I gaze down the boat ramp at Newport’s Gateway center, there is no doubt about it, I’m excited, way excited. My adventure to Skinner’s Island is close, as soon as my foot touches the water, the words will flash across the movie screen, turn your cellphones off, this show is about to start.
I pull my goggles down, and adjust my cap, I take a few moments to take it all in, the beauty of the lake and my admiration of my team. Pilot and observer Phil White, and my capable one woman crew and teammate Cynthia Needham. Finally, Uriah Skinner, 206 years ago, he was setting off from Newport in his boat, bound for Magog to purchase contraband supplies, to bring back to the local farmers and their wives. ” It’s a better way to make a living than hard labor, I make more in one night than I would on the land, in a year”, chuckled Skinner, as he shoved off from the shore. I take the plunge and dive in to the dark waters of Lake Memphremagog.
The water feels like silk as I slip under it’s surface and begin stroking away from the boat ramp, away from Newport and into the early morning, an old adventure and a new one, are now intertwined as one, as Uriah, and me head towards the Canadian Border.
My heart is thumping. I drive my head down and pull through the water with long, strong strokes. I look straight down, taking in my surroundings. The water is thick with pollen, it is suspended in the water, like big snowflakes in a January snow storm. I swim through it, like a car driving through a blizzard, the pollen hitting my goggles, like snowflakes hit a windscreen.
Django, pulls up beside me. She is a fine looking boat. A 16 ft, handcrafted dory, with Phil at the helm. He loves her, and it shows. Cynthia, is perched on the port side, looking over at me, we are eye to eye, I smile, and so does she. I am a port side swimmer, I breath to the right, meaning, that every 4 strokes, I roll to the right, getting a clear view of Django, Phil and Cynthia. There is much to keep me entertained, and I love watching. The jet boil is on, the coffee mugs are out, “it’s breakfast time, coffee and croissants, with ole Lake Memphremagog as a backdrop, what a morning”, I exclaim, as I return my eyes down, into the water. I am watching two movies, one above the water, and one below.
“I wasn’t expecting ole Magog, to kick up such a cool North wind in July”, grumbles Skinner, as he wraps a large sheet over his head. He had brought the sheet to cover his smuggled goods on the way back to Newport, not to shield himself from the wind. His cheeks burn, and he buries his head into his thick woolen sweater to better shield his face from the wind. ” All worth, a bit of discomfort” , he chuckles, ” a swig of brandy will cure all that ails me, ” he says with a grin, and with that, he put a little more heave ho into the oars, and rows quickly, down the lake, towards the Canadian Border.
Cynthia, starts reaching for my feed cup, out comes the thermos, she is pouring hot water into my feed, next she is shaking the bottle, ” Oh I can’t wait, it’s feed time”, I think. She holds the cup over the port side, and I swim up, and swipe it, like a toll operator collecting a dollar, at the toll booth. I roll onto my back, and swallow the contents. Cynthia gives me an update, ” your’e fly’n, we are past the lighthouse already, less than 3 miles to the border”, she says. I drop my feed cup,and shout ” hi,and thanks ‘, then roll onto my tummy and swim on, I’m off again.
I look deep into the water. I can see Skinner approaching the Canadian Border, in his row boat. An over-sized man, with a large frame, so big in stature that he tends to hunch over, allowing himself to bury his face from the view of others, and glance behind him on a dime, to see if he is being followed. He has bushy, thick beard, and, a half grin. A grin, giving one the impression, that he is up to no good, and getting away with it. A grin, that shouts out, I know, you know, what I’m doing, and, you’ll never catch me! ” That Captain Charlton, and his men, are just wasting their time trying to track me, for I know the ole islands of Magog, like the back of my hand, even in the dark, they’ll never find me, my precious boat, and cargo” He says, his voice trailing off into the wind.
The US- Canadian Border, is marked by Border Buoys and a slash in the tree line, my eyes fix upon the slash in the trees, I am elated to cross into Canadian waters. The Canadian officials have granted us pre approval to enter Canada without stopping at the customs station, me and Uriah, continue into Canadian waters without skipping a beat.
Every 30 minutes, Cynthia, calls me into Django to feed, 15 to 20 seconds later, I am back swimming, my eyes looking down into the deep waters of Lake Memphremagog, watching Skinner, on his journey, on my underwater movie screen.
Uriah, arrives at the end of Lake,in Magog, Canada. He wastes no time, tying off his beloved boat, and searching for a seller, from whom to buy his order of contraband. He repeats the list of goods in his head. ” There is the silverware, for the Robinson family,and the lace order for Mrs Dalton, a big order that one is too, she got lace for her all three of her sisters and their families, what a haul!” chuckles Skinner, as he loads the parcels of lace into his boat.
“Then there is the brandy for the loggers, and no shortage of it. The loggers in Newport, have a thirst I can barely keep up with, the most profitable of arrangements”. Chatters Skinner. “If I’m lucky, they’ll share a few swigs with me on delivery, and we will all have a few laughs about, how Captain Charlton, is still searching ole Magog for me, wet,cold and frustrated!” Skinner laughs as he imagines the scenario.
With the boat loaded, Skinner, gets to heaving the oars. His boat heads out into the night, heading south to Newport, and the border.
Cynthia holds up my feed up, ” Skinner Island is in sight”, she grins as she announces the news. I down my feed as quick as I can, I am excited to get my head back underwater, and see what’s happening to Skinner, there is less than 2 miles to go before I swim into his cave.
” What a night, overcast skies, no moon to guide the captain and his men, it’s a smuggler’s night for me”, Skinner hummed. But what Skinner didn’t know was that sound had guided Captain Charlton and his men, they heard the waves against the bow of his beloved boat, they followed the sound, and within minutes, Uriah saw the lantern of the patrol boat, and it was closing in on him. Skinner, spun his boat around and heaved on his oars, he made quick work of rowing to his favorite hiding spot on ole Magog, a small overgrown Island. The island, has a shoreline of steep cliff faces. At the top of the cliffs, are heavily overgrown bushes, weeds and trees, which drape over the cliffs, concealing much of them.
Skinner pulls alongside the cliff, parts the vines and weeds, revealing a hidden cave, wide enough for six men, and tall enough for three. He unloads his parcels of lace,cases of silverware, and brandy, ties off his boat and stashes himself and all his smuggled goods at the back of the cave. Nothing left to do, now but wait it out, like he has many times before.
I take my last feed before the cave. I know, that Skinner,is now hiding in the cave from the Captain, and his men. The frothy waves are sloshing against the walls, at the mouth of the cave, sending chills down Skinner’s spine, he can’t swim. Not much scares Uriah Skinner, but the thought of immersing himself in the cold dark waters, of Lake Memphremagog, without air, makes him shudder. The water scares him to death.
I swim stronger now. After hours of swimming, the island is before me. I can feel the cave, the darkness of it, the dampness of the air, the intensity of the moment. I swim alongside the cliffs, looking for the cave.
Captain Charlton, and his men are scouring the top of the island. They have been searching the island for hours.
” That filthy outlaw, cannot disappear, find him, we are not leaving this god forsaken island until we find him”, Charleston roared, he was in a foul mood.
” Captain, you’ll want to see this” , shouted an officer. He pulled Skinner’s beloved boat along the cliff, with a proud smile. The Captain, had had enough, he was cold, wet and angry, ” That filthy hermit can have this hellish island”, screamed the Captain. And with that he tied Skinner’s boat, on to his, the men begin to row, the Captain holding the lantern. Skinner watches from the security of his hidden cave, as his boat and the light of the lantern fade from view.
He wants to shout out, STOP, NO! He bites his tongue, ” I won’t let them win, no one catches Uriah Skinner ” he mutterers, through clenched teeth, which are chattering from the cold. Skinner knows, if he is captured, it is certain execution, back in Newport, it doesn’t matter that he is in Canadian waters, they will take him by force, across the border where they can arrest him. Shortly after, execution.
206 years later, the hanging vines, overgrown weeds, and bushes, have gone, yet I still nearly miss the cave, it blends into the cliff, from the angle of the water. It is the perfect hiding place, if you don’t want to be found, I can see how the officers missed it all those years ago.
The rocks are flat, sharp, and slippery at the entrance. I swim up to the mouth of the cave, staying on my belly as long as I can, after 9 miles of swimming, I know my legs will not be steady, when I stand up. I slowly draw myself upright, and make my way into the cave. I am able to swim up into the mouth, the water, sloshes from side to side, just like it did for Skinner. Spider webs drape across the front entrance, and phosphorescent moss lines the inside of the cave. I make my way further back to clear the water. At the very back of the cave, there is a rock formation, similar to that of a small seat or rock perch. I sit on it, and look out, catching the tail end of a boat, moving away from the view of the cave, the view Uriah, must have seen as his beloved boat faded from his view.
I breath it in, and look out to the lake, Uriah Skinner, unable to swim remained a prisoner in this cave, unable to swim, he was jailed here for life”, I pondered.
I waded back out, pump my fists and shout to the Cynthia and Phil, ” let’s finish this”.
I slipped back under the water and swim for the border, feeling very determined, with purpose and drive, ” Time to go home Skinner”, I think to myself.
I though a lot about Skinner on the way to the US- Canadian border. I thought about how he choose to perish, rather than surrender to the officers. I thought about how his fear of the water, defined the end of his life. I imagined, he drank the brandy, and sat in the cave until, it was time to meet his maker, comforted by the fact that he had not given in. And yet Mother Nature had the ultimate victory, for his smuggled goods where of no aid to him in the cave, and the brandy did not cure all that ailed him.
One the way south, back to Newport, I no longer had Skinner to watch underwater, so I focused back on my crew. The wooden trim of Django, the proud stance of Phil, my observer and pilot. The warm smile of Cynthia, my crew, feeding me, and perching Percy, the parrot on her head to make me laugh. They were all listening to music, and when I came in to feed I heard the music too, catching a song to play in my head until my next feed, 30 minutes later.
Soon we were crossing the border, out came the New Zealand flag, dancing in the wind. I lengthen my stroke and pull for home.
Soon we pass the light house, 2 miles, and closing. We are nearly there. I dig deep, and pull hard, my hips are high in the water, I am slipping down the lake fast. More music, this time, not from the boat, it is from the Newport Jazz festival, welcoming me home
I make my way up the boat ramp, I am pumped! Skinner Island Double complete. I finished what Uriah Skinner had set out to do 206 years ago, escaping the cave and making my way back to Newport.
18 miles of swimming in 8 Hours, 35 minutes and 57 seconds!
Thanks to Phil White of North East Kingdom Open Water Swim Association, Cynthia Needham, crew, Tricia Kules, of Little River Land Surveying for documenting the course and Evan Morrison, of the Marathon Swimmers Federation for hosting my tracker.