Swimming with the dead fishes

The smell was noticeable on the walk from the road over to the entry site. It was the familiar smell of Lake Erie, particularly at this former commercial slip which has become the open water swimming site of the Buffalo Triathlon Club. It is the smell of dead fish. I tried to ignore it, looking instead at the rather calm water. A hot day, cool water, smooth surface — what better combination for my first open water swim of the year.

That was until I joined the rest of the group and they had me look along the wall.

Dead fish. Hundreds of them. I’m not sure what type of fish they were, but they weren’t the typical types of fish I’ve seen during my past three years of open water swimming. Those dead fish were probably bass and floated one at a time. I usually scan the surface for a dead fish report, counting how many I see. I have a dead fish count — nine. If I can count nine floating dead fish from the shore, that’s too many and I usually skip the open water swim.

This, however, was completely different. The fish were flesh colored and almost looked like piles of sticks and leaves. They were small and skinny. And they floated in packs of hundreds throughout our swim site.

This was way more than my previously stated dead fish count. And I didn’t want to go in. Cue the whining.

Others were jumping into the dead-fish infested waters. My friend Marit urged me to go in as did my friend Amy. I felt like Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day OffAlright, I’ll go. I’ll go. I’ll go. I’ll go. I’ll go. What was the worst that could happen? I was in my wetsuit, which is imbued with special powers. (What special powers you ask? Whatever special power I may need at the time.) And I focused on my goal for this outing, which was to splash around.

This was my first foray into open water this year and I had no intentions of doing an actual swim workout. In fact, my training for the day was done. All I wanted to do was remember what it was like to move around in my wetsuit, get the feel for freestyle in neoprene, and remind myself that I indeed could swim without the comfort of lane lines. Word from other swimmers was that large ponds of dead fish were to the right of the ladder, so my intention was to stay to left, in a small, contained area which looked to be dead-fish free.

Jumping into the water wasn’t so bad as the dead fish were away from the ladder. The water was cool, but not terrible, until I put my face in and had my breath taken away. But I quickly calmed myself down and bobbed. Then blew bubbles. Then breaststroked. Then took a few strokes of freestyle. Eventually, I swam about 25 meters. I chatted with tri club member Karen as we bobbed in the water, riding some gentle waves. I swam a bit more, then decided to get out of the water. There were some dead fish floating near the ladder and I’m pretty sure I let out a girly shriek as I forcefully created mini tidal waves to push them away from and my lake escape.

Once back home, I immediately got in the shower and let the hot, soapy water disinfect me. That goes on record as the most disgusting swim in my life and left me searching for alternative sites for open water swim practice in the greater western New York area. Seriously, traveling for dead-fish free open water doesn’t seem like such an inconvenience anymore. And yet, my intention for the day was met — to reacquaint myself with open water swimming. There’s something profoundly important about that for me but I’m not going to analyze myself just now. Instead, I’m just going to go with it — and hope the dead fish float away for next week.

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