A dangerous and romantic mystique has always surrounded Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. With a history of detaining some of the nation's most notorious felons, it seems unlikely that hardened criminals like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly would have imagined people voluntarily swimming from Alcatraz Island for sport instead of fleeing from this forbidding, penal fortress.
Distance, treacherous currents, sharks and frigid water were all factors in The Rock's century-long claim to fame as one of America's most secure prisons. Although desperate souls tried, successful escape was never confirmed.
Open-water swimmers are not intimidated by the challenges that kept criminals on The Rock. They are not deterred by long distances, squishy jellyfish, fear of sharks, icy temperatures or curious sea lions. These swimmers eschew the safer confines of swimming pools for large outdoor bodies of water: rivers, lakes, channels and oceans. For some it's a matter of fitness; for others, competition is the motivation behind this love of unknowable water. Age is no barrier for these hearty adventurers — some vigorous enthusiasts swim well into their 90s.
Undaunted by an event named the Alcatraz Sharkfest, a group of 12 Rogue Valley swimmers — seven men and five women — plan to compete this year on June 28. This popular event limits participants to 900 and is always a sellout.
"We had to get our registrations in very early," says Todd Lantry, president of the Rogue Valley Masters Swimming organization, a group of dedicated fitness enthusiasts who share a love for swimming, fun and social interaction. The organization embraces swimming as a lifestyle, and hosts some of the best swimming events in the Pacific Northwest.
"We swim all the time, but we just realized the competition was only three months away, so we will be doing some serious training in Emigrant Lake," Lantry said in April.
Some in the group have previous experience with this challenging event; for others, it will be a first.
"Most of the people who do this are not triathletes," explains Doug Stewart, a member of the Rogue Valley Masters. "Many of us were swimmers in school or in college and just love being in the water. With open swimming, it's about being in nature and loving the outdoors. And it's also about the challenge of the unknown — the added, I don't want to say danger, really, but having to deal with the wind, currents and things floating in the water. Being out in the elements, in nature like that, gives it a kind of added exhilaration."
"I started swimming competitively in pools when I was 4 years old," says Masters member Hailey Kuhn. "I was losing interest in swimming by the time I was 19 or so. Then I joined Masters and found open-water swimming to be a whole new challenge. It's like competition, but much more social. I love the group swimming and the solidarity, the camaraderie with other people."
There is more to swimming in open water than splash and flail. Technique, and conditioning are crucial when dealing with currents, choppy water and cold.
"The weather is one of the biggest considerations," says Stewart. "It creates two things: wind and currents, and they can be quite a challenge. Temperature is another consideration. I've seen people get mild to moderate hypothermia."
The season for open swimming in Oregon runs from June to September, but even during the optimum months water is likely to be chilly in snow-melt rivers and mountain lakes. Most swimmers who enjoy this sport expect temperatures below the comfort of the average heated pool, some choosing wetsuits as a means of insulation from frigid waters.
As a measure of its growing popularity, the International Olympic Committee Executive Board will add men's and women's 10K open-water races to the Olympic program in Beijing this summer.
Oregon is noted for its recognition of the public's right to have "unencumbered recreational access" to most of its freshwater and saltwater bodies. The diverse terrain offers a wide variety of picturesque choices for open-water swimming in lakes, rivers and ocean waters.
What could be more invigorating than an early morning swim with Mount Bachelor or Mount McLoughlin in plain view? Advocates for the sport, and there are many, call it "swimming for life."
Favorite open-water swimming holes:
Popular swimming holes in Jackson County include Emigrant Lake and Applegate Lake. Many swimmable lakes dot the Cascades and Siskiyous, but the season is short in the high country. July and August are the prime months, but a good wetsuit can add weeks to the season.