Busting Through The Border

This July, a record number of distance swimmers will cross the border on Lake Memphremagog. 

Each year, after Vermont’s long, sunny days have melted the last ice crystals from Lake Memphremagog, hundreds of swimmers gather in the Northeast Kingdom for the Kingdom Swim, a festival-style celebration of open water swimming.

This year, on Saturday, July 29, swimmers will dive into the chilly waters of the 25-mile-long lake, which straddles the US-Canada border. While most will opt to complete one of the Kingdom Swim’s shorter supported swims (including one-mile, three-mile, six-mile and 10-mile distances), this year more than 40 will swim 15 miles across the border to Canada.

The Kingdom Swim is one of Vermont’s two storied open water border crossings. The second–the Lake Champlain Open Water Swim–crosses the NY–VT state line. (This year’s race takes place on August 19.) Starting on the Old Dock in Essex, N.Y., swimmers finish 3.76 miles later on the public beach of Charlotte, Vt.

At record pace, the Kingdom Swim’s “Border Buster,” takes eight and a half hours to complete. This kind of distance swimming is no cake walk, says Phil White, director of Kingdom Games.

“Conditions can vary, extremely impacting the challenge of the swim itself. Hypothermia, dehydration and under feeding can lead to sudden loss of function that can become really dangerous, really quickly.”

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This year’s border-busting roster includes a round-up of some of the country’s most accomplished open-water swimmers. At age 62, Paula Yankauskas is the oldest American woman to swim the length of Memphremagog and the oldest American woman to swim the English Channel. Kent Nicholas was among the first swimmers to attempt the SCAR, a 41-mile stage swim through four lakes in Arizona. Charlotte Brynn, a previous Border Buster winner, is executive director of The Swimming Hole in Stowe and the first to complete the two-way crossing of Lake Champlain, a 16.8-mile swim from South Burlington, Vt. to Willsboro Point, N.Y.

These and 37 other Border Busters will depart from the Newport City Dock, swimming a loop that crosses from US into Canada, around Ile Province, and back into the US. They know they’ve crossed the border when they see the “slash,” a gap in the trees that runs for 1,349 miles of forested land on the country line.

Brynn has been swimming the border busters since White first started organizing them, in September of 2011, and swims it every year. After growing up swimming the pristine lakes of New Zealand, she moved to the US and became hooked on swimming the lakes of New England. She’s crossed the Canadian border 12 times.

“It never gets old,” she said. “There is nothing as amazing as seeing that border buoy and the line in the trees. The border crossing is my favorite part. It can be a 25-mile swim or a swim half that distance. Normally someone on the boat will pull out a flag for me–I fly the New Zealand flag, but we’ve also own the Vermont flag when we go across. We make a big deal about it. It’s so fun.”

It all began on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, when White planned a midnight swim with friends, including Brynn. The mission: to reopen the US-Canada border, which had been closed for ten years because of an incident with La Traverse du Lac Memphremagog, an international professional race that started in the 1980s. After 9/11, The Department of Homeland Security prohibited US screen-shot-2017-07-10-at-3-37-40-pmvisa-holding Egyptian Mohammad Hassan, a professional swimmer in the race, from swimming out of the United States and into Canada. Hassan eventually resolved the issue and completed La Traverse, but the following year, officials changed the race to an out-and-back that stayed within the border of Canada.

So, in 2011 White and the five swimmers crossed into Canada with cooperation from Canadian and US officials. Like that, Lake Memphremagog was once again open to cross-border swimming.

Emma Cotton

Emma moved to the Green Mountain State a year ago, but has felt at home here for 20. Find her exploring the mountains when she's not posted up with a good book.