Then there’s these bast@rds….

When it comes to deadly, highly poisonous, sudden-death kinds of critters, the Pacific Northwest is pretty lame. The best we can do is a super highly toxic mushroom. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite glad about this. But it kind of lacks in the sexy thrill department, if you ask me.

But we do have red stinging jellyfish! Lion’s Mane. Big ones, some as large as garbage can lids once they wash ashore, like this one that blobbed up on Useless Bay. They’re far from deadly, but can leave a burn to remember if you happen to be swimming in their path. 

I have so far (and luckily) only cruised by or over them. In the water they’re gorgeous, floating silently along the currents like a scarlet ballgown missing its evil princess. 

They’re most common in the Fall, when winds bring the colder water up. Also, when crabbing season starts in June, I will often pass through a severed arm or tentacle, broken off by a trap or pulled-up rope. 

While no longer attached to the main body of the jelly, these pieces still pack a bit of sting. The burn is brief but surprising on the backs of my hands or across my face.

But it’s not enough of a threat to keep myself and most of my friends from swimming. Even when some of us have been stung on successive days in the same area, we still show up and swim in the EXACT same place. (What’s the definition of insanity again?)

The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore.


Besides knowing the seasons, and hoping a fellow swimmer shouts and points one out in the water ahead of me, there’s really no tactic to avoid a Lion’s Mane. My swim trajectory for the day and theirs will either cross or not. 

All those gazillion different paths through the water from point A to point B on a swim, and I might be unlucky enough to smack straight into one. 

I like to think about this idea. It reminds me of life. How sometimes everything aligns in a way that is perfectly horrible. Or tragic.

Or glorious. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Summer’s End: In Complete Denial

September, Useless Bay, 9:30 am mile swim

It feels like a stolen morning. Sunlight is casting a squint-bright glaze on the flat water of the bay, it’s high tide, and the summer-house crowds have gone back to their frantic mainland schedules of carpools, private schools, select soccer, and 50-hour a week jobs. 

Poor bastards. Me, I’m writing on the beach today, sitting in my towel with a pleasantly soggy swim bum.  The water was unusually clear, so I could watch the small perch darting around the sea grass, and globby moonsnails pulling themselves across the bottom as I coasted along the top of the bay.  

Am I lucky? You bet. Privileged? Absolutely. Entitled? All I can say is I never expect days like today. Every bright and cloudless dawn is a gift in the Pacific Northwest, especially in September. 

The American white pelicans, special visitors to Deer Lagoon these last three years, are beginning to gather for their trip south. The apples I “borrowed” off the trees of a burned-out abandoned house are already crisp-sweet. And there’s even a few maple leaves reddening.

But so far they are only hints of Fall, and I’m glad. Every season begins and ends, a birth and a death every three months. Summer’s end just seems like the stage-four, every-major-organ-has-a-tumor, two-weeks-to-live kind of death. 

But a sudden death is always better than suffering. 

In a few weeks there will be a morning that feels like someone slammed the door closed on the sun. That day I’ll pack a second swim cap, and wear my lambs wool slippers down to the beach. 

But that isn’t today. If I close my eyes and just listen to the short waves washing quietly up on the sand, I can tell myself summer is still young. I have all the time in the world.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Miraculous Lake Dorothy

No one can avoid a challenge in life without breeding regret, and regret is the arsenic of life.

— Esther Williams.

We were hiking back from a swim at Lake Dorothy in the North Cascades. The rare sunny, 80-something-degree day and the water’s clarity made children of all seven of us. Water ballet, swim dives, and belly flops caused hoots of laughter that echoed off the evergreen mountains around us. 

Of course, the high-jinx ensued only after a respectable distance swim. We are, first and foremost, serious open-water swimmers, and the best belly-flop award doesn’t just happen, it must be earned.

“When are you starting your swim blog? Have you started it yet? You haven’t?” On the narrow trail back, I was tired and euphoric, which always leaves me emotionally open, a state that makes this control freak very nervous. 

“I honestly don’t know where to start,” I replied. It was a safe answer, and left out all the self-doubt, endless excuses, and real fear that what I desire to share doesn’t have merit, or interest. Does anyone besides me care less about “how we swim” and more about “why we swim?” 

Almost every open-water blog I’ve seen is about the individual’s experience with the big three: location, challenge, and distance. How far, how fast, how cold, long, hard, choppy, windy: the stories are amazing and inspiring. But very physical and goal-oriented.

I have always been more interested in the call some open-water swimmers have to water. Open water, big water, salt water, wild water: any time, any season. That need we have not just to be ON it, but IN it, full submersion, nothing less.

The group swimming that day at Lake Dorothy had very little in common: different careers, different domestic situations, an age span of 30 years, and after a lively conversation, we even  vehemently disagreed on the IQs of chickens.

 Yet stroking out into turquoise waters so clear we could see a pair of antlers on the bottom (turned out to be just a stick, dammit), we shared the same ecstatic energy and joy of being in that water. Sharing the water and the experience, individually yet together, is both powerful and empowering. 

Halfway to the big rock mid-lake, the friend swimming next to me stopped and said, “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever swam. I could die tomorrow and feel like I didn’t miss a thing.”

Seeing the girlish grin and rapture on her face, I knew exactly how she felt. We all did.

And isn’t shared euphoria the not-so-distant cousin of a miracle?

So I’ll be blogging my swims here on Whidbey Island, and other places I’m lucky to swim (Maldives in November, stay tuned!). I’ll chart the where, when and how. But what I really want to learn is the “why.” Not just my reasons but those of others as well, those of us that can’t just look then regret it, we must answer the call and dive in.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth