My watch glows in the dark a few inches from my face and I see that the illuminated dial reads 5:45 am. Not the normal time to crawl out of your sleeping bag at summer camp, but unfortunately this morning is the swim test, first for the Scouts enrolled in Small Boat Sailing and later for the entire Troop. Nobody is happy about getting up early.
I walk noisily over to the area where Scouts are sleeping and start banging on tents to wake the boys. It takes 10 minutes of cajoling, threats, and eventually grabbing the bottoms of their sleeping bags and pulling them out of the tent cabin onto the ground before they are actually up and moving towards the waterfront. Most slept in their swim suits to save time. The sky is lightening as day breaks over the Pacific Ocean.
Leaving the boys in line for their swim test I head over to the Dining Hall for a cup of bad coffee and return just in time to watch our Scouts jump off the docks into the bay. They have to swim four laps between the buoys and then head out into the Harbor and pull themselves from the water into a small boat, which is a specific requirement for their merit badge. They are finished in 30 minutes and we hike to the camp to collect the rest of the Troop for testing while our merit badge swimmers head over to the bathrooms for a hot shower.
Swim tests at summer camp are never fun. There is lots of standing around, shivering in the cold morning air, wearing only swim suits, arms crossed for warmth, waiting your turn to jump into the icy water to swim four laps of the required strokes. Successful completion of the swim test earns your participation in all the water sports the camp has to offer, usually the funest activities in camp. Failure means spending the week making belts and baskets, doing nature study, and going on small hikes.
Camp Emerald Bay has conducted swim tests for 85 years and is especially proficient. Being on the ocean allows them to set up two testing areas and process the swimmers twice as quickly. When our Troop’s turn comes, we march to the end of the dock, turn to face the water, and wait for the order to jump. It comes almost immediately, and most of us force ourselves to take those two small steps and fling ourselves into the icy water. Even though we know it is coming, the cold is a shock to our bodies and our spirits. The Pacific Ocean off Emerald Bay is cold. Not the body numbing, gut wrenching, near frozen water of Oljato and Wolfeboro that makes breathing difficult and puts survival at risk, but cold enough to take your breath away and make you wonder why you are doing this.
Once in the water, swimmers struggle to regain their bearings while fighting the hypothermia that is attacking every inch of their skin, from the top of the head (which has to be under water to pass the test) to their shivering feet and toes. We glance back to see the few who did not jump, their heads bowed, being escorted off the dock by the waterfront counselors, their week at camp now restricted to the shore. There is no time for pity.
The initial shock fades quickly and I start kicking and moving my arms in a rudimentary crawl. Experience tells me that I will feel better in a few minutes and the faster I move, the sooner my senses will return. Making the second turn, we hear the Life Guard talking about leopard sharks in the swim area. They are pointing to the wharf on the other side of the buoy. I swim faster, expecting a signal for swimmers to get out of the water until the sharks leave the area. No signal is given. Apparently leopard sharks are rarely aggressive and the staff thinks its fantastic that they have been sighted under the Scouts. Those of us in the water do not share their enthusiasm.
Soon enough, its over and I pull myself out of the water and sit on the dock catching my breath, watching goose bumps form on my stomach and arms. Grabbing my towel, I head over to the buddy board to fill out my tag. Blue and red means swimmer and (almost) unrestricted access to the waterfront and all the equipment (sailboats, kayaks, canoes, and row boats). Its a good feeling.
There are two other adults from our Troop lying on the dock, gasping like fish out of water, unable to rise to their feet because they are completely exhausted. One is moaning softly and shaking his head. He had tried to quit, but the Lifeguard poked him with a long metal pole and told him to keep swimming. They both passed the swim test somehow, but it took every ounce of strength they could muster. The terrible experience was the highlight of their week and for the next two days, they talked about the enormity of their ordeal and their near-death experience in the cold, unforgiving waters of the Pacific Ocean. (Mentioned as reasons for their difficulty swimming 100 yards: strong currents, wind, rogue waves, stomach cramps, killer whales, and global warming.) Maybe they had forgotten the part about being “physically strong” and staying in shape.