Four or Five Miles on Merritt’s Mill Pond

By Steven Specht No comments

The cool morning air is pressing down on the warmer air directly above the water. I guess it was cold enough last night to justify using the fireplace, because a pocket of wood smoke is pressed between the thermocline. I hope the warmth of the sun will raise the air temperature, because I don’t think I want to breathe this for the next two hours. It won’t be the worst thing I’ve ever inhaled; I’ll manage.

I was shocked by the relative warmth of the water when I jumped in. At ~68, this is one of the coldest bodies of water in the summer, but last night was the first cold snap of the year, and with temperatures in the low 60s or even the 50s, the water felt delightful after a barefooted 200 meter sprint in nothing but UDT shorts—a sprint because it was cold or a sprint because I was trespassing on government property—I don’t care; I’m making good time on this first half mile. The park is closed on Monday morning in general, and since we are a week past Labor Day, it’s probably closed for the year even though they might be able to pull a few hundred extra dollars into the county if they kept it open through the end of September. It’s 60 degrees outside now, but it will be 85 by the end of the day. Anyway, “violators will be prosecuted” never weighed heavy on my mind, and I’ll never take a “no trespassing” sign seriously unless there is razor wire involved. I don’t think anyone saw me; only one car passed as I stepped around the side of the gate, and with my mask already lubed up with my own saliva, I entered with a few seconds of hesitation. I was beyond the barrier and in open water within three minutes of entering the park. 

In the first few minutes there is a dull ache in my right shoulder, residual damage from a hastily raised shotgun aimed at an armadillo on the move in bad light. I blasted that fucker in two, but left a nice bruised area from failing to seat the butt properly—a necessary sacrifice if there is any hope of spring strawberries. I don’t know what it is about rooting around at the base of strawberry plants, but I like to leave the carcasses where they fall as a warning to others. I’m an insomniac, and I’m prepared to stalk you all night long if that’s what it takes. The smell doesn’t bother me much; no smell does. 

Good time. Good time. I’m two minutes fast on this first half-mile that concludes directly in front of Jamelia Cone’s dock. Jamelia was supposed to do this swim with me, but the mill pond is choked with water weeds right now, and her tolerance for the mess is low. Maybe next year if the drought finally breaks and the increased water flow helps clear out the debris. I should see Frances Stone any minute now. She’s agreed to spot me for the duration in her one-person canoe, and while it ends up not being necessary, I’m happy to have her along. Jet skis and motor boats are known to zip through here at 40 miles per hour, and if alcohol is involved, yes, even on a Monday morning, they won’t see me. I’ll end up slashed across the back and probably dead. Cool scars if I live, but I’ve got a 50K run in October, and I’ve already paid $90 for the entrance fee if I end up recuperating in the hospital for a month, I’ll lose that; never mind that I’m currently uninsured. There she is. I don’t know if she sees me, so I wave just in case. I’m making good time. 

Merrit’s Mill Pond is a reservoir just outside the city limits of Marianna, Florida. Several first magnitude springs and dozens of other smaller springs provide the water for the hydroelectric dam at the base of the lake, and eventually Spring Creek on the other side of US-90 flows into the Chipola River. It’s famous among anglers, because, until a couple years ago it held the world record for the Shell Cracker. It still has the state record, and would probably still hold the world record, but the aforementioned anglers polluted the pond with hydrylla, an obnoxious water weed that choked the pond into submission throughout the late 90s and early aughts. Faced with no other viable options after a series of failed experiments, the state finally poisoned the pond with a chemical that didn’t kill fish in the laboratory tests. Of course, it killed the lower-order animals not included in tests, mainly Crawfish and Apple Snails, the latter of which was the main food for the Shell Cracker. The entire ecosystem collapsed, but based on the size of Bass and pan fish I’m seeing as I cruise by, things are finally coming back to normal. I still am not seeing Crawfish, which once paved the floor of the entire mill pond. A sack full could be caught in a matter of two hours every single day for the entire summer. Oh well. Truthfully four or five miles isn’t a great accomplishment unto itself, but this is my home turf and I’d always planned on swimming the mill pond, so the fact that I’m rapidly approaching 30 and have yet to complete it grates on me. I’ll do longer swims later.

I’m not going to bother with sustenance on this swim. At the absolute worst, I’ll be taking 3 hours, and considering I’ve done marathons with no water and no food, I imagine intermittent sips of spring water in between breaths will suffice. I have a bottle of Gatorade in the canoe just in case. That’s 200 calories. Somehow I’ve managed to misplace the three Hammer gels I had intended to use, but at $2 each, that’s kind of a waste, so I’m glad I’m not tempted to use them. The IRS is still sitting on a refund that was supposed to be my budget for the summer; I’m destitute. $2 is a lot right now. The ultra-endurance athlete is a finely tuned machine which requires the best of cuisine to function properly. I had Pop Tarts splattered with unsalted butter, a bottle of Gatorade, and a sip of yesterday’s coffee. I grabbed a handful of nuts on the way out the door. I am a finely tuned machine that requires the best of cuisine to function properly; I have heart burn.

I’m not going to look at my watch for now. I’m going to just do a stroke count, and if I’m paying attention, 500 easy strokes are worth roughly 10 minutes. I’m not paying attention, and by deliberately losing count when I check my watch at the hypothetical 80 minute mark, I’ll be much farther along, Hopefully that will be a sufficient psychological edge on a swim for which I’ve done very little training. My longest swim to date is either the 1.2 miles I did at a half ironman in 2004 or a downstream river swim I did in July that was worth about 3 miles not counting a very slow current. I had an overuse injury from the latter which restricted me to shorter swims of 20-40 minutes after finishing two weeks of recuperation consisting of sitting on my ass and eating Aleve like candy. There was a 20-mile run in there somewhere, but that was training for the 50K, and won’t help me on the swim.

Checking my position every 50 strokes is hurting my speed, but with the curves of the lake, submerged stumps, and moccasins. I have to be careful about drifting off course. I’ve seen no gators over four feet on this lake, but that’s another benefit of a spotter. Despite constantly checking my bearings, I end up over-compensating and manage to end up in shallow water. The weeds are thick here, so thick that I can’t push through without the jerk of a crude butterfly stroke that takes me over the top of the weeds to open water. My mind flashes to age 12, gigging sting rays in St Joe Bay. I got careless and drifted into the navigation channel, and with the bottom too deep to see, it felt like I was making no forward progress for almost an hour. I almost ditched the gig in frustration, so I could free style to shallow water, but my dad was far scarier than the fatigue of open water. I’d occasionally dive 30 feet to the bottom of the channel just to get some kind of bearing on my position—to tell myself I was actually moving. Thirty feet is a lot when you are 12. Now I can camp out at 50 feet now and enjoy the open solitude of the depths, but that was more than half my life ago. Wow I’m getting old. The lesson of the day was as simple and severe as every other life lesson provided by my father. 

“What happened?”
“I got caught in the navigation channel and couldn’t get out.”
“Don’t do that again.”

There was never any margin for error in childhood adventures with dad; I didn’t get any sting rays either.

I’m finally free from the weeds and push out to the middle of the pond again. I’m probably about halfway through the swim now and growing frustrated. Four hundred pages of Lynne Cox and not once did she mention whether I should urinate on the move or stop swimming. I opt for on the move and concentrate for a few strokes. Men can do Kegel exercises too, and they come in handy now. It’s washed away quickly and much more cleanly than on the bike portion of the half ironman eight years ago. While I doubt it did anything positive for the gears and chain of my bike, there was no way in hell I was stopping in the middle of a 56 miles. As for girl behind me, splattered by the spinning sprockets, there is a reason why drafting is forbidden in triathlons; ass. My friends say I spend too much time documenting bathroom habits of distance, but with an entire year of our life spent on some variety of effusion, I’m only the tip of the ice berg. It’s why old men discuss size, color, and frequency. With death looming ever closer, there’s little time left to talk about the things that truly matter.

There are some high voltage power lines overhead now. I wish I’d looked at the satellite imagery, because if I had, I’d know that I was two thirds of the way finished. For now, I’ll tell myself that I’m at least half way. I know the lines cut though Indian Springs, so I know that Missy Neal’s dock is up ahead on the left somewhere. I know that from there it’s less than a mile to the bridge. I won’t be able to distinguish her dock from any other docks, but there is some small comfort provided from the general idea of knowing where I may or may not be on a four or five mile swim. Some websites say it’s four miles; some say it’s five. My friends insist it’s six or seven, but I know that’s wrong. I’m calling it a four or five mile swim. That sound better. I should have planned I guess. I’m making good time. 


My stroke count says I’m at 80 minutes, so I finally look down at my watch, and am delighted to find out that I’m at 1:51:35 I predicted I’d take less than 2:30 so I’m less than 40 minutes from the end. I stop to rest by rolling over on my back and Mrs. Stone tells me that by her estimation we are less than a mile from the end which means I’m less than 30 minutes from the end which means I’m suddenly motivated by a desire to get it finished, and my rest was less than 15 seconds—so short that when I mentioned it later on the drive to pick up her truck, she was unaware that I’d rested at all. I’ve known her from Junior High when I was pulled from gym class in order to join the chorus and play the lead in the 7th grade musical. I can’t remember the name of it, but I played Hugh the Dragon Slayer, who valiantly defended the kingdom and princess from a ravenous dragon. It worked out well I guess. It certainly saved me from an imminent failure in gym class. I’ve yet to figure out how the knowledge of Jim Naismith’s place of birth will ever be useful. The best part about the play is that Chad Fears’s house had burned down just a few weeks prior, and he was in the front row laughing his ass off. It felt good to give him a moment of happiness in a bad time. The stupid things we remember and the stupid times we remember them. I need to push the pace a little, so I don’t think about these things—dim memories of a different time with different goals. The knowledge that I’ll probably not be on the big screen weighs heavily on my heart. The window of opportunity to be an astronaut is rapidly closing. Best to press on. Forward. Think of something else. Otherwise, I’ll be face down in a puddle of cocaine within a week. Who am I kidding? I don’t even know where to buy cocaine. There is always fast drunken driving on back roads. I’m going to Beef ‘O’ Brady’s afterwards and eat something fattening and greasy. Well, I might go to Ruby Tuesday’s. This town doesn’t have much variety and the Mexican place has gone downhill since it moved to the new location. For out-of-towners, The Gazebo is probably the best place in town followed closely by the Fortune Cookie, a Chinese Buffet. The Gazebo is only open for lunch, and the line can go around the corner, so plan accordingly; try the Reuben. The Fortune Cookie is run by Malaysians. The sushi is average.

The first slip of automobiles crossing the bridge is now visible. Somewhere up there is the boat landing at Arrowhead Campsite. I’m starting to feel the fatigue, and if I’m going to go further than four or five miles in the future, I know I’ll need to eat something. I ask Mrs. Stone to take the lead, because I’ve never actually been to Arrowhead, and I don’t want to swim any unnecessary distance today. As a joke I accelerate forward at top speed to touch the back of the canoe which is guiding me in, but the effort almost ends me and I limp in for a bedraggled finish of 2:20:00 flat. She won’t take gas money for her troubles and says that the chance to write about this for her kayaking blog is more than worth it. I’ve gotta eat something. Onion rings are calling me. I’d like to take a nap, but I’m going to spend the rest of the day on hold with the IRS humming along with 2 minutes of elevator music on infinite loop, and I have yet to figure out the course for the 1200m intervals I’m going to run with the MHS Cross Country Team. I’m feeling particularly sadistic, so I think I’m going to utilize hills. 

Mrs. Stone tells me her GPS says 4.2 I think I still prefer to say four or five miles. The nonchalance pleases me.