Last weekend, on July 31 — filled with the optimism (and stupid forgetfulness) of the weekend warrior — I competed in the Medical Lake Mini-Triathlon. About 100 yards into the swim, I was gasping for breath and coughing up rusty-red glop. (All through the bike and run — and even after the race — it was more of the same.)
I must’ve asked 20 competitors if they’d felt any ill effects.
Nothing. No problem.
One man felt “slightly more congested.” A woman had heard of someone “a week or two ago getting a full-body rash after swimming in this lake.” And that was it.
But it wasn't the first time this has happened to me.
In July 2008, I went for a swim in Medical Lake — a body of water that I’d swum in, over the years, something like a half-dozen times with no ill effects whatsoever. I noticed a lot of reddish algae floating on the surface near Waterfront Park.
After swimming out 200 yards, I started gasping for breath, nearly panicked, and slowly made my weary way back to shore. For the next couple of hours, I was coughing up reddish-brown phlegm and even traces of blood.
At the time, an employee in Medical Lake’s Parks and Rec Department mentioned the lake’s algae blooms and abundant goose droppings while emphasizing that no one else had complained about my particular symptoms.
This weekend, I asked a woman who was recording results at the triathlon’s finish line if they ever got complaints about the lake’s water quality. “Oh, yeah, all the time,” was her response.
A man who identified himself as the race director responded to my query with “It’s a lake. If you don’t like swimming in our lake, then don’t run in our race.” (Well, then, a helpful fellow. And not at all defensive about the water quality.)
QUESTION: Has this happened to anyone else? ---
I read about how, in the 1960s, the lake had been declared virtually off-limits. (Medical Lake City Administrator Doug Ross has heard the ‘60s-era lake referred to as “a glorified bog” — and one with a foul smell, too.) In 1977, EPA spent nearly $250,000 on dumping 10,000 pounds of alum into the lake to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the lake and break up the algae bloom cycle. Now there are three aerators in the lake to fight the stagnation problem (with the city hoping to install two more in the next decade). Just northeast of Waterfront Park, there’s a section of the lake that, as one racer told me, is commonly known as “Goose Poop Cove.”
But goose droppings weren’t my problem. At least I don’t think so. Mike Hepp of the state Department of Ecology speculates, based on the reddish-brown color I described, that there may have been a diatom algae bloom in Medical Lake.
Diatom algae are single-celled organisms that, when they bloom and die, leave behind rough little husks — so abrasive, in fact, that (in the form of diatomaceous earth), they’re used in ant poison. “They just abrade the little ants’ bodies away,” says Hepp.
As far as the skin irritation known as “swimmer’s itch” goes — and while it’s “almost epidemic” at area lakes like Bear Lake and others, according to Hepp — there’s a quick fix: Just be sure to shower off and/or dry off immediately after getting out of any lake or river.
The reason for the precaution is a little creepy. There are snail larvae in our waters, it seems, that like to burrow into the skin of ducks. But if you’re flailing around in a lake — well, sometimes the larvae mistake us for ducks. Which means that a snail larva just might burrow into your skin. (They’re slow about it, being snails — that’s why a quick dry-off after your swim means problem solved.) But if you don’t towel off … well, that larva will make a nice home for itself in
your epidermis. And upon a second exposure, you can get the all-over rash that locals call “swimmer’s itch.”
Ross, the city administrator, has worked with Medical Lake water quality for 17 years. Prior to three years ago, he says, he got numerous complaints from swimmers about skin irritations — but none more recently, none this summer, and no other complaints (like mine) about respiratory distress. Every summer when the 90-degree days arrive, Ross says, Medical Lake (like other lakes in the area, including West Medical and Silver) develops “a fluorescent green or
yellowish” algae bloom. Prevailing winds push most of that pond scum to the lake’s northern edge.
But what I was was rust-colored, reddish-brown algae.
And Medical Lake holds five triathlons a year — not to mention the city’s swimming lessons and all those weekend recreational users. Ross emphasizes that test results this summer — oxygen levels (high), phosphorus levels (low) and fecal content (low – that goose poop, again) — have been “great.”
They weren’t great for me. But it also appears that I may be unique in having gotten short of breath and wheezy just because I went for a swim in Medical Lake.
Am I alone here?