Somewhere off the shore of Wild Horse Island, Laura Chenier fell into a rhythm.
Suspended horizontally on the surface of Flathead Lake, Chenier moved through the water with a slow freestyle kick, tilting her head to the side every third stroke of her arms to take a breath of smoky air.
Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe.
Staring down through the clear water of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, Chenier kept up the rhythm, a moving meditation, even as she encountered a headwind for several hours, interrupting the lake’s glassy surface with choppy waves. Out of the corner of her eye, visible on every other breath, she could make out the pontoon boat her support crew piloted alongside her, ensuring she kept a straight line bisecting the lake.
Stroke, stroke, breathe.
Every half hour or so, Chenier paused in her motions, treading water while someone on the boat threw her a water bottle attached to a retractable dog leash. After draining half the bottle of calorically boosted fuel, she kicked out again.
Stroke, stroke, breathe.
Just before 7 p.m. on Aug. 1, a little more than 10 hours after diving into the water near Elmo, on the lake’s western shore, Chenier rounded the tip of Yellow Bay point and picked up her cadence. No longer breathing bilaterally, she lifted her head out of the water as she stretched her left arm towards the shore, which finally came into sight.
Stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe.
The clear water became shallower and shallower, its hues of dark teal giving way to a pale shade of turquoise before the lakeshore’s burnished bottom stones were directly beneath her. When at last she brushed the bottom with her fingertips — roughly her 17,000th stroke — Chenier stood up.
“I was wobbly and couldn’t really stay upright,” she said. “This swim was really into the unknown for me.”
With an elapsed time of 10 hours and 19 minutes, Chenier became the first documented person to complete a crossing of Flathead Lake at its broadest width, spanning from Elmo to Yellow Bay.
Six days after her historic swim, Chenier sat on the lakeshore where she finished the feat. She was still sore — each wrist hitting the water some 17,000 times in a day takes a toll, she said.
“I’m used to dealing with these kinds of aches with my lower body, but having it all in my shoulders, back and arms is a different feeling,” she said. “But then again, this is something I’ve never made my body do before so it’s really not surprising.”
Chenier, 35, has long been an ultra-endurance athlete, with marathons, ultra-distance trail races and Ironmans occupying her in recent years. Her first competitive sport, however, was swimming.
Growing up on the east coast, Chenier said she and her brother both ended up in the pool because their dad was a veteran swim coach. “There was really no other choice when we were kids,” she said.
Chenier deviated from pool life as she grew up, but continued her athletic pursuits. In college she played basketball before discovering a talent for endurance sports while living in Arizona for grad school. She did her first triathlon in 2017 and quickly moved to the Ironman distance — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run.
Throughout this last winter and spring, Chenier, who works as a research audiologist and lives out of her converted van fulltime, needed a new goal to chase.
“I was in a period where life seemed up in the air — training had been off and I’d been struggling with injuries, my career path, mental health, all the things really,” she said. “I was looking for an endeavor I could focus on and would be grounding.”
After casting around for an adventure to train for, Chenier decided to go back to her swimming roots. She spent time poring over maps of different lakes around the western United States before realizing that the perfect adventure existed in Montana. After moving out West, Chenier had spent years visiting the Flathead Lake Biological Station in Yellow Bay where her uncle, Jim Elser, is the director and her aunt, Monica, is the station’s education liaison.
“No one had ever done a widest crossing, it would finish in Yellow Bay, which holds a special place for me, and all my family would be around,” she said. “All the pieces just came together here.”
To train for her swim, Chenier worked with Yogi Triathlon coach BJ Gumkowski, with whom she’d trained for years. Based in Colorado at the time, without access to open-water conditions like Flathead Lake, Chenier spent time swimming indoors, with sessions lasting up to three or four hours. Her biggest worry in training was how to fuel — a logistically easier feat to dial in while running or biking — but figured out liquid sustenance was the easiest to digest while horizontal.
It wasn’t until she came up to Montana earlier in July that she got her first true open water training swim in, when she hopped in a six-mile event hosted by the Flathead Lake Open Water (FLOW) Swimmers near Polson. The water that day was choppy and her transition to open water was rough, making her question for the first time whether she’ be able to more than double the distance.
“I know what it feels like for me to endure for 10-12 hours, when the brain and body just get to autopilot and keep going,” she said. “Eventually I just decided I was doing this for me, so there wasn’t any pressure, and I should just go out and enjoy the swim.”
The day of her crossing looked apocalyptic. Thick smoke from the Niarada Fire burning west of Elmo made visibility above and below water about equal for the first hours, but slowly cleared as Chenier traversed the lake. The added environmental factor cemented the effort as one of Chenier’s most memorable days.
“I’ve truly never felt more connected with all the elements,” she said. “Spending a day totally surrounded by water, having ash falling around me and getting into my swimsuit, facing a headwind for hours, it was this incredible thing to experience all in one day.”
Along with Chenier’s parents, the support boat was manned by Mark Johnston, the founder of FLOW Swimmers, the group that promotes open-water swimming events around Flathead Lake.
For Johnston, the summer has been a flurry of open-water activities. On Aug. 5, more than 30 local swimmers took part in the Queen’s Bay Extravaganza open-water event, suiting up to compete in distances ranging from 1,500 meters to 10 kilometers. The week before Chenier made her historic crossing, Switzerland-based Martyn Webster became just the eighth person to swim the 28-mile length of Flathead Lake. His north-to-south time of 14 hours and 35 minutes established a new men’s record.
“I am so pleased to have finally gotten here and had a successful swim. Many things can stop these swims, the wind is a particular enemy when you are in the water for 14-15 hours, but everything came together this week,” Webster said. “It has been a great experience to come to Flathead Lake and have the support of local people in helping me achieve my dreams. I have swum many lakes and seas around the world over the last eight years but can honestly say that Flathead is one of the most picturesque and cleanest lakes I have swum in.”
Just as with Chenier’s swim, Webster had boat support from Johnston, as well as several other Polson locals, including Jess Bouchee, who paddleboarded the entire length of the lake. Bouchee also paddleboarded the entirety of Chenier’s swim.
“At the end of the day, these are team efforts,” Johnston said of both swimming feats. “No one could accomplish this alone.”
As for Chenier, she’s not quite ready to tackle Flathead Lake’s length, or the three-point Grizzly route Johnston engineered.
“There was such a mixture of awe and relief at finishing that swim,” she said. “I’m really just enjoying sitting with the 16.2 miles I’ve done.”
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