In challenging herself to swim every day of the year, Annette Lees discovered the finest swims in her backyard and beyond – from the sea to backcountry lakes. She chronicled her adventure in the book Swim: A year of swimming outdoors in New Zealand.
Why did you do this challenge?
My husband and I took our teenage sons on a backpacking trip through Italy. It was December, middle of winter, and I didn’t swim at all, but I kept thinking about it as summer was underway in New Zealand. I thought, when I get back, the first thing I would want to do is go for a swim, but I didn’t and the summer slipped by.
And then suddenly it was winter and I felt like I had lost a summer in my life. I had such a sense of grief and I thought next summer, I’m not going to let it happen again – I don’t want to be that dusty old adult standing on the bank. When you were seven, those adults were useless.
How did you do it?
It became the priority of every day, for a year. I would sit down each night and plan when to swim the next day. As far from home as I was on any day, I would try and swim there, which led to talking to people about where to swim and the local places to play. I went to many places where you wouldn’t usually go for a swim, and discovered special joys in places not usually considered. Finding those places really transformed every day.
Where was your most interesting wild swim?
One moonless night in Lake Rotorua I swam in water that was the same temperature as the air and because I couldn’t see anything but the reflection of stars on the water it was hard to tell what was up or down. I felt like I was swimming in space.
Where was your coldest swim?
Wilkies Pools on Mt Taranaki. It’s a lovely spring basin in a cold river with little icy ledges. On the day I went, it was very cold but it was memorable, and one of my favourite swims.
Did you have any run-ins with wildlife?
There were a few swims where eels would come and investigate. They will bite you, but no eel will kill and you’re not likely to lose a limb. They’re curious animals, old and special and becoming rare. Anything like that enhances a swim.
Has your challenge rubbed off on any of your friends and family?
My husband only ever gets in the water to get food, but he is finally taking the odd dip now. One of the great joys of the book has been getting feedback from strangers, as well as friends and family who have been re-finding their lost love of swimming, and giving themselves permission to get back in the water.
Which region would you rate for the best swims?
My local swim. Wherever you are, the favourite swim is the one at your feet.
How hard was it to get in the water during winter?
There was never any waiting around on the edge of the lake or river – you just have to go in. It becomes an elixir of life; it’s a very special feeling. Look at kids – you would think they’d be the least hardy swimmers, but it’s not about hardiness, it’s about the joy. When you come out of the water, you glow all day. It’s almost addictive, and you do actually get a positive hormonal response in cold water – it’s scientific. You get that feeling of deliciousness with a cold swim, and you just want to repeat it.
Do you think we’re is at risk of losing our swimming spots?
Water quality is a serious issue in New Zealand. But it’s also a very complex problem and the solution requires finding a different approach and understanding of how we are going to live in the world – rethinking how we use our land. What is changing is people’s understanding and concern, and I am positive the concern will outpace the destruction of our waterways. But we need to keep swimming! If we stop swimming because we are afraid of the quality, then we lose that connection.