Friday, October 14, 2011

53F in the early fall darkness

Photo of Juanita Beach Park in Kirkland, WA, by heystax, Flickr Creative Commons license.
One can only dive into cold water so many times and still find it surprising, right?

When nearly warm air was all around (this is Seattle, so I won’t say balmy), emptying myself into a cold body of water was no sweat, literally. It was also relatively pleasant.

Since the weather has turned to chilly and dark, it’s no longer a snap.

As I had last immersed in Lake Washington 10 days prior, I was getting antsy.

Plus, I knew that a friend recently had acquired a wetsuit. The accompanying rubber gloves, he complained, didn’t keep his hands warm. Wow, I thought: If gloves don’t do the trick, am I really thinking of jumping?

I was.

Once I was standing on the dock in Kirkland, I was no longer certain.

There I was, standing on a dock's rough wood in 53 Fahrenheit weather in the early fall darkness.

In two weeks, the dock had changed from busy to empty. The yachts were gone, taken to some warmer spot. From the beach came the wild shouts of a three-year-old boy with his father, as they ran sprints on the sand.

For a moment I thought, well, this is crazy. The night was clear, and colder than usual. It had the hollow-ness of late fall and winter. It had the darkness of Northwest wet season.

Even as I considered turning back, settling on the bench and re-donning my socks, I thought: No, I don’t want to sit at fireplaces all the time. I don’t want the warmth that seeps in and slows my taking chances.

“You must jump in,” I thought. If I didn't do it, I wouldn’t want to take risks -- to leave my warmth, my settledness, my tea with warm blankets.

They’re all good things, don’t get me wrong. But I have to feel the rawness of wind sometimes. I have to take the jump.

So I pushed off from the dock, flailed in dark space for a second, felt myself plunge into the water.
On the dock, I had thought: It may be colder than you’re expecting.

The water was shockingly cold. I thrashed the ten or eleven feet to the metal ladder, feeling that my arms were slower than usual to hit and sink into the water.

Hypothermia wasn't imminent -- but I was more than ready to get out quickly.

The air above the ladder felt almost tropical.

As I sat on the bench and flicked off moisture, I felt indomitable.

This was the me that jumps off docks into cold water.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Vancouver: A nice break, and reason to clean out the closets

Photo of Stanley Park Sea Wall, Vancouver, B.C., by SqueakyMarmot, on Flickr Creative Commons.

My recent trip to Vancouver: A change in pace, and a reason to come back and clean out the closets. Good to be rousted out of the slowing habits, the routine that sometimes includes procrastination.

On a trip, we do everything we plan to do (if our expectations are reasonable) putting off nothing. What we’re doing is simple: there are no extras, no requirements, no taxes (other than for sales).

Back in life-land, it’s nice to keep an edge to things if possible.(This is said while acknowledging the benefits of electricity, Internet, warm clothes for cold weather, running water, modern hiking shoes, and other frills of the industrialized world.)

Still, there’s an excitement to living without those.

For a few days, I lived deep in woods in northwest Montana, 60 miles from a paved road. We were without electricity and the Internet (at a time of dot-com explosion), and we bathed in a river fed by snow melt.

We filled lamps with kerosene, received groceries hauled by mules (a luxury, even though we couldn’t have bananas (easily bruised) or as many green vegetables as packaged pastas), and delicately fried trout caught in the river.

We were in a national wilderness area, and this was a U.S. Forest Service station. 

Coming from New York City, I knew how rare this was -- but I didn’t want to stay.

The work involved using non-mechanized tools -- cross-cut saws and hatchets -- to clear trails of downed trees on steep hillsides, and often involved hiking nearly 12 miles a day on hills. Each "week we labored 10 days, then received four days off. Many of the other workers used weekends to hike up mountains in search of fire-observatory views.

But I was soft. I missed the Internet and my cell phone. I missed baths that were not in the river. I liked thinking, and writing, more than I liked producing change with my hands.

So, I departed. I returned to civilized outer-world Montana. Eventually I went back to another city, Chicago.

In the end, though, Chicago was a bit too far from the deep forests for me. The city was well-planned -- a bit too much, for me. Its only wildness lay in Lake Michigan and in winter winds. I could stand at the lake's edge, but not sail across its surface. There were no ferries, no boats for those who don't spend or have boat-owning friends.

These days, I am trying to keep myself less often in the overheated, overly comfortable rooms of life.

Testing ourselves, I think, is the best way to experience more of the world. If I only wanted the basic necessities, I wouldn't experience the back country of anywhere, from the U.S. and Canada to Bolivia or Russia. It’s the best way to know what others experience.

With that in mind, I’m sharing a list of things I find thrilling:

Going without a jacket until it’s truly cold

Cross-country skiing deep into quiet woods

Standing among northern spruce and other evergreens

Spending time in northern places: Alaska, upper British Columbia, the tops of all the Canadian provinces. Montana. North Dakota.

The snowiest places, and among people who move to these places. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Duluth.

When a city’s power is out from a storm and people walk and talk peacefully

The lull after a snowstorm

Bayou country and the Everglades

Diaries and books about pioneers, homesteaders, and explorers

Edward Hoagland’s books about the renegades who lived in far northern British Columbia when he was there in the early 1960s

Spending time at the edge of a continent

Swimming in cold water

What are the things that thrill you?