Monday, June 13, 2016

Swimming in the Canyons

When I told friends and family that I was going on a swim vacation in Arizona I received a number of different reactions. Some thought I was going to swim in different pools every day. Others, when they heard I was going to Lake Powell, wondered if I was renting a big houseboat and planned to party. Neither was true, thankfully, for while I did go to Arizona and Lake Powell, it was on an organized swim adventure, one that I will never forget,

Captain Martin Strel
Back in February during a snowstorm I searched for "swim vacation". One of the first hits I got was for Strel Swimming Adventures, an outfit which mostly operates in Europe but has one trip in the U.S. at Lake Powell. If the name Strel sounds familiar to you open water swimming nerds, yes, it's the same Martin Strel who swam the Amazon, Mississippi, and Yangtze rivers. He founded SSA with his son Borut. His daughter Nina Strel was our guide on this trip along with her father. They were both amazing and we were treated like royalty.

Swimmers are a special breed. While we come from different backgrounds and cultures, there is a shared language in our swim histories and love of the water that connects us immediately. And so it was on this trip. The group - six swimmers and three guides, was made up of an Olympic medalist (UK) from Switzerland, the Captain of a fire house in Rochester, NY, a fashion designer from NYC, a  community leader from San Diego, a researcher/educational leader from Montreal (by way of Scotland) and me. The trip was led by Nina Strel, with Captain Martin and expert kayaker/assistant Janet. The trip was relatively short - three days on the water - but those three days were packed.
Nina leading the hike

The itinerary for each day went pretty much like this: Get up, eat breakfast at the hotel, head to the marina, board the boat. Set out to the first swim of the day (60-75 minutes), lunch, hike, second swim of day, back to hotel, dinner in Page, AZ. Repeat. The accommodations were great, but the lunches out on the lake each day were exceptional. Everything was fresh and healthy. Martin even hand-squeezed his special grapefruit juice from fruit in his yard.

Lake Powell was simply beautiful. I admit I had an image in my head of houseboats, and while there were some at the marina, once we got out onto the lake, it was as if we had entered another world. The canyons were deep and vast, the water clear blue, and we spent most of the first day with our mouths open in awe. Lake Powell is huge - it spans Utah and Arizona, and is actually a reservoir created by damming the Colorado River. There are dozens of canyons off of the main channel, and each day we ventured into a different canyon.

On day two we traveled to the Rainbow Bridge, one of
Rainbow Bridge
the world's largess natural bridges, now part of the National Park Service, though the Navajo and other Native American tribes consider it a sacred site. We hiked up and were fascinated by the history and magic of the bridge. We also swam deep into the canyons on day 2 which proved to be my favorite day. Each day was different but equally stunning. I took several videos but even they can't capture how special this place was.
For those of you who seek a trip where you can get some distance in, you can do so on this trip and will likely find someone who is your speed. Our group was comprised of strong swimmers, even those who were new to open water swimming. The water was clear, clean, and the perfect temperature (high 60s, low 70s). Although I received some unfortunate news about my rotator cuff as I embarked on my trip, that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying myself. It is amazing how much ground you can cover with fins and one arm! In fact, I saw the injury as a blessing in disguise. It helped me slow down (literally and figuratively) and enjoy the beauty of the place without worrying about how much distance I was getting in.

I strongly recommend Strel Swimming Adventures to all of my swim friends. We were treated so well and the entire adventure was memorable. Once I heal, my next trip is to Europe!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Finding my Spirit Animal?

I arrived in Arizona for my swim vacation a day early so that I could see the magnificent Grand Canyon. It certainly did not disappoint, as it nearly took my breath away with its beauty. While I have heard it said a dozen times, it is true that you simply cannot capture the Canyon in pictures, though I certainly tried.

It turns out that my experience in the Canyon took my breath away in a literal sense as well. For those of you who have not visited the South Rim, there is a visitor center when you enter the park. When I arrived on Wednesday afternoon there were several large female elks wandering around amidst the tourists, who were busy taking photos. It was a funny scene but one that left me with a feeling that the elk were a peaceful bunch. How wrong I was, as I came face to face with an elk and narrowly escaped being one of those stories you see in the last 10 minutes of the nightly news.

On Thursday morning I decided to get up early and go for a run along the South Rim of the Canyon. I arrived early, before 6am, to find it mostly uncrowded but for the day hikers who were heading into the Canyon. It was beautiful, cool, and I had a view that can simply never be replicated on my trail runs back home. As I was nearing the end of my run, I decided to take the Green Trail back to the visitor's center.

The Green Trail runs parallel to the road but through the woods. As I was nearing the center, I saw something out of my left eye, and turned to see a large elk running through the woods just ahead of me. I stopped, motioning for it to cross the path, for clearly elk understand sign language. We stood there looking at each other, and for a moment I thought "oh, this is a sweet moment, perhaps this elk is my spirit animal!"  As I took a step forward, so did the elk. We then stood there frozen for a minute. I realized that this sweet spirit animal of mine was not going to budge. I then turned around and started to slowly move away, then started to run back from whence I came. The elk began to run after me, and I yelled and ducked behind a tree. Now for those who think I am embellishing this story, let me assure you that I am not. So the elk is standing about 10 yards in front of the tree, with me behind the tree. The road was about 20 yards to my right, and I quickly assessed that there were two other trees between me and the road. I stood there breathing shallowly, and made my move to the next tree. The elk followed, even closer this time, and the thing was fast and did not look happy. At this point I begin to think I am in deep crap, as the tree wasn't that big but the elk was.

From across the street I see a shuttle bus, whose driver must have seen what was going on. He yelled "we've got a runner!" and I wasn't sure if he was talking about me or the elk, but he pulled his bus up on the road and said to me "you have to run for it". There was about a two foot lip up to the road, so I sprinted from the tree, elk in close pursuit, jumped over the edge of the woods and in front of the bus, who then moved it to block the elk. I sprinted like I was Usain Bolt across the parking lot to the visitor center. I wish I had my Garmin on and could record this run as it would definitely be a PR. Someone asked me later why I didn't jump on the bus, for which I had no answer other than to say when you think a huge elk is chasing you you don't want to wait for a bus door to open.

After splashing water on my face, I came out of the restroom and a man was standing there. I had to share this with someone so I said "you won't believe what just happened" and he asked me if I was the woman in the woods being chased by the elk. Apparently his wife (who by now had joined us) and he were behind me on the Green Trail and saw it all go down. We learned later that this was a mama elk who was understandably protecting her baby. No matter, it was a bit scary. As I was explaining this all later that night to my brother Dan he suggested that maybe the elk IS my spirit animal, helping me to run fast, away from my fears. It sounds nice, but I am not buying it!

Image result for female elk
This is pretty much the look she was giving me.