of the group, former teacher Tory McMahon, 69, to climb Kilimanjaro the year she turned 60 and to walk the Camino Trail to mark her turning 65. “My friends say that when you’re friends with me, you have to take some pain and punishment,” she says. Behind her, her husband, Roger, makes a face and nods.

Coming out of Crane Lake
Coming out of Crane Lake. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

The Crane Lake adventure is a manifestation of the theory that goals are more easily accomplished if you break them into manageable pieces. And about two years in, the women decided to step up their efforts and complete the perimeter swim in 2017, as a Canada 150 project. Suddenly their ad hoc get-togethers became more organized. Now they had a deadline. “We never thought we’d really do it,” Tory says. “Then we started swimming three times a week—Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 11 a.m. Doing it on a regular basis, three times a week, you can cover a lot of ground.”

The swims could be up to an hour each time, and those who missed a swim had to make it up. Ardith Easton recalls one particularly difficult solo makeup. “The water kept crashing into my face, and the current was pushing me back. And I was alone, so no talking.” Judy Stanbury Smith had a similar experience. “I just coughed and spit and carried on.”

The women had photocopied maps of the lake on which they recorded the distance they covered on each leg. Progress was slow but steady. They and their spotters had time to wave and chat to curious cottagers who shouted back encouragement from their docks.

Roger regularly spots for his wife in the family pontoon boat. “He says watching me swim is like watching the grass grow,” Tory says, laughing. In their neat cedar cottage, built as a Centennial project on land Roger’s mother bought in 1967, Roger points out that Tory has a strong right arm, so she tends to curve offshore. His job is to herd her back in. “Straight as an arrow,” she retorts.

Spotters also see the big picture, like the time Tracey Beaulne’s father, while spotting for the Crane Lake swimmers, noticed that a beaver had started chasing Kate after she swam near its lodge. “Dad yelled, ‘Beaver, beaver, beaver!’ ” Tracey says, but Kate didn’t hear. She continued, oblivious, her head under­water. Eventually, the beaver swam away.

“There’s no yuck factor with Kate,” Tory says about her friend, who likes to swim close to shore through the boggiest parts of the lake. “I just want to be part of nature,” Kate explains. “You’re where the two worlds meet—the upper world and the underwater world. When you wear goggles and do sidestroke, you can have one eye in each.”

A mystery to most cottagers who don’t spend hours peering at the bottom of their lakes, the underwater world reveals both treasures and the haunting detritus of the upper world. Swimmers become intimately connected to lake life. “We sort of move the bugs aside as we go,” says Monica Gemeinhardt. “All of us have swallowed a bug or two.” Elaine Davidson has watched an eagle snatch a small duckling just a foot away from her and carry it off. Another time, officials in a search-and-rescue boat pulled alongside and told her they were looking for the body of the victim of a fatal boating accident, and that she should be aware of the search boats in the area. Later, she wrote in her blog, Naramata-Blend, “As I answer, ‘OK, sure,’ my thoughts go to the deep, weedy area I’m just entering. I’m not really worried about the boats.”

For the most part, though, there’s nothing more sinister down there than “the odd fish, good-size lake trout, and light filtering through the weeds,” Elaine says. Kate’s finds include a giant muskie lure and a deer mandible. When the women come across discarded beer cans they’ll bring them to shore. “One year I had a sunglasses collection,” says Elaine.

Despite his White Star success, Doug Alderdice doesn’t plan to enter any open-water competitions. “Having to get in the water and swim like hell—that doesn’t appeal to me. Two miles from Faye’s to the Ojibway is enough. Bragging rights for the old guy, or whatever.”

The Crane Lakers would likely agree. They are determined but not fanatic. “We’re not doing this for fitness, we’re doing it as an accomplishment,” Monica says. “We’re patient, we don’t push too hard.” As good as the accomplishment feels, the pleasure has been in the journey. “Where do you think of when you are in the dentist’s chair?” she asks. “I go in the lake with the sun on my back.”

“Swimming long distances at the cottage is like the feeling of going for a long Sunday morning run,” says Julia Aimers, an Ottawa-based triathlon coach who visits friends’ cottages. “Racing is how I get my ya-yas out, but I love it when you’ve got your goggles on and can see the bottom of the lake. Before you know it, you’ve gone two kilometres and you have to get back for breakfast.”

After four years of planning and tracking and encouragement, of swimming in good and bad weather, on a leg that was supposed to be the second-last of their epic journey, the Crane Lake women got to chatting as they floated along the shore. Suddenly, they stopped. They had overshot. They had not only finished that day’s section of shoreline, they had finished swimming around the entire lake. Tory remembers the feeling—at once jubilant and anticlimactic. “We got to the end and said, ‘Where are the fireworks?’ ”

Swimming Crane Lake
Swimming Crane Lake. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Five days later, on an August morning that starts out misty and cool—on the day they had planned to finish, and to celebrate—they recreate the last leg. Their meeting place is the McMahon dock. Judy Stanbury Smith and her spouse, Paul, arrive in their own boat. Karin Doss-Reid’s husband, Chris Reid, will spot from their boat. Their 16-year-old daughter, Carys, will also swim today. The last leg is short and easy, in deep, dark water. The sun has burned off the mist and heats up the soft summer air. Seven swimmers, three boats, and one curious loon make up the procession. Five swimmers do a slow breaststroke, one does a backstroke, and one treads water, drinking in the significance of the day, the end of a long journey.

When they finally climb out, slipping over rocks and calling excitedly to one another, there are no fireworks. But the men set up a table in a clearing under the pines. There is champagne and a potluck lunch. And much reminiscing about the effort and emotion of the last four years.

Karin talks about the value she places on her friendship with the other swimmers, a few of whom were strangers when they started. She talks about ways the other women motivated her, about the encouragement and compassion that comes with friendship. “We share a passion for the lake,” Judy says. The women nod their heads. They hug Judy as tears spill down her cheeks. She laughs. “I think we’re wetter on dry land than in the water.”

Penny Caldwell was the editor of Cottage Life for 15 years. She swims in Georgian Bay with a pink pool noodle.This story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Cottage Life as “In It for the Long Crawl.”

Distance Swimming Tips
“The big difference between swimming in a pool and in open water is sighting,” says Julia Aimers, the owner and head coach of Ottawa’s Team Triumph Tri­athlon Club. “In a lake, you don’t have the line on the bottom.” She suggests that you swim from point to point, and pick landmarks along the shore, such as a white birch or a big rock. Aimers uses “alligator eyes” to sight her target, first raising just her eyes, then tucking the chin and breathing to the side as she rotates her whole body. Also, instead of heading into the middle of the lake, Aimers says, “I’d much prefer to swim along shore. There’s a better view, and I don’t worry about boats so much.” For those who panic in open water, Aimers suggests singing, humming, or making noise with the bubbles to calm down. Lastly, she says to practise breathing on both sides. “That way, if you’ve got waves coming from the right, you can breathe on the left and roll with the waves rather than push against them.”
Liann Bobechko

Distance Swimming: Be Visible!
To help spotters find swimmers, who are 80 per cent submerged and difficult to see in waves, some swimmers use a swim float such as the Swim Buddy or the MyFloat Bag, each available for less than $70. Highly visible, the brightly coloured, lightweight capsule tethers to the swimmer’s waist and is towed behind. Though the floats are not designed as PFDs or life-saving devices, swimmers use them to rest on or as dry bags for stowing gear such as car keys, money, a phone, and even snacks and dry clothing. The floats are recommended by organizers of open-water swims such as the Skaha Lake Ultra Swim in Penticton and the Across the Lake Swim in Kelowna. Julia Aimers, the founder of the Team Triumph Triathlon Club in Ottawa and the race director of the Meech Lake Triathlon, attaches whistles to the swim float bags she insists her members use. “It’s peace of mind,” she says, “so I can keep track of the swimmers.”—P.C.

Featured Video