Cold Water Jogging off Sauvie Island

Maryl and I ventured to Reeder Beach on Sauvie Island after our 8:30 Barre3 class this morning. Maryl is the special education teacher I work with at Fern Hill Elementary School and brave crew volunteer accompanying me on my North Channel attempt.

Reeder Beach on Sauvie Island, in the Columbia River is almost an hour drive from Forest Grove. Despite the distance, it is my favorite open water swim spot because I can stand up in an emergency, and I can swim about ten feet off the long sandy beach, where my shore support can walk next to me with my warming gear ready.

The car thermometer reported an air temperature of 38 degrees when we parked at 10:45. My car was the only vehicle in the parking area supporting my hypothesis that I was the only lunatic open water swimmer out this morning.  There were other athletes on the island though. We had passed a couple speedy women running solo (not jogging), and a large pack of cyclists on our drive around the island to the beach. See the link at the end of this posting for a map of Sauvie Island.  We didn’t waste any time in the car. Just grabbed my gear and headed across the road to the beach.  It was gray everywhere. The sand high above the tideline was damp and looked like freshly poured cement. The water mirrored the overcast sky, and across the river on the Washington side, we could see bare-branched-trees (I’m guessing Cottonwoods, but my dad the tree identification expert wasn’t with me to confirm). The pool thermometer I swim with showed a temperature of 39 degrees close to shore (farther out it was closer to 38 degrees). It is definitely still winter in Northern Oregon.

My goal was to be in the water for ten minutes with the first five minutes spent swimming head high breaststroke (this was my first experience in sub 40 degree water). I started timing at 10:53 when I was waist deep in the water, and I got out at 11:09. I exceeded my time exposed in the water, but barely swam. Standing waist deep in the water, my legs experienced a painful stabbing sensation that I described to Maryl as a “pins and needles poking.” I jogged in place for several minutes with the water line at chest level, but the pain didn’t dissipate. Eventually I turned and started jogging upstream. Finally the prickling eased to the familiar comfortable, numbness that I have experienced in all other previous cold water swims. I lifted my feet off the sandy bottom and started my head-high breaststroke only to find that my arms then experienced the same painful prickly sensation. I couldn’t feel my hands beyond my stinging wrists, and when I pulled them out to make sure they were still there, they were a deeper red than the normal lobster red my shoulders turn when I’m swimming in cold water (my hands usually stay white). I quit paddling and continued running upstream until we came to a log on the shore about 500 yards from where I entered. I turned around and told Maryl I was going to swim back to my entry point. For the second time, I lifted my feet and tried some underwater breaststroke pulls. Once more the stabbing sensation returned to the entire surface area of my arms, which forced me to drop my feet back down to the bottom. My torso and legs remained comfortably numb, but my arms and brain couldn’t handle the frigidness. I jogged with the water line at my chest and arms grazing the surface, while keeping my hands above the water, the entire way back to my flip flops (Maryl had my fuzzy boots in the bag she was carrying in case I couldn’t make it back to start).  I fully submerged one time prior to exiting. My wrists continued to experience significant pain, but my neck and head didn’t feel any instant discomfort.

Despite the stinging in my wrists, I still had enough fine motor control to pull my swimming suit straps down off my shoulders before wading out of the river, and to turn the dial that ejects water from my apple watch. By 11:11, I had my suit off and clothes, swim parka, and warm Yeti Hat on. I left my fuzzy boots in the bag and walked to the car carrying my flip flops. I buried my feet into the “warm” feeling sand with every step until we reached the road. Once at the car, I dried the sand off my feet, pulled on warm socks and started drinking my hot tang. Perfect timing, as the uncontrollable shivering soon started. My shivering was shorter in duration than is typical for me, which made me regret not pushing myself through the limb pain and swimming with my arms submerged a little longer, rather than jogging. This was a disappointing “swim” for me, but the experience motivates me to attempt it again soon. I want the North Channel to feel balmy when I jump off the pilot boat so the more of these cold immersions the better.

Sauvie Island Map

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