Midnight Swim: a Memory of Seattle's Green Lake by Dorothea Nordstrand

  • By Dorothea Nordstrand
  • Posted 8/20/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7903
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This memory of a 12-year-old's clandestine and solitary midnight swim across Green Lake around 1928 was written by Dorothea Nordstrand (1916-2011), who was then Dorothea Pfister. In 2009 Dorothea Nordstrand was awarded AKCHO's (Association of King County Historical Organizations) Willard Jue Memorial Award for a Volunteer, for contributing these vivid reminiscences to various venues in our community, including HistoryLink.org's People's History library.

Midnight Swim

We lived across the street from Green Lake, a lake that measures a little more than a mile across, with two bathing beaches facing each other almost directly across the water.  Our home was within a block and a half of East Green Lake Bathing Beach. 

That was where my friends and I spent most of our waking hours during our summer vacation from school, so swimming was almost as natural to me as walking.  I was 12 years old.      

When nights were warm, I dragged a mattress out onto an upstairs balcony above a wide porch overlooking the lake.  Fresh, night breezes caressing my face and the dark bowl of a star-filled sky instead of a roof above me, made this my favorite bedroom.      

One night when I had been sound asleep for several hours, I awoke, and there seemed to be a restlessness in the air, beckoning me to the beach.  I slipped from my nest of blankets and climbed over the low railing of the balcony.  Unknown to my parents, I had long used this way of getting to the ground from my lofty perch.  Until now, my goal had only been the swing in the side yard, but, this time something was calling me to the lake. 

Questing toes found one of the slim pillars that upheld the roof of the downstairs porch.  Practiced knees gripped it between them, and one foot grasped the pillar from the front, while the other held it from behind, and I scootched my way down until my feet felt the small ledge that told me I had reached the porch floor. On the clothesline in the side yard I found my bathing suit, still damp from my afternoon swim.  I pulled it on after carefully pegging my nightie to the clothesline so that it would be dry when I wanted it again. 

Feet, toughened by a summer of going barefoot, carried me to the beach, completely deserted in these midnight hours.  I waded into the dark water, ducked under the rope that edged the swimming area for small children, and swam to the raft about 25 feet from shore.      

I really believe that was all I had in mind when I came down, but the lake was so still and peaceful and the sky so filled with stars that it was impossible to resist.  I slipped into the water on the far side of the raft and set out for the other side of the lake, West Green Lake Bathing Beach, a little over a mile away.        

My favorite swimming stroke was the side stroke, which carried me along with a minimum of effort.  The water felt like silk as I slid through it.  Occasionally, I would roll onto my back and float, gazing up into the star-studded blackness of the sky and feeling as one with the night around me.  It was heavenly.      

When I was more than half-way across, a small doubt came creeping into my consciousness.  A certain tiredness began to nag, and I was reminded that the only time I had done this before, I had been accompanied by a friend in a rowboat to ensure my safety.  As though the doubt sapped my strength, my arms and legs grew heavy, and each stroke cost me a little more effort.  By the time I reached the raft at West Beach, my heart was pounding and each breath, painful.  After clinging to the ladder for a few minutes to get my breath, I inched myself onto the raft and lay there, exhausted, for a few minutes before I found the energy to swim the final 25 feet to shore.

The mile-and-a-half walk home along the shore path took forever and tears of exhaustion were falling by the time I reached our yard.  I stripped off my suit and dried myself with the towel that always hung on the line, donned my nightie, and climbed back up to my bed with arms and legs that shook with weariness.      

I never told my parents what I had done, and I never wanted to do it again, but I can still call to mind the glory of the first part of that adventure, the feeling of belonging to the night that was very like enchantment, but I also remember the panic when I realized I might not make it all the way across.

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