The Working Waterfront

A very long swim, a new view of my island


Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2020-09-30
Last Modified 2020-10-04

I was one of those kids who always managed to find her way into the water. At Sea World, I leaned so far into a dogfish petting tank that I got soaked head to toe, resulting in the purchase of a very expensive souvenir sweatshirt.

Wading in the shallows of a lake, it was guaranteed that I would go in far enough to get my shorts wet, and at that point, why not just go swimming?

Hiking in the Julian Alps, I plunged myself into an alpine pool, basically a deep puddle of melted snow, and powered through the brain freeze to paddle around on my back, even as other hikers chuckled.

And I endured an hour in the Jubilee Pool, a famous tidal lido in Penzance, in June. I was completely numb when I got out and tottered around the corner for hot tea. Why? Because it was there, and a body of water shouldn’t go to waste.

Moving to North Haven in 2005 opened up new swimming opportunities, although it took a little trial and error to find the best spots. The cold water of the open beaches is the perfect antidote to the dry heat of late July, and the warmer tidal flats of the Creek, the Mill Stream, and Smelt Brook are wonderful for more sustained swimming. Don’t let anyone tell you differently—the waters around North Haven are magnificent.

Once I started doing longer swims, up to a mile or two, I caught the notion of participating in an Islesboro crossing, an annual 5K swim between the Lincolnville ferry terminal and Islesboro. The event raises funds and awareness for LifeFlight, the medivac helicopter service that covers the entire state.

A 5K open water swim seemed like an excellent way to celebrate my 40th birthday, in 2021, but when the event shifted to individual swims and paddles due to the pandemic, I signed up right away.

Because swimming with friends is more fun—and safer—I put together a team, including several other EMTs. And then I started swimming. I did laps across the cove at Big Beach in June, conceding to wear a wetsuit when the back of my neck cramped painfully with the cold water. I swam to and from the big rock in Smelt Brook while my daughter splashed in the shallows. I took a nice long swim from Calderwood Island to a large rock, and did a practice mile in the Mill Stream with Penrose in her kayak for support.

A 5K open water swim seemed like an excellent way to celebrate my 40th birthday, in 2021…

After negotiating with the tide, work schedules, and on-call schedules, we settled on Aug. 10 as the date of the big swim. Our original route had to be revised due to the entirely predictable 18th (approximate) plague of Passover 2020, sharks. We’d be departing from the Pulpit Harbor float, swimming with the tide down the Mill Stream, hopping the causeway into the oyster pond, doing a full circumference and half a diameter and back, and then getting back into the Mill Stream and going back to the float.

The day was warm, windless, and clear. We had raised almost $10,000 for LifeFlight. Four of us—three swimming, one paddling—met at the float at 3 for a few photos, and to strap a Bluetooth speaker to the kayak and plan a motivational playlist (95 percent Beyoncé, naturally). We jumped in and headed through the mellow water of the harbor towards First Bridge.

We were greeted by the cheers and waves of most of the rest of North Haven EMS, waving a banner. Our spirits rose as we passed under the bridge and into the Mill Stream. We kept an easy pace, chatting about our kids, the coming school year, and admiring the glory of the day. More friends came to the bank to clap and shout encouragement, and Bill and Penrose were waiting with still others at the causeway.

Our mile in the oyster pond was hot, and a little weird—the muck at the bottom caused a lot of consternation—but one of our team members had worked as an oyster diver and gave us a guided tour as we went around, alerting us to rocks and explaining the oyster breeding process.

A great blue heron crossed low in front of us—a sign of an independent spirit, one of the team informed us—and a kingfisher dove from a branch.

After an hour, we got back in the Mill Stream. The water was cooler and a light breeze had picked up, but our energy was high. Other than getting hungry—a long conversation about ice cream flavors kept us going for a while—we all felt good, if a little stir crazy.

Two swimmers started singing Disney songs as the bridge came back in sight. A family hanging out on their family’s lobster boat cheered us as we made our final approach. Climbing up the ladder on the float, I realized that I didn’t actually want to stop swimming. (I did want to eat some ice cream, though). We dragged the kayak up and got a few more photos, then headed home to eat.

Seeing the island from within the water creates a connection, an intimacy, that nothing else can replicate. This is the fish’s view, the seal’s view, the cormorant’s view. The land looms up on either side and the water cradles and supports the swimmer, saying rest now, you’re home.

Courtney Naliboff lives on North Haven where she teaches music, writing, and theater.