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Lagoon Challenge

Hiking and swimming from boulders to beach


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It was a cotton cloak type of fog, reducing visibility to 30 or 40 feet. Donna and I swam this stretch in bathing suits, "skinning it," without the protection of wetsuits. Ariana looked at us skeptically as she pulled her well-worn neoprene over her long limbs and we eyed each other warily from 10 feet away. I felt almost naked in the swaying, dewy grass. We walked from the small parking area at the northern end of Stone Lagoon to the water's edge. We had been driven separately by our partners, and they gave us the send off. My husband, Tom, drove around to paddle from the visitor center to the campground, using the kayak as a cargo vessel for our resupply. The mood was momentous.

The scheme for this September day began years ago with an article about a "Lagoon Challenge," a human-powered traverse, swimming and hiking the lagoons from south to north. All I really remembered from the recorded adventure was some complicated kayak logistics and that they had a savory pie at the end. Yet the seed was planted.

We slid into the 55 degree water. Adrenaline and excitement warmed us at first, but that dissolved into the blue-brown water, more opaque than translucent. We hugged the shore closely, preventing a dangerous disorientation in the fog. We couldn't even see the sun's position through the haze and I got a little scared.

My two companions were faster than me and waited occasionally so we could keep each other's buoys in sight. I tried to hurry in an effort to keep up but my limbs were numb, making my stroke even less efficient. I chopped heavily at the dark, salty water. Donna visibly shivered, her narrow shoulders making small waves when we stopped to strategize. She knew this part of the lagoon well and recognized landmarks as we progressed.

Meanwhile, my two-piece bathing suit had announced its retirement. My sturdy, sporty top was fine, but I had neglected to consider that the elasticity of my bottoms was done, and without the wetsuit they were quite mobile. As I was struggling to keep up, I was also giving whatever otters were present a rather cheeky show.

The sun's brightness finally burned through and radiated off the water as we neared the campground. Our kayak brought warm, dry clothes and we quickly transitioned for our hike to Dry Lagoon. The hike was the first time the three of us had really talked. When I posted the plan on the Humboldt Wild Swimmers Facebook page to see if anyone else wanted to join this feat, they were the only two who simply said, "I'm in." We traded stories of pasts and futures as we walked at safe distance through the alders around the hill.

Like so many others, adjusting to the new way of life with COVID-19 was sometimes effortless and sometimes painfully awkward. Daily reports of death and disease creaked out from the radio, and swimming helped me deal with it. It felt strangely grounding to be in the water. I marveled at silhouettes of paddle-boarders against the luminous mist, the sun's rays shooting around their narrow bodies and shifting fog pockets. The rhythm of kicking, breathing and pulling occupied my mind and muscles in a way that loosened my grip on frustration and despair. I could glide through this lagoon and forget about almost everything.

The backlit moss turned gold and we took a sandy trail to the parking lot, where our respective partners had brought snacks and wetsuits. My reconnaissance for the next hiking section had concluded that it was traversable at low tide, mostly on the beach with some boulder-hopping. There was a bluff above the beach if the tide wasn't low enough. Well, apparently this Sept. 26, the low tide was extremely high, and the swells were huge.

We walked on sand then boulder-hopped for about 30 seconds before the waves threatened and we scrambled up to the bluff. The fog returned and the waves crashed at the base, even with a receding tide. We traversed what was essentially an old landslide for an hour, carefully hopping up and down the cracks and scarps. The cutting grass got the best of our exposed arms and ankles. I was relieved when we hopped down to the solid sand and walked the last yards to Big Lagoon, the waves crashing maniacally behind us.

"Big," as some locals call it, is a gigantic, brackish pool with a narrow spit of sand separating it from the Pacific. Our end point was 3.5 miles away, the lagoon's spruce-lined cove at its southern tip. Ariana knew this section well and described spots of mud and logs like other people describe houses in their neighborhood. My friends pulled increasingly ahead of me as the ocean crashed emphatically on to our right. I didn't understand how it was taking me so long to go a mile. My legs were strong from years of cycling but my arms felt like overcooked spaghetti. We chatted at the first meetup point and I apologized for my delay, but got the feeling that these ladies are part-mermaid — more comfortable in the water than on land. I was, and still am, impressed and inspired by them. We met up again at "the snag," a tree that washed up on the spit years ago, its roots spreading out like welcoming arms of an octopus. This sun-bleached landmark is well known to most swimmers and is a mere 0.9 miles from the south end.

After lagging behind again, I floated on my back and reveled in the day. It had gone reasonably well and the finish line was near. I felt good but tired. And slow. So I decided to adjust my mode of transportation, running along the spit for a mile on the water's edge. I reached the snag and took it all in, welcoming the sun's warmth on my body. My companions met me there, all smiles.

To our surprise, almost 100 people were at Big Lagoon, picnicking, paddle boarding and canoeing with kids, dogs and sailboats. It felt like this gathering of Saturday strangers was a congratulatory party just for us. When I finally touched the sand with my feet, my team was waiting for me patiently, full of cheers and socially distanced fist bumps. Our bodies were pleasantly exhausted. We schemed on our next adventure and felt incredibly grateful to live in a place that lets us roam these green waters.

Hollie Ernest (she/her) is a botanist and forestry technician, calling Humboldt County home for the past seven years. On hiatus from an international bike tour, she is happy to explore the corners the county. Follow her on Instagram @Hollie_holly.


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