SOMERS — It was barely 6 a.m. as the red glow of dawn rippled across Flathead Lake’s surface. The temperatures outside were about the same as underwater — 60 degrees, a typical June morning in Montana — as Emily von Jentzen and John Cole stripped down to swimsuits and waded in.
Over the next hour, the duo swam around Somers Bay with a group of other men and women who were wearing wetsuits and paddling at their own pace. There was also Mason, von Jentzen’s energetic retriever who donned a life vest and acted as their quasi-lifeguard.
For this group of local swimmers, it was a regular get-together and a chance to begin the day with an early-morning workout in the water.
For von Jentzen and Cole, it was full-on practice.
The voyage of a lifetime is only one month away.
Von Jentzen, an accomplished 34-year-old distance swimmer, and Cole, 35, are planning to swim the entire length of Flathead Lake in the final weekend of July.
Their efforts will raise money for a pair of children in need through von Jentzen’s nonprofit Enduring Waves Foundation.
After taking a year off from swimming adventures, von Jentzen will pursue her latest — and greatest — water wonder by journeying the 28-mile distance from Somers to Boettcher Park in Polson and then swimming back to Somers, accompanied by Cole on the return trip.
The voyage is expected to take at least 15 hours each way, meaning von Jentzen could be swimming for more than 30 hours straight. Kayaks and motorboats will travel alongside the swimmers to help navigate at night while also providing safety measures and storing their food.
Von Jentzen would become the first person on record to swim down and back, or “double-cross” Flathead Lake.
“I’ve wanted to do a longer distance without a wetsuit for awhile,” she said. “I’m at a point in my life that maybe I should move on to some other things, like marriage and kids. At that point, it will be hard to be selfish and train like you need to for something like this.”
Von Jentzen, a local attorney, became the first person to swim Lake Chelan in northern Washington, a 55-mile accomplishment in 2011 that raised funds for a girl in Kalispell who was fighting Stage-4 neuroblastoma.
A year earlier, von Jentzen became the first woman to swim the entire north-south stretch of Flathead Lake, a feat that raised $10,000 for a 3-year-old girl in Missoula battling leukemia. She was only the third person on record to ever conquer the lake, and today only five have achieved the remarkable accomplishment.
Cole is hoping to become No. 6.
“I’m so thankful that Emily has done this before and can lead me,” he said recently. “The farthest I’ve swam was 8 miles.”
Cole, a Chicago native, grew up swimming and competed at the high school and collegiate levels. When he moved to the Flathead Valley two years ago he heard about the KATS Masters club, featuring adult swimmers of varying abilities who swim together.
Last fall, as von Jentzen was preparing to find a challenge that could raise funds for more children in need, Cole approached her and expressed interest in swimming Flathead Lake. Von Jentzen remembers explaining the intense practice regimen it would require.
“It’s a whole different kind of animal than most people know how to train for,” she said. “You have to really commit to your whole life revolving around this whole goal.”
Cole signed up, and the two began training regularly. Dating back to winter, they met at least four days a week to swim, often for upwards of three hours. As soon as spring arrived, they grabbed their wetsuits and hit the natural waters for practice. They’re hoping the water temperatures will rise above 65 degrees to ensure safety.
“If it’s not warm enough, you can experience early signs of hypothermia,” von Jentzen said. “You can push yourself through a lot of that, but it’s not super smart to do it for consecutive hours.”
As both say, they have found the ultimate motivation in the two children they’re raising funds for: a 5-year-old boy in Bigfork who has a congenital heart defect and a 2-year-old girl in Joplin with Stage-4 neuroblastoma. Supporters can donate to von Zentzen and Cole’s fundraising efforts through www.enduringwaves.com.
“This will be something I remember for the rest of my life,” Cole said.