Swimming Gitchi Gami

As I ran into the chilly waters of Lake Superior, I was stunned by the clarity and the color: the most vibrant yet subtle sky blue, both bright and deep. I was mesmerized. On August 7, 2021, the Water Protectors began their 256-mile prayerful walk from Firelight Camp at the headwaters of the Mississippi to the steps of the Minnesota State Capitol. That same morning, I and over 400 others entered the waters of Lake Superior in Bayfield, Wisc., to swim the Pointe to La Pointe open water Cliff Swim in the powerful Gitchi Gami.

Initially meant to be a one-time-only open water 5K, the swim was reduced to a 3K due to weather conditions. Thankful for the shortened course, my swim was meditative. I found a rhythm with the foot-high waves. Breathing as I was lifted up, exhaling into the water as I fell. Lifted, cradled and a few times crashed, I even giggled when the water was occasionally swept from under me—it felt like we were playing. 

The Line 3 oil pipeline begins in Alberta, Canada, cuts across Minnesota, and finishes its destructive path on the shore of Lake Superior at the Superior Terminal in Wisconsin. This pipeline is a direct threat to treaties, climate, and water. Line 3 is being built to carry dangerous tar sands crude oil that will cross rivers, damage wild rice beds, and feed into the Great Lakes. All pipelines spill, and Line 3 puts over 200 bodies of water at risk. As I became more involved in the fight against Line 3, learning about the history and sharing this story of senseless destruction and beautiful resistance, I longed to deepen my connection with the water. 

Throughout the two-mile swim, I sang Water Protector songs to myself:

If you love the water, 

Gitchi Gami

Then have the courage 

to Stop Line 3

The Nibi Song gave me strength and connected my heart to the water. In the months leading up to this swim, I was preparing myself to struggle through, barely finish or even have to be taken out due to hypothermia or a host of other swim-related injuries. But while in the water, I found myself never wanting it to end. Completely filled with awe, euphoria, joy, and respect, I found and truly felt a connection with the water, immersed in her welcoming, loving presence. 

The water was so clear, I could see the sand and vegetation beneath me until I swam out where all I could see was deep, beautiful, blue. It was life-giving. Afterwards, we overheard many veterans complain about the conditions: “This is the worst it’s ever been!” I found this surprising because when I left the water, coming in at 1:29:55, I couldn’t stop smiling. “That was so fun!” I exclaimed. My friends and partner laughed, all agreeing we want to do it again next year. Driving home from Bayfield, we saw the color of this mighty water shift from deep blue, to a distressed gray in the ports of Superior, Wisconsin.

There are many ways to be a Water Protector. From the brave, who suspend themselves to block pump stations, to the steadfast who slept on the Capitol lawn. From the organizers to the keyboard warriors, we are here to protect the water. We must also find ways to be connected, to strengthen ourselves in the movement and continue to build toward a just and sustainable future. This was my way of deepening my connection and renewing my sense of gratitude and fierce protection. Practicing sacred joy in the face of destruction and pain. We all come from water, we are sustained by water, and we must always remember that Water is Life.