28 October 2014

Swimming

"Be not the slave of your own past -- plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, & swim far so you shall come back with self-respect, with a new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson


When most people think of swimming, there is certain imagery: a fat sun in the sky; clear waves lapping; malleable sand; chilly water enveloping hot skin as you enter/jump in; floating on your back; swimsuits; searing cement next to a turquoise pool. 

I lived the antithesis of all that:  a milky, sunless sky; opaque, oddly-colored water; volcanic ash replaced tan sand; floating face-down like a dead body; an area smaller than a dinner plate was the only exposed skin; water so cold it would be frozen without the ocean's constant movement.
Just one sentence in Lonely Planet mentioned SCUBA diving in Iceland but I riffled through the text since I was not certified.  I discovered Silfra (pronounced "Self-ruh") from trolling Trip Advisor's website. Dive Iceland picked me up early in the morning at my apartment.  It was my second of 28 days abroad and my first time leaving the capital city of Reykjavik.  The weather was lugubrious with fog hiding much of the hills' tops.  The Icelandic countryside had a scattering of quaint churches, horses & sheep and it all reminded me of the Scottish highlands.... until I saw a big, fat, white Arctic rabbit squatted on the side of the road.
I would snorkel Silfra with my Finnish guide, Andreas, while an American father & his two daughters would SCUBA.  We all had experience with our respective water sports, but none of us had ever swum in water this cold.  To do so, I started by layering my snowboard gear. Next, I stuffed myself  -- with Andreas' aid -- into a blubber suit and felt warm for the first time that morning. Again, with much cramming from my guide, I squeezed my wrists through the dry suit.  I truthfully was in a human condom.  Strangulated, I pulled at the neckline with my fingers which gave me just enough space to swallow and not asphyxiate.  The only female instructor sweetly secured my pigtails into the suit to assure a good seal.  Then, Andreas pried the hood open as my disfigured face was birthed through the taut Neoprene hole.  The hood was so tight my cheeks spilled over the edges as they were smashed together with the rest of my face.  After the entire process I looked like the Michelin Man.  Everything bulged.  The two of us spent over an hour dressing ourselves for a 30 minute excursion.  This proved to be the most arduous part of the day.
Andreas and I waddled from the parking lot to the diving platform as the sun ostentatiously cast its light onto Silfra.   It made gazing into the pool [that descended to Silfra Cave] like looking through blue-tinted, one-way glass since the landscape flowed downward seamlessly. 
It is this clarity of water that brings adventurers to the divergent tectonic plate boundary... and you must be a risk-taker to submerge yourself here.  Earthquakes are common throughout Iceland so when caught in one, the swimmer must avoid falling rock.  This is especially imperative whence SCUBAing caves.  Being trapped in a dark, confined space, more than two football fields from your only air source; unable to breathe because your equipment was suddenly damaged by a displaced rock, sounds like a scary way to die.  The month before a diver passed away at Silfur Hellir Cave -- so perilous National Geographic had yet to explore it.  Furthermore, the water temperature ranged from just two to four degrees Celsius, making hypothermia and overall discomfort typical.  You'd be better off swimming in the 5º C ocean.
Silfra's frosty temperature was attributed to it being entirely glacial run-off & filled from underground springs.  This was Silfra's claim to fame for two reasons.  First, this was uncontaminated water.  Although glacial melt is dirty, the Icelandic lava rock in the area acted as a filtration system.  Despite the floating things suspended underwater you could dip a glass into this crack in the Earth, chug it, and never feel ill.  Therefore, the water from the Icelandic highlands that took 20-some years to travel here had been repeatedly filtered which lead to impeccable visibility. 
Many argue Silfra's clarity is the best in the world & I was tempted to agree after entering Silfra Hall -- with a maximum depth of 45 meters.  The combination of natural water and sun's rays helped illuminate every rock & the gradients of the bluest blue.  But even with the light, I couldn't see the floor.  For divers & snorkelers alike, Silfra Hall must be swum like a yo-yo due to its varying levels.  One minute I was adrift between cliffs, the next Andreas & I skimmed over broken boulders.  I approached each enormous pile of rubble in Silfra Hall agog to discover what laid beyond it.  Sometimes there was a sudden vertical drop; sometimes another cave's mouth; sometimes a Cerulean blue chasm.
However, the show-stopper was Silfra Cathedral.  Just its name sounded grandiose & it was.  After a dramatic drop-off, the fissure stretched unobstructed for 120 meters a.k.a. 393 feet.  As Andreas & I entered the narrow corridor, I saw the SCUBA divers' trail of bubbles at the far end of the cathedral, exiting it.  On each side, towered walls of craggy rock, juxtaposed by the flat sand floor.  Fractured from earthquakes, dragged by glaciers, pushed onward by the underwater currents, here was where Icelandic rock came to die. 
After a final shallow spot, Andreas veered left to take us to Iceland's lesser known blue lagoon.  As I rounded the bend a masterpiece of colors and biologic wonders unfurled for over 100 meters, like in Silfra Cathedral.  Through the sapphire water laid the distant rocky shore.  The sapphire faded to cyan but closer to me the floor was nude & muted brown.  The only plant that flourished in the frigid underwater temperature was the bright green "troll hair" which was suspended in the lagoon.  The green cobwebs reached for the surface as if gravity had abandoned this place.  The scene was made even more surreal by the frozen bubbles Andreas pointed out.  Encapsulated in the algae as it tried to float to the heavens, a myriad of teeny air pockets frosted the ground.  It was the oddest, most backward scene I encountered on the entire trip.

* * *
Later that week -- still in Iceland -- Mom & I explored the greater Keflavik area.  Outside of the city, I witnessed the rockiest terrain in the country.  I believed only mountain goats could cross it.  Amidst the toothy, inhospitable landscape rose a building whose grayish-white color mimicked the sky.  Behind it laid Iceland's iconic Blue Lagoon.
From afar, Mom & I saw the steam rising from the cauldron that essentially was the Blue Lagoon.  We commended ourselves for purchasing the "comfort package" which provided a robe + towel (and other amenities) because even though it was summer, the thermometer read just 7º C a.k.a. 45º F outside.  The wind bit & sent the steam rolling westward in clouds.  Mom finally worked up enough nerve to shed her robe and ran across the crunchy, black sand beach to the toasty water.  Because the Blue Lagoon is a natural wonder, she fell into a random groove many times & I stubbed my knee twice against unseen, igneous rocks.
The lagoon wasn't like a hot tub though; I did not need to ease into it.   Although its six million liters of seawater commence their journey at a burning 464º F. By the time they reach the open air enough heat has been discharged to make it a balmy 100º F which was welcomed on this cold day.  The steam that rose from the lagoon was so heavy, there were times I could barely see my mother standing across from me. My camera lens fogged up & all my photographs have a misty morning look.

The most staggering feature of the Blue Lagoon is the stark contrast of its colors.  The shoreline was so encrusted with kísill a.k.a. silica that my pictures suggested I was in the middle of a snowy tundra instead of a lava field dating back to 1226.  Without the sun's rays, the entire scene was monochromatic.  Some rocks looked like they had been bombed with bird droppings.  From a distance I assumed there was a type of white stone present, but it turned out to be the same, dark rock transformed by volcanic minerals.
The same minerals that were caked on the igneous rocks is what gives the Blue Lagoon many of its benefits & -- alleged -- healing powers.  So, I thought it ironic that spa services were offered considering this hole in the earth was one massive, free spa!  Because the lagoon's unique ecosystem cannot support "common" bacteria, there is no need for harsh chemicals such as Chlorine in the water.  I found loose Pumice & gave myself a natural ablution.  The aching in my quadriceps and left knee (from hiking a lava tube the day before) alleviated.  Amazingly, 60% of the microorganisms harbored in the geothermal water were new species of algae -- two of which stimulate collagen in the skin.  I felt it compulsory to put these living creatures on my face since I paid a hefty sum for the Comfort Package.  Dispersed throughout the slökunarsvæði a.k.a. relaxing area were unassuming wood boxes with heaps of kísill harvested straight from the earth.  Like a cafeteria worker, I removed the ladle that overflowed with thick, pale goo and slopped some into my hand.   The kísill mask was creamy as I slathered it on &, even after I rinsed it off, I felt a briny residue still on my face .  I didn't dare put any in my hair as it was already slimy enough from the Blue Lagoon's unique properties.



No matter that the Blue Lagoon was a tourist trap & over-priced.  Rightfully so, skeptics doubt its healing abilities but I found the experience rejuvenating.
* * *
On Saturday, 29 June 2013, aboard the M.S. Expedition, David + Giles + I grinned at each other at the dinner table.  Stephanie quietly giggled.  The expedition leader had just announced an overview of tomorrow to the passengers.  A stop at Magdalenefjord -- ranked amongst Norway's top 10 by Lonely Planet -- with an afternoon swim.  If you recall, on day #1, at meal #1, the three of us shook hands and agreed we would complete this rite together.

What would tempt any sane person into knowingly placing their warm, supple body parts into a freezing (literally, the water temperature that was a startling 0º C!) alcove?  Perhaps we had been cooped up too long on the M.S. Expedition?  Maybe we were demented with seasickness?  Vitamin D deficient?  Whatever the reason, a "polar plunge" was something I had always wanted to accomplish & where else would I find a more fitting location than the polar north?

Stripping down to my grungy swimsuit was a juxtaposition to a mere hour earlier, when I donned the usual Arctic fashion:  a tank top + base layer + fleece jacket + snowboard jacket + thermal underwear + snowboard pants + neoprene socks + wool socks + galoshes + [what I referred to as] a mad Russian hat + 2 pairs of gloves.
Mom & I stepped from the Zodiac onto the sandy shore where skeletons of a blubber oven, fish, Puffin & Reindeer remained.  Unfortunately, as I hovered over its crumpled frame with wings spread, this would be the longest I ever gazed at a Puffin throughout the entire 30 days abroad.  There were hints of living things too.  In the sand were recent prints from something with sharp, long nails & paws that looked feline, although I could not recall an animal remotely related to cats that survived in the Arctic!? The only wildlife I spotted was a Snow Bunting crossing a scant stream. Guy -- spotted polar bear tracks in the snow close to 2 days fresh.  As much as I loved Polar Bears, I did not want to see a one alive & well while marooned on Magdalenefjord.
Since we stopped at Magdalenefjord toward the end of the cruise, it was a bit underwhelming compared to the rest of Svalbard.  Not to say it was ugly.  On the contrary there were three hanging glaciers surrounding the bay and that icy blue, hallmark of the polar regions. I was tired & decided to save my energy for my afternoon drowning so I laid on the squishy volcanic moss and napped.
Towards the end of the outing, all 93 passengers and most front-of-house staff assembled at a calm lagoon.  In the middle of it a single Zodiac was anchored.  You could feel the electricity: "Are you going to do it?" "Ha! Only if you are." "Don't be such a baby."  Dr. David wimped out on account of recovering from Bronchitis "recently" (whatever that vague timeframe meant).  As I approached Giles -- clad in a fur-lined parka -- my gut told me he was about to balk as well.  Oh the irony that a 5'1" Filipina had more balls than two burly, well-respected, tall, educated, backpackers! 
On the shore 26 lunatics -- myself included -- trepidatiously lollygagged in their skivvies, not wanting to be the lab rat of the group.  To summarize the ritual, there was such a spectrum of emotions. The first brave souls who entered the lagoon were the also the youngest: two twin girls certainly not old enough to legally imbibe in the mandatory shot poured at the floating Zodiac.  They waded into the water quite jovially.  In contrast, the sisters were followed by probably the oldest swimmers: a white-haired lady & bald, hairy-chested man.  The gentleman raised both his arms, with a shot of Aquavit in one hand, as if he had just been declared the champion of some sport.  Indeed, it was an accomplishment to survive zero degrees without succumbing to cardiac arrest.  Based on their reactions, I swore two crew members (Natalie & Lauren) were actually enjoying themselves and I presumed Damian giggled as he completed a freestyle lap around the raft.
 
However, others made it quite evident that a polar plunge was not their idea of fun.  One man tried to hike up his swimming trunks as if it would help him retain heat & cast a "WOW this water is really cold" glance back to the crowd on the shore.  Another bloke named Giles tiptoed hurriedly out of the lagoon as if every step was painful & onto broken glass.  Some of the esoteric group looked like they might keel over at any minute from the shock.  I was one of those swimmers who displayed absolute anguish in the water.
I dislike being in the spotlight, so I hung back on the beach for a few reasons.  First, in hopes that the onlookers' attention would wane as more & more lemmings plunged into the glacial lagoon.  Second, I studied.  I noticed that the last person in any group spent precious seconds waiting for his/her shot to be poured by Dmitri on the Zodiac.  I lingered in the sand but could not preserve any more heat nor prolong the inevitable.  At Magdalenefjord -- 79º 33.70′ N -- this was the best place to execute a polar plunge.

I furtively sprinted into the Arctic water.  I intended to race in & out, making the event as smooth & painless as possible.  Sort of like ripping off a Band-Aid.  My hopes crumbled within the first few steps.  Knives voraciously stabbed my feet and I nearly belly-flopped into the water with the sudden & unexpected paralysis of my lower limbs.  When I arrived at the boat, Dmitri handed me the shot of Aquavit, but I held up my index finger.  I wanted to earn my polar plunge certificate & I did not just swim through -- literally -- freezing water to feel shorted of the experience.  So, I took an enormous breath and dunked everything.  Immediately I felt the skin on my face contract and brain seize. I exploded from the bone-chilling depths and downed the liquor in one big gulp as I dashed back to dry land.
To recap, I snorkeled in between two continents constantly pulling away from each other in a violent manner.  I witnessed frozen oxygen.  I floated  in century-old seawater heated more than a mile below the Earth's surface, and submerged my entire 98.6º F body into the 32º F Arctic Ocean.  As abysmal and agonizing as it sounds, it was actually a dream come true!