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Swimming with Otters at Big Lagoon 

The Lagoonies hit the open water

click to enlarge The Lagoonies in their element.

Photo by Mariah Sarabia

The Lagoonies in their element.

Blue skies, eagles, osprey, otters — those are the attractions that compel Humboldt caterer Lauren Sarabia to drive up to Big Lagoon and swim three mornings a week. Although as a kid she played in pools in Los Angeles, she didn't become an open water swimmer until five years ago, when a friend invited her to Big Lagoon to participate in a mikvah, a Jewish water immersion ritual. "I just wanted to swim!" laughs Sarabia.

That got her started and now she's in her fourth season at Big Lagoon, joined by her close friend Jan Rowen and a group of five to nine others. Mostly women in their 60s, they swim from the end of April through mid-November, leaving town at 7 a.m., early enough to avoid the winds that can get up later in the morning. They wear full-length wetsuits or shorties along with brightly colored inflatable pouches called floaters. Everyone is free to do her own thing but many swim from the boat launch to a landmark they call "the snag," a tree stump a mile out on the left.

Before the pandemic, they would meet at Eureka Natural Foods in McKinleyville to carpool; now they drive separately. And afterward, some would warm up at Arcata's Finnish Saunas and Tubs. "We miss the conversations we used to have when we carpooled," Sarabia says. "We're as much about the camaraderie as the swimming." Still, they sometimes bring food for a post-swim potluck and a local kayaker whom they've adopted, Mike Libolt, even prepares a taquito breakfast for them occasionally. "He calls his routine '8 by 8,' meaning eight miles by 8 a.m.," Rowen explains. "Every morning he starts paddling at 5 a.m. It's his meditation."

"The Lagoonies," as Sarabia's Facebook page refers to the group, have become close-knit. For her birthday this year, they camped at the Big Lagoon County Park. The group has helped Sarabia with several personal losses, from her closest friend, who died last year, to her father, just last month. The first time she swam after her father's death, "everyone brought flowers that they hid behind their backs. They made a circle around me and dropped the flowers onto the water so they floated. Then they asked me to share about my dad," says Sarabia. "They couldn't hug me, but the water held me."

You don't swim regularly in open water without an occasional scare. Two years ago, Rowen had a brush with hypothermia in late March, while the lagoon water was still very cold and she was wearing only a bathing suit: "I was dizzy and couldn't focus." Luckily she wasn't that far out and Sarabia, who was ahead, swam back and helped her get to shore. Sarabia wrapped her in towels and gave her tea from her thermos. At the Beachcomber Café in Trinidad, the staff fed her and kept hugging her to help her get warm. "Still, it still took me more than a day to get back to normal," says Rowen.

Sarabia herself once started swimming with two others, turned back before them and became disoriented in the fog. "I had to keep reminding myself that I'm a strong swimmer and could tread water until the fog lifted," she says. She had no idea which way was north, south, east or west, until she took her earplugs out and could hear the traffic on the road to the east. "When I finally reached the boat launch, a more experienced swimmer told me that I had just had my initiation, which helped me feel more confident," she says. "Still, if there's fog as thick as that day two years ago, I don't go in because the memory is too scary."

Along with fog, thick eel grass or, worse, blue-green algae, are also deal-breakers for the swimmers.

Those passing bad experiences haven't changed their love of the water. Rowen, who has run marathons, took up swimming when her knees gave out and she couldn't run anymore. "I want to age healthily and keep moving," she says. A year ago, she swam the San Francisco classic, Alcatraz. Along with hundreds of others, Rowen was motored by boat to the island, then swam the 1.7 miles back to shore. She and five Humboldt swimming friends had planned to rent an Airbnb in the city and participate in the swim in September, but it was canceled due to COVID-19. This time next year, fingers crossed.

As for Sarabia, though she forces herself to swim indoors during the winter, she can't get enough of the skies and wildlife. "Last week we shared the water with 10 otters! I think I'm part-amphibian," she says.

The Lagoonies aren't the only group of water lovers in the area. Humboldt Wild Swimmers, has 252 members on its private Facebook page. Rowen also belongs to the Humboldt Bluetits Chill Swimmers, (also on Facebook) the local chapter of an international group of merry folks who frolic around in the bay naked — that is, if you don't count their wool caps. They meet once or twice a week at dawn or sundown, as well as on special occasions like the full moon or the equinox. "We play around in the water for 30 minutes or so at a beach past Samoa," says Rowen. "I call it water massage."

I summoned my courage and drove down the Samoa Road in the fog to join the Bluetits Chillers for their Harvest Moon water party. No moonlight but the Kraken rum that we sipped on the sand before getting wet toasted my insides, and as we bounced around in the water, all the shrieking and yelling helped, too. My endorphins definitely want a repeat.

Whether you want to swim, train or just cavort, here in aquatic Humboldt, there's a group for you. Come on in, the water is calling.

Louisa Rogers (she/her) is a leadership coach and writer who lives in Eureka and in Guanajuato, Mexico.

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