Anyone who visited Lake Ore-Be-Gone in Gilbert this summer, especially in the late afternoon, was likely to see a sight they may not have expected. Jeff Brown, John Muhich, and I were often there with our wetsuits and tow buoys swimming from the beach to some location on the south end of the lake and back again. My son Caleb joined us a few times also.
We swam in the cool water of the former mine pit about 50 times this summer, averaging more than 3,000 yards per swim. If we swam on a nice day when the beach was crowded, we enjoyed fielding the questions that would inevitably come from curious recreational swimmers. Young children, in particular, would ask incredulously, “What are you doing?” We always smiled as we answered.
Without a doubt, swimming long distance in a cold lake is not normal behavior. But we love it. Though we share Lake Ore-Be-Gone with many people, we still refer to it as “our lake.” We know every nook and cranny of the shoreline, the underwater benches, the submerged trees, and the blasted rock cliffs descending from the near-shore to depths that reach down to 480 feet.
We have several courses mapped out for our swims, which we choose depending on the weather and how we feel. Most of our destinations have names like “the obelisk,” “the shallows,” “the quarry,” “the little bay,” and “the cove.” Each day we swam, we would study the conditions for a moment, choose a destination, decide who would swim on which side, and then stroke off into the distance while beachgoers and flocks of geese wondered what would possess us to do it.
When we were ready for a real challenge, we would swim from the beach to the south end of the lake and then all the way to the north end before working our way back to the beach. Interestingly, this course is almost exactly a 5K swim. (It is about 100 meters over to be exact.) Swimming a 5K is considered to be the shortest distance in the open water swimming world to be a serious undertaking.
And we were preparing for one. We swam a two-plus mile race in Ely Lake in July. Then we swam another two-plus mile race in Lake Superior in August near Bayfield, Wisconsin. But the real challenge was to prepare for the National Masters 5K Long-Distance Swimming Championships in Boerne, Texas, in September. Boerne is about 30 miles north of San Antonio.
Unfortunately, John was not able to make the trip. Jeff and I did manage to make arrangements to compete in Boerne. So, off we went to swim against some of the best open water swimmers in the nation. In Masters swimming, competitors only swim against people in their five-year cohort by gender. Not having to compete against some of the younger racers was a relief to us, but we knew we’d be tested anyway. Hard. Our goal was to achieve a top-six finish in our age group and earn a medal at the national competition. An ambitious goal to be sure!
After checking in, we were labeled with a marker according to the seed-time we submitted. We listened to an orientation before lining up for the race. The weather was a perfect 80 degrees with little wind, but the course appeared daunting nonetheless. The marker buoys, far away on the corners of our rectangular course, could hardly be seen. As the race neared, we were grateful for every yard we had put in at Lake Ore-Be-Gone. When our number came up, we crossed the timing pad, swimming as strategically fast as we thought wise.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it; the race was brutal! I pushed it as hard as I could for the first two miles or so, and I was passed by six or eight people, which irritated me to no end. I may be 60 years old, but I’m still as competitive as ever in a race.
When I was about to round the last corner on the way to the finish, another swimmer pulled up beside me. I thought it was Jeff, and I couldn’t bear the humiliation of him passing me when he had started behind me at the starting line. I dug in. I shifted from a relaxed kick to a six-beat kick as if I was swimming in a shorter pool race. After a couple of hundred yards, I realized that the swimmer beside me wasn’t Jeff. Still, I didn’t want this fellow to pull ahead. I sprinted the last 700 yards or so. My body was pushed to the limit. I was tingling from head to toe…my brain was questioning my sanity…but I wanted to hold my place. I did.
When all was said and done, I managed to place fifth in our age group, and Jeff was right behind me at sixth place. We received our medals. Even though we hardly had the strength to keep our heads up, we placed our medals around our necks. Thankfully, my wife Roxanne was able to make the trip too. She made sure we collected all our belongings and made it to our vehicles safely. We couldn’t have done it without her!
We had done what we set out to do. All of those cold swims in Lake Ore-Be-Gone had paid off. I’m not sure about Jeff, but speaking for myself, I can say that the national championship medal won’t be buried under odds and ends in a drawer somewhere. I paid a high price to earn it, so it’s going to be displayed prominently in a frame in my office to remind me that good comes when we are willing to pay the price.
We can’t wait to swim in our lake again next summer. We might see you there, starting at the end of May if the weather cooperates with our open water swimming schedule. We hope so. To quote Robert Frost, we “have miles to go before we sleep.” Miles and miles to go in Lake Ore-Be-Gone.
Aaron Kelson, Ph.D., lives in Eveleth. He has been a faculty member at Mesabi Range College since 2002 where he tells his students lots of swimming stories, probably more than they want to hear. He and his wife, Roxanne, have six children, all of whom were swimmers for the Eveleth-Gilbert Golden Bears.