One of my favourite things about fieldwork has nothing to do with the work itself. For me, one of the best parts of being in the field is the chance to swim in natural water.
I’ve always loved the water, and taken every possible opportunity to swim in every available body of water, from pools to lakes to the ocean. No matter where I’m swimming, the feeling of moving through water is wonderful; for a klutz like me, feeling graceful and fluid is a welcome change. But as much as I love pools, they just don’t compare to swimming outside in natural water, surrounded by the green of trees, the pink and grey of rocks, and the blue of the sky.
I’m at my happiest when I’m floating on my back in a lake on a hot summer day, staring up at a blue sky scattered with clouds, and letting the water bob me up and down. And there’s no better way to end a day in the field than by submerging yourself in water and feeling the stress, frustration, and sweat of a hard day’s work wash away.
Swimming is such an integral part of fieldwork for me that I’ve gone to some rather extreme lengths to get in my field swim. For example, during some recent fieldwork in Manitoba, I decided that my field experience would not be complete without a swim in Lake Winnipeg. Never mind that the weather was unseasonably cool, or that we never got back from the field before dinnertime…the lake was there, which meant that I had to swim in it.
I quickly discovered several…interesting…aspects of Lake Winnipeg that make swimming an adventure. For one thing, the water is an opaque muddy brown, so dark that you can’t see your own feet when submerged. It’s a bizarre feeling, jumping into water with absolutely no idea what else might be in there, right below your feet.
But for me, the real problem was the horse flies, which turned swimming in the lake into an extreme sport. Each time I went swimming, no sooner had I ducked my head under, than one of these huge biting flies would come buzzing out of nowhere. Usually she would bring at least one friend, and the two of them would circle my head in an ecstasy of excitement about having found a warm-blooded creature in the midst of all that water.
Swimming then became a race between me and the demon flies, as they tried their best to get their pound of flesh and I tried my best to thwart them. As they circled closer to my head, honing in on me, I would duck under the water and swim for as long as I could hold my breath, then pop up and enjoy the blissful silence – which would inevitably be broken within milliseconds by a frantic buzz as the flies noticed me again. When I got out of breath, I’d flip onto my back, leaving just my face showing above the water. The flies would counter by landing on my forehead and nose, forcing me to swat wildly at them. In the end, I managed to avoid getting bitten, but every swim was frantic and punctuated with episodes of ungainly flailing. I’m sure I gave people on the shore a good laugh – but the swim was still worth it.
While swimming in Lake Winnipeg was definitely an adventure, the lake itself didn’t feel all that different from the Canadian Shield lakes I’m used to. But sometimes, in the course of fieldwork, I’ve resorted to swimming in some pretty odd places. Take, for example, my field season in the Dominican Republic. You would think the swimming opportunities would be boundless on an island renowned for its beach resorts. However, when you’re up in the mountains, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest beach, you have to make do with what you have. In our case, that was the little canal that ran past our camp and down into the nearby village.
While doing ‘laundry’ (i.e. making a valiant attempt to rinse at least the top layer of dirt out of my field clothes) in this canal one day, I realized that it could, in theory, be used as a lap pool. The current was strong, the water was cool and clear, and the canal was just wide enough for a comfortable breast stroke. So as soon as we’d hung the laundry up to dry, I decided to try it.
At first, I thought I’d found the perfect solution to satisfy my swim cravings: the canal was refreshing in the tropical heat, and while the current was challenging (I certainly couldn’t float on my back for any length of time without being pushed downhill towards the village), it was great exercise and lots of fun.
It wasn’t until I got out of the water that I noticed my arm was just a bit itchy. The itch built over the next few hours…until the back of my arm was swollen and covered in welts. When I mentioned the problem to the family that lived at the camp, they managed to convey to me, using a mixture of Spanish and English, that the canal was a favourite spot for many things – including a very tiny, but very effective, biting bug.
So my first canal swim was also my last canal swim, and I resigned myself to a swim-free field season. However, the dry days were more than made up for when we took a brief trip to the closest beach (an ~8 hour drive away), and I got my first chance to swim in the Caribbean sea.
But no matter how many fantastic (and…er…interesting) places I’ve gone swimming in the field, none of them can top swimming at the very first place I did fieldwork, the Queen’s University Biological Station. Down a path worn by generations of feet, out of sight from the main station road, is a slightly ramshackle metal diving board hanging over a quiet stretch of Opinicon Lake. During the day, the water is warm and clear, making it easy to see the group of sunfish that hang out under the diving board, and the shore is bordered by thick trees and the occasional glimpse of grey rock. At night, you can float on your back, stare up at the stars and count the passing fireflies. It’s a site of laughter, conversation, and splashes, but also a site for quiet contemplation. Most of all, it’s a place where you can relax and let the lake water do its quiet work to wash your worries away.