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The Lure of Swimming in the Wild - a guest post by author Claire Kells

Claire Kells is a physician and writer, whose best-selling debut adventure novel Girl Underwater was released in 2015. An avid open water swimmer and outdoor enthusiast, Claire gravitates toward stories of survival, struggle, and redemption. Her experiences as a practicing physician also play an important role in her novels, and she’s grateful for all the fascinating stories her patients have told her over the years. Vanishing Edge is the first installment in a new series featuring a partnership between a National Park Service Investigative Services Branch (ISB) agent and a park ranger, who solve mysteries set in the National Park system.


Many visitors are drawn to the lakes and rivers of our public lands. Here's Claire to describe the lure of open water swimming.

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After twelve years living in San Francisco, I made my first trip up to Lake Tahoe not to ski, but to swim. A swimming friend had recruited me to join their relay for the Trans Tahoe Relay, which has been held annually in July since 1976. The race starts in Nevada and ends on the other side of the lake in California, a distance of 11.5 miles. With six people on each relay, each swimmer swims about two miles.


The Trans Tahoe Relay is a race for purists—there are no wetsuits allowed, and the water is cold. The year I swam, it was 58 degrees. In water this cold, it takes an average of 10 to 15 minutes to lose dexterity; fatal hypothermia can occur within hours. Cold shock is also a consideration. After sudden immersion in cold water, the human physiologic impulse is to inhale—which causes serious problems if you’re underwater. Swimming-induced pulmonary edema is another fear in cold water, which occurs in response to increased pulmonary pressure.


In any case, there were plenty of dangers—none of which I bothered to think much about. I didn’t even prepare for the swim by swimming in cold water beforehand. I figured my 80-degree pool in foggy San Francisco was adequate preparation. In retrospect, my approach to the race was brazen and foolish—which is something I frequently write about in my books. I’m fascinated by people who venture into the wilderness without any appreciation for the dangers, maybe because I was one of them.


That day, the weather was poor, with high winds and overcast skies. The boat we’d rented for the event caught fire just before the race—a bad omen, perhaps—so we had to find a new one just before we set out. Our captain was in such a hurry to get us to the starting line on the other side of the lake that one of our swimmers broke her ankle on the incredibly bumpy ride.


She swam anyway—we all did. I’m happy to say I survived that swim, and even had the good fortune of swimming the last leg of the race to the finish line. I can still remember stumbling out of the water onto the shore. I couldn’t feel my body, and yet I’d never felt more alive.


Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America, and with a maximum depth of 1,645 feet, its second deepest. There is plenty of lore about the mob dumping dead bodies in the lake, where they can stay preserved for decades thanks to the frigid temps at the bottom. More than 75% of the lake’s watershed is national forest land. The water is a spectacular, translucent blue. The five-year average in lake visibility in 2019 was about 70 feet, which is an important indicator of the lake basin’s environmental condition. But in 2021, with the Caldor Fire burning to the south, the lake quality notably deteriorated.


I’d heard of the efforts to Keep Tahoe Blue—and I’d seen the bumper stickers throughout San Francisco—but it wasn’t until I ventured into the water for the first time that I truly understood the allure of this magical place. Never before had I swum in water so deep, so clear, and so cold. It was a painful, throttling chill—the kind of conditions that make you question your mettle, and maybe even your sanity. For me, it was the beginning of a love affair with open water swimming.


My first novel, GIRL UNDERWATER, was about a competitive swimmer who suffered a traumatic event that forced her to re-evaluate her relationship with the sport. My second, VANISHING EDGE, is a mystery set in the Sierra Nevada, not far from the crystalline waters of Lake Tahoe.


While there aren’t any swimmers in my latest novel, there is a lake—Precipice Lake, another alpine lake hidden in Sequoia National Park. I don’t think it’s any mystery why I chose that setting. Even now, years after that first swim in Lake Tahoe, I can still picture the clear water beneath me, blue sky above, and the imposing peaks of the Sierras in every direction.


Claire Kells


To find out more about Claire’s novels, click the novel titles above.

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