The salt marshes of the Essex River Basin are an incubator for life of all kinds as well as recreation on the water from paddlers and boaters.
But the one species not usually found swimming in that unique ecosystem are humans — that is until one Gloucester couple decided to immerse themselves in the brackish water and swim its tidal estuaries for all four seasons over a decade ago.
From the searing heat of the summer to the frigid icy waters of the winter, Patricia and Robert Hanlon undertook this effort, almost on a whim, but it became something much deeper.
This month, Patricia Hanlon, 67, also a visual artist, had her debut book published by Bellevue Literary Press, titled "Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet." One award-winning writer called Hanlon a "true poet-ecologist."
Her nonfiction book has received praise from Publishers Weekly, which wrote, "Hanlon delivers a lyrical ode to a changing environment,” and Kirkus Reviews wrote: "Graceful in its descriptive power...Hanlon understands how our moral imagination exerts a profound influence on our thoughts, attitudes, and actions."
The Hanlons are known to many on Cape Ann as the owners of the former Walker Creek Furniture and Gallery in Essex on Route 133, just across from one area of the Great Salt Marsh. This muddy grassy refuge provides a habitat for countless species of birds and marine life.
"The book is about the year my husband and I swam the creeks and channels of the Essex River Basin, in all weather conditions, including a blizzard. From that experience, I delve into some of the environmental issues facing this critically important ecosystem, but in a reader-friendly way. It's also the story of a marriage, since open-water swimming, especially in cold weather, is a buddy-system sport," said Hanlon, a longtime resident of Essex as well as Gloucester.
As a writer, she began taking notes of her forays into the marshes, during which she witnessed the impact of humans on the natural environment and pondered the responsibility of mankind to ensure its sustainability.
The seeds to this aquatic story began in the summer of 2008.
"We lived on Cape Ann for decades, and boated and kayaked in the waterways, but not until our kids had grown did we find more time to explore," said Hanlon. "It was during one of those heat waves that opens you up to try new things — or at least drive you to the water. That day we swam in a quarry. At one point, I put on swim fins and I found it was the most amazing thing to feel the power of the fins and I swam the entire quarry in such a short time. This was a pivotal moment that this piece of technology gave me such a sense of power that I thought, 'I got to keep swimming.'"
The next day the couple decided to swim off the channels of the Essex River from West Gloucester.
"We are not athletes, and we found that once you go down the rocks, you are into the river where the water is flowing swiftly out toward the sea. It's like entering one of those horrible algebra word problems — if you want to go from Point A to B, how fast must you swim not to get swept out into the Atlantic Ocean?" recalled Hanlon. "But the fins made it possible. We were in a place not accessible to middle-age people without this gear."
That was the start of their year-long baptism of sorts into these life-giving murky waters.
"You see the hawks and great blue herons above, and what you see in the creeks are the minnows, the baby versions of fish that will end up in the oceans — and they aren't shy at all and will nibble on your toes," she said. "I also saw snapping turtles that can break bones."
After those first excursions, they decided as a couple to keep going in these explorations.
"We never would have thought of swimming creeks because of its critters and mud. But at high tide, it's like swimming in this incredible mile-long scenic curving lap pool," she said. "What could be more delightful."
As the temperatures dropped, the couple, now married 44 years, made many trips to the dive shop to get heavier and heavier wetsuits.
"In some ways, it's also a story about technology, in terms of gear, because the human body is not naturally aquatic. We did not evolve that way. We are upright and bipeds, and don’t have those protective layers like animals, so you compensate by getting gear that gives you those traits," Hanlon said.
By late November and early December, their preparation to swim became an elaborate ritual.
"All of you is covered except for a circle for the eyes, nose and mouth," she said. "Once you start doing this crazy thing, you want to keep doing it and we kept wondering when are we going to hit that wall and stop."
The couple learned to swim out and back with the tide.
"Swimming up the creek as it approaches high tide is an amazing thing because you are borne along and then it slows and pauses. At this point, we are sort of hanging there and it doesn’t feel like water anymore. It feels like air almost and you are at the high point of the tide, and looking around and hearing things and seeing things you don’t usually see. The salt marsh grass underwater points one way and then that marsh grass goes still. It's very contemplative. Then after five or more minutes, you are starting to flow back in the other direction," described Hanlon.
One day, Hanlon picked up a hunk of that ubiquitous mud.
"Looking at it, you see it is the container for all this water and is full of so much life," she said.
At this point, her scientific curiosity prompted her to delve into research about what she was experiencing up close, and to connect what she saw on Cape Ann to other watersheds both nearby and as far as the Mississippi Delta, where she traveled to learn about the environmental crisis taking place there.
"We kayaked some of the places we couldn't swim, near Seabrook to see how close we could get to the nuclear power plant and we also kayaked Chelsea Creek, one of the most polluted creeks in Massachusetts because it’s a delivery channel where home heating oil and fuel is stored," she said. "I wanted to see firsthand the environmental injustice of those neighborhoods."
One moment in Chelsea Creek, she looked up to see a 747 coming in to land at Logan Airport, and had an epiphany.
"We came full-circle because I have been there — in an airplane looking down from that window — and I began to understand myself as a member of our species and what we have done and why we have done it and it's kind of terrifying — our drive to create vehicles that we travel in and which convey pleasure to us," she said. "But it's alarming what is happening to our environment. However, we are all in this together. I do not pass judgment but take that judgment on myself as part of the species. We have enormous power to build stuff that piles up for the next generation."
The author described her book as a love letter to a place they love.
"And maybe it's an apology," she said, "to the next generations that are going to have to figure out what to do with it."
What: Book launch for Gloucester's Patricia Hanlon's just released "Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet"
When: Sawyer Free Library, Gloucester, on Wednesday, June 23, at 7 p.m., a virtual event via www.sawyerfreelibrary.org (go to "calendar") and The Book Shop of Beverly Farms, 40 West St., on Thursday, June 24, at 6:30 p.m.
For more information, visit www.patriciahanlon.com.