A Lakeside Spiritual Experience
Many of us developed different ways to break the tedium and anxiety of the Covid lockdown and surprised ourselves in the process. I tried baking sourdough bread but lacked the patience and creative experimentation the process demanded. And I explored drinking too much wine, taking endless long walks, practicing Italian via Duolingo, and even, for a short time, considered cleaning the basement. Never would I have imagined that the solace and energy I sought would be found by taking a daily plunge in Lake Washington. But what began as a traditional Thanksgiving dip was followed the next day by another and the next day, another. And then the game was on. By mid-March I had tallied more than 100 lake plunges and increased the time I could spend in the water from the few seconds it took to get my head wet to eight minutes.
In addition to receiving a marvelous endorphin rush from the cold shock, to which I am now admittedly addicted, my visits to the lake provide an opportunity to revel in the beauty of the water in all its moods. The glassy silk on a calm winter afternoon reflecting purplish hues is an immeasurable reward after a few days of quick submerges when strong southerly winds kick up waves and the dreaded frigid water from the lake’s depths. I have gone in on full moons, and when it snowed, and in pelting rain squalls. Friends have joined the challenge and we compare notes on what hurts the most in the cold water: fingers or toes. We tell ourselves we are boosting our immune systems but, really, we are boosting our morale.
We have learned we are not alone. There is quite a community of winter swimmers out there. We hear rumors of the yoga teacher who swims naked at dawn near Seward Park, and we have seen the long-distance swimmer whose stamina astounds us. We have also learned about Wim Hof and cold-water breathing techniques and watched “My Octopus Teacher.” And as if all that weren’t enough to distract from the pandemic, on February 14, my husband and I went down to the small rocky beach next to the T dock and were surprised to see a pair of dark eyes staring at us from the still water. A seal! A mere ten feet from the shore! Time and breath stopped together as the luminous eyes fixed us with a curious stare. My husband and I stood spellbound, transfixed, silent. Then, with a graceful dive, the creature was gone. I’ve seen beavers, nutria and muskrats in the lake, and once even a sea lion rolling over in the exact same spot on a hot summer afternoon when the lake was full of oblivious swimmers, but these sightings paled in comparison to this moment when meaningful chance took on a deeper relevance and we felt connected to the spiritual beauty of Nature.
Uncertain and hesitant, not sure I wanted to break the spell, I finally did a quick dash in and out of the frigid water, then raced home to get warm and fire up the Internet. Sure enough, there have been other sightings of seals in the lake (and sea lions, too). Harbor seals, the most populous mammal in Puget Sound, will follow fish through the locks at Ballard and make their way to the lake. (I’m not sure if there is evidence of their returning the way they came.) Having answered my most important question, “Will they bite humans in the water?” (yes, they do have large teeth, but biting is highly unlikely as they are shy and solitary. They might also scratch with their flippers. Yes, an infection could follow contact...), I came across the story of Butch, a harbor seal who lived for 25 years in Lake Sammamish and whose idea of fun was pulling unsuspecting dogs under water when they were swimming after sticks. He was known for also playing with children, chasing cats, and nuzzling the odd swimmer. (https://www.historylink.org/File/5542). Reading about Butch calmed my fears about swimming with seals (it’s one thing to see them, but another to share their space).
I perused a few other seal facts and came away knowing that they eat up to ten pounds of fish per day (a fact that does not bode well for the fishers on the T dock), they are known as “pinnipeds,” and they can lower their heartbeat to less than one beat per minute when they dive. In the end, the most profound takeaway was the knowledge that to the Northwest coast tribes, seals represent wealth and plenty, the very intangible gifts the lake in Leschi has offered me this past winter: a wealth of experiences and plentiful moments of awe.
If you see a seal or sea lion, report it to the state to help wildlife officials keep track of populations. https://wdfw.wa.gov/get-involved/report-observations and let us know at Leschi News!