“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” – Paulo Coelho
We always knew we might not be able to complete the Picnic in one (or two or five) attempts. Many things need to align to make this happen, including our health, good weather on the river, good weather on the mountain, our fitness level (and lack of injury), a support crew, and a variety of factors we can’t control (mainly to do with other people).
We knew we were toeing the line with a couple of those things on Thursday. I’d been sick for ten days, Paul for four, and although we were feeling mostly good, we weren’t 100%. Additionally, the wind forecast for Hood River was moderate on Thursday and strong on Friday, and the forecast on the mountain called for gusts between 35-40mph and a 30% chance of thunder-snow. BUT forecasts are often wrong, and we had a solid support crew lined up, so we headed out.
We arrived in Hood River to sunny skies and white caps on the water. The air temp was a gorgeous 75 degrees, and water temp 57.7 degrees. The wetsuits + warm air + cold water training meant that the water temperature was actually very acceptable. So, we suited up!
We were also lucky enough to have our good friend along as kayak support, which was key. With the wind making the water choppy, it was really hard to see each other. It was good to know we had someone helping us out!
We eased into the water off the dock, spending a couple minutes waiting for the cold water shock to dissipate and getting used to having our faces in the water. And then, we headed out!
Our plan was always to swim with the current as we knew it was going to be strong. We figured it would, in general, look something like this (click to enlarge):
We ended up crossing under the bridge much earlier, but soon we were able to adjust our angle to stay mostly on track. The wind was a factor, making the water choppy, but we both were able to find a rhythm to breathe and move forward. While we both found our own steady pace, you couldn’t really slow down from that, or even employ the breast stroke, because the current was too strong.
However, after about 30min, we reached a small sandy beach on the WA side, and took a few minutes to catch our breath and split a granola bar. We agreed, it had been a bit of a wild swim over, but doable! We were surprised how fast we had gone, but didn’t spend too longer pondering that. High fives all around!
We swam upriver a small ways to a large dock to help ensure we had the best possible angle back to OR.
About ten minutes after we had hit the shore, we were back in the water. The first 200yds or so went as planned. But then, things started going wonky.
I was swimming at a hard angle, actually facing mostly towards the bridge to try and account for the current. When I looked up, I would see the bridge moving along as I headed back. Until, suddenly, the bridge stopped moving. Or, rather, I stopped traveling north. Every time I looked up, I was looking at the same pylon. I started to wonder if I was going anywhere. 20 strokes, look up, see the pylon, look down. 20 more strokes, look up, same pylon, look down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
At this point, Paul and I ended up a bit separated. Not too far, but I could only see him because Dan, our kayaker, would paddle between the two of us. After looking up at the same pylon for what felt like forever I looked up to see where Paul was. I didn’t see him or Dan. Not surprising. The water was choppy.
I swam 20 more strokes, and looked up again. Nothing. Slightly concerned, I kept swimming (what else could I do?). 10 more strokes, and I looked up again. Still nothing.
Confused, I popped up on my buoy (knowing that I would immediately start losing ground) and called their names. Nothing, no where. All I saw were two wind surfers getting much closer than I wanted.
With nothing else to do, I got back to swimming. Shortly thereafter, Dan paddled up alongside me. “Paul’s gone back to Washington” he said. WHAT!? No wonder I hadn’t seen them, I hadn’t thought to look directly behind me.
“What do I do?” I asked Dan. He wasn’t sure. “Can you see the sandbar?” I yelled, swallowing a mouthful of water. No. It was too choppy and too sunny. And there were too many wind surfers.
I put my head down and swam another 20 strokes trying to decide what to do. Ultimately, I knew I was starting to get into the wind surfers, and I knew that with Paul getting out we might want to reassess our desire to continue. Plus, I still didn’t feel like I was going anywhere (though, happily, I was still feeling strong and calm out on the water, which was a win in its own right).
“I’m bailing back!” I shouted over the wind. I turned around and started the swim back, arriving about ten minutes after Paul. We ended up on a rocky embankment and called our second support friend in OR, who headed over the bridge to come pick us up. (You can’t walk or cycle over the Hood River bridge). After a solid scramble up, we met her on the side of the road, and pulled out our phone to look at our route.
It was shocking to see that, in fact, I really was going practically NOWHERE (except down river). And very quickly we identified the problem. The flow out from the Hood River was hitting us harder than anticipated. Combined with the strong current, it sent us back towards WA and downriver.
We likely could have continued down river more and gotten out of the strongest part of the Hood River flow, but we didn’t get to test that because of the kite boarders. We were too close to them, and because we are small and slow and they are large, fast, and sometimes unpredictable, the situation seemed unsafe.
Later, looking at the satellite map, we realized just how close we were to the sand bar. The tip in the image was NOT out of the water, but if we could have traveled downstream just a bit farther, we likely could have gotten out of the worst of the current and made the turn towards OR.
We got back to the car and analysed the situation. The weather forecast for Hood still didn’t look ideal, we could see a line of cumulonimbus clouds on the mountain. Plus, it was clearly going to be a very windy bike ride both out and back. I asked Paul if he was game to try again another day, which he was. So, instead of putting all our energy into biking and climbing on this try in questionable weather conditions, and then having to come back and do it all over again, we decided to stop.
We were definitely disappointed.
Thankfully, a beer and dinner with our crew at Full Sail helped dull the feeling of failure. And we still got a solid open water swim in, and successfully traveled from OR to WA!
Now we’re looking at alternate swim options to take the Hood River flow more into account. The wind surfers are harder. We always knew we might contend with them, but they came out farther than we had hoped for. The windy day also brought out more of them than would have been ideal.
It’s challenging to be working on something with such a high risk of failure, but I think that’s what also makes it fun and interesting. It’s good to try things that you really and truly don’t know if you can do.