History, Motivation

Crossing Lake Washington 20 Years Later

I know Seattle well. I was born there, for starters. My childhood home in the Mt. Baker neighborhood was the only home I knew until I moved away for college. I grew up with a best friend down the street with whom I did and shared everything, even parents. It was a different time, the eighties. We had walkie-talkies and code names and we roamed the neighborhood alone—on bikes and on foot. We explored the wooded overgrowth lining our local park that wound its way down to our small public beach on Lake Washington, where we would swim.

In the summers, I took sailing lessons with friends at the Mt. Baker Rowing and Sailing center, an unpretentious Parks and Recreation program where we learned to rig and sail Lasers and Laser 2s. The wind was often barely more than a tease, and when the wind didn’t show at all, we rocked our little boats until they capsized. As far as I was concerned, jumping off the slippery bottom of the turtled sailboat in the middle of the lake and swimming around and under it was far more fun than sitting in the boat, dry.

I did like sailing, I think, but I mostly just loved being on the water. I came to know the lake better—no longer confined to swimming and biking along its edges; I got a sense for the middle of it, and began to see it as a crossable body of water. I was fascinated by stories of a giant sea-monster-like sturgeon that apparently roamed the bottom of the lake, some 220 feet below. I imagined swimming down to the bottom to find it, to a place that was dark and cold. The thought scared me, and drew me in.

When I was ten, the I-90 floating bridge between Seattle and Mercer Island sank. We saw it first from my parents’ bedroom, and then jumped in the car to get a closer look. From what was left of the Seattle side of the bridge, my family watched as it disappeared under the water—that is, until a city worker shooed us off and scolded my parents for putting themselves and their children in obvious peril. I thought a lot about that bridge in the years to come, especially when sailing and swimming on the lake. I imagined that sturgeon playing in the wreckage, and I imagined myself down there with it. It gave me the chills, and made me smile.

I knew enough to know I could not venture down to the bottom of the lake to explore, despite my alarming ability to hold my breath for a long time. But every time I walked along the edge, or sailed around in the middle of Lake Washington, I’d look from shore to shore and think, “I could totally swim across that.” It looked far—and was certainly farther than I had ever swum before—but I could tread water about as casually as I could stand on the sidewalk, so I didn’t see “far” as an obstacle so much as a factor that would determine how long it took. But just as the cold, the dark, and the giant-sturgeon of the deep dissuaded me from heading to the bottom, my dreams of swimming across the lake were dashed by the reality of motorboats and jetskis that sped around recklessly. In my minds-eye, the image of my body being chopped up by the motor of a speeding boat was always the gruesome punctuation at the end of an otherwise wonderful and exciting train-of-thought.

I imagined myself wearing a little flag to alert boaters I was there, but knew deep down that that would be insufficient. I also knew that the adults in my life, despite their lapse in judgment taking me out onto a sinking bridge, would never allow me to do something so dangerous. If only someone had suggested a boat escort. Of course, I’m not sure I ever even vocalized my desire to swim across the lake, at least not to anyone other than my friends. If only I had had the Internet, I probably would have been inspired by Gertrude Ederle a lot sooner in my life, and I most likely would have landed on the idea of a boat escort on my own.

It was 20 years later that I discovered open water swimming and the amazing community of folks who share my desire to swim far. From English Channel swimmers I met in Malta, to my local Brooklyn CIBBOWS (many of them also Channel swimmers), local kayakers who graciously volunteer their time to support swimmers, and the connections I have made on-line through my blog and the Marathon Swimmers Forum, there is no dearth of information or support. Of course, I came into my own as a marathon swimmer nearly a decade after moving away from Seattle, so the thought of a Lake Washington crossing didn’t immediately come to mind. Not only is this childhood dream-crossing 3,000 miles from my Brooklyn home, it’s just not that far across, at only 2.5 miles at its widest.

Last year, when perusing the internet for swim events around Seattle to coincide with a trip back home, I happened upon a charity swim across Lake Washington that just happened to be planned for a Wednesday (who does that?) and that Wednesday just happened to be my mom’s birthday, August 15th. Stars don’t align like that for no reason, so my mom and I signed up for the event—I would swim and she would be my kayaker. My mom had kayaked for me before, most notably for my very first marathon swim of any real distance: the 2011 Kingdom Swim in Vermont, a 10-mile lake swim. As a distance swimmer, I am lucky to have an avid kayaker in the family. From what I can tell, she enjoys being my boat escort, so it was a perfect way for us to enjoy the morning of her 65th birthday together.

The swim itself was, well, just a swim. It wasn’t that far, and the water wasn’t cold. But I enjoyed it enormously, as it held so much significance for my inner child psyche. And now, my adult psyche is dreaming up tackling Lake Washington length-wise, a not-so-meager 21 miles.

August 15th, 2012: Early in the morning before the Puget Sound Blood Center’s Swim for Life Across Lake Washington, Looking from Medina across to Seattle’s Madison Beach


About Caitlin Rosen



4 thoughts on “Crossing Lake Washington 20 Years Later

  1. Caitlin, Beautifully written. How long did it take to rebuild the floating bridge – and where did I-90 traffic go in the meantime?
    Can one just get a paddler and cross Lake Washington at any time? And what is the range of temperatures in the lake from warmest to coolest?

    Posted by Terry Laughlin | November 23, 2012, 5:20 pm
  2. Hey Terry,
    Great questions. I don’t know for sure how long it took to rebuild the bridge, but there are actually two bridges side by side there, so it wasn’t a total shut-down of traffic. I would say yes to getting a paddler any time, although I don’t actually know if there are any regulations. There very well may be. The lake ranges from the high 40s in the winter to the 60s in the summer months. It’s a good lake. I was lucky to grow up right by it.

    Posted by Caitlin Rosen | November 23, 2012, 5:49 pm
  3. Oh I so remember the sinking bridge too! My dad pulled me out of a soccer game over in Montlake to race up to Mt. Baker to watch it! :-) I miss those summer days capsized in the lake with you. They really were the best! Keep the posts coming!

    Posted by Becca | November 28, 2012, 1:40 pm

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About Me

Caitlin Rosen I learned to swim as a wee one from my dad, who didn't really swim himself, but was tall enough and encouraging enough to send me back and forth to the side of a pool. There were also the terrifyingly wonderful trips on his shoulders out into crashing ocean surf, which instilled in me a fear and respect for the rising and falling, tempestuous beast, on whom he repeatedly admonished us kids to never, ever turn our backs. Read more...

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