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Summers by Lake Water

By Katharine Cook


My family—boat people, water people—settled on the shores of Lake Michigan, in Evanston, Illinois. My mother’s brothers both swam competitively for the University of Michigan, my father had sailed a canoe around the south shore of the lake to Muskegon as a young man. He wanted to race and sell motorboats for a living, but his father wanted professions for his three sons and insisted he go to medical school.

My mother, a distance rather than a speed swimmer, could make the two miles across Lake Charlevoix, where my grandfather had bought land for a family summer home. There children were rewarded with a silver dollar for their first 50 strokes, and I still remember how as a first or second grader, I tried hard to propel myself through the choppy waves, gasping for enough air to breathe and swim for my reward.

In the years following I received mentoring in distance swimming at summer camp on Lake Windego in Wisconsin, where I swam my own first mile—75 laps across the swim area and back—and later, at Oberlin College, studied water ballet, which I eventually taught at a summer camp in New Hampshire.

In Evanston we skated on the frozen water of a canal, or on school playgrounds turned into ice rinks while Lake Michigan froze over. When the ice finally melted in spring, I was among the first on the beach, into and standing hip deep in cold water:  happy, in awe of being able to go in again, feel myself immersed in the element I knew and loved best.

Tomales Bay, almost identical in size and shape to Lake Charlevoix, has the same proximity to a larger body of water, the Pacific Ocean. After having crossed the continent to San Francisco in the 60s, and some years later crossed Marin County to Tomales Bay, I walked with interest along a trail on its east shore, feeling gratitude for a body of water to swim in, to sail on, whose elemental presence could refresh me every day, if only by sight. “In the water” was always home to me, the place where I felt nurtured and supported, loved making my way backstroking parallel to the beach at Heart’s Desire, changing strokes, floating, at home in the water.

When I swim, I think of my brain as being a whale brain, and have often wondered if our species is destined to leave the earth we have burned up with global warming and return to the sea from which we came.