PINEDALE – Minutes turned into hours as Paige Book kicked and dipped her arms into Fremont Lake’s deep clear water, propelling herself across the lake’s 9-mile-plus length. Book’s goal, Sandy Beach, lay miles away, invisible in the vast expanse of open water.
Exhaustion, aches, pains and anxiety competed for space in Book’s mind. Rather than allow the debilitating thoughts to overwhelm her mind, Book turned her attention to the lake.
Massive granite boulders, billions of years old, surround the lake. Thick pines dating back centuries dotted the slopes. Peaks towered in the distance, shoved skyward by colossal earthquakes 25 to 30 million years ago.
“I got to share time with something ancient,” Book said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how long the lake is going to be there and has been there and how long my life is and how small I am in comparison to the lake.”
The still water plummets more than 600 feet deep in the U-shaped valley formed by retreating glaciers.
“When you’re looking down in crystal clear water, you’re thinking, ‘How far am I seeing right now?’ I contemplated what life could be below.”
Taking in Fremont Lake’s natural wonders eliminated the ticking clock in Book’s head.
“I was not really aware of time because I’ve never swam that far,” she said. “I’ve done triathlons, but definitely nothing as long as Fremont Lake. I didn’t have a clock in my mind, thinking, ‘Oh gosh, when is this going to be over?’ I was just relishing in how beautiful the lake was and enjoying my time out there.”
Book’s friends, Brandon and Joshua, escorted her in kayaks. They shouted out when she reached the halfway point.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow – I’m already halfway done,” Book said. “‘What a bummer! I want this to last longer.’ But then you remind yourself you have plenty of swimming left.”
Brandon and Joshua tracked the passing time down to the second. Seven miles into the swim, Book’s friends realized she was approaching the last stretch timing in well under five hours.
Fremont Lake’s open-water record set by Pinedale’s David Rule in 2016 was within Book’s grasp.
“With about 2 miles left, the people crewing for me were telling me that I had an hour-and-a-half to swim 2 miles to beat the record,” Book said.
Fighting fatigue, Book decided to go for it. She dug deep and sped up her pace.
“I was definitely feeling like I was pushing myself, like I could hold on,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘Wow, I’m amazed I can swim this far.’”
Five hours, 5 minutes and 10 seconds after plunging into the lake on Monday, Aug. 2, Book completed the swim along the length of one of the country’s oldest, and deepest, lakes. She beat Rule’s record by nearly 25 minutes.
“It’s going to take some time for me to soak that in,” Book said. “I felt really proud of myself and was surprised by how fast I could swim.”
A chance encounter
A tired, weather-beaten cyclist stumbled into a Pinedale shop frequented by John Kelly on a late spring day.
“I first met Paige three years ago when she stopped for coffee in the middle of a solo bike ride from Oregon, where she had just finished a college degree in environmental studies,” Kelly recalled.
Kelly and Book realized they shared an affinity for swimming and the outdoors. Kelly talked about his experience swimming Fremont Lake. In 2011, Kelly swam the roughly 9 miles to Sandy Beach in 6 hours, 37 minutes. He braved the cold without a wetsuit.
Kelly inspired other swimmers and was thrilled to share the experience with them. He guided Rule on his record-breaking swim in 2016 and the two swam the length again in 2017.
Kelly saw potential in Book. He invited the cyclist to stay an extra day in Pinedale to visit Sacred Rim.
Book caught her first glimpse of Fremont Lake on the drive to Elkhart Park. The idea to swim the lake crossed her mind more than once.
“Fremont Lake – as soon as you see it, you’re in awe,” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
Book returned to Pinedale last summer and stayed a full week. Between excursions into the Winds Rivers, Book ran into Kelly at the same coffee shop.
“We talked about the lake again,” she said. “It kind of re-sparked the idea in my mind. I asked John, ‘Do you think I could do it?’ and he said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Book returned to Steamboat Springs where she worked as a waitress, determined to tackle Fremont Lake the following summer.
She hit the indoor pool in Steamboat over the winter, racking up thousands of laps. When the weather warmed, Book swam in a reservoir, practicing in a wetsuit and learning how to establish a line of sight in open water.
During the weeks leading up to the big swim, Brook swam laps at least two hours a day, five days a week.
Kelly guided Book through the process, checking in with her monthly.
“In addition to discussions of frequency, duration and intensity, my primary guidance was to follow your joy, listen to your body and approach the swim with respect and reverence,” Kelly said.
Fighting cold feet
Book is no stranger to open water.
“I did swimming for a few years in high school,” she said. “I’m from California, so I spent a lot of my time in the ocean where my mom taught me to swim.”
Book is unfazed by towering whitecaps and sea creatures lurking in the deep. Cold water is another story.
Book visited Kelly and met Rule several months before the swim across Fremont Lake.
“When I was last in Pinedale – it was around May 2 – the lake was still frozen,” Book said. “The most intimidating thing was thinking about the cold.”
Kelly set August as the date for the swim when the lake is a few more degrees above freezing.
Book, Rule and Kelly spent the day before the swim plotting out the course. The lake seemed endless, stretching deep into the Wind Rivers.
“John drove us up (Skyline Drive) and we looked at the lake from a few different viewpoints,” Book said. “It was intimidating. You can’t see the whole lake at once. You look to the right, and you see a portion of the beginning of the lake. You look to your left, and you can barely imagine the beach at the end. I definitely had some nervous thoughts.”
Kelly arranged with Audrey Odermann at Lakeside Lodge to rent a pontoon boat bright and early on Aug. 2. He ferried Book and Rule across Fremont Lake as the sun rose above the eastern ridge.
Book and Rule waded into the lake and dove in. Pinedale’s notoriously moody weather cooperated and the water was smooth and clear – almost welcoming.
“I never got too cold, which I’m surprised to say,” Book recalled. “My friends had a blanket waiting for me on the beach, but I didn’t need it. I wore a full body wetsuit and I was full of adrenaline, so I think that was a factor.”
Kelly kept watch from the pontoon boat with Shalesa Harber and her children Elliette, Agnes and Baines. Weather reports predicted storms. Instead, they subsided to history.
“We were very lucky,” Kelly said. “The weather was amazing.”
The swim passed by more quickly than Book expected. Boulders came into view, marking the approach to Sandy Beach. Ecstatic, cheering friends and family emerged on the shore.
“John’s definitely been the anchor for me in this experience,” Book said. “My mom showing up to watch and my dad coming the day before was just epic. My friends and my boyfriend Gib were so supportive and believed in me.”
Kelly said Book hit the water like a pro.
“During the swim, Paige’s long preparation was apparent,” he said. “Her stroke was precise and relaxed, and her endurance was very well-developed.”
For Kelly, helping another young person achieve a remarkable feat was reward enough.
“It was my dream to crew for Paige and David,” he said. “It was the best day in my life.”