Several years ago a very close friend of mine became involved in raising money to build a river pool in the Hudson River in Beacon, New York. The most interesting part of the fund-raising drive was an organized swim across the Hudson - starting on the west bank in Newburgh, New York, and ending in Beacon, about a mile away on the east side of the river. She regaled me with stories of close to a hundred swimmers crossing the great river, tales of the Hudson's improved water quality, and the euphoric feeling that comes from crossing under your own power.
This year, the fourth annual Hudson Swim took place on August 5th, and I decided to drive to Beacon to support my friend, Karen, and experience first-hand what it's like to swim across the Hudson. I grew up in New York and had always thought of the Hudson as a river to look at, not swim in. My youngest daughter proclaimed me "insane." Friends and family expressed amazement that one could actually swim in the river. Everyone kept saying "Good luck!"
Luck? Was that what I needed?
We arrived in Beacon on the Saturday night before the swim to help out. Karen's next door neighbor is the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger - a man who, among his many causes and political actions, has been involved in revitalizing the Hudson for decades. At 89, he is full of enthusiasm and energy. As the fluorescent pink sun set into the river, we went down to a dock on the Beacon waterfront with Pete and friends to install ladders that the swimmers would use to get out of the water at the end of the swim the next day.
Sunday morning the sun is hot and the sky is clear. We eat a light breakfast, drink massive quantities of coffee and water, put on our suits, and head down to the river. There are 206 registered swimmers with a waiting list of over 100. One of the swim organizers, Akiko Busch, wrote about her experience crossing the river in the New York Times Magazine several weeks ago and people have come from far and wide this year to take part in the festivities.
The swimmers range in age from 10 to 76 and come in every shape and size. There are men and women who look like professional athletes-they are so slim and fit in their Spandex I feel myself wanting to hide behind a car and crawl home. But I feel comforted to see that many of my fellow swimmers look like they spend far more time sitting at a desk than working out.
Pete Seeger pulls out his banjo and everyone joins in a rousing chorus of "This Land is Your Land" and then "Turn, Turn, Turn." Some swimmers weep with nostalgia, others smile at the opportunity to sing with this living legend.
People ask if I've been "training" all summer. Training sounds like an ominous word - I have visions of would-be Olympic contenders running up and down mountains, working out from sunrise to sundown. No, I haven't trained like that. But I've been swimming all summer, almost every day - in pools, ponds, and the ocean - and I feel ready. Well as ready as I'm ever going to be.
We make our way down to the dock and first-time swimmers are asked to line up. About 30 of us curl our toes around the edge of the dock and wait for the go-ahead. One of the organizers takes out a megaphone and screams: "READ. OK! SWIM!"
I dive in and feel the first splash of the Hudson coat my body. The water is an astonishing 81 degrees and it feels like a giant bathtub. I am programmed from childhood swim races to go fast. I start swimming like my life depends on it. Then I remember my husband, a good, strong, but slow swimmer coming in behind me, and I remind myself that this is not a race. We will swim a little over a mile; some swim for time, but most of us swim for pleasure - to help a good cause and see if we can actually make it across the river.
The water is silky and soft, but nothing like a Maine river or pond. I can feel the silt floating around and clumps of muddy seaweed, but I decide not to examine the black-green water too closely. Mostly I am aware of being wet and happy to be in water on this hot 84-degree August day. It doesn't take long to find my rhythm - almost like a jazz beat-as I make my way across the wide expanse of water. I am, quite simply, thrilled to be swimming with these like-minded people, draped in Spandex, with a tight fitting fluorescent pink bathing cap with my swimming number displayed across the top of my skull.
I swim steadily and strong. Every so often I force myself to stop my stroke and take a look around. I am in the Hudson River. I am in the Hudson River. I can't say it enough. There is the Newburgh bridge to my left, the famed Hudson Highlands in the distance ahead, and directly in front of me (though still so very far away) the town of Beacon and the church steeple. There is also a beautiful sailboat, a replica of an old boat, called The Woodie (another project sponsored by Pete Seeger, named for the folk singer Woodie Guthrie) moored by the Beacon dock - a target for us to aim for and keep us headed in the right direction. We are swimming just before slack tide - the Hudson has a strong current - but I can still feel myself being swept downstream towards Manhattan. I use the church steeple and the majestic maroon sails of the Woodie as my guidepost.
We are surrounded by 50 kayaks, volunteers who are paddling along to help if help is needed. Occasionally I come up for air and hear snippets of conversation between swimmers and kayakers and swimmers and swimmers, but I'm not interested in human interaction. Swimming, for me, is a solitary activity. Me and the water. It's all about being quiet and feeling my body push against the river. It's all about feeling the heat of the summer day slip away as my body cools off and my mind settles and lets go of the endless details of my life. For me it's all about slipping into the here and the now of the water.
It only takes a few minutes to get there. I don't mean the other side of the river. I'm referring to a state of mind. It seems clich` to call it a Zen state or a form of mediation, but I'm not sure I can find better words. I am in the groove, lifting one arm up and over, kicking my legs with force, and feeling the mighty river flow behind me. I am gradually enveloped in a feeling of deep safety and calm.
At the half-way point-I could gauge this by looking at the Newburgh bridge-I look back for my husband and find him moving along steadily and with great precision. These are traits he shows in everyday life. We wave, smile, and he gives me the thumbs up. We don't need any more communication. So I move on. (There are few sports where I can move ahead of him. At 6'3", he is an avid biker, skier, sailor. I lag behind in virtually every other sport we do together so I must admit there is a certain thrill in moving ahead of my athletic, able bodied man!)
Once the Beacon dock is within sight I purposefully slow down. I realize I don't want the swim to end. I want to stay in the water, in this elevated mood. As I push along - amazingly without effort or any sign of compromised breathing - I am aware of the sensation of rocking back and forth. This aquatic "cradle" protects me from all the world's ills. There are few times in my adult life when I have felt this kind of deep safety net beneath me.
I spend 57 minutes and 33 seconds in the water. As I pull up to the dock in Beacon I can hear the spectators-well over a hundred - cheering me on. There are hoots and hollers, cheering, clapping, and enthusiastic screaming. I smile underwater, careful to remind myself that swallowing even a drop of the Hudson River is not on my agenda for the day. But I am smiling. In my mind I am an Olympic skier flying down the race course to victory, a swimmer clearing the last lap of the race to screams ("GO USA!"), a gymnast flying across the uneven bars to a perfect score. I can hear them: "It's Gunst from Maine pulling into the Beacon dock completing a very successful swim. Ladies and gentleman the woman from Maine has done it!"
How does the swim fit into a column called "Notes from a Maine Kitchen?" I think about food every day, almost all my waking hours. I create recipes in my head as I walk the dog, sweep the floor, wash dishes - even sleep. But for 2 hours plus - getting ready for the swim, moving across the river and in the initial moments of triumph afterward - I didn't think about food at all.
There was a small feast awaiting us at the dock. Volunteers had made huge vats of creamy hummus, cut up vegetables, handing out hunks of crusty bread. There were fat red slices of summer watermelon and juicy orange wedges. I got out of the water, saw some friends, and savored the feelings of success and joy sweeping over me. And then I grabbed a plate of food and ate heartily and with appreciation. I had earned the meal. And I had loved every second of it.
To make a contribution or learn more about the swim or the river Pool at Beacon, check out: www.riverpool.org.
<I>Kathy Gunst is a writer and cookbook author who lives in South Berwick. See more of Kathy's blogs and recipes at her website: kathygunst.com/index.html</I>