What happens when it’s dark and scary but you can’t panic or you might die

Since I started swimming, I’ve been so excited about trying it in the open water. Growing up in Michigan, I’ve felt comfortable in the Great Lakes and in deep inland lands and rivers with the water well over my head. Even if I couldn’t properly freestyle swim, I loved being in the water.

Over the weekend, I was camping near my favorite river, the Au Sable near Oscoda. It’s an incredibly beautiful and familiar river; I’ve jumped off a boat in the middle of the river and felt fine, so I thought it’d be a great place to start.

The Au Sable River
The Au Sable River

On Friday, I tested open-water swimming in the river without goggles (eyes closed), and it was fine. Sure, I couldn’t touch in an emergency, but it was fairly comfortable.

Then Saturday I swam a little, again with no goggles, with three-foot waves in Lake Huron where I could touch (because I’m not THAT crazy. Yet.). Totally fine, even fun with these big waves crashing over me and pushing me this way and that. I have always admired the immense power of water and wind, and love how it feels when I’m in the water.

And then Sunday, I swam again in the Au Sable River, this time with goggles on. And wow, that was a different experience altogether. A little scary.

Because fish! Weeds! DARKNESS!

OK, the fish are totally fine. There are no giant man-eating crocodiles (remember that movie with Betty White?!) in the Au Sable, so I really didn’t need to worry about some monster eating half of me and spitting the rest back out and then pre-Harry Potter Mad-Eye Moody having to haul my body in. Or whatever. Weeds feel gross when they hand on your arm, but it’s just a slimy green plant.

But while I’m sure there’s nothing scary in that river, when the weeds turned to total blackness, I panicked just a little.

It didn’t interrupt my swimming, but not being able to see what’s in front of you or below you is disorienting.

I knew the pool felt safer, but I didn’t expect the river to feel so unsafe simply because it’s so dark. Because I’m a grown ass woman who knows better. Tell that to my primitive, fight-or-flight brain.

My swims weren’t workouts (although playing in big waves on Lake Huron for 90 minutes with my cousins certainly made me sore), but a chance to test this out and see what it’s like.

This was an opportunity to learn and then reflect. I’m learning. I didn’t let my freakout affect me physically. When I swam out and when “ohh shit,” I continued to swim to the buoy marking the swim area, and after a short rest, headed out again. And then I swam some more along the edge of the drop off.

That’s what counts–not that we are scared, but that we keep going anyway. We don’t have to be mean to ourselves and force ourselves. It’s a gentle version, the “keep calm and carry on” version. Next time, I’ll again remind myself again this isn’t easy, but I can do it.


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