Swimming the Russian River

I went to the Russian River last week.

I had this urge to be in water. Not the mucky brown water of the inlet, which threatens to both stain and suck in the foolhardy wader, but a clear and blue and flowing water whose movement I hoped would sooth my restlessness.

It was Sunday. The skies were gray — with heavy clouds holding in their tears defiantly, unwilling to show the weakness of a downpour.

I had begun to feel stifled in the little cabin of mine, which, so cozy in winter with its peaked roofs, barely working space heater and 10 square feet of walking space, has more and more lost its charms as we head into the time of green and light.

On the Kenai Peninsula, an almost-island fortified by mountains and forest, casual exploration is a challenge — at least for someone uninitiated in mountain climbing and bear avoidance.

My Sunday afternoons more often than not consist taking my discarded glass bottles to the landfill. It’s a habit I picked up from my mom, with whom I have spent many an afternoon sharing cola icees while hauling a van full of farm trash to a Nebraska landfill.

But, that Sunday, I was out of bottles and the sun was determined to hang in the sky. I have not yet experienced a full Alaska summer, but I sense that the light’s omnipresence is less of an opportunity than a dare.

I wanted to swim.

I came to Alaska in December after recently relocating from an island — two islands if you count the waves of cornfields and soy that hem in isolated Midwestern cities.

I moved to Nebraska from Guam — a Pacific paradise turned American suburb — in July, after spending the better part of seven years contending with jungle, deadlines, spiders and oppressive humidity.

There, the green never goes away. There are no flats of ice and mud waiting for reluctant spring. Green coconut and lemai trees still dot much of the wild parts, and pink creeping vines consume even the places that have been tamed by parking lots and strip malls.

And, the ocean is everywhere.

On rough days, tired days, excited days, any day, I could drive a few minutes to the coast and wander along rocky coral or sandy beaches. The warm waters always welcomed.

My favorite time to walk along the beach was evening, when I could watch the sun set below the horizon at a predictable 6:30 p.m. My favorite time to swim was long after sunset, when the tourists had mostly gone to bed, the beach barbecues were over, and all I could see out to the horizon was black.

I missed those days, when I could casually walk out and float on waves in the quiet night.

I wanted to swim.

I decided to take the Sterling Highway toward the mountains. I have yet to explore all the nooks and crannies of the peninsula — although I have seen the highlights. Frozen misty lakes, faraway glaciers, the dark, translucent blue of Prince William Sound, the half-shuttered Homer spit, muddy tundra, moose, garbage eagles, orange sunset over icebergs and mountains.

I followed the highway to the Russian River Ferry parking lot, where a wide boat ramp gives plenty of access to the river.

This story does not end with me swimming, in case you were wondering. My sense of self-preservation is stronger than my need to emulate a mermaid. And even I know that rushing glacier-fed waters are not for swimming.

I wandered a bit along the shore adjacent ferry parking lot. Green patches had begun sprouting next to the exposed rocks of the riverbed. Occasionally, I pulled up tangled webs of fishing line wedged underneath rocks.

I dipped my toes in.

I stood as long as I could, barefoot as the cold water streamed around me. When the numbness set in, I stumbled out and hopped around a bit.

The Alaska waters are not quite so receptive as the tropical Pacific waves. At a loss, I wandered back the way I came, until I found a spot on a dock that overlooked the coursing green water. I watched the water move by, its powerful current masked by an unbroken shimmer.

I still wanted to swim.

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