Committed “lake baggers” keep a list of the waters they cross
By Michael Virtanen
After hiking 5 miles up the trail to Avalanche Lake in the High Peaks, four people stripped to swimsuits in the wind that kept passersby in down vests and parkas.
It was late August. The early morning air temperature had been somewhere in the mid-30s. The lake sits at 2,885 feet above sea level.
In the deep narrow cleft carved by glaciers between Colden and Avalanche mountains, it provided one of the most remarkable outings of their 2019 swim season.
While many thousands of people hike Adirondack trails in the summertime, the ranks of open-water swimmers are so far just a drop in the backcountry’s bucket. By one estimate, the hard core of adventure swimmers may number as few as 100, but their enthusiasm runs deep and they recruit.
“My God it was cold. And Cheryl and Tom—they probably swam a quarter to a half a mile,” Karen Byer recalled. “And Ben and I stayed in much longer. We didn’t do a mile. But trust me, we got a good flavor of what it is to swim Avalanche Lake.
“And it was spectacular.”
An aquatic challenge
Like the peak baggers who check off the 46 Adirondack High Peaks as they summit them, the adventure swimmers keep a list of their crossings and aspire to complete a personal challenge. They do it together, for safety and camaraderie, and they caution beginners to be especially careful in cold backcountry waters. For them, though, Avalanche was a chilly trophy.
Byer’s frequent open-water swimming partner, Cheryl Marron, and her husband had crossed Avalanche from a rock outcropping to a big ledge on the other side and swam back.
A 60-year-old veterinarian from Greenfield Center, Byer swam with Ben Franco in a triangular pattern, crossing to the ledge, then down the lake a distance and returning to the outcropping.
“People were hiking in winter jackets, and one woman was so cute because she was finishing off (hiking) her 46 peaks. It was her last thing,” Marron recalled. The hiker asked about their mission.
“And she’s like, ‘Oh I’ve got to see this. This is way cooler than what I’m doing,’” Marron said. “We’re like, ‘Wait, what you’re doing is really cool, too.’”
Marron, 49, a counselor and swim coach from Saratoga, said that after hiking back out and starting the drive home, they stopped at Chapel Pond by State Route 73. They swam across it from the small beach and returned. It was much warmer than Avalanche, which she guessed had been about 56 degrees. They didn’t bring a thermometer.
“And then in mid-September we did Lake Pleasant up by Caroga and saw foliage, and the water was so warm,” Marron said. “It was absolutely gorgeous.”
The open-water season is relatively short, especially in the northern Adirondacks, generally from June through September, depending on the cold. Temperatures near the surface of the lakes can reach well into the 70s by August.
Hike and swim
“Every lake is a different experience,” Marron said. She and her husband, Tom, bought a camp on Caroga Lake at the southern end of the Adirondack Park three years ago. Since then, she has been averaging outings to 10 or 11 lakes inside the park each year since.
They like lakes that require a hike, for the added challenge. It also generally means no motorboats, which are dangerous.
Byer said she has done the annual Betsy Owens Memorial Swim on Mirror Lake at least 22 times. The 2-mile route, her first outdoor competition, helped get her hooked on open water. She and her husband, David, have a camp on Lake Desolation, where she swims often, just south of the park.
“I got in my mind over the years I was going to swim in these 46 different Adirondack lakes,” Byer said. “You just pick one. Go online to the DEC website, see what the access is.”
Marron also has a background in competition, but both women say what they do in the backcountry is simply for the beauty, nature and experiences. Byer recalled swimming in Mason Lake, where an eagle flew overhead and landed in a tree near them and then followed and did it again.
Both are closing in on swimming across 47 Adirondack lakes—aiming to be among the “ADK 47 Lakers”—a play on the 46 highest Adirondack summits long established as a goal for peak baggers. Their goals call for at least a mile swim, and without wetsuits.
They swim together and sometimes with small groups of similar enthusiasts. During the coronavirus pandemic, Byer had virtual coffee with her swim friends. Her group of lake enthusiasts numbers around eight.
“It’s also my social life,” she said.
Bob Singer, who chairs Adirondack District Masters Swimming, said lake swimming is a fountain of youth for competitive swimmers like him, whose times at age 70 get slower regardless of how hard he trains.
“I would say it’s an absolutely wonderful way to put a little adventure in your life,” Singer said. “It’s very therapeutic for me because (when) I’m swimming, I’m paying attention to my breath. It’s almost like an extended yoga session.”
Singer and his wife, Deborah Roberts, both aquatic scientists, have swum in nearly 50 Adirondack lakes but most often at the southern end of Lake George, not far from their home in Queensbury. Early in their research careers they swam often in the Caribbean, where they were working.
There’s a 700-yard route from the Lac du Saint Sacrament cruise boat to the Department of Environmental Conservation boat launch at the eastern edge of the southern basin in Lake George. Triathletes train there doing laps near shore where motorboats are prohibited.
“The water’s nice and clear and it’s a lovely place to swim,” Singer said of the 32-mile-long lake. “But we just have to be constantly alert to motorboats.”
Water-ski boats may be the most worrisome, coming close to shore with drivers sometimes looking back at skiers, Singer said. Most of the Adirondacks’ bigger lakes have marinas and docks, and rental boats with inexperienced drivers are a particular worry. Having someone slowly paddle a kayak or canoe alongside is a good idea on those waterways, he said.
Protect the Adirondacks published a study in 2013 showing 29 of the Adirondacks’ 200 largest lakes and ponds were both motor-free and had public access. While 114 allowed motorboats, 55 of the lakes were private. Since then, two others—Boreas Ponds and Third Lake in the Essex Chain—have been added to the 29.
“I guess what we do is not what most people think of as swimming,” Singer added. “Most people think of swimming as wading in from a beach and splashing around for a few minutes and sort of horsing around. And that’s what people do at beaches. It’s fine. I’m glad they’re there, but it’s not what we do.”
The DEC has beaches at 21 Adirondack campgrounds, many staffed by lifeguards when open and roped off at about the 6-foot depth to keep those swimmers safe.
Singer, also a swim coach, cautions that adventure swimming is fun but not easy, though there are no fish or other animals in the water that are going to hurt you. He recalled seeing a beaver swim below him once and another time bumping into a large snapping turtle that took fright and swam off.
He once swam 10 miles down the West Branch of the Sacandaga River, aided by the 1-mph current. It took four hours. The swimmers and their escort kayak had to get over a downed log. There was nowhere to exit early.
“You’ve got to be a good swimmer,” he said. “I don’t like people going alone.”
For safety, Marron and Byer advocate brightly colored swim caps and pulling a “safe swimmer” or “buddy,” a brightly colored inflatable that’s tethered to the swimmer and contains a dry bag for clothes, keys or other items. Partners who are faster can swim ahead and circle back to keep everyone in a pod, Byer said.
The swimmers say many of the lakes they have crossed have been clean and clear. Some are darker because of conifers in their watersheds. Sewage leaks or overflows have sometimes closed Million Dollar Beach at the southern end of Lake George, but they aren’t usually the source of discoloration.
“As far as pollution, if there’s people around, septic tanks fail,” Singer said. “The major impact on clarity of Adirondack lakes is not what you call pollution. It’s organic acids.”
Just as the mountaintop views attract peak baggers, the sights above and below water are part of the allure. Sometimes the swimmers pause on their swims to point things out to one another and take in the changing scenery.
“Every time I’m in the lake,” Marron said, ‘I’m like, ‘All right, everybody stop. Just take a moment. Look at what we’re surrounded by. How cool is this?’”
Great article! Go Cheryl!