Lake Ingalls in the Washington Cascades. Photo by Amy Grace.

The Immersion

Near the High Divide of Olympic National Park, I entered the sapphire waters of Hoh Lake and snorkeled with thousands of pollywogs.

These tadpoles were all squiggling in the same direction: clockwise. I matched my swimming pace to their movement, and together we traveled through the shallows along the shore. Being part of this mass migration was as thrilling as paddleboarding with orcas, which I’d experienced a few months earlier when a pod of Bigg’s killer whales visited my backyard waters at Discovery Bay. 

I felt like I was metamorphosing along with these amphibians—transitioning into a more interesting version of myself, regaining a childlike curiosity I had lost long ago. I was being reborn in the fluid cradle of nature’s imagination.

When I emerged from Hoh Lake, I saw the shore piled deep with what I thought were froglets. Later naturalist Dennis Paulson set me straight—I had been swimming with western toad pollywogs, and the hordes of what I thought were froglets were toadlets. Dennis explained that the black pigmentation of these western toad pollywogs is warning coloration, as opposed to the cryptic coloration of other pollywogs that camouflages them from predators. Frog pollywogs tend to disperse and hide, while toads rely on the poison in their skin to protect them. Western toad pollywogs may swim synchronously and pile together on the shore to warn predators that they are not a palatable meal. Scientists are still trying to make sense of this strategy. Had I learned this before I swam in Hoh Lake, I would have found it interesting; after joining a living cloud of toad pollywogs in motion, it struck me as fascinating. 

Flapjack Lakes and the Sawtooth Mountains. Photo by Stephen Grace


I began snorkeling in the Salish Sea a few years ago when I was given a secondhand wetsuit. It fit me poorly; water flooded the suit each time I moved my arms. But I wanted to take my tide pooling explorations to another level, so I tentatively entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I gasped and then hyperventilated—what is called “cold shock.” I worried that what I was doing was weird, maybe dangerous. My doubts dissolved, however, when I watched a moon jellyfish pulse with a hypnotic rhythm underwater—more relaxing than any meditation technique I’ve tried. Silver herring swam in unison, circling like a mirrored disco ball as they were chased by seals and seabirds. After I saw a little fish with an oversized head and a beguiling snout—a grunt sculpin, perhaps the cutest and most charismatic fish on the planet— hop across a barnacle shell on its fins as if they were feet, I became a committed convert to cold-water snorkeling. 

I was fascinated by the life I saw in the Salish Sea’s kelp forests and eelgrass meadows. But after spending several months sheathed in uncomfortable neoprene, schlepping diving gear in a backpack while hiking shorelines, and hauling the gear on my paddleboard when looking for whales, I decided I wanted a more minimalist approach. The freedom to slip beneath the water’s surface whenever I craved a glimpse of life below was alluring. One day, I decided to ditch my wetsuit and train my body and mind to adapt to the cold.

I made mistakes during my early training attempts. Determined to swim across both Flapjack Lakes one October day after a snowstorm frosted the ground in the Olympics, I lingered too long in the water. When I got out, the violence of my shivering seemed like a seizure, and my jaws chattered so forcefully that I bit down on my sleeping bag to keep my teeth from cracking. I was mad at myself for ignoring my limits and being cavalier. But not for a moment did I consider quitting. I was hooked. 

The benefits to physical and mental health of cold-water immersion are profound: improved cardiovascular fitness, a boosted immune system, and an enhanced ability to cope with stress. Cold shock provokes an immediate shift in neurochemistry. A fight-or-flight flood of chemicals alters how we think and feel, preparing our bodies and brains for action as we cope with the cold. Noradrenaline and cortisol are released in our nervous system, sharpening perception and speeding up the workings of the brain—an amphetamine-like reaction. Endorphins flood the system, producing an opioid-like alleviation of pain and a general feeling of well-being. Dopamine kicks off a powerful psychological reward, similar to the effects of cocaine. Serotonin boosts mood, akin to the therapeutic benefits of antidepressants.

The altered neurochemistry produced by cold water immersion delivers a powerful sense of bliss that I wouldn’t have believed possible if someone had tried to talk me into putting my bare body in a 50-degree sea—a ludicrous proposition! I slithered into this situation by happenstance and got hooked.

Photo by Amy Grace.


But my primary motivator to swim through rapids or hike thousands of vertical feet to an alpine lake and then snorkel in chilly water is the opportunity to enter an alternate world and have a memorable natural history experience. I spent years fly-fishing—yanking struggling trout with a rod and line from their world into mine. I’m done with that. Now I love swimming with salmonids, especially in rivers. Several times this past summer, I swam with coho salmon in the Dosewallips River as they battled their way upstream. I watched male chum salmon, canine teeth protruding from their savagely hooked jaws, guarding their spawning nests or redds. The male chum look as ferocious as alligators. When they approach within a few feet of my mask, lightning bolts of terror travel my spine. But I’m also stunned by their beauty: the vertical striping of purple and green on their sides, the hydrodynamic shape of their bodies, and the ink-black pupils centered in the golden discs of their eyes.

I’ve watched anglers who are casting to coho salmon kick at chum salmon on their redds and deride this species as a “trash fish.” I’m sure the perspective of these misguided souls would change if they spent time with these extraordinary creatures underwater and entered their world. All salmon are marvels.

When I swim the same routes salmon do, working my way upstream against the current, I tire easily, even while wearing kick fins for an extra boost. The fact that these fish have returned from the ocean, transiting thousands of miles as they sniff their way back to their natal rivers, astonishes me. I appreciate spawning salmon now in a way I never did while standing on shore or running a trail alongside a river and climbing waterfalls to see anadromous fish spawn, a favorite pastime when I lived on the Oregon coast. To truly celebrate salmon, I had to get into the water with them and visit their realm with no wetsuit or special gear, just a snorkel and mask. 

Snorkeling with Chinook, or king salmon, has been transformative. This past September, as maples on the banks of the Elwha River showed the first yellow leaves of autumn, I entered the river one crisp morning to witness the return of the kings. I emerged from the water shivering from the cold but also shaking with emotion, stirred by the majesty of these beasts and by humanity’s efforts to save them by restoring their spawning habitat.

Swimming with kings in the mighty Elwha, a rejuvenated river again flowing free between breached dams, a river regaining its ecological health, is a powerful experience. Yet, when you are an arm’s-length away from the toothy jaws of a forty-pound Chinook, its body slabbed with muscle, its brain ferocious with instinct, this salmon seems less like a fish and more like a living dinosaur,  a primordial being that has somehow managed to persist on this Earth.

My cold-water snorkeling addiction has deepened through watching amphibians in mountain lakes. The first time I floated in an alpine tarn so clear that the water was perfectly transparent, salamanders in various stages of metamorphosis hovered above boulders of pillow basalt formed ages ago when lava cooled in the sea long before the mountains rose, creating what looked like an otherworldly waterscape from another planet. There were no fish in this lake to prey on the salamanders as they turned from eggs to larvae to adults, and these creatures didn’t seem to view me as a threat. I floated among them, remaining motionless for several minutes at a time. As my body temperature dropped, I thought about an ancient sea creature, finned, gilled, scaly, and cold-blooded, that had given rise to tetrapods, back-boned creatures with four limbs. From a tetrapod that crawled onto land and pioneered a new world came amphibians. Then, after evolution’s invention of shelled eggs with amniotic sacs freed creatures from breeding in water; reptiles, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals evolved, including us.

Through the clear water of this mountain lake, I extended a finger toward a larval salamander wearing a frill of feathery gills. It had sprouted front legs with toes, but its back legs were mere buds. This tiny being, in the middle of transitioning, settled onto my outstretched finger. Enchanted, I felt like I was getting away with something—immersing myself in a world that humans have no business entering or maybe returning to a world not as alien as we assume, revisiting our tetrapod ancestry in a watery womb. 

The Dosewallips River. Photo by Stephen Grace


Often I’m asked why I’m willing to shiver for a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of Cascadia’s rivers and lakes. If the person asking seems unimpressed by my stories of salmon, toads, and salamanders, I mention bears. Several times I’ve seen black bears swimming in lakes, and I’ve also been snorkeling in high-country waters when a bear approached. Once, during a snorkeling session in Lunch Lake, where the water has an almost tropical green-glass clarity, after being mesmerized by brook trout for ten minutes, I looked up to get my bearings—and saw a bear on the bank. Blueberries were on the menu; the bear seemed less interested in watching a naked ape in the lake than in browsing on berry bushes along the shore. But I suspect I will add “swam with bear” to my list of snorkeling experiences sooner or later. I imagine that one day while watching salamanders or fish, I will see paws paddling in front of my mask. Encountering the bubbling commotion of a swimming bear in a lake is a scenario that toggles back and forth in my mind between cartoon cute and utterly terrifying.

This past October, I took advantage of a spell of warm weather to make a solo backpacking trip in Olympic National Park from Sol Duc through Seven Lakes Basin, a place where bears abound. Tally of lakes snorkeled: nine. Number of bears encountered: zero. While snorkeling in Mirror Lake, where I had seen a bear swimming a month earlier from a vantage point atop Bogachiel Peak on the High Divide, I had an extraordinary encounter of a different kind; myriad brown specks were suspended in the water. I assumed these bits were some sort of debris, maybe pieces of sediment or algae, but when I reached toward the little dots, they moved en masse. By waving my hands through the water in front of me, I caused millions of tiny organisms to move in slow swirls as I swam. I felt like a sorcerer lording over a microscopic realm.

I stayed in the water right up until the twenty-minute cutoff time I had promised my wife I would adhere to when snorkeling solo and sans wetsuit. Then, just before I crawled onto shore, the sun slipped toward the horizon. Low-angled light rays strobed through the clear shallows, probing the blue depths, setting an infinity of living specks aglow. Maybe the cold and the exertion of my adventure were affecting my middle-aged brain, but swimming in Mirror Lake that afternoon seemed an awful lot like flying through the cosmos.

Add “psychedelic perceptual effects” to the list of reasons to swim beneath the surface of mountain lakes. No magic mushrooms necessary.    

Though I sound like a proselytizer for cold-water snorkeling, I haven’t been able to convince my wife to try it, and thus far, I have precisely zero converts to my credit—though a herpetologist friend of mine tells me he might try it. I told him about watching gravid newts swimming among the lily pads of Lake Margaret on the Low Divide in the Olympics. You could tell the female newts by their bulging bellies—they looked like they might at any moment burst with eggs. Gelatinous masses of newt eggs clung to branches underwater. Close inspection provided a glimpse of something beyond my imagination. Every clear jelly globe contained a newt tadpole in miniature, and each of these embryonic beasts was fringed with a little feather boa of external gills. Alien life! But when I gazed upon these transparent eggs, I also thought of human embryos and marveled at how strange and wondrous all life is. I felt like I was metamorphosing along with these amphibians—transitioning into a more interesting version of myself, regaining a childlike curiosity I had lost long ago. I was being reborn in the fluid cradle of nature’s imagination. 

The Grand Canyon of the Elwha. Photo by Stephen Grace


Wild swimming seems more common across the pond, where Roger Deakin’s book Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain is a cult classic. Although, a friend of mine from college in England just told me that a scandal about pollution clandestinely dumped into the rivers and lakes of the UK has tamped down people’s enthusiasm for swimming in wild waters. I’m grateful for the relatively pristine rivers and lakes of the Pacific Northwest. 

As long as my aging knees cooperate and carry me to streams and high-country lakes, I will immerse myself in wild waters, where salmon, pollywogs, and salamanders will lead me through a world so much larger than my land-bound brain ever thought possible. And I will send dispatches to my fellow humans from the crystalline cold beneath the currents and waves.

Stephen Grace has authored many books, including Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future and Grow: Stories from the Urban Food Movement, winner of the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. He explores the Northwest’s natural history by snorkeling, paddleboarding, skiing, trail running, and backpacking.

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