Swimming and Running: Ways Into Nature

by Wayne Heinze


“We were born to run; we were born because we run.” Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World

“Perhaps swimming was dancing under the water, he thought. To swim under lily pads seeing their green slender stalks wavering as you passed, to swim under upraised logs past schools of sunfish and bluegills. . .” Jim Harrison, The Man Who Gave Up His Name

Two men celebrate running to Mt Elbert PeakOne may argue, and I will, that the two purest forms of sport are swimming and running. I guess they are the oldest too. Neanderthals must have run, or they couldn’t catch game to eat, or get away from game trying to eat them. They’d run of course until they got to water, and got in over their heads. Then they had to swim, or drown. I have written this and you are reading it, ergo the Neanderthals survived. And they did it by running and swimming among other things, and so it continues. As to the purity, well that’s pretty simple: no accoutrements, just who gets from point A to point B the fastest, by stroke or stride. No scoring, judging, balls or pucks, just speed, which translates to time. And that singularity of the two sports allows any runner or swimmer, at any level or skill, to compete against or compare themselves to, anyone who has ever run or swam the same distance that they are attempting. Compete against the greatest of all time. Just you and Bolt or Phelps, and a hundred meters of track or pool. Pretty cool when you actually stop to think about it.

I have always gone fishing, so have always been around water. Wading in rivers or ocean surf, paddling canoes, rowing boats, scrambling along seawalls and jetties, and bracing against the gunnels offshore in a gale. Fact is, you can end up in the water, so if you want to fish for a long time, it is a good idea to learn to swim. Your motivation being more akin to a Neanderthal (survival) than to an Olympian (medals) in this scenario. Being able to swim is helpful for the fisherman in another important way too. By entering the watery element voluntarily, you can get to places you might not be able to otherwise access.

There was a small stream in the Pequannock Watershed that I would wet wade during the warmer months, It was a delightfully varied watercourse, no more than waist deep in the rocky area where I would first enter, abounding in rock bass, chubs, smallmouth bass and trout. As I worked further down the current, the character of the stream began to change to a slower and deeper flow, with high mud banks on either side. The only way to continue downstream through the deeper pools and glides, where I was literally in over my head, was to do as the Neanderthals did and swim. So with rod gripped firmly between my teeth I would doggy paddle downstream until I hit bottom, then begin to fish again, now catching largemouth bass, bluegills and catfish more commonly. If you fished far enough downstream, the river narrowed and flowed under a small bridge. Exiting the water here, you could jog back on a Forest Service road, if you didn’t mind the squishing sound your tennis shoes made.

Similarly, my cousin and I would swim out to the concrete bridge footers in the Navesink River near Red Bank (Monmouth County) at high water to set up a chum slick as the tide ran out. We had to swim out at high tide, because you could only climb up onto the footers when the water was nearly to the top. You simply dove off the footer when you left after the tide fell. As the flow of the river reversed itself, we would toss handfuls of bunker chum into the water, which slid down to join the Shrewsbury before emptying into the bay near Sandy Hook. Our bait was spearing or grass shrimp we had seined earlier in the day, We would impale a whole spearing or a few (depending on the size) grass shrimp on a simple Aberdeen hook, and suspend it under a torpedo shaped cork float. As the tide carried the odiferous bunker chum down current, we would begin to see silver flashes as bluefish and weakfish would follow the scent towards its source. We’d toss our rigs into the flow and wait for the float to be yanked under by the strike of a snapper blue or pan sized weakfish. In a tide, we could usually catch a couple of fish for supper if we needed them, although most of what we caught was released. Fishing finished for the day, we’d tie our minimal gear in plastic bags, and along with any fish on the stringer, jump off the footer and swim the fifty or so yards back to the bank, rods, gear and fish (sometimes) stowed in old canvas Army surplus rucksacks..There were variations on this theme in other waters, but you get the idea.

Just as swimming can expand your interaction with fish, running can do the same in terms of your wildlife viewing. Especially if the type of running you do or have done is some form of cross country, trail or mountain running. Hiking obviously does this too, but will either cover less ground in the same amount of time or the same amount of ground in much more time. We’ll stick to the running in this narrative though, because we all love to hike, but far fewer feet fly through the forest faster. Say that five times, fast. And besides I’m promoting pure sport here, previously identified in the first few sentences to include running, so let’s lace ‘em up, keep your eyes open, and run. The beggars in our National Parks and the geese in our neighborhood pond notwithstanding, most critters are shy of people. It’s almost like they know what words like Thanksgiving or venison, or field dressing mean. So they avoid us, but by running we can find them both sooner, and more frequently.

There is a life in the desert that you are unaware of unless you’ve spent considerable time there. Say like working ten day hitches every two weeks under the auspices of the Desert Restoration Corps or the Bureau of Land Management, and sleeping nights with only the stars above and a tarp beneath. Day trippers out of San Diego, or even residents in desert towns like El Centro or Brawley, don’t often encounter the wildlife to be seen while doing trail maintenance on the East Mesa of the Yuha in California. Sidewinders, kit fox, pack rats, tarantulas and coyotes are among the many interesting life forms who share the neighborhood of those engaged in such field work. So too are Border Patrol agents, illegals, and yahoos shouting threats from speeding OHV’s in the middle of the night, but that’s a story for another time. Point is, if you spend a lot of time out in that dusty, starry wonderland, you can see a lot of neat stuff. Especially if you run towards it, and away from the roads.

A young man who did just that, once described a couple of his encounters. I actually have photographic evidence of one. He is crouched down on a gravely side road, gently shooing an absolutely huge tarantula from the middle of the road with his cowboy hat. He had to move the arachnid down into an arroyo to allow the work truck to pass without squashing it. Sidewinders were encountered frequently, and along with scorpions were a concern to the crew members when they bedded down. Cowboys used to sleep while encircled by their lariats, snakes not seeming to want to pass over the rough hemp. The young man told me they skipped that step, finding the rattlers, and the scorpions, similarly avoided the plastic tarps they slept on. Not so the kit foxes who would snatch and run off with unlikely items such as socks, and urinate on shoes and notebooks. Nor the kangaroo rats, who would help themselves to any insufficiently secured food, and steal various objects as well. Like stop watches. Why would you need a stopwatch in the desert? Pure sport is the answer, it had nothing to do with the work being done, just the pure sport.

After the work day concluded, and either before or after the camp meal, the young man would run. Not just random jogs, as it turns out he was training for the Catalina Marathon, and the stopwatch was for timing his workouts, at least until the rats found it. He ran alone through the arroyos and ravines, often guided only by starlight and moonglow. And as he came to realize, not always alone. He would hear the sidewinders rattling on the side of the trail, sensitive to the vibrations of his footfalls, even in the most sandy stretches. And after his eyes became adjusted over time on these night runs, he became aware of the fact that he was not the only one running. Most nights a coyote would pick him up somewhere beyond the first mile out of camp, running abreast and parallel for the most part, sometimes disappearing briefly ahead, sometimes running directly behind. He could track the creature’s movements easiest on bright, clear nights, when it would become silhouetted while cresting a small dune. Sometimes the dim light would reflect from its eyes.

His fellow SCA crew members doubted the tale at first, but as they watched him return one following night, they greeted him by turning on the headlights of the truck. Caught in the beam of light was our marathoner, and the coyote twenty meters behind him. The thought process of that coyote remains a mystery, but then again the thought process of a person who runs fifteen miles at night in the desert after digging with MacLeods and Pulaskis in the Southwest heat for ten hours, is similarly unfathomable to most. So, if your running isn’t restricted to a track or your swimming to a pool, the exercise you get may have an unintended benefit, in a new way to connect with nature.

Photo of runners on top of Mt Elbert, Colorado, USA, by the author

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