The Loonies of Clearwater Lake

6 mins read
The Loonies make their way across Clearwater Lake.

INDUSTRY – Twenty years ago, two friends started swimming across Clearwater Lake together. Since then, the group has grown into a circle of friends who push each other to be better swimmers and people.

Bill Marceau, the owner of Foothills Management, and Gerry Tinguely, a doctor, now retired, started the Clearwater polar bear dip together. When they couldn’t swim on Clearwater for weather reasons, the pair would go swimming at the UMF fitness center, where they met other strong swimmers. They spread the word and invited people to join them until the group became what it is today.

Mike Sinkinson was one of the people recruited at the pool, about twelve years ago. Mike lives in Pennsylvania but spends summers at his camp on Clearwater Lake. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he heads to the west shore of the lake and joins the rest of the group to swim across the lake.

“We call ourselves the Loonies,” Mike said. “We each have a team t-shirt and a team name. I’m Loony Mike.”

The group is made up of about nine regular members and a few irregular ones, their ages ranging from about forty-five to seventy-four. They have had some guests join them in the past, including friends and grandkids. These days, due to the pandemic, they are being more cautious in light of the age and health concerns of many members.

The ice goes out in late April, early May on Clearwater most years. The Loonies start swimming soon after. They begin as early as they can stand the water, usually in May or early June. Lots of the swimmers live locally, but some only spend the summers on Clearwater. They swim throughout the summer and don’t stop until September or October, when some members return to their winter homes. Sometimes they even wear wetsuits to fend off the cold and extend the season.

The Loonies swim early in the morning for two reasons: to avoid the danger of boat traffic and so they can fit in a coffee afterwards. Although many of the group members are retired, there are still some who have to make it to work. Even so, they still find the time to catch up three times a week, after every swim.

The meetings are split in half, forty minutes for the swim and forty minutes for chatting over a mug of coffee in a hot tub. After all, the group is much more than the swimming itself. Their bonds go far beyond it. Even though they only swim during the summer months, the Loonies keep in touch over the winter too.

According to Mike, “It is a social and emotional support group, and a team more than a group, really.”

Safety is important to the Loonies. All of the swimmers wear flotation devices, shown in the photo. They are brightly colored circular floaties that tie to the ankles of the swimmers. They serve the purpose of alerting boats of their presence.

Although the Loonies don’t swim if there are signs of thunder or lightning, they aren’t afraid of a little rain. They have been known to swim no matter what the weather holds. According to Mike, the most commonly encountered obstacle is fog. Everyone in the group wears wrist compasses and they all know which direction home is in, a lesson they learned through experience.

Once or twice a year, the Loonies swim the longer way across the lake for a challenge. This route is double their normal one, at two miles long. These trips are always accompanied by a friend with a boat as an extra safety measure.

These trips show the essence of the Loonies — always pushing each other to be better and stronger. They advise each other on different strokes and swimming techniques, making sure they all take the necessary safety precautions.

For Mike, the reasons behind his participance in the group are mainly social, but a big motivating factor is health. In his opinion, swimming is the best form of exercise. It isn’t too harsh on your body, but it still keeps you in shape. Mike has been swimming his entire life, for social and physical purposes. The Loonies have provided a perfect combination of these motives in his retirement.

There are similar swimming groups at other lakes in Maine. Norway Lake has one of its own. In fact, the Loonies have plans to take the trip over there and swim with them.

Swimming has provided a community for the Loonies for the past twenty years; people to turn to through health issues, major life events, and now, even a pandemic.

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