River Hugger

HAPpy People, BY Christina Malango

January 15, 2019

Meet Lars Rutkowski, who can hold his breath as long as it takes to read this, no matter how slow you read. 

Have you always been part fish? How did you first find swimming?
I've always liked the water, but it wasn't a big part of my life until I was introduced to Underwater Hockey. That was the gateway drug to fin swimming, which led to freediving on our coast and open water swimming for fun and fitness. 

How did you discover the River Huggers?

A good diving friend of mine, Josh Humbert, told me about swimming with the River Huggers. I joined him and found it was a lot more fun than swimming laps in a pool.

You have the open water look down—with snorkel, lights that look like earmuffs and big old fins. From the surface it often looks like a floatation device connected to a submarine crossing the river.
Ha! Ya, I swim with the Huggers to help train for freediving and Underwater Hockey. I use the gear I would for my typical pool workout – snorkel, fins, and mask. Last summer I started using a buoy for the first time. I didn't like how it pinned me to the surface, so I put a longer tether on it so I could swim freely underwater. Instead of being the disappearing/reappearing swimmer, I'm now the ghost buoy.

When you swim with the Huggers you have a method. The first lap is all underwater and kicking and the second is about breathing? What do you actually do and why?
It would be awesome to do a 400-yard under! I'd only need to surface to see where I was going. Actually, in trying to avoid a pool workout I did develop a little structure to my crossings, an ascending workout. Each crossing would start out at cruise pace. Let the pod get into rhythm, stretch out, warm up. Around halfway my path is generally clear enough I can start swimming unders. A timer would really help here. Alternating 15 to 17 seconds under, and 2-3 breaths (5-7sec) on the surface. Repeat until you’re across. If I'm feeling slow, it may slide to more 50/50 under/over. 

On the surface, I almost always do flutter kick, underneath a dolphin kick for core strength. I'll do this same routine with my kick board on another crossing, and with my coach in my mind saying "Last one, fast one!" 

If I need to throw on some sprints, I'll do intervals with my kickboard,  pushing it sideways under the surface like a bulldozer. That way, I can stay with the pod. But it makes a hell of a wake. It's a really good reason to do it in open water. You may wonder what I do with my kickboard after I crossed with it. I glued some strong magnets to my board and my buoy. I just click them together.

What do you think about when you swim? 
I think about the clarity of the water, its movement, the people around me, and the things we find in it. Any thoughts not in the water tend to float away. 

In winter, you are still swimming in open water. Tell us about your recent swim in Puget Sound. Do you hope to swim all through the winter outdoors? 
Yes, while the main Hugger group has stopped for the season, some of us continue to swim weekly as the temperature has slowly dropped. The Columbia, at this time, is around 42°. With proper shore support, I can swim skins for 20 to 25 minutes. It can be a jolt to get in, but once adjusted to the temperature I can enjoy the swim and see how the river has changed that day. Being acclimated to these temperatures has led to some fun trips with friends. Most recently, in the South Puget Sound. We swam in the salty water, explored derelict boats, and collected oysters.
 
What has been your favorite swim of the past year? Is there one that was particularly memorable?

I would have to say my swims in Lost Lake and Timothy Lake. Although not very long swims, the water clarity makes exploring its shores fun, and with great people, makes good photos.

Do you have a particular swim you dream of doing?
Out on the coast I've spent a lot of time freediving around Haystack Rock. I usually kayak or ride on a friend’s zodiac to get off shore. I've swam through the surf half way out to meet some friends on a boat, but never all the way. I'd like to swim skins all the way out, around Haystack and back. Having fins would make it an assisted swim, but I don't care, my fins are a part of me. The hardest part of doing that swim, for me, would be resisting the urge to stop, relax my breath, and dive down to explore with the freedom of not having a wetsuit.

Tell us about your boat. How does she fit into your life? 

I’ve found the more time I spend in or on the water, the happier I am. With this thought, I have my sailboat. I plan to fix it up and eventually live on it full time, with dreams of going south to Baja, and across the Pacific.

What do you do in real life?
I'm a custom metal fabricator. I form, cut, drill, and weld aluminum, stainless and steel into useful items. I was building commercial beer brewing equipment but I'm currently looking for something else. Hopefully next summer I’ll be able keep this fun morning swim routine with a new employer.

How long can you hold your breath under water?
My answer is long enough. I can hold my breath long enough to stalk fish, pull scallops from rocks, and catch crab. You can cover a lot of ground in a minute if you move efficiently. During a hockey practice, 15 seconds is a long time to hold your breath. It’s a fast game and play moves around a lot.



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