Swimmer Sylvia Ryerson (r.), and her support kayaker Maddie Welsch celebrate the end of 6K. Ryerson was one of five swimmers at this distance. She finished in 2:29:50. Only two of the 49 entered in this year’s event scratched. (KCAW photo/Sarah Gibson)

Last weekend (8-13-17) Sitka hosted the ninth annual Change Your Latitude — the northernmost open-water swim event in the US. Over half of the 49 swimmers flew in from around the country and the world to compete alongside some of Sitka’s hardiest locals.

KCAW’s Sarah Gibson followed the race, and sent this audio postcard.

Downloadable audio.

See the official 2017 Change Your Latitude results here.

Swimmers on Sage Beach are pulling on black wetsuits and colorful caps. They’re about to swim different distances in Sitka Sound – 1, 3, 6, or 10 kilometers. But for all of them, the hardest part about this race might be the very beginning:

“It’s really, really, really cold – for the beginning part of it, it hurts a lot.”

That’s Porter Bastian.The cold he’s talking about is from snow melt that flows down Indian River into this very section of the sound. It’s about 55 degrees. Porter’s strategy?

“I’m probably just going to stick my face in the water and sprint, so that I can get used to the cold and my face will get numb.”

Porter is 10, which makes him the youngest swimmer this morning. Porter is from Sitka so he knows what to expect: not just temperatures but also the marine life. At last year’s race,

“The main thing I saw was a salmon – I think it was a salmon – and we saw a sea lion swimming under me. That was pretty cool.”

Ryerson heads for the finish line just off Sage Beach near the Sitka Sound Science Center. Over half of this year’s swimmers came from outside of Sitka. (KCAW photo/Sarah Gibson)

Sea lions, salmon, starfish, crabs – the swimmers can see it all, especially if they’re in for many hours. If you do one of the longer races, you’re required to have a kayaker accompany you for safety.

One of those kayaker/swimmer pairs for the 3 K race is Kristina Miller and Lisa Andrews. At 9:30 am, they drag their kayak in:

“Out you go nice and slow!” Miller says, as the kayak scrapes along the beach gravel.

Andrews, the swimmer, is from Australia. She’s not happy about this cold:

“It is freezing!” she says.

Miller tells her to keep adjusting and climbs into the kayak.

“Oh yah, this is happening. You ready for this? Go swimmer go!”

The swimmers and kayakers line up at an orange buoy. At 9:45, the race organizer Kevin Knox gets onto the loudspeaker.

“3 K swimmers. Arms up! Big cheer! Take your mark!” he shouts, and then a blast of an airhorn starts the race.

And they’re off. Over the next few hours, swimmers return from the water to cheering families and hot coffee. By 11:40, there are just three swimmers left in the water. Julien Naylor, a volunteer doctor, stands on the shoreline with her binoculars. She’s keeping tabs on the last few competitors.

“And where’s our other swimmer? There they are.”

She spots the swimmer, the kayaker, and then something else.

“There’s a Sea lion right next to that swimmer. See? You see him? Huge big old fat sea lion. The swimmer’s keeping going. Usually they’re just curious and they pop their heads up to see what on earth is going on.”

A Change Your Latitude race would not be complete without the company of sea lions. It eventually retreats. And soon, one of the last swimmers comes out of the water. It’s Ranie Pearce. She’s been in for nearly 4 hours for the 10 K. And she’s not wearing a wetsuit.

“Oh my god. It’s like a millpond,” she says, laughing.

That’s right – Pearce says it’s as warm as a millpond. I ask her how she feels.

“Oh, like heaven. It’s the best swim I’ve had in a long time.”

Pearce has a lot to compare this to. She’s travels the world – without a wetsuit – for races in colder waters –

“China, Russia, Siberia, Patagonia…”

Alaska is her 49th state to swim in. And when I ask her why the obsession, she says:

“I’m a over 50, overweight housewife and I have gotten to travel around the world because of swimming. How cool is that?”

The rest of the swimmers think it’s pretty cool too. At the awards ceremony, Pearce gets a big cheer.

And Porter, that youngest swimmer, also gets a round of applause. Porter swam 1K in less 11 minutes and 32 seconds, and he says he’ll be back next year.