A couple weeks ago I finished my PADI Open Water, and Dry Suit certification. I found diving to be a new passion for me and the people I have meet who are involved with the local diving community are as interesting as they are great to be around. I wrote this just after we got back from Waterton.
The weight of the tank and BCD is bearable but I wouldn't want to shoulder it for long, especially since I am wearing the equivalent of waterproof chuck-Taylor (canvas shoes) and walking through 8” inches of spring snow. Continuing to weave my way through the bare poplar trees that line the beach, my focus to maintain balance is the only thing that temporarily relieves my anxiety. I have to be honest, I am nervous as hell and why wouldn’t I be? I am walking towards the edge of Cameron Bay on the North end of Waterton Lakes National Park, dressed from head to toe in cold-water SCUBA gear and it is the 18th of April.
According to my guide and open water instructor Ken Pon, our excursion may be rare for this time of the year but not unheard of. In fact Ken was part of an ice diver training course only a few weeks ago on Lake Minnewanka where he and a few other instructors taught the finer points of rescue and dealing with conditions under an enormous 20 inch thick sheet of lake ice. This fact, and the idea that today’s open water and spring conditions could give us an excellent dive still challenges my minds foundation of reality that it is still winter. For Ken, an extremely experienced diver and major pillar of the land locked Alberta SCUBA instruction community; it just means we won’t have to cut a hole.
This is cold water diving and if you live in Alberta and really want to get some time in the water you know that this is a part of life. The diving season here is at best one third as long as anywhere in the world where you might find comfort in a simple wet suit, so unless you’re into rocketing all over the globe to get your log-book filled, you will find ways to dive in the cold. In my case today I am wearing a rubberized laminated dry suit, thermal underwear and heavy neoprene protection for my hands and head. Comfort is extremely important when diving here so we base out of an enclosed cook shack complete with wood fireplace and tables. Sheltered from the wind, the fire is going and we take our time preparing for our dives both technically and mentally, adding a little light-hearted humour in exchange for anxious anticipation.
Ken Brennan very relaxed at 40 feet in the 34 degree water.
After my dives Ken tells me that most students don’t remember much about being under. The focus on skills and overwhelming new environment reduces ones perception to the task at hand and staying within reach of something to cling to. As new as this world was for me it is not the first stressful training series I have gone through and I forced myself to look around, to experience a few moments in the purest certainty with 25’ feet of water overhead.
I have often heard about the “flying” sensation or how close the experience is to what astronauts get on a space walk and I get that. But what really set my mind on fire was the beauty of the spaces, colors and textures as I moved effortlessly (albeit clumsily) through this mostly undisturbed liquid environment. To my right, a 70 degree corrugated wall of fine red and white gravel punctuated by fist sized stones that look like they could tip and glide to the bottom at any moment. On my Left is a deep water column of graduated color with translucent blue at the top and every color of green as it descends into a black void below. Ancient trees seem to materialise ahead of us, bearing fine silt and algae like felt covered bones of some long dead giant creature whose territory we now lurk. My senses are heightened, colors are brighter, the smallest details scream for my attention; I am filled with a mix of wonder and appreciation that I am not in my natural environment.
Then what seemed like hours but really only minutes, the dive ends and we begin our standard safety stop and ascent to the surface. Gravity welcomes us back to our world as we walk out and exchange handshakes and hi-fives, talking excitedly on our way back to the shelter about the clarity of the water and how much I bumped into things (I felt like a pro but the video footage shows otherwise). A quick warm up while doffing and packing our gear, jump in the truck in no time and we are on the road back to Calgary. Stories and laughter make the trip short, friends and future dive partners are made and my head is still reeling from one of the coolest things I have ever done. It’s official, I am a diver now and the best part is that I am happy being a cold-water diver. Supportive Dive Shops, knowledgeable and confident instruction, and an emphasis on a good experience have given me a foundation to enjoy diving for years to come.