The swimmers slog through the dark waters below Chapel By The Lake, the gentle clap of feet and hands marking their passing. Distinguishable only by brightly-colored swim caps and oval-shaped visibility buoys, Jamie Bursell, Mark Neidhold and Scott Gende round a small white buoy and head to the nearby boat launch on a drizzly morning.
It’s just another day of training for these hearty swimmers.
“It’s part of waking of up in the morning,” said Neidhold, who comes out to Auke Lake for morning swims three times a week throughout the summer.
Over the last decade, locals are choosing Auke Lake over indoor pools for their morning swims, and many are preparing for the Aukeman Triathlon, which features a 750-meter swim in the popular lake. But more than just a training ground, swimming through the freshwater body can be both stimulating and meditative — with the right wet suit of course.
“”I’ve always loved being outdoors and being able to be in the lake is a lot like hiking or running on a trail,” Bursell said. “And experiencing not just the natural beauty around you but also the wildlife — even down to the insects.I just like seeing how everything around us is changing through the seasons, to see the sunrise in Auke Lake when you go there early in the morning,” Bursell said. “Being right in the water puts you in a space where you know that you’re part of whole picture of the natural surroundings.”
Bursell said the group formed about 12 years ago as interest in triathlons picked up. Juneauites needed a place to train for triathlons which feature open-water swims, according to Bursell, and Auke Lake became a go-to destination for triathletes in the summer months.
“People alluded to this spookiness about it, some people even said there’s dead bodies in there,” Bursell said. “But we just decided to try it out and slowly but surely people started getting wetsuits and we found that it was just a really fun activity.”
Neidhold, 56, swam countless hours in pools, from his youth into his adulthood, and said swimming in the lake is very different from those experiences.
“The pool is the treadmill, and this is like running Perseverance Trail on a beautiful day, even when it’s like this (cloudy and rainy) because you’re in the water,” Neidhold said. “You get the smells, you get the fresh air, you get time to laugh and smile with your friends.”
Neidhold said the physical exertion required of long-distance swims helps him temporarily forget the pressing demands of his coming day.
“All the stuff that’s frustrating at work, or anything that’s going on, you get out here, and all you’re thinking about is, ‘When am I going to take my next breath and how am I siding? Am I swimming straight?’” Neidhold said.
Amy Carroll, 52, has been another Auke Lake regular, and said it was quite “anxiety producing” starting out in the lake.
“I’d swim a little bit and I’d be hyperventilating and I’d stop and I’d be like, ‘This is so weird. It’s almost like I don’t know how to swim,’” Carroll said. “And then you just keep doing it and doing it and gets a little more relaxing, but it’s a little jarring at first.”
There are plenty of known dangers that come with this hobby. There are no lifeguards on duty, and the lake attracts all kinds of watercrafts on nice days. In 2012, a Juneau teen died from injuries sustained during a collision with a jet ski on the lake.
Bursell and others the wear brightly-colored caps and swim buoys in an effort to standout against the black water. She always recommends swimming with a buddy, and letting boaters know where to expect them. In addition, she recommends staying on the perimeter of the lake, inside white wake buoys.
“There’s something about the cold and darkness that makes people panic. Even for the experienced swimmers, people generally don’t come out here alone,” Bursell said.