Change Your Latitude: Open Water Swimming in Alaska

Katya Finegold and Katlyn Christenson discovered their mutual passion for swimming through our internal company newsletter and have enjoyed taking plunges together since! Over the summer they embarked on a week-long “swimcation” in Sitka, Alaska. There, they participated in the Change your Latitude swim race, partnering for a 6K, open water relay benefiting the local Baranof Barracudas swim team.

Katya and I began swimming together because of a questionnaire Coughlin Porter Lundeen shared, asking about our hobbies, passions, and out of office activities. My high school swim friends and I were mulling what to do with ourselves during the Covid lockdown and safely keep our distance. We bought wetsuits and started swimming in Lake Washington in the spring of 2020. Until that point, my swimming experience was confined to the comfort of clear, chlorinated pools, not distance swims in murky lakes and oceans! I shared a photo of my latest adventures with coworkers, and it was included in the “snapshots” section of our monthly internal newsletter. A few days later, Katya reached out to me asking about how she could get into swimming outside. With pools and facilities closed, she also missed swimming.

I of course invited her to join our group! And helped her get set up with a starter kit. The equipment required for open water swimming includes a wetsuit, a neoprene cap, booties, and a swim buoy. (The buoy, a dry bag connected to a pool floatie keeping keys, phones and personal items safe, clips to the swimmer’s waist.)

We started with short distances to get used to being outside and swimming in the cooler temps. After summer passed, we continued swimming throughout the winter, acclimating as the temperatures gradually dropped. Lake Washington in the winter becomes much colder than the Sound – we learned this the hard way! The wetsuits keep us warm, but much of open water swimming and adjusting to the cold water is a mental exercise. When you submerge, you need to acclimate to the temperature, letting your body know that all is well before launching into the swim. Your face gets cold (really cold) but you can flip over and do some backstrokes to warm your cheeks up. Typically, I swim backstroke first to get used to the water.

Our crew continued to swim in Lake Washington and Puget Sound through 2020, and by 2022 we were ready to try new waters.

I heard about a “Sitka Swimcation” through the Western Washington Open Water Swimming group on Facebook. I was acquainted with a few women who participated in years past and they highly recommended the trip. I had no idea where Sitka was and had never been to Alaska, but after a little research, I was enticed to venture north. Katya and I decided we’d take the plunge.

We had to prepare ourselves physically and mentally to manage the race distance and extreme temperatures of Alaskan water. We completed 1K and 2K swims from Brackett’s Landing, Golden Gardens and Lake Washington street-ends throughout the year. The I-90 bridge to the 520 bridge was our longest stretch at 3.2-miles. In Sitka, there were scheduled adventure swims each day varying from just a dip to 1.5 miles. We spent much of our free time training, and we felt prepared for the feat when August approached.

57˚ N, Change Your Latitude is one of the most northernmost open ocean races in the world. The majority of competitors are women ranging from 13-76 years of age. So many strong women are represented – it felt awesome to be there and be a part of this group. We participated in a 6K relay together, each paddling 3K in the ocean beside jumping salmon and diving sea lions. The swim was advertised as 60˚F but because of the mountain ice melt, the water temperatures dropped to 50˚F. It was so, so cold, definitely the coldest conditions we had experienced.

The race supported the local swim team, the Baranof Barracudas. We were fortunate to have some of the team coaches, family and friends tour us around town, lead us on hikes, and whisk us away on boats for excursion swims. We explored different islands and discovered the most pristine white sand beach, covered with more starfish than I had ever seen and bright green anemones swaying in the tide pools. Scores of eagles and hawks flew overhead. We were immersed in nature; it was an adventure I will never forget. The cherry on top was a fresh salmon bake dinner.

It’s wild to think a single photo sparked such an adventure and friendship. I’m grateful that Coughlin Porter Lundeen celebrates our passions and pursuits – it’s been so special to explore this shared passion with Katya. We’re already looking forward to next year!

© Jesse D Ranke

Working at Coughlin Porter Lundeen doesn’t just mean a great job, it means a great place to work. Katlyn and Katya cue us to celebrate employee passions, share personal achievements, and remind us of the importance of work/life balance. We sincerely believe in the benefits of hobbies and passion projects. We want our team to be fulfilled both in and out of the office, and do our best to support their success in their career and beyond. These out-of-office pursuits serve as a fun, encouraging respites and we hope by sharing it inspires you to take up something new of your own!