I live and work on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, one of New Zealand’s largest and deepest lakes, glacially-fed with an average surface temperature of about 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit. The lake’s deepest part is more than 1,000 feet down. It was used as a stand-in location for Loch Ness in a movie.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yeah! Let’s go swimming!
I’ve been wanting to swim in the lake ever since moving here, but I’m not one of those superhuman people who do the cold-water, long-distance swimming without a wetsuit (I know because I read up on it… they have exactly the body type I don’t, with extra layers of insulating fat around their torsos). So I needed a wetsuit. Easier said than done. At 6′ tall and with more than a little junk in the trunk, I am too big for the women’s suits, which seem to be made for teeny tiny little scraps of waifer-thin creatures. But the men’s suits are big in all the wrong places and too small everywhere else.
I was on a mission my first month here, trying on every wetsuit I could squeeze my foot into (which, interestingly enough, was not many… I have big feet, too). There are few things simultaneously more comical and more frustrating than trying on a wetsuit that’s doomed not to fit in a sporting goods store dressing room. I’d just about given up, but on my weekend in Dunedin back in November, I passed a store that was having its annual wetsuit sale, went in and tried on three different suits.
The third one fit like it was made for me.
Which, when it comes to wetsuits, means it only took 15 minutes to get on instead of half an hour of grunting, wriggling, squeezing and squirming.
I bought it (40 percent off! Yeah!) and, to anyone else in my position (but not in my wetsuit… it’s mine! Hands off!), here’s a tip: find a guy who knows what the hell he’s talking about. When I walked in and expressed my fear that there was no wetsuit to fit me, the guy at R&R Sports looked me up and down with a practiced eye and said “you need an O’Neill suit.” He was right… I ended up with an O’Neill women’s suit, the name of which is either EPIC or BLACKOUT, since those are the two words written on the suit (other than O’Neill). I liked the idea of swimming in a freezing cold lake in a suit called EPIC BLACKOUT, given the not far-fetched risk of hypothermia.
Anyway… O’Neill suits are apparently cut from taller fit models than other suits, and have more stretch, which is why I can not only zip mine up but actually swim in it with full range of motion.
I heart you, O’Neill.
My suit is a 3/2 suit, which is thinner than what I should be swimming in here, but, ahem, I have my own natural insulation to make up for not having a 4/3 suit (the numbers relate to the material’s thickness in millimeters; the first number is the suit’s thickness around your vital organs and the second number is around your extremities, which apparently are more expendable than, say, your spleen).
I took my suit out for a swim first on Diamond Lake, a smaller, shallower lake nearby that’s popular with fly fishermen, though none were around the afternoon I plunged in. Diamond Lake might be a little warmer, a lot less deep and without the waves and currents of Lake Wakatipu, but it was no heated pool, let me tell you. It’s also surrounded by sheep and cow pastures, with a lot of run-off and somewhat murky water. All I could think of was how little I wanted to have giardia again. I’ve had it several times and once you’ve got it, it’s the gift that keeps giving. Ugh.
So I worked up my nerve to swim in Lake Wakatipu. It is big. It’s got its own seiche, which is a surface oscillation similar to a tide, sometimes found in high, large mountain lakes. On a windy day (and there are many here) it gets swells. Did I mention it’s around 50-55 degrees and more than 1,000 feet deep in places?
I dove in, ready for that awful first minute, as the wetsuit fills with cold, cold water and my lungs scream GETMEOUTOFHERE! The way wetsuits work, in case you don’t know (I didn’t until I started my mission), is that they allow a thin layer of water in, over your entire body, which your body then heats, creating a protective layer of warmth that the suit then traps.
I know all this but it still doesn’t stop me from spending the first minute in the water thrashing around sputtering expletives and wondering why I can’t just sit on a couch and play Nintendo like everyone else.
Once the wetsuit warms that trapped layer of water, though, it’s wonderful. I wouldn’t say I was warm, but I was comfortable. Except for my feet. My feet are miserable throughout a cold water swim and for a long time later.
Dear Santa: all I really want for Christmas is a pair of neoprene booties. They make them, and I’m buying them, as soon as I can find a pair in my size for a reasonable price.
Other than frozen feet, the only difficult part of swimming in the lake is the drop-off. Specifically, seeing it. When I’m swimming away from shore, the water is clear and the bottom drops steeply away. There is something terrifying on a primeval level about willingly swimming into deep water. I haven’t been bothered at all by it when I’ve done triathlons, but I think only because I knew the bottom was there, 40 or 50 feet down at most.
In Lake Wakatipu, seeing how steeply it drops and knowing just how deep it goes, it’s hard not to panic. I get the same feeling I got when my friend Laura and I were on Lake Baikal and looking over the side of the boat, able to see the chasm below through the crystal clear water.
Since my eventual goal is to swim to the islands in the middle of the lake, however, I’m forcing myself to get over the whole abyss thing (did I mention the lake was a stunt double for Loch Ness?). I do this either by swimming with my eyes closed (if I can’t see it, it’s not there, right? Right??) or doing the backstroke until I am far enough out that I can’t see anything below me, and the water is just a lovely shade of milky turquoise thanks to the rock flour. (Rock flour is made by glaciers grinding down rocks into tiny particles that then float in the water and reflect the light, giving glacially-fed waters those fantastic pale blue, glowing hues.)
Of course, I still occasionally get panicky moments, which always begin the same way:
I know there are no sharks in the lake. I think it’s just a fear response instilled in me when my grandfather took me to see “Jaws” at the tender age of six. There are trout and eels, some really big eels, but no real predators. There aren’t even sea lions that could mistake me for an extremely large, ill-formed penguin. Also, there have been no claims of a Nessie or Champ-like monster in the lake (I checked).
Of course, since no one swims in the lake aside from a couple people in the height of summer in a few shallow beach areas, I figure that just may mean the lake monster hasn’t had the opportunity to try human flesh. Yet.
I get over the panic by doing the backstroke for a little while (again, if I can’t see it, it’s not there) and staring up at the sky, the clouds, the shoulders of the mountains that seem to lean in on all sides. And swimming in the lake itself is magical (again, once I get past the giant freshwater shark thing). The water feels and smells and tastes incredibly pure, and also old… I mean old in an ancient sense, as if it’s always been there and has seen millennia go by. I do feel like I’m swimming in Middle Earth.
Swimming is always very relaxing for me, but even moreso in Lake Wakatipu (aside from the shark thing), where I find sometimes I like to just float, face up or face down, feeling like a speck of rock suspended in the cold water, contemplating nothingness, my world silent but for the swoosh of waves past my ears (and sometimes, when it’s windy, over my head).
I’m sure one of these days some passing motorist will call emergency services to report a body floating motionless in the lake, but until then, Dear Santa: I really, really need those booties.