Dark figures lurk about the hot sandy beach. Most are wearing full-body neoprene, only bits of pale skin shine through—full-moon faces squashed circular into cold-water hoods.
It’s the first annual Marsh Lake Float and Boat, an attempt by a group of loosely associated Yukoners to swim two-and-a-quarter kilometres across Marsh Lake alongside a flotilla of support boats. The unsanctioned event evolved organically: over beers at a barbecue a month earlier between three friends, it grew to a crowd of 17 through word-of-mouth and Facebook. There’s a nine-year-old and a 61-year-old here. And though there’s a range in swimming abilities, we all share one thing: a love of open-water swimming, free from chlorine, narrow lanes and monotonous lap counting.
Motors rumble as boats jockey for a position along the beach to pick up swimmers for the shuttle across to the start line on the far shore. Suddenly, a loud bang, and flames lick out the back of an old 9.9-horsepower, blue-grey smoke billowing from under the plastic hood, rattling our already jangled nerves. “Everybody out!” shouts my brother, Peter, shooing passengers out of the tin boat while dousing the fire with bailers-full of water.
The evacuees reassemble in other vessels: a large fishing boat, a 22-foot C-Dory, and a red freighter canoe. A houseboat, a sailboat, a canoe and a sea-kayak already await us at the far shore. Two swimmers are there too, having camped the night before on that unpopulated shore.
“Remember, this isn’t a race!” I, as de facto event organizer, shout out at the start line. “Feel free to jump in a boat at any time to warm up or take a rest!”
“Or to have a drink!” someone shouts.
The rules are simple: boats stay on the right, swimmers on the left, and if anyone has a problem, they’ll wave their arms for help. An air horn blasts and the swimmers wade into the lake.
The water is only 14 C, but it’s glass-flat and the sun is hot—a rarity on this usually windswept lake. As the first trickles of icy water rush down the back of my wetsuit, doubt sets in. Like many participants here, I’m not a regular swimmer. But soon, mesmerized by the dazzling view of the sunlit lake bottom, and buoyed by the extra floatation my wetsuit affords, both my spirits and internal temperature rise.
About halfway across the lake, I raise my head to take stock. “Everything alright?” shouts Susan Walton, a friend and lakeside neighbour paddling her sea-kayak alongside the long line of swimmers. “Yeah, everything’s great.”
I speak too soon. A fishing boat charges full-speed into our school. Despite shouts and waving arms and paddles, the boat barely slows. Somehow, it manages to pick a safe path through the front-crawling gang. Temporarily shaken, I resume my breathe-stroke-repeat meditation, eyes peeled on the gradient blue abyss below.
As I near the beach, I see a dozen people above me, cheering me to the finish. Crawling out onto the hot sand, my body and brain are flooded with happy chemicals. “This is the most fun I’ve had all summer,” I hear my voice exclaim, echoing loud inside my diver’s hood. Peeling off my rubbery exoskeleton, six members of the Masters Swim Club, who meet regularly at 6 a.m. to swim Whitehorse’s Long Lake, greet me. Sophia Brown Marnik is a forty-something on a mission to front-crawl her way around most of Whitehorse’s lakes this summer. (Her teenage son usually accompanies her on his stand-up paddleboard.) “This has got to be one of the best swims of my summer,” she gushes with a gaping smile.
Swimmers keep trickling in. Last to arrive, at about an hour and a half (nobody was officially timing), are my headstrong nine-year-old nephew, Reid, and his mother, Deb Higgins. Reid never planned to do the swim but he jumped in at the start line and never stopped. Wearing only a shorty wetsuit, he curls up in a ball on the sand, grinning, and moans, “I can’t feel my hands or feet.” We whisk him into my piping hot sauna where he stays for a good 30 minutes before emerging to join the full-swing beach party.
“It’s cool I could swim in that temperature for so long,” says the freckled kid. “I feel pretty proud of myself.” I ask if he’d do it again. He nods. Of course he will.