Into the Wild with Sarah Guise

Sarah Guise

There’s a new thing in England called the ReWild Swim Club, and we’re obsessed. The premise is simple: Connect with nature by swimming in a pond, creek, lake, or river, and gain a new perspective on our place in the world. 

The program was created by Sarah Guise, an Open Water Swim Coach (more on that later…) who’s working with her husband to “rewild” the UK estate where they live, “which basically means helping the land transition back to nature.” 

ReWild Swim Club visitors can take a guided plunge with Sarah, but if you’re not in the UK, it’s OK—we asked the British swimmer how to stop treading water and start making moves towards the natural world in every part of the globe.

You are an Open Water Coach for Wild Swimming. So… uh… What does that mean?!

Let me start at the beginning. I grew up swimming in lakes. I can’t remember not being able to swim, to be honest, and I’ve been swimming in lakes and rivers my entire life.

Wait, are you an Aquarius?

I am, surprisingly, not! I should be, right? Or at least a Pisces.  
 

When did you realize wild swimming was part of your destiny?

In England, the lake water stays really warm until the end of October. That’s generally when you stop, but one year, I had a difficult time, and I just didn’t stop. I carried on swimming in the colder water, and it was so exciting. It gave me such a sense of bravery and courage. When you get in that cold water, you say, “Come on, you can do it!” I kept telling people about it, and they said, “I want to come!” But I realized I needed more training before I could guide anyone else. So I trained as an Open Water Coach to help others safely navigate the environment, and understand how bodies respond to colder water.

Sarah Guise

Why is wild swimming so exciting to you?

It's the ultimate connection to nature! You’re at the same level as the rest of the wildlife, you know? So you're swimming, and you're watching the little birds right at your eye level, and the kingfisher and the heron, and you're completely immersed in the natural world. I think that that is why it's such a powerful thing to do, because you’re connecting to nature, and you're also controlling your breath because you’re swimming. I think doing it helps you remember that you're part of a bigger ecosystem. I think that instills you with a sense of calm and connection to the planet. And I think also, it's a real shortcut to connecting with other people.

Like, it helps you make “adult friends” more easily?

It really does! Because I think it's quite a vulnerable act to do. You know, you're not wearing very many clothes. You’re in the water. And then you're getting out, and you're changing with people. And you have this really magical moment that’s very unsaid. You’ve shared a really profound experience together, which is a great basis for connection.

I assume you also can’t take your iPhone into the lake with you, which helps.

Exactly! You’re totally disconnected from all that. No screens. No selfies. Just you and nature.

Are the fish and other animals cool with humans in the water?

Sure, and you get some incredible moments. I had a kingfisher quite close to me, and seeing the flashes of blue and orange [feathers] right up close was just amazing… If you’re quiet, a heron will land by you and start fishing right by your side. It’s incredible.

Has anything scary ever happened?

Not exactly, but I recently had an encounter with some swans… 

Uh oh.

Yeah, they’re known for being quite territorial, and they were trying to relocate to a lake where a lot of us swim… I saw them and knew I had to carry on swimming, so they could understand it wasn’t just their lake; we had to share. That was a real moment of, like, “I am not at the top of the food chain here. You are. But we’ve got to figure out space for each other if we can.” And we did!

You are “rewilding” 250 acres of your family’s old estate. What does that mean?

Rewilding is essentially when you let the natural landscape start to regenerate. We don't farm it. We’re working with the British government to plant native trees back where they've been removed. And we will create wetlands, because the area we’re rewilding was originally a floodplain, but drainage ditches were dug everywhere. The wetlands in England, and worldwide, are some of the most endangered habitats on the planet, so we’re aiming to restore them back to our land.

What don’t people understand about Rewilding?

There's this fascinating statistic that we have more golf courses in the UK than we do conservation areas… Some people hear that we’re rewilding a piece of our land, and they say, “But couldn’t you use that land as pasture to make more crops?” And to me, that view of rewilding is misunderstood… If you want to make room for farmland, let’s talk about things like golf courses, not the very small percentage of land that’s being given back to nature!... Also, I think some people hear “rewilding” and they think we just leave it and let anything happen. That’s sort of true, but sort of not true.  Because you need to actively manage the reintroduction of native species. You have to help with tree coverage so different habitats can emerge. There’s an element of management to it for sure. But once you oversee the transition, yes, the goal is that nature is left to do its own thing. 

Sarah Guise

If I want to swim in a lake or river, what do I need to know?

Safety first, obviously. Only swim where you’re welcome, in a lake or [swimming hole] that’s designated for it! And then, ideally, you’re not going to wear lotion on your body or face. You don’t want any chemical components from your body going into the water. Same with your hair—ideally, you don’t have any products in it at all.

What about SPF?

That’s a great question. I would say the more natural, the better. Mineral, if you can get it. And really, just so limited. Also, you need to know if you’re moving from lake to lake…

Like going from one lake into another?

Yeah, that’s possible in a lot of places! But if you do it, you’re ideally rinsing off first, because otherwise, you may be moving different types of plant life from lake to lake.

Like if you’ve got algae on the bottom of your feet or something?

That has caused quite a few problems in lakes where an invasive species comes in, or another habitat, and sometimes the “invading” plant will totally take over. So it’s best to shower or pour water on your body and your feet before you transfer lakes.

How about swimsuits and wetsuits?

People like Patagonia are now making them without microplastics—I often swim with gloves and boots, too, because in colder temperatures, you have to use them—and I find ones made with naturally-occurring rubber… We have to remember that everything we bring into these natural environments, we’re responsible for.

Our motto is “Let good grow wild.” What does that mean to you?

I think for me, that is why I swim, and why I really feel compelled to take other people swimming. Because I do believe that once you have that connection with water, and with nature, and with a wild experience, it's then very difficult to forget it. And then I think that connection carries you forward. And I think if you come up close with nature like that, I think it gives you a profound sense of wonder and understanding… I can’t not do it.