The kayak/canoe route for the West Branch of the Sacandaga River just north of Arietta, NY is approximately 9-10 miles long from rapids to rapids. The twisty, winding ride downstream takes you from one access point, under only one other bridge about 1.5 miles down and then leads you the rest of the way into marshy wilderness. The only way out is the way you got in. In our case, that would be swimming. We’re pretty sure nobody had ever thought to try swimming the route before, and we fully knew that once we started, we were committed. Thus, whenever we referred to our plot to adventure swim the route, it fast earned the name, “The Swim of No Return.”
The swim was point-to-point, and we had to leave one car at both the start and the finish along Route 10. Scoping out the finish line is always a good idea, just to get a feel for where you’ll end up and what will be required of you at the end of it all. We made sure we had a path to get up to the road from the water, that we could easily see the car from the river upon our finish, and that finish line clothes were in the appropriate vehicle.
For this swim, because of its length and inaccessibility, we had brought along a support kayak. Bob and Deb were each going to swim halfway and take turns kayaking. (They were really sweet and let me swim the whole thing! They’re the best!)
Our starting point was off of Route 10, and we loaded the kayak with all of our gear and our 1st shift kayaker Deb. We were in the 65° river for a 9 am start, anticipating approximately 8.8 miles of swimming and to be done in about four hours with the current.
It was a good plan! …It wasn’t what happened (he he!), but it was a good plan.
The First Half:
Okay, so… the first half of the swim was crazy fun! The W. Branch of the Sacandaga is narrow and deep. It was, at least, swimmable. It had, again, that orange Oompa Loompa coloring to it that hinted at rain in the not too distant past. It would deepen in spots to a black darkness where you couldn’t touch the bottom (not that you would want to…). There were lots of downed trees and limbs and rocks; you had to be mindful of your surroundings. We had to navigate single file: kayak scouting ahead and the two swimmers following in tandem along behind. Bob said it reminded him of Alice in Wonderland, and I agreed. It was just as if we had all fallen down the Rabbit Hole one at a time and were being rushed headlong into something we didn’t know.
In addition to the snags, the current was pretty swift for that first part of the swim. I felt, more than once, that I was being slingshotted around the corners of the river. I couldn’t help but giggle to myself at the fun I was having!
We paused for a moment under the bridge 1.5 miles into the swim, assessing ourselves and our situation. I’m sure we all wondered independently at our sanity and the wisdom of going forward into uncharted swimming wilderness. What would we encounter? Could we actually swim it? I mean, we could swim, of course, but would the river let us through? The only way to know was to continue, and we didn’t even bat an eye, but all agreed to carry on.
How could you not? It was so exciting! What lay around the next corner? You never knew. You seldom knew what lay a few feet ahead! Following the kayak made it simple and for the most part we could get easily past whatever lay in our way…
Well… until the log jam.
The Log Jam
We came around a bend just about three miles into the swim, and there was a log right across our path. Beyond that log was a few feet of water and then about 6-8 more logs… all lined up, rather regimentally, across the river.
At first, we all just sort of stared at the logs. Surrounded as we were by marshes, there was no way to get out of the river and walk around. Then (because Bob and Deb are scientists and I’m just helpful) we experimented on that first log, trying to push it or pull it. The river was deep here and it was impossible to get leverage to move the log very far. We then began to push on the log and we realized that we could sink it enough that Deb could float the kayak over top of it.
Goodness! It was so like one of those adventure video games with the puzzles you have to solve with hidden abilities that you possess! As a Viking Barbarian, I was totally, thoroughly convinced that I leveled up.
So we got the kayak past the first log, and then we were to the big mass of logs. Deb, being in the kayak, decided that she wasn’t much help in there. So she voiced her thought that perhaps we would all be better off in the water, where we could deal with this together. The first thing she did, in anticipation of entering the water? Take off her life jacket. It made perfect sense to me, I mean, she was going to get in the water.
But as Bob and I began to manage the submersion of the trees, it became evident that Deb didn’t need to jump overboard. I mused to myself that a log jam is perhaps one of the only times where a kayaker needs a safety swimmer.
We got the kayak halfway across the log jam and then we were forced to pause.
“I think,” Deb said. “That if somebody can push that tree over there and then push down on this tree here, I can float the kayak a bit further forward.”
“Okay,” I replied, willingly. “I’ll just go over there.”
‘Just going over there’ meant I had to, somehow, get over a log right in front of me. I didn’t want to go under it for fear that I would get stuck on something and be unable to resurface. I told myself that it would be easy enough to just go over the log. I pictured myself a dolphin, jumping gracefully and easily over the hurtle. And with this mental impression of myself, I flung myself forward, up and over –
My swimsuit snagged hopelessly. I quickly reversed my momentum, hoping not to cut myself or rip my suit. But I didn’t reverse my momentum enough to fully halt my progress… and I folded in half over the log.
My head was in the water. My feet were in the water.
My beached whale impression, starring my backside, was on exhibition to the beautiful Adirondack wilderness marshland, the sky and Deb, who I could hear laughing from my position UNDER the water.
I couldn’t help it and laughed too, even as I wondered to myself with all of the sincere and genuine reflection a person is ever afforded when they find themselves in such situations:
“How did I… in my life, that is… really… end up here… my butt in the air… over a log… in a river that nobody has ever swum before…?”
And the question just made me laugh all the harder, even as I began to wriggle myself free from the snag on my suit and slither the rest of the way over the log into the water on the other side.
When I resurfaced, Deb was still laughing. “You’re lucky I’m a good friend and didn’t take a picture of that.”
Oh, am I ever so grateful! That’s probably a lifelong debt…
There wasn’t much more maneuvering until the kayak was free. It seemed an appropriate moment, as we burst through the log jam back onto the river scene, to sing at least one line from the Lumberjack Song from Monty Python. We were very impressed with ourselves for navigating the log jam successfully.
The Second Half
It wasn’t much longer until Deb and Bob found a place to swap kayaker and swimmer. The river seemed to calm down after the log jam. The current moved along almost imperceptibly, now. The water had warmed up some as we passed the outlets of various lakes along the route. The marshes continued along on every side of us in the foreground. Beyond them, mountains and forests in all the best shades of green stood stately. The landscape seemed untouched, pure, and so very wild.
We paused to rehydrate and Bob remarked on the view, “When I look at these marshes, I think that this is the same way they’ve been for thousands of years. Untouched by man.”
I was appreciative of the remark… but couldn’t help an empty feeling inside of me and said, “When I look at these marshes, I wonder what we’re eating for breakfast.”
We had a good laugh, but it was very apparent to me that the four bottles of feed I had packed weren’t enough for this adventure. Good mental note: plan for the maximum when adventure swimming.
We continued on through the marshes in our still narrow channel through lots and lots and lots of grass… so much that when I went to bed that night and finally closed my eyes, that was all I saw. During this part of the swim, I started to focus more on my stroke and my breathing. I was noticing that I didn’t like breathing out of my nose because it was too loud. I tried, for some time, to pinch my nose so I could adjust the tone of it. I wondered… if I could master the pinching of my nose, could I also change the shape of the bubbles I was blowing? Could I make ships and rings and other cool things? Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in my nose-pinching quest.
Just about this time, I turned to breathe, turned back and there were feet and legs underneath me on the river’s floor. I barely had a moment to process this as I washed up into Deb and the two of us burst out laughing. Then, perhaps, because I was laughing so hard or the current had picked up a bit, but I was sort of uncertain how to separate myself again. We just laughed harder. I wondered if the scenery could have been improved, but I think it was with our laughter.
The River came back to meet up with Route 10 again at about 8.5 miles. We began to search the roadside for the car and were a little unnerved, as we continued swimming, that we couldn’t see it. It grew to a real concern at 9 miles and Bob took the kayak on ahead to see if he could spot the car up the river. He yelled back that he had found it, and we swam into our finish line at about 9.5 miles and approximately 6 hours since we had started.
Our pioneering expedition of the West Branch of the Sacandaga River was truly a success. The adventure, the journey, the thrill, the memories of good times and good laughs with good friends! We swam something that has probably never been swum before. We invented the concept of the “safety swimmer.” We took a challenge and a question mark and applied ourselves to simply answering it:
Can we actually swim it? The whole way? Can we swim that Swim of No Return?
We can. We did.
… But it will still and always be the Swim of No Return.