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a long dip in the COLUMBIA

The Cross Channel Swim is more than just swimming across one of the nation’s greatest natural borders. It’s a riddle.

September 10, 2005

The first thing I need to do is lose these booties. They’re weighing me down and creating all sorts of drag.

Then I need to confront the reality that my teammates – Team Wet Nurse – are all gone. Lost in a river of splashing, thrashing and bobbing orange heads.

They’re all out here somewhere. Probably right in front of me, like that red and white striped nerd in those “Where’s Waldo” riddles.

I lost them at the start.

I had wanted to jump as far from the Sternwheeler’s rim as possible – so as to shorten my swim by a few yards, an act, that, at the time, I believed would drastically improve my chances of survival.

But I hesitated. Within seconds, the Columbia River directly below me filled with the splashing, thrashing, bobbing, orange heads of my teammates.

I waited for them to clear and leapt.

I had figured they’d greet me with smiles and a varsity team-style “Let’s go,” when I resurfaced seconds later. But in the 10 seconds it took me to jump, land and resurface, the rest of Team Wet Nurse had already blended into an interactive riddle.

I chased them frantically until my arms and lungs reminded me I had another 1.09 miles to go.

That’s when I realized two things:

No. 1: I’d never find them.

And more importantly:

I’m not as good of a swimmer as my fifth-grade instructor told me I was 17 years ago.

The latter concern is what is swirling around in my brain right now. That and how I allowed my naivete to wake me at 5 a.m. so it could fling me off the Sternwheeler four hours later.

So right now, I need to concentrate on reaching dry land – where I belong.

That’s where about 589 people are heading on this Labor Day morning.

They are children as young as 12 or so and grandparents as old as 83.

They are families and swim teams, groups of overweight women and academics.

They’ve done it 35 times and never at all.

One is a young man with an amputated leg.

They’ve come 8,000 miles from Australia, 3,000 from Florida and New York City. Or they’ve come from down the street on Cascade or Montello.

Some are already on the shore, accepting congratulations from their supportive friends. And some have yet to jump.

For their part, the Chamber of Commerce, which has orchestrated this human spawning party since 1965, has brainstormed potential snares in the water and removed them.

They’ve earned a pemit from the Coast Guard, arranged with the Army Corps of Engineers and The Dalles Dam to harness some water in the dam so we don’t choke in a swelling, gurgling river.

They’ve solicited the volunteer support of 150 people, whose entire goal on this day is to ensure that I – and the 588 people surrounding me – don’t die.

Dozens of these volunteers are lying on surf boards, floating in kayaks, and corraling us toward shore, like wranglers steering a herd of confused cattle.

Some of these people have volunteered for decades.

Gene Mielke has done something for the Roy Webster Cross Channel Swim for 22 years.

Sheriff Joe Wampler has been out here every Labor Day since 1975. So has Ray “Buck” and Barbara Buchheit.

They’ve accepted a plethora of odd jobs, like handing out T-shirts or directing swimmers onto boats.

This year, Buck’s job is to direct swimmers into the water, which, as I swim, he is still doing.

After the Sternwheeler’s captain parked the tourist boat alongside a barge near the Bingen Marina, Buck began directing swimmers into the water.

They lined up in groups of 10 and jumped from the ship on a countdown.

One team after another lined up. Ours did so without any kind of pre-event huddle.

So now that I think about it, our team’s diaspora was inevitable, mainly due to the personalities that comprised it.

It consisted of my neighbor Kristi Daniel, a nurse at Providence and a competitive swimmer since she was 4.

She had three other nurse friends with her, one who is currently training for an Iron Man competition and another who was worried about reaching shore.

Kristi’s 60-something-year-old mother, Jean also came along.

From what I had gleaned during the boat ride, everyone has trained in some capacity or another.

I trained too. Last August, I swam across Lost Lake – twice. Across the short part.

So, I figured I was prepared.

But now, as I approach what looks like the halfway mark, I can’t help but to long for one of those surf boards or kayaks strung along the sides of this make shift-course like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

Maybe grab one for a quick rest – just once, for a second or two.

And besides, every time I’ve swum near one of these rescuers, they’ve all asked me the same question:

“Do you need some help?”

“I don’t think so,” I’d smile as casually as I could.

But internally I wasn’t so sure.

It’s not that my lungs are burning or my limbs have transformed into noodles.

It’s that it takes so darn long to get anywhere. And for however long that is, I have to be moving – something.

To show me how slow I am, my wife, who has been paddling alongside me in a whitewater kayak, dips her paddle into the water and strokes.

She accelerates away from me like a motorboat.

I kick and splash and thrash to keep up.

It’s no use. I can’t even catch her while she’s drifting along.

Somehow, however, the experience is worth the struggle. Just before the first group of 10 people jumped off, Scott Webster, the grandson of the event’s founder, gave a brief set of instructions and advice to the 589 of us crammed on the boat.

The last of which was to remember where we are. To look around. Look at Mount Hood, the city of Hood River, the Columbia River Gorge, Burdoin Mountain, Underwood Mountain and to relish in it.

That stuff is great. But just now, I’ve noticed I can see detail on the people who have reached shore. And the Sternwheeler behind me has transformed into a red, white and blue blurry mass.

That’s the view for which I have been struggling.

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