Ketchikan man plots ocean swimming routes

Posted: Sunday, October 23, 2005

KETCHIKAN - It started in April with a half-hour swim in the ocean.

Now, Don Mitchel's an ocean swimmer with a map and a mission.

Bit by bit, Mitchel is working toward swimming the entire shoreline of the Ketchikan area from Indian Point to the George Inlet Cannery, in addition to circling islands and even circumnavigating Ward and Harriet Hunt lakes.

"It's fun for me to go home (after each swim) and mark a little section on the map," Mitchel said. "There's a sense of progress, even though this is just a way of exercising."

Mitchel, 58, is quick to note that he's not a super athlete or a competitive ocean swimmer. His original goal was simply to get in shape.

He joined the Ketchikan Masters swim club as a novice swimmer about two years ago. The other, more expert club members were very supportive as he worked to gain a degree of swimming proficiency, according to Mitchel.

Then earlier this year, Willy Schutz came to Ketchikan to organize the Pennock Island swim for the American Diabetes Association and taught the fundamentals of ocean swimming. Mitchel was intrigued.

"I've lived here for over 30 years and I've done a lot of fishing and boating and the whole focus is to stay out of the water," Mitchel said. "To get out in it was a different mindset."

He bought the gear triathlon-style wetsuit, earplugs, hood and booties and in April took his first ocean swim at Naha in 46-degree water. Adjusting to the cold took some effort, but otherwise it was a "very, very nice day," Mitchel said.

He began to practice for the Pennock Island swim by spending time in the water every other day and trying to avoid swimming in the same place twice, said Mitchel.

"Wherever I was, I swam," Mitchel said. "So if I was at Kegan Cove (in Moira Sound), or Kah Shakes, or if I (was) derby fishing at Cone Island or something, I'd get in the water and swim."

He started mapping where he swam, adding lines along the shorelines north and south of town and around such islands as Cache, Pup, Moser and Joe.

And over time, he noticed he was getting closer to connecting the dots.

"It just kind of evolved," he said.

After Mitchel participated in the Pennock Island swim in August, as part of a relay team, he continued swimming new pieces of shoreline.

Being in the ocean is different than the pool, he said, with temperature, currents, weather and critters added into the mix.

Mitchel said he hasn't had a problem with currents and he keeps an eye out for any company in the water.

"You also think about sea creatures," he said, "You're in their turf." About a month ago after hearing of the incident where a killer whale charged a Ketchikan boy at Helm Bay Mitchel delayed starting a swim near Shoup Street until he could positively identify the whale in Tongass Narrows as a humpback, not an orca.

Mitchel also has adjusted his swimming schedules according to weather.

"One time it was just too rough, so I went to Harriet Hunt (Lake) and swam half of Harriet Hunt," Mitchel said, adding that hes also swum around the perimeter of Ward Lake.

Of course, logistics can be daunting. There's a lot of figuring out where to position cars, boats and, when needed for high-traffic areas or open-water crossings, escort vessels.

A couple of times, Mitchel swam farther than intended and ended up hitchhiking back to his vehicle, "which is kind of a different experience, hitchhiking in a wet suit," he said.

He said he's never felt in jeopardy while in the water, but occasionally someone will think he's in trouble and offer assistance. Mostly, people who see him swimming are simply curious.

"People say to me all the time, Why do you do that? This is crazy," Mitchel said.

His answer: Exercise and adventure. And its working.

"I feel a lot better. I've lost 20 pounds," he said. " I'm in shape." Mitchel's last swim of the season was Sunday. He plans to swim at the pool this winter and get back into the ocean next year. He's got his sights set on completing the shoreline from the airport ferry to Knudson Cove, in addition to circumnavigating Grant and Betton islands. There will also be swims while he's out boating.

"The opportunities are infinite (in this area)," Mitchel said. "It just goes on and on and on. And so, where do you want to go?"

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