Well, my brain is still trying to wrap itself around yesterday’s 4.5 mile end-to-end open water swim of NY’s beautiful Honeoye Lake. This was swim #1 of my Finger Lakes Swim project, and it was one of the most beautiful things as well as one of the scariest things I have ever done.
My longest previous swim being a 2 hour 5k pool swim, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into yesterday. I knew I would be charting new territory both for me and for open water swimming in this region. I am aware of only one other person who has ever swum the length of all of NY’s 11 Finger Lakes (and I haven’t been able to get a hold of him), so information on open water swimming these bodies of water is practically non-existent. The best I can do is visit each lake, observe, and glean as much information as I can from fisherman, kayakers, and conservationists.
So, when I swam against a strong northerly current the entire first 1/3 of the swim? Yeah, there’s no information about that online. But that’s part of what adventure is all about. Being one of the first…
(I’ll pause here to apologize for the length of this post. Since I’m only the second person to open water swim this lake and the first to actually document it, I wanted to include as much detail as possible so that others who do this in the future will have a “go to” resource to reference.)
Yesterday’s quest started early. 3am to be exact. Up, shower, coffee, try to wake up… Hopped in the car shortly after 4am for the hour drive down to Honeoye Lake. Found a mini-mart bathroom and made sure my system was as empty as possible (peeing is one thing, but really didn’t want to have to use THOSE facilities out in the lake). Sean Storie, my watercraft support for the day (and fellow troublemaker at TrailsROC.org), met me at Sandy Bottom Park on the North end of Honeoye Lake to drop off the kayak. We then drove down to Honeoye Lake Boat Launch State Park on the South end of the lake to drop off Sean’s car so we’d be able to get the kayak out and drive back up after to get my car. These are the kind of logistics which were important to think through beforehand as they make my head spin at 5am. I am NOT a morning person.
Dropped Sean’s car off at the Boat Launch, and paid the $7 launch fee since this is an official NY State Park, even if it’s just the size of my back yard. And, yes, they open early – lots of fishermen looking to get out ahead of the sunrise. Than we drove back up to the North end of the lake in my car which we’d leave at Sandy Bottom Park and pick up later.
The town of Honeoye has done a great job with Sandy Bottom (ok, yeah, that name just cracks me up…) the last few years, really cleaning up the place, dredging out the build up of sea grass and algae, putting in a new playground, and establishing a nice, sandy, (and free!) swimming area for the community.
One final pit stop at the park restroom and we were all set to put in a bit after 6:30am. Beautiful sunrise, glassy-smooth lake, barely any boat traffic… perfect.
One of the reasons I’m doing the Finger Lakes Swim is to learn more about and be able to create awareness around the environmental challenges facing the Finger Lakes region. Honeoye Lake is a very good example of this. Situated between large hills (small mountains) on each side, the Honeoye Valley is just beautiful. It’s also farmland, so all the fertilizer nitrates eventually make their way into the Honeoye Lake water system and its tributaries. This has negatively impacted the oxygen levels in the lake and created a lot of problems with algae blooms and sea grass growth over the last 5+ years. The town and State DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) have been very proactive on this issue the last few years, working to reverse this damage and slowly returning the water quality to where it should be. But Honeoye is a good example of the delicate balance our systems face, and the conservation we must adopt if we want to continue to enjoy these natural resources.
The first 200 yards out from the beach were clear water, but very thick with sea grasses before the lake starts to drop off and the water opens up. A bit of wading, tangling, getting mucky. Nothing too bad or gross. Some of the Finger Lakes are known for their freakishly clear waters. Honeoye is not one of them. It’s a beautiful lake, but out in the open water it’s very murky. With the exception of close-to-shore, I had perhaps 2 feet of max visibility while swimming. Lots of algae flecks in the water just suspended under the surface. Not thick, but enough to cut the visibility. This made for a very strange sensation while swimming. The only thing I can compare it with is the highly hypnotic effect you get when driving through a snowstorm at night and the flakes keep coming at you through the headlights. It was like that. Only in earth tones, not black and white. A very strange sensation which does not contribute positively to one’s equilibrium.
The first third of my swim I was fighting substantial currents pushing against me back to the North shore. There was, of course, no way to know this ahead of time. I assumed there would be some current in the lake, but didn’t know how strong. It was strong enough that I had to fight against it just to stay in place whenever I stopped to fuel. If I wasn’t strongly treading water it started pushing me back, reversing my progress. Not knowing how long this current went on for, it was pretty disconcerting to say the least. I kept thinking about the fact that my swim would be significantly longer than planned if it didn’t let up. Thankfully, somewhere around :75 in, I got out past the current and into less challenging waters.
One has time to reflect on quite a lot during an open water swim. There are moments when 30 or 40 minutes goes by in the blink of an eye… and then there are times where 5 minutes feels like an eternity. Your mind wanders. Your thoughts – just like during any endurance undertaking – vacillate between both the positive and negative. Thoughts like “this has to be one of the most beautiful experiences one could encounter” are followed by “one could just pass out and die out here… simply disappear beneath the water and… that’d be it. Scary.” Endurance sports have taught me to better understand both the positive and negative within me. Thoughts like this are the norm when you’re out on a multi-hour trail run, mountain bike ride, climb, etc… the difference on an open water swim, obviously, is that stakes are much higher. It’s kinda hard to take a break and regroup when there’s nowhere to stand up and when open water swimming rules dictate that intentional watercraft contact negates the validity of a swim. You can’t “walk off” a cramp. You can’t simply turn around and head back to the car if you get worn out like you could on a long run… the only way out of an open water swim is to finish it. It doesn’t take long, out in the middle of a large body of water, to understand how quickly something could go wrong. I have a much deeper respect for the sport of open water swimming than I did before. The margin for error is so disturbingly thin, you can take nothing for granted.
And yet, this was easily one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. To see this environment from a perspective that very few, if any, people ever get to experience. To see the sunrise over the lake while out in the water… Watching thunderstorms blow in up over the ridge (we made it out of the water just as it was rumbling, with barely 15 minutes to spare before the skies unleashed. Good thing we didn’t start any later). Experiencing the underwater noise pollution from powerboats that wildlife experiences. It gave me a different perspective on how fragile our ecosystems are, and how conservation cannot be an option. It has to be a necessity if we are to retain the sustainability of the world around us.
These, and countless other thoughts, are what took up the space in my head during close to 4 hours of swimming. As we got into the Southern third of the swim, a current started to work in my favor, just as I’d hoped. This was, of course, perfect timing, as I was getting mentally tired – having far surpassed my personal record of 2 hours swimming by that point – and I would take any encouragement I could get. I knew that some of my family was meeting me at the end of the swim, so that was definitely a huge added psychological boost as I got further into the swim and got well past that 3 hour point.
I’m blind as a bat without glasses on, so wearing goggles I could only sight landmarks on the horizon, but it was really hard to tell where the Southern shore of the lake was. Honeoye Lake ends in a wetland area heading into a stream, so it all sort of blends together on the horizon. Visibility across long water distances is so tricky to begin with, a swim of this distance really is a mental game as you swim for hours at a time but feel like the horizon isn’t getting any closer. The only way I could truly gauge progress was by the cottages I could tell I was passing on the shoreline. Eventually Sean saw the boat launch on the South end and realized that we were almost there. Not gonna lie, it was a relief! I would have swum as long as it took, but it was nice to know that the end was in sight. Good thing too, considering that thunderstorms were blowing in hours ahead of the forecast, the sky had darkened, and we were starting to hear rumbling not too far off.
There is a line of buoys marking the South end of the lake. I swam past, trying to see how far I could make it into the marshy area, but the amount of algae and sea grasses made the area unswimmable. My arms and ankles were getting tangled up and it wasn’t practical to keep on going into the wetlands. I decided that the buoy line was the end and called it a swim. 3 hours and 32 minutes. Another 10 minutes or so of swimming back up to the boat launch area and I was greeted by my family – which was amazing… it was such an encouragement to know that they’d be there waiting for me at the end! I managed to hop up onto the dock under my own strength and stand without wobbling too much, so that was good.
What’s next? Well, I’m hoping to knock off Conesus Lake (7 miles) and Canandaigua Lake (15.5 miles) in August and September. I’ve got work ahead of me. More training, more hours in the pool, more hours in the lake, watercraft crew logistics to work out, trips to both lakes to learn more about each body of water… There are so many details involved. I’m excited about www.FingerLakesSwim.com and being able to document this whole experience – I’m hoping that my efforts will help pave the way for an increased interest in open water swimming in the Finger Lakes/Great Lakes region. We have such a world class area here, I’m proud to be part of it, and I can only hope that others will follow in my footsteps. Thanks to all of you who are helping to make this dream come true – it has been so humbling to see everyone’s response to this!
You can learn more at www.FINGERLAKESSWIM.com, and please make a donation if you are able to – donations help support the countless logistics involved in this project.
A very important side-note: the Finger Lakes Region of NY is at the center of an escalating fight over the future of Hydraulic Fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking” or “hydrofracking”) in the United States. While it is true that this technology can extract needed natural gas energies for our consumption while creating needed jobs, it does so only temporarily, and at such an astonishingly high price and with such irreversible ecological devastation that we must halt this industry if we are to maintain an environment fit for human life over multiple generations. The alternative (as other areas of our Country and the World are finding) is permanently polluted water tables and soil stock, loss of agriculture, pollution of air supply, and devastation of communities making them unfit for human habitation. Fracking is a short-sighted gain in exchange for a permanent loss. Please educate yourself about this practice and find out how you can become involved at CoalitionToProtectNewYork.org.