Find Your Inner Arctic Grayling
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
It’s August, time to head for cool water—a beach, a lake, a pool, anything to get wet and out of the heat. They say we all came from water anyway, the sea, long long ago, that our distant relatives were fish (don’t believe everything you hear, though). Yet you wouldn’t know it by Montana, where historically swimming has not been a priority or even a pastime, not among cowboys, Indians, or sodbusters, and it’s certainly not what Lewis and Clarke had in mind. Hot as it is though during summer (and smoky), swimming ought to be right up there with rodeo and fly fishing.
So this month we extol the advantages of getting wet in southwest Montana, not necessarily in the usual way.
Some time ago, two stalwarts of this publication (the editor and one Ed Turner) formed the Arctic Grayling Society (total membership: 2), one that holds the grayling, a decidedly cold water fish, as its totem and exemplar. Participation in the club required a hike up some local trail, getting all hot and sweaty in search of frigid water, where one might take a plunge or simply submerge to the degree possible if the body of water chanced upon were nothing more than a creek fed by snowmelt. This quest, mind you, had less to do with ancient bloodlines related to some primordial sea creature than having grown up near water, in Turner’s case Lake Michigan, and in mine the Atlantic Ocean—a longing for the cooling effect of water during the dog days of summer.
Now it’s a scientific fact (although they also say it’s a fact we’re related to fish) that neural synapses fire at an enhanced rate when a body is immersed in cold water. You know how that feels (or maybe you don’t and should become the third member of the Graylings). The first thing you want to do is get the hell out of the water (especially if you’re from a high and dry landlocked area of Montana). Cold water on a warm body, due to its density compared to air, creates a sense of epidermal and psychological shock. The upside of that dynamic though is that it cools the body quickly, and enlivens the senses, owing to the firing of neural synapses, if only one has the courage to endure longer than the time it takes to think this wasn’t such a great idea (though it is).
What’s more, a curious and invigorating phenomenon takes place for those who are Graylings—upon immersion in the proper manner they undergo an attitude change. That proper manner requires staying in the water, defying the impulse to escape, and letting the water have its way with you for, say, at least 3 minutes, better if 10, though not necessarily 10 minutes consecutively, for exiting and re-entering the chosen body of water is acceptable and even encouraged due to the way doing so acclimates body and mind to the Grayling experience, but you must stay in the water beyond the time when your body is initially telling you to get out, and then some. The net result is that your synapses, the space between neurons bridged by electrical currents, begin to fire, and this is the subtle energy of mind and body related to acupuncture and Kung Fu called Chi (the stuff that enabled Bruce Lee to kick Chuck Norris’s keester around like a bag of refried beans in Way of the Dragon). As you exit the water, your brain hums, you feel tingling everywhere, even in the atmosphere, and a sense of heightened well being fills your senses, which is in turn followed by a hearty appetite and then deep restorative sleep hours later.
It’s as if your very being becomes supercharged and you see life anew. It’s a natural high, and the Grayling’s understanding of that high is that once you enter the water, in the Grayling way, you are changed, and that which you brought with you into the experience in the way of recalcitrance, negativity, trepidation, or mental and emotional inertia is dramatically and beneficially obliterated and consumed. It’s what being a Grayling is all about. It’s a rush, you feel great, want more, and the reason you develop a hearty appetite is due to the body’s burning of calories (to maintain core temperature) as it compensates for the cold and physical stamina required of the experience.
This is an especially rewarding natural experience up the Twin Lakes Trail from Half Moon Campground in the Crazies, where Big Timber Creek tumbles down beneath the bridge less than a mile from the easily accessible trailhead. After submerging in any of the various pools below the bridge, you may then lay on warm, sometimes hot, black boulders sunning like a sea lion on the Pacific coast, leaving cares behind (sea lions don’t worry much) while anticipating yet another plunge into the cold.
Swimming in area mountain lakes provides a similar attitude adjustment, with the added benefit that one has space to actually swim over a distance, flat out. Places like Fairy Lake come to mind (accessible by Jeep trail from Bridger Canyon Road), but just about any lake that has an accessible bank will do the trick. As a note of caution, one does well to test the water’s temperature, especially early in the season, and splash about a bit while knee deep so that your body and brain adjust to the shift in temperature—it may be quite cold, too cold for quick submersion if you are not up to the experience physically. But those who attempt such activities, we presume, will be souls hardy of mind and body and resistant to pulmonary arrest (this though is mostly a concern as the result of a sudden plunge, as opposed to more measured submersion. If though, you test the water and feel confident, by all means be a man and take the leap.
This Grayling experience has a worthwhile counterpart at various hot springs in the area (from Boiling River, to Chico, to Bozeman and Norris Hot Springs) in the sense that one may alternate between hot and cold water (or a cold river in the case of Boiling River). Some folks, of course, are not Arctic Graylings and prefer to loll about in hot water only, letting their blood pressure tank and body temperature rise to the point of extreme lethargy and light headedness, at which point they get out of the water, never having gone for the gold, or rather the cold. Not the Grayling, who plays cold water against hot, an experi-ence that revs the metabolism like a Formula One race car flat out on a straightaway, to the point that the driver, or rather the bather, becomes semi-impervious to extremes of temperature, as if the body had some natural thermometer and temperature mechanism (a thermostat with a comfort range) that puts processes in high gear to deal with this natural and invigorating challenge.
At Boiling River (near Yellowstone’s north entrance), here’s the thing to do, as you sit in a hot pool beneath majestic, austere walls of geology towering above you and observing like the primordial watchers of mankind from the Book of Enoch. By all means, soak as you will, then slip over the rocks into the shallow Gardiner River and lay flat in the current, any way you choose, so long as water covers the body. Your first impulse will be to jump right out (or chicken out, as your big toe touches cold water), but persevere my friend, even if you must do so bit by bit, until your body says, Okay, I think I can handle this, then be sure to submerge your face and head as well, or at least douse your cranium with cold water (by August the water should be more tolerable than in, say, early June, when it is nothing more than recently melted snow, and not an option at Boiling River anyway in that June run off washes out the hot pools entirely, until the river recedes).
The wonderful effect of this effort is that as you enter the cold water, then hot, then cold again, you feel a sense of invincibility, as your skin tingles, flush with blood, and you easily see yourself as being a creature of the outdoors, an aboriginal, rugged and hearty, rather than the couch potato you may otherwise be.
At hot springs that have swimming pools—such as Chico, Norris, and Bozeman Hot Springs—this effect may be attained by alternating between hot water and a cold pool (Bozeman Hot Springs) or shower. Stick it out in the cold, amigo, you won’t be sorry and will feel like a million bucks (minus admission). The trick is not to merely rinse in cold water, but to stay there, then return to the hot pool, then repeat, until bodily and mentally aware that you are fully alive.
For the less adventurous, those falling short of the exalted Grayling status (call them trout), conventional local swimming pools provide a likewise enjoyable time, depending on your tastes and tolerance for screaming kids, hordes of them—but at least these pools are a place to take the kids (Livingston’s City Pool, Bogert Park Pool in Bozeman, or Chico’s large warm pool that is more adult-like given the proximity of the bar and restaurant). We must say though that suitable adult conditions at these pools are sometimes wanting (Chico being the exception), due to the dominance of vociferous children who go absolutely nuts in the water, as expected, as we all did, but which sets a tone that is less than ideal for, say, the cocktail set (correction: cocktails may be just what’s needed, so that the din seems muted, and then equates to the mere pitter patter of little feet).
The Livingston City Pool, we assert here (controversy driven publi-cation that we are), closes too early in the season (August 18), and then resembles a wasted, barren resource through the remainder of the month and September (as does the kiddie pool in Sacajawea Park perennially, in that it has been conspicuously dry for several years, though once availing a fine opportunity for wading, even for adults). Starting June 11, the city pool is open just over two months (limited, as well, by Montana’s often chilly early Junes). It is, though, a nice pool, and the city provides hours for lap swimming, mornings and evenings, if that’s your preference, a great way to cool off and exercise.
The City of Livingston, by the way, plans to build a Splash Park at G Street, and Belgrade already has one (revamped in 2010) at Lewis and Clarke Park. Great ways to beat the heat. Big Timber, what’s more, has a water slide, just what kids need on a hot August afternoon (bring sunscreen). Bozeman’s Bogert Park Pool will require a substantial cash outlay from taxpayers to keep operating—it needs improvements related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other repairs that may make 2012 its last season. And it may be going to the dogs in more ways than one (during the dog days of summer yet), as the final hours of the season are reserved for canines—last year’s event having attracted 50 dogs. Yikes.
With so many feeling the effect of a lagging economy, these staycations may be just the thing, and for those who resist taking the plunge, preferring inertia, if they’re not yet all wet, perhaps they ought to be.