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Swim 2: Alaska

Alaska—In a Word “Big”

The final sprint to the airport in Hawaii gave way nine hours in the air with a layover in Seattle. We were on the ground in Alaska for less than ten hours, from 2:00am to 11:55am on the same day. The swim was in the aptly named "Big Lake" nearly a 90 minute drive from the airport. Approximately 3 hours in the car and 3 ½ hours projected in the water did not leave much margin for error. Huge relief when the flight landed on time.

John had scored us a first class upgrade on our Delta flight from Seattle to Anchorage, a perk of having flown over a million miles with Delta while working as a contractor in Nigeria.

We were picked up at the airport by Wendy Kolberg, a saint for making a 2:00am airport run, then driving us to the lake, kayaking and acting as the official observer for the swim. We were joined at the lake by Jeff Moessinger. Jeff coached with Swim Neptune for nearly five years before relocating to take a teaching job in Alaska last summer. Another reminder of the brotherhood of swimming was that I met the Kolbergs when their sons practiced in Phoenix during holiday breaks from the Alaska winter. It was our Swim Neptune contact who got us through our logistically challenging Alaska swim.

We arrive at Big Lake just after 4am. It was a rare hour of darkness in the Alaska summer. The sky was clouded over completely and a light drizzle of rain spit in fits and starts.

We intentionally hadn't looked at the water temperature online because we didn't want to know. This was our only option for an Alaska swim, so the temperature didn't really matter. The conditions are what they are and you step up and swim. I broke down three days before the swim and checked online. It was between 56-57 degrees. Good enough. We’d swum colder for longer and while it wasn't going to be comfortable it was a relief that it wasn't 53...or worse. We approached the lake, thermometer in hand, with trepidation. Online temperature reports are notoriously inaccurate so this was the moment of truth. The air registered 59 on the thermometer and I braced myself as I put it in the water wondering just how far it was going to drop. To my great surprise and elation, it rose, ticking all the way up to 62 degrees. That was best case scenario and bathwater compared to what we feared.

John and I made our way to the boat ramp and started the swim. We swam an Island Loop route, a route that starts and finishes in the same place. Routes must be measured as "shortest possible distance" as proscribed by the Marathon Swim Federation.

Once I got over the shock that the water was NOT as cold as I had feared I was struck by the sheer beauty of the lake. While it was overcast with intermittent drizzle, the mountains in the distance, the trees lakeside, and the glassy condition of the lake made it seem like we could swim forever. After less than an hour of swimming we could see the island that marked our turn around point. We circled the island counter clockwise and headed back to the start location. Unlike straight line routes like our Hawaii and Lake Tahoe swims, the loop routes are mentally easier as there is a definite halfway point and we recognized various landmarks on the way back, leading to the finish. I was surprised by how shallow the lake was in some points and startled after looking into clear, but dark water. It would seem like the bottom of the lake jumped up at us and we were all of a sudden in water that appeared 3-4 feet deep. Reeds growing on the bottom looked like uncanny arms reaching up. We found a perfect pace, effortlessly staying side by side as we swam into the finish. John had a close call at the finish as he tried to stand up on the slimy boat ramp, lost his footing and tumbled backwards. Fortunately, he only has a few scrapes.

It was a smooth swim, taking only 3 hours 14 minutes, and led to another frenetic rush to the airport. On the drive back in the dim morning light, we could really appreciate the vastness of the Alaskan landscape and the impressive size of everything. We never saw the sun in our visit to the Frontier State, but could picture how beautiful it must be with blue skies, vast green valleys, and snowcapped mountains.

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