Across Tenaya Lake – Open Water Swimming at 8,150 feet
Surrounded by granite domes and lodgepole pine forests, Tenaya Lake is the crown jewel of Yosemite National Park’s high country. Set at 8,150 feet (2.484 m), the silver blue lake is a beautiful sight to behold right after you pass Olmsted Point.
Since it is one of the few Sierra lakes not open to motor-boating and surprisingly attracts very few swimmers, my friend Christine and I decided to swim across it from East to West on July 4, 2009. We are currently training for Escape from the Rock, a swim race from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco’s Aquatic Park and we thought a high Sierra lake would be great training ground.
The lake is roughly 1 mile long and when I asked a ranger if she had any advice for crossing the lake, she looked at me with googly eyes and asked if I had a wetsuit. Guess it doesn’t happen too often.
The East side seems like a better starting point since the area is very shallow (see the photo for how shallow and clear the water is – bonus points for no rocks) and you can warm up with a few strokes before reaching a big boulder that’s really the start of the swim. Plus, our goal was to reach the tall white tree in the middle of the western-side beach and we didn’t want to venture too long over deep unknown waters.
Water temperature was hard to gage but high 40s to low 50s (roughly 10-12 degrees Celsius) seems fair based on averages and the fact that nights were in the low 40s.
As far as itineraries, we closely followed the northern edge of the lake, trying to keep parallel with the hiking trail just in case we needed an emergency landing. After all, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. I strapped around my waist a bright yellow belt with a waterproof disposable camera (to take photos) and flip flops, in case I needed to exit and follow the trail on foot. As my husband commented, “you’ll be more buoyant like this!” Sure, buoyant was what I needed.
The first dive was refreshing as the lake’s waters slithered down our spines until we warmed up enough to feel comfortable. Christine with a black swim cap on, I with a bright green Swim-Art swim cap, we didn’t linger long in shallow waters as we planned on completing the swim in an hour or so.
At first, I was glad I could see through my big swimming goggles. For sure, I’d be able to avoid obstacles. However for some reason, I got nervous when visibility trickled down to less than a few meters. That’s odd given that I have absolutely no qualms swimming at Treasure Island with Christine every other week with just enough visibility to see my hand. That was not something I expected to feel.
The other thing I did not expect – but I should have- was how sweet the water was. After weeks of swimming in Treasure Island’s salty waters or my community pool’s mix of chlorine and salt, that was actually nice. The water tasted sweet and I liked it.
As I scouted the bottom for unusual or oversize objects (for instance, boulders like this nice specimen or fallen logs – of which there are many), I did not see a single sign of aquatic life. Though Tenaya Lake is open for fishing, there’s usually barely more than a boat or two with anglers enjoying the alpine landscape. When we were swimming across, Christine and I crossed the path of two kayakers but there was none of the fishing kind on our side.
My strategy was to try to swim above somewhat visible ground as much as I could as deeper bottoms spooked the hell out of me. Again, there’s no reason for this but it just did so I preferred to stay in “safer” waters. As the lake’s underwater topography varies a lot depending on where you are, sometimes that meant being a hundred yards from the shore and sometimes that meant being 20 yards from the shore.
Christine was ahead of me, regularly checking on my green cap to make sure we were on the same path. When we thought we reached mid-point, in front of Polly Dome (? I think, although climbing topos seem to indicate other possibilities), we actually stopped to chit chat and take photos. Yes, that’s how relaxed we were. Floating in the middle of a dream lake is not such a bad thing, after all. We took the time to take in the landscape from a rare vantage point and turned around.
Our voices seemed incredibly loud, yet the lake wasn’t quiet at all. There were a few gently rolling waves and the sound of the wind swooshing on the water. A few cars here and there, hardly noticeable. From where we were, we couldn’t hear the birds. We felt so good reaching half point that we even took turns diving underwater to snap a few shots. Although it was hard focusing through the goggles with the tiny lens of the camera, we managed to get ourselves in the frame. As the water was really kind of chilly, we didn’t stay very long under water though. To warm up, one solution – get back to swimming! So we did.
Crawl again, breathe every third stroke, and keep the rhythm. After that point, we really wanted to reach the end. My only problem with the second half of the swim was that we needed to leave the shores during a pretty long time to swim above deep and dark blue waters. Again, I felt nervous. Somehow, I’d grown accustomed to criss-crossing logs, broken bits of rock and rotting chairs (even the remains of a boat if I’m not mistaken) and I was not mentally ready for the unknown.
Ah well, ready or not, there was no turning back. There was only going forward and we both did. I followed Christine who plowed through the now-deep blue waters with a firm and non-equivocal stroke. As for me, I could see the white tree clearer now and tried not to think much of the lake’s depth. I knew we were getting closer at every stroke even if it seemed like an eternity.
We veered to the left (45 degrees left, roughly) and aimed for a single boulder surfacing above the lake. As we were getting near it, I nearly had a panic attack after Christine warned me about something but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. An arm’s length away from me, a vertical tree trunk’s top was reaching just the surface of the lake but not quite so that it was impossible to notice it from above. I very nearly swam into it. After that, I occasionally closed my eyes and concentrated on the white tree ahead.
I could make human shapes now. I could even make two little girls running on the beach and two men, one holding a striped blue and white towel for me. Our cheerleading team! Galvanized, I doubled the pace – or so it seemed to me.
As I read on a triathlon swim report a while ago, you don’t want to look like a wimp at arrival so you sprint to the finish line. Inspired, I swam until I heard my little girls’ “hurray’s” and made it out of the water on the sand.
The water on the edge felt nice and warm. We quenched our thirst with bottled water and jumped on spekulaas (Dutch-type ginger snaps) to perk up. All counted, stops and all, swimming across Tenaya Lake took us an hour and 10 minutes. Now swimming from Alcatraz doesn’t seem that absurd anymore. It’s just a matter of trying.
As for Tenaya Lake, I think I’ll do it again. Christine likes it too. After all, if my second girl’s middle name is Tenaya, it’s for a good reason. I love that place.