It’s a lot harder to die in the wilderness than it is in the city. Primarily, that’s because there are no cars! Eliminating vehicles from the environment, alone, makes anywhere a far safer place. But right at the very top of the list of causes of death in the Sierra Nevada is drowning. (In Yosemite Valley drivers — with depressing frequency — manage to combine vehicles and drowning, by driving into the Merced and succumbing to its frigid waters.)
That doesn’t mean you can’t swim on your hike, as long as you take some simple precautions.
1. If at all possible, don’t swim alone. Most of the lakes are small, and if you were to get in trouble, even the most unskilled bystander might be able to drag you ashore.
2. Consider taking your dips during your lunch break (oh, and by the way, there is no need to wait an hour after eating for that swim in the lake). Lunch is better than late evening simply because you won’t be as fatigued. You’ll also dry out much faster when you emerge.
3. If you must swim alone, don’t get in over your head (figuratively and literally). I grew up on a lake in Michigan and spent whole summers continually in the water. I’ve spent years surfing in Hawaii. My rule is this: if I am by myself, I don’t go deeper than hip high. That gives me plenty of room to swim and to submerge myself in order to run water through my hair. It also allows me to easily stand up.
4. Remember, in creeks, streams, and rivers, it’s often the current that will get you, not the depth of the water. More than one person has died when their foot has become jammed into rocks or a log at the bottom, while the current holds their head underwater.
5. Don’t even THINK about diving into water unless you are 100% sure there are no obstructions below. (And remember, Sierra Nevada water is pristine and clear; the bottom may be closer than it appears.)
If you decide you are going to take the plunge, here are some places to consider:
1. Either of the Cathedral Lakes. Just be sure, before jumping off the granite, you know how you’ll be getting out. Steep, slimy rock can be hard to climb.
2. Any of the granite slabs in the Tuolumne while hiking through Lyell Canyon, as long as the current isn’t too bad. The slabs are a great place to sun yourself, after, as well.
3. Thousand Island Lake. Pick an island and go claim it for an hour or two.
4. Marie Lake. This is another place to go island exploring. This is also my choice for the prettiest lake on the entire trail.
5. Warm Lake, near Muir Trail Ranch. Hat tip to John Ladd for the suggestion and the link. By the way, the lake really is warm.
6. Dollar Lake or one of the Rae Lakes. Many folks have tried to convince me that the Rae Lakes are the warmest (non-hot springs) lakes in the Sierra Nevada. Try it out and tell me what you think. I’m still skeptical.
Last: all these lakes are in the wilderness, but not THAT far into the wilderness. Chances are you are going to see other people while you backstroke. You aren’t going to offend me if you’re naked, but you might offend others.
Good hiking, Ray