Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Cover image courtesy of New Society Publishers

Book Review: The Big Swim

Inspired by a concern for the planet, an author takes a series of journeys, facing her own fears and searching for solutions.

Authored by

by Diana Hayes

Article body copy

When you meet Carrie Saxifrage in the first and title chapter of this compelling book of journeys, it’s clear you are contending with a fierce woman—fierce in her passions; in her connection with the Earth’s majesty, mysteries, and creatures; and in her commitment to save the world from the destructions of climate change. Once a nurse and then an environmental lawyer in the United States, Saxifrage now works as a journalist and homesteads on Cortes Island, British Columbia, where she adopted a low-carbon lifestyle that does not include airline travel. Saxifrage clearly “walks her talk.” To her, “inaction is a choice that results in widespread suffering.” To cope with climate change, though, she has chosen a “combination of determination, inspiration and joie de vivre.”

Saxifrage’s literal big swim was indeed a huge physical feat: a wetsuit-free eight-kilometer crossing between Cortes and Quadra Islands, during which a swim cap, neoprene leggings (worn on her arms where she feels the cold the most), and lanolin-coated skin were her only protection. With her husband Barry in a boat at her side, she completed the swim in three hours and forty minutes. When she landed on the shores of Quadra, a friend’s mother declared, “You looked just like an ocean baby being born.” Indeed, Saxifrage belongs in the sea as much as in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State or Mount Albert Edward on Vancouver Island.

Saxifrage brings the reader on each of the twelve journeys in The Big Swim with intimacy, charm, knowledge, and a sprinkle of humor. We follow her as she searches for pikas in alpine meadows (the same meadows from which she chose her surname, Saxifrage, after the tiny white flowers that burst from stone crevices); as she covers the Northern Gateway Pipeline story and its threat to salmon and oolichan, traditional staples of coastal First Nations; and as she completes an epic trip through the Grand Canyon where she convinces her guides to let her do a training swim in the rapids. While on a retreat to learn mindfulness, despite her late father’s admonishment to avoid what he considered to be “naval gazing,” she has an epiphany: all of her myriad journeys, both geographical and internal, connect. “A bigger container was the common theme to my most precious adventures … large enough to hold my woes and still retain the sweetness of being alive.”

The Big Swim captured my heart and brought me along on each of Saxifrage’s journeys with intense and savored delight.

The Big Swim: Coming Ashore in a World Adrift
By Carrie Saxifrage
192 pp. New Society Publishers