At an elevation of 4,688 feet (1,428 meters), in the last week of August, Cultus Lake was just high enough to keep us above the unpleasant heatwave passing through the lower lands and yet not leave us quite breathless.

The water was crystal clear, pleasantly cool (about 66-69 F / 19-21 C) and the air just right (about 86 F / 30 C) last week for our first official swim camp in this chain of High Cascade Mountain Lakes or Oregon, USA.

[More info on Cultus Lake on the Atlas Of Oregon Lakes website]

Last summer, when we scoped out this location for a possible swim camp, it looked most attractive among several candidates, providing the main features we were looking for so we decided to give it a try. Though this lake is well known for its beauty, I was still surprised by how lovely and ideal it really ended up being in our first live trial. With our small group of swimmers this week I had that same feeling of sensory delight and contentment here in the mountains of my home state that I get in my adopted home on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. 

Virtually everyone who comes to the lakes up here in these mountains experiences their beauty above the surface. But what incredible views we had above, at and below that surface! The underwater edges of the lake were small rock and shale, and then a few feet out it turned to sand. Here and there along the bottom were giant naked logs and branches preserved in the cool waters below. Large trout could be seen deep down, hiding in the shadows or darting from one patch of debris to another.

In one stretch just along the western shore, there was a shallow band of pleasant-looking (i.e. ‘not creepy’) underwater vegetation. After swimming several minutes along this band, I came across thousands and thousands of baby trout spreading out from the grass in front of me. This lake has no shortage of fish!

Above the surface, we were surrounded by a healthy forest of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir and White Fir, the species that do well in the high mountains with dry summers and many feet of snow pack in the winter. Just over the top of the nearby ridge we could spy the tops of Mount Bachelor and South Sister (of the Three Sisters Mountains) – extinct cinder volcanoes that are iconic of this region (I’ve climbed both before). And there is a fairly easy 15 mile (24 km) trail around the lake and Cultus Moutain (seen below) that allow one to explore a great portion of the shore. I enjoyed a couple sunrises that week running out and back on part of that trail before breakfast.

The water was on the cool side for regular pool swimmers (below 70 F / 20 C), and our students were donning shorty wetsuits almost the whole time. Wetsuits weren’t always necessary, but if one was not acclimated to the cool water, it could greatly extend their comfortable time for continuous immersion during our sessions. Up to 1 hour seemed about right. Then we could warm up in the sun. I did my swimming without one, but I wouldn’t want to stand around naked in the water coaching! We did most of that from our inflatable kayaks.

Strangely, open water swimming for its own sake is not something many people in my part of the country do. Water skiing boats, fishing boats, kayaks and paddle boards are in abundance, but we were the only people cutting the glassy surface with our own bodies. I envy my friends in northern Europe who have large and thriving communities of cool/cold water enthusiasts, if not a long cultural history of immersion. So, it is part of our quest to introduce the pleasures of this to more Pacific Northwest people, and inviting people from afar to sample our natural aquatic delights.

One of the greatest benefits of getting out of the pool is the ability to finally take hundreds of uninterrupted strokes. Can you imagine running for an hour, back and forth, in a basketball court? There would be no way to slip into that running rhythm high that can carry us for miles. That’s essentially the disruption that is happening in the pool. Though many people adapt and get some semblance of it, still, pool-locked swimmers have no idea how amazing the swimming rhythm… the swimming meditation can be until they can just keep taking stroke after stroke after stroke for minutes and minutes, even hours. My swimmers were hooked.

In addition, in having hundreds of uninterrupted strokes, you get hundreds of uninterrupted repeats of the movement pattern you are working on. If you are paying attention to some particular part of the stroke, your sensitivity and eventually your control over that part of the stroke starts to increase. Corrections require direct and immediate feedback and plenty of it, so repeat the movement every second or so, a few hundred times in a row, and you have a more powerful opportunity to make micro-corrections, notice the immediate effect, then lock it in or make more micro-adjustments. Carry a few corrections like this over several days of a swim camp and you can have a new pattern starting to stick… though you likely have to really keep attention on it for some more weeks to make it a new habit.

We did explore a couple other lakes in the area.

One day we went to Elk Lake, which is closest to Bend, Oregon (the West Coast equivalent of Boulder, Colorado) and therefore the popular swimming spot for triathletes and open water masters swimmers of the area – and it is a boat-speed-restricted lake . They host US Masters open water championships there quite often.

[More info on Elk Lake on the Atlas Of Oregon Lakes website]

And, on our departure day, we drove down to Crescent Lake and had another marvelous swim. Though Crescent Lake has 4x as much surface area as Cultus, the top layer of water was slightly warmer for us on the day we were in it. It too was crystal clear, with rocks along shore most of the shore and smooth sand beyond, into the deep. Quite marvelous.

The season will be closing soon. September can bring freezing temperatures at night. These lakes cool down immediately with the weather. But they will thaw out and beckon us back in June for another short summer of delight.

[More info on Crescent Lake on the Atlas Of Oregon Lakes website]

Whether you join us for a swim or do it on your own, I hope you’d consider coming to our beautiful state of Oregon to enjoy our natural marvels – especially those that have high mountain water. 

When you do, you’ll definitely need to check out Crater Lake National Park too!

[More info on Crater Lake on the Atlas Of Oregon Lakes website]


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