The Cold Swim Home - Modern Farmer

The Cold Swim Home

How raising animals led to me diving into the freezing ocean, and why I’d do it again.

Marcie Callewaert moved to a remote island knowing life would be more exposed to the elements.
Photography by Sam Rose Philips

Island life has its perils. While we no longer have to weather traffic jams and lineups at the gas station, we’ve replaced that with anchoring boats, canoeing through breakers, rock dropoffs and, on days we’re stormbound, staring at the crashing seas. My husband and I moved to a remote island in Clayoquot Sound, off the coast of Tofino, BC, three years ago. Our home is on a traditional village site of my husband’s father’s Nation, the Keltsmaht, now amalgamated with Ahousaht Nation. The community members who once lived here only stayed over the summer months, and we learned quickly why the area was not used in the winter. The strong southeast winds howl into this bay with every winter storm, toppling trees and pushing the swells up to tumble the drift logs like pick-up sticks. Living here has its risks, but we try our best to assess and avoid them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out the way we plan.

We’re not alone on our little island, isolated though it may be. We have 21 hens and one punky bantam rooster, which provide eggs for us and friends in town. Proceeds from the sales barely cover our feed costs, but the joy of having a large flock is profit enough. I have collected a variety of hen types, from flighty leghorns to easter eggers, cochins and barred rocks to docile buff orpingtons. The resulting rainbow of eggs always delight buyers. My two rabbits provide manure for a one-day self-sustaining food garden. Being so far from town means we can’t just load a pickup truck with bagged manure at the feed store. Instead, the rabbits and chickens both contribute to this task. Our four dogs are companions for us, especially on those long winter nights, and a nice source of heat on top of your feet in bed during the cold snaps. Our cat Anakin rules the place, as all cats do, but his main job is to keep the mice out of the toasty warm cabin. Our goal is to be completely self-sustaining in our island home, and every year we come closer to that goal. 

Looking after our animals takes priority over all else; we don’t have the choice to not make it home at the end of the day. The dogs, cat, chickens and rabbits all need to be fed and watered.  One cold, blustery winter day in March 2022, I got a reminder of just how important those responsibilities are. Icy cold weather was in the forecast, but conditions picked up well above what was expected. I watched the wind pick up from the small, sleepy bookstore in town, where I work, nervous about the ride home. Our island is only about 10 minutes by boat in good weather, but with the wind chop and blowing rain all day, it was a much slower ride. 

My husband, Skookum, and I approached our anchorage where the canoe was tied, around 100 meters out from the sandy beach. The wind was picking up, and the waves were cresting too high; I knew there was no way I would be able to guide our boat into it. The canoe was bouncing up and down ferociously and was loaded with water from the rain and splashing seas. Even if I could get to the anchorage, the canoe would just sink immediately, and it was too rough to try and haul it onto the boat to dump it out. Other residents on the island either were not home or were working and unable to take over the responsibility of caring for the animals overnight. I had to be the one to make it to shore. It was too rough to keep our boat at the anchorage, but Skookum was strong enough to tie it up at the public docks, and he could sleep in town for the night.

Skookum and I argued quite a bit about other ways to get me to shore. We even tried going around the corner to our neighbors’ bay, but with the tide out, we wouldn’t be able to get far enough in to escape the swell. I persisted. It had to be me. I’m pretty good at knowing my limits and what I can withstand. So, when I decided to swim to shore, in eight-degree-Celsius water with a five-foot shore break, I was nervous but I knew I could do it—or so I told myself, doubts swirling in the back of my mind. There was so much that could go wrong: If I inhaled a mouthful of water or if I was tumbled in the surf, I could get too cold to propel myself to the beach. I have had experiences with cold water immersion in the past, like when I slipped off the front of a skiff during a beach landing and a wave swept my legs out from under me, knocking me to the sand where the next wave washed over me. Skookum wasn’t impressed with my plan, but I think he was so exasperated that he finally just said to hell with it and let me go, knowing he would face my mother’s wrath if something happened to me. 

The author walks along the shore by her island home. Photo by Sam Rose Phillips.

The waves breaking on the beach were five feet high. The cold water would drain my strength and energy within minutes. Skookum exasperatedly tried to tell me we had to call it and go back to town together one last time, but I was insistent I was going to make it. Worst-case scenario, I would fall unconscious from the cold and the wind and waves would eventually push me to shore anyways, where I hopefully wouldn’t drown from the incessant swells and incoming tide. Next door was a marine field station, a 10-minute walk or five-minute run through the forest. I knew Skookum would call them to tell them what was unfolding. Someone would be there to find me. Admittedly, that wasn’t a great worst-case scenario, but it was unlikely. And at least there was a likely rescue if I needed it. I wore an orange keyhole type lifejacket, the kind you put on in an emergency on a ferry or water taxi. It would keep my head afloat and allow me to swim comfortably on my back so I could kick myself to shore. I put my backpack and sweater in a heavy duty garbage bag. It was sealed well with some extra air inside. I left my boots and jacket on the boat. I wouldn’t be taking the time to put my boots back on. If I could still feel my feet, I would be running barefoot up to our cabin, just above the beach.

The garbage bag floated perfectly and upright as well. No water would seep in through my knot. I had no time to question myself once the bag was in the water, but I was glad I had just completed my boating courses two weeks earlier, which included a section on cold water survival. Lifejacket on, I covered my nose and hopped in feet first. This avoids the gasping reflex that occurs when your face hits the cold water first. As my head dipped a foot or so beneath the surface, my feet hit the sandy bottom. I kept the one-ten-one rule in my mind as I began to compose myself: one minute to get my breathing under control, ten minutes of meaningful muscle movement and one hour before losing consciousness. I didn’t really have to think of that last one unless things went seriously sideways. I just focused on breathing. I was doing heavy deep breaths—too deep. Nearly hyperventilating. Slowing my breathing felt impossible, but square—or combat breathing—was the goal. Measured breaths with pauses in between. I kicked forward, still holding my bag to keep it close. I glanced behind me at the beach and wondered if this was an impossible task. Then I shook my head, the wind and waves were pushing me in the right direction. I just had to keep moving. I had to focus on getting to shore. 

The wind ended up being just right; my bag bobbed along by my head, so I let go of it, freeing up both my arms to propel me faster to the sandy shore. I looked back at the beach again. It really didn’t seem any closer. Skookum stayed in the boat offshore, probably trying to figure out how to explain the situation to my parents. I found out later he was calling the field station next door but playing telephone tag. In his worry, the message was jumbled and passed on to our neighbor Julia, who was told that I had fallen overboard by mistake. 

Wave after wave rose and fell until the next wave approaching was towering over me, threatening to break and splash foam over my face. I figured I was nearing the breakers and I could probably stand up now. As it passed by, thankfully not breaking until after it passed me, I reached down with my feet and found the bottom. I was in about four feet of water, but the incoming swells were pulling at my legs, shoving me forward and then trying to drag me back to sea. I never did get my breathing under control during that swim. My throat hurt and I was out of breath. My bag was still close by, so I grabbed it before it tumbled in the surf and began slogging my way in. My feet weren’t quite numb and the wind was at my back, pushing me towards the cabin. No crackling fire waited for me inside, but there was a dry bed and dogs that would be happy to snuggle.  

I stripped down as soon as I got inside, creating a lake on the cabin floor. Towelling off as quickly as I could, I put on my oversized fleece sweater and thick wool socks, before diving under the covers. My smallest dog, Brianna, snuggled under my chin, happy to cuddle after a day home without us. It wasn’t long before the tingle of cold was gone and I got up to make tea and light the fire. Julia had called to say she was on her way over from next door to check on me,  and by the time she arrived, I had water boiling for tea and the fire was beginning to catch on the kindling in the woodstove. She brought two fresh cinnamon buns, the sugar an excellent boost for my system as my adrenaline levels began to fall. 

I moved to this island knowing life would be more exposed to the elements. The storms, the weather, the seasons, everything was raw and layered in awe-inspiring extremes. The payoff was living together on Skookum’s traditional territory, steeped in history and signs of his ancestors. We wanted to make our way here, the first people to live here full time in close to 75 years, despite whatever challenges arrived. Because I swam, I was able to lock the chickens in that night, feed and walk the dogs, feed the rabbits and ensure everyone was looked after in the morning, too. Since then, we have lowered our tolerance for what weather we will leave home in. The risk of not being able to safely get home is not worth the chance of leaving the animals overnight. Living on the land, away from the comforts of town, with roads and stores, requires a sense of adventure that’s not for everyone, but as long as it’s for us, that’s all that matters.


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1 year ago

Wonderful article. I so admire your dedication. That re telling of how you made your way home to your animals. Just shows your dedication and your love of your animals and your island home.

delia Burdeyney
1 year ago

Marcie, you are a badass and definitely have what it takes to be a steward to your land and your animals. Confidence, tenacity, and common sense go a long way.