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I swim in open water for health, friendship and connection to nature’s creative power. I rarely swim alone, usually with a friend or two. I don’t wear a wet suit unless the water is chilly. I used to be, and probably still am, when not in a familiar place, one of those people who enter the water slowly with lots of whining and hesitation. Now, a seasoned amateur with an addiction to that post-swim calm that surely mimics anti-anxiety medication, I just plunge in and start, eager to get through those first three minutes of stun-gun adrenaline caused by my body’s contact with cold water.
Every time I swim, the quality of the water is different. I find this remarkable, that I can swim in the same location, week after week, year after year, and every time, experience a sense of the original and of wonder. I think it is because I’ve learned, out of a need to stay calm and to not freak out (by the cold, or by the fear of what lurks beneath), to embrace a kind of gentle curiosity and openness to whatever the day will bring. Call it what you like, I liken it to mindfulness, an awareness of the present moment.
Today’s water is calm. The sun is out. Hardly any wind. One of my two swim friends is just back from traveling the world for a whole year. The WORLD! For a YEAR! Like an astronaut, she has plunged back down onto this little part of our big planet and I want her to feel welcome. I want the water in particular to welcome her with boisterous arms, with chop and challenge so that she feels a little scared and a little exhilarated, even a little impressed, like the way you feel when you travel, always a little on edge.
But not today. Today the water is calm and smooth. “A bit boring”, my traveler friend remarks.
We swim for about 45-50 minutes in 63-degree water, along a rock-filled edge that parallels an abandoned railroad track leading to the old ferry landing at Pt. Richmond. My regular swim friend is further out in the middle of the Bay. Calm as ever, she looks relaxed and effortless. We three swim to “the pylons” as we call it – 2 wooden poles that stick out and serve as a small perch for seagulls, and sometimes a graceful heron or two. When we get to the pylons we always circle them, ritualistically, to mark the half-way mark, and to maybe to acknowledge some human need for order and true completion, like dotting an “i”. After all, no one is really paying attention to this feat of perceived danger and physical challenge. So maybe we circle the pylons for ourselves to tell ourselves we really did it.
But about today’s stillness. This quiet kind of water, without chop, current, or struggle – “swimming pool water”, I like to call it – is good in its softness. It is like the elemental mush of consciousness, absorbing or reflecting back whatever is going on in our heads and hearts. Like a kind of mental clay. Once I am in the water, adjusted to its qualities of temperature, flow, color, texture, how it moves over my skin and focused on where I’m going, I stop thinking about external things. Now it’s just me and me inside my head. Periodically I notice my breathing and stroke pattern, trying to push a little harder maybe, or swim a little straighter, or more rhythmically. But other than that, long stretches of minutes are spent observing my thoughts and feelings in a Robin Williams-like stream of semi-detached consciousness. At times it can feel hypnotic. Or like a maddening cacophony of reaction and response. If I’m lucky, I will experience a millisecond of precious, empty, stillness.
When we finally return back to the beach where we first started, the newly returned astronaut-swimmer remarks again about the flatness of the water, the lack of challenge. It’s true. It was a gentle, quiet day, easy and sweet, not at all thrilling.
I end this blog without advice or epiphany, but to remind myself that that there is beauty in the stillness of things. There is beauty in the primordial soup of grey days and the flat, opaque waters of the familiar. That beauty lies inside us, behind our thoughts, dreams, and desires. From the murky waters of consciousness, new things emerge.
Pick up any outdoors adventure magazine or catalogue at the doctors office, scan the photos in the articles and ads. What do you see? Practically every image is a white male or female hiking a trail, kayaking a river, putting up a tent, or climbing a mountain (unless they’re a Nepalese sherpa.)
The truth is most publishing institutions, gear suppliers, and adventure companies show the outdoors as belonging primarily to white people. If you ask the average person to imagine the skin color of a mountain climber, they would probably think of a tanned, healthy, slightly scruffy white guy. (Indigenous Americans might have a different opinion.) This white guy or gal would be carrying all kinds of bright-colored gear, look confident and prepared, ready to conquer the world.
What this says to people of color is that the outdoors is not for them.
It’s easy to let racial stereotypes determine how we think about mountain climbing and who gets to do it. But it’s not just stereotypes that limit access to the outdoors. Lack of financial resources, transportation, and mentorship, are also part of the toxic brew that limits wilderness experiences to the privileged (white) few. But within a few decades, the Unites States will be a majority-minority nation. This next generation will be responsible for our nation’s wilderness. Will they grow up believing this is something important to protect, nurture, and enjoy?
What will happen to our national parks and outdoor spaces if no one feels empowered or interested in protecting them? What will happy to this generation of young people if they grow up disconnected from the outdoors? Which brings me to the film, An American Ascent, coming soon to Oakland’s New Parkway Theater.
“An American Ascent” is a beautiful documentary that cracks open the myth of mountain climbing as only a white sport, inviting the viewer to expand his/her assumptions and sense of what’s possible for every American. It’s also about the beauty, wonder, and intensity of facing some of those most inhospitable wilderness conditions imaginable, and about living to tell the tale.
In June 2013, nine African Americans set out to build a legacy and become role models for youth and people of color all over America to encourage them to get outside. Some of these climbers were graduates of the NOLS Gateway Partnership Program that provides outreach and financial support for youth of color to participate in NOLS programs.
The Denali Expedition took on the grueling climb of the 20,320-foot Mt. Denali, the highest mountain in North American.
Thanks to a successful Kick Starter campaign and some smart fundraising through NOLS and other outdoor companies and organizations, they made a movie of their journey. This in turn led to one magical success after another:
It was in this spirit that Bay Area Wilderness Training reached out to journalist and Denali Expedition leader James Mills of the Joy Trip Project. As a member of BAWT’s board, I offered to contact James and ask to borrow the film for a local fundraiser. Thanks to James and filmmaker Andy Adkins, BAWT will get to show this remarkable film. Proceeds from the benefit film screening will help increase BAWT’s capacity to train youth workers and lend free gear to school communities throughout the Bay Area.
So come shake out the cobwebs of your own “American mountain man” and join me for a special matinee screening of “An American Ascent” on Sunday, November 15, 12:00-2:30pm at the New Parkway in Oakland. Proceeds from ticket sales and a small silent auction will all go toward Bay Area Wilderness Training, an Oakland-based non-profit dedicated to making the outdoors accessible to all youth.
After the screening, Scott Briscoe, one of the climbers on the Denali expedition, will be available to talk about and answer questions about the experience.
Buy your tickets today! Adults $20, Youth and Students $5.00
(Anna Edmondson is a writer and editor and serves on the board of Bay Area Wilderness Training, www.bawt.org.)
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