Swimming California Waters

August 22, 2008 § 1 Comment

“… whatever sense of personal renewal comes in swimming across a river, it is one that parallels the reclamation of the river itself… Each river has its own feel, taste, texture, its own flow, velocity. The stewardship of rivers will only be furthered by the intimate knowledge of these qualities.” Akiko Busch, Nine Ways to Cross a River: Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There from Here

Agua University Youth, Leaders and Hosts

Agua University Youth, Leaders and Hosts

Apologies for not posting for a couple weeks, as, with Jessica, I’ve been away on a 2-week tour of California Waters. The tour was organized by my friend Miguel Luna of Urban Semillas / Agua University. With a wonderful crew of 15 high school and middle school youth, we toured various waters of California, learning about the impacts of dams, revitalized rivers, water politics, and Native Americans’ reverence for waters. All along we made connections with the sources and impacts of water that LA imports.

There were many excellent things about the trip (which I plan to use as material for three or four blogs), but the most remarkable thing for me was to swim in the varied waters we visited. I try to keep in shape by swimming a couple times each week in the downtown L.A. YMCA pool. I’ve often repeated the slogan that the Los Angeles River should be “fishable and swimmable” (echoing the 1972 federal Clean Water Act’s assertion that all our waters must be safe for wildlife and human health.) Up until now, that “swimmable” was more-or-less rhetorical. I hadn’t really pictured myself swimming in the often murky waters of the mighty Los Angeles. That is, until the past two weeks gave me a chance to swim in a number of rivers and lakes. This swimming has allowed me to better relate to these places – briefly to tangibly know and feel these waters.

Waterfalls on the McCloud River

Waterfalls on the McCloud River

What we call the McCloud River is known as the Winnemem by its people, the Winnemem Wintu. The Winnemem Wintu hold the river and Mount Shasta (where the river originates) as sacred sites. As part of a ritual that echoed the upstream journey of salmon, the Winnemem Wintu and their guests swim at three waterfalls on the river. Before the Shasta Dam made the river impassable, countless salmon made their journey up each of these ten to twenty-plus feet high falls – though one of the waterfalls is known to the Winnemem Wintu as “the place where salmon turn back.” The waters of the river were cold and clear. From so much swimming in urban pools, I was unaccustomed to swimming in waters with current. As I swam toward the falls, the current increased. The pounding waters of the falls become loud; the surface of the water agitated and the air full of water, making deep breathing difficult. The moment I let up, the current gently swept me back away downstream. Swimming the Winnemem waters, within that ritual, helped me to empathize with the strength of the salmon that had passed this way for eons before me.

We swam at two places along the American River. Initially we took dips at our campsite in Lotus which is very near Coloma where gold was discovered and precipitated the California Gold Rush.  The river there supports kayaking, rafting and inner-tubing, so (I overheard) this activity is facilitated by water releases from an upstream dam. Like clockwork at about 10am each morning, the river sublty starts to rise becoming more agitated on its surface.  It turns a shimmering blue as it reflects the sky. The more still waters along the shores are slightly warmer, and the waters nearer the center are cool with strong current. Though the river wasn’t all that wide, the combination of cooler waters and stronger currents made the crossing somewhat difficult for some of the youth who weren’t strong swimmers. I found myself in the role of lifeguard, swimming alongside youth as they swam across.

The other spot on the American River where we swam was on the American River Parkway in Sacramento. This stretch of the river is much wider and outwardly very calm. The water is fairly warm (though refreshing) and a bit murkier than upstream at Lotus. As I walked down into the waters, my feet sunk to nearly my knees into muddy soft bottom. Three of us, myself, Ernie and Carlos set out to swim to the other side. The current was present, but mellow, a little stronger in midstream, but not nearly as strong as upstream or on the McCloud. At about halfway across, Ernie decided that it was too far for him to swim, so we turned back. I had my heart set on swimming across, so I persuaded Carlos to try it again. Again about halfway across, Carlos voiced his concern that he wasn’t sure he would go the whole way. I assured him that it would be ok to turn back, but that I really did wanted to cross. He assented and we made our way to the far shore, upsetting a gaggle of Canada Geese that had settled there. Later in the trip he would thank me for pushing him to swim the whole way.

Eddie and Joe afloat in Mono Lake

Eddie and Joe afloat in Mono Lake

The next swimming was in the nearly surreal waters of Mono Lake. In the Eastern Sierras, the Mono Basin has no outlet to the ocean, so lake water has collected and evaporated for millennia, becoming saltier than the ocean. The waters were very still and felt thick and viscous. Youth (much leaner than I) who had difficulty floating in the previously mentioned rivers were excited to find that they could float very easily here. I dove in and felt my eyes mildly stinging. When I tried to rinse them off, I found that it wasn’t possible take the sting away with the salty water. We floated and paddled around. Lying on our backs, we were able to simultaneously keep our feet, hands and heads above water. Upon exiting, the water dried up leaving a coat of salt on our skin, which felt like it was stretching the skin taught. Mono is a strange place, with its odd tufa (rock structures formed by underwater calcium reacting with carbonate in the water), huge numbers of flies and tiny shrimp, it’s a sort of moonscape – beautiful, but somehow always a bit off from my expectations of what a lake should be. The quality of the water – and one’s weightlessness in it – reinforces this. The site is a storied one; its tales include those of Los Angeles taking water from this place and the long and largely very successful political struggle to achieve a balance to bring the lake back toward health.

After that we played at the beach of June Lake. Not far from Mono, but much smaller and (I think) a bit higher in elevation, June Lake has clear calm waters and a gently sloping beach. It’s not at all near as saline as Mono (I’d be grateful to any reader who can explain why these nearby waterbodies are so different – please comment.) Dozens of folks lined its shorefront, playing and swimming and diving off of one large rock. The youth and I felt like we were at the beach, albeit with nearly no waves. It’s a very pleasant spot to respite from the Sierran summer.

Now back in Los Angeles, I am plotting when would be a good time for a swim in the waters of the Los Angeles River. I am willing to brave the not-entirely-safe waters of the LA River and look forward to feeling the differences in the water as we steward our local waters to greater health.


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