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Take the Plunge 

The pleasures of swimming in Lake Coeur d'Alene.

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As August wanes and the summer nights begin to cool us down, let’s stop a moment and say thank you to our deliciously swimmable North Idaho lakes.

Although summer dawdled in June in turning the heat up, July brought the hot days it takes to warm the waters and turn our thoughts to getting wet and staying wet.

There are lots of us who love to swim and believe all water — Coeur d’Alene Lake in particular — exists for us to swim in.

Not everyone agrees. Recently, in a discussion about the future of Cougar Bay, Jim Aucutt, chairman of the Kootenai County Parks and Waterways Advisory Board, was quoted in the Coeur d’Alene Press as saying, “The waters of the state of Idaho belong to the boaters.”


Approximately 7,000 houses rim the shores of Coeur d’Alene Lake. And approximately 10,000 boats and jet skis are licensed to motor on it.

Swimming doesn’t require either a boat or a home on the lake.

Our household is not exactly anti-boat. At one time my husband Scott and I had a collection of boats — a canoe for paddling, a duck boat for shooting, a sailboat for sailing and a speedboat for speeding to our lake lot at Miserable Beach.

Now, in our wiser, declining years, we have shed all but one boat — a quiet canoe. Freedom from boat owning is a satisfying, mind-freeing option — one we recommend to every weary boat owner.

But the joys of a simple boat are hard to forget.
Passing through Coeur d’Alene one sunny June day 56 years ago, we rented a rowboat, rowed over to Cougar Bay and jumped in to swim.

We were hooked. We moved household, dog and Plymouth station wagon to North Idaho and have been swimming in Coeur d’Alene Lake ever since.

In those really good old days, the late 1950s,we put our towels down on Sanders Beach — anywhere we chose. That was long before the present sea walls, fences and lawsuits went up.

Recently, Sandy Emerson, former Chamber of Commerce director and keeper of all facts Coeur d’ Aleneian, reminisced about how wonderful it was to grow up with Sanders Beach as his playground. Sandy and his buddies would meet daily at the beach and vie for king of the swimming dock that was moored just off the beach or play football in the water or jump off the large rock cliff that book-ended the beach to the west.

That leaping rock has been out-of-bounds to kids for 40 years now, replaced by a large, modern house. The swimming dock has been gone for even longer. The beach is only open to the public at the 12th Street entrance and from 15th Street east. I don’t know where today’s high school kids gather to sun, swim and push members of the opposite sex into the water.

The old Potlatch lumber mill once loomed large at the far end of Sanders Beach, replaced now by the green turf of the Coeur d’Alene Golf Course. Where they used to run into floating logs, swimmers occasionally bump into a small golf ball or two.

One tradition that is still very much alive is carried on by an informal group of swimmers who congregate every week to swim the length of the beach and back and then share chatter and munch food. My friend, Lyle Raffety, suggests the Sanders Beach Swim Team has been gathering for more than 30 years. (Lyle says they “swim because they are able to” and the club does one good deed a year.)

So swimming is not necessarily a solitary sport.

Maidy Kress, another member of the SBST, swims a 1.25 miles every morning at 6 am — before the boats start ruffling the water. We agree: The startling sound of a jet ski motor close by kills the fun of open-water swimming.

But we who love the feel of water on our bodies (doesn’t everyone?) recognize that the temperature of the water may chill that love. Generally, real swimmers may don wet suits. Or they may have metabolisms that tolerate cold. Or, mind over matter, they may train themselves not to feel the cold.

So I esteem the slightly crazy individuals who gather at Sanders Beach every Jan. 1 for the Polar Bear Plunge. I was also transfixed by Edwin Dobb’s elegant account in the June 21, High Country News of the joys of swimming in really cold water. The cover picture shows Dobb crawling in the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay toward Alcatraz, dressed only in his swim trunks and an orange bathing cap.

Dobb wrote: “How long it takes for the body’s internal heat to counteract the penetrating cold varies widely — a kind of alchemy is at work, converting the forbidding into the ecstatic.” (He made it sound very beautiful, but then, he teaches creative writing at the University of California, at Berkeley.)

Still, cold water is not my idea of ecstasy. While we all have to admire the amazing Arctic swimmer, Lynne Cox, who swam five miles from Alaska to the Soviet Union in water “cold enough to kill,” such extreme adventures are beyond my imagination. My real-life awe is saved for the Ironman and triathlon swimmers who cruise past me out on Coeur d’Alene Lake and vanish into the horizon.

Happy swimming to all, as we swim into the fall. In a good year, we’ll last in the water until the first of October.

Coeur d’Alene resident Mary Lou Reed’s column appears here once a month. Send comments to [email protected].

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