Laura Schob recalls that in 1994, the first year of the Cascade Lakes Swim Series, very few Central Oregon locals competed in open-water swimming.
“Now there are hundreds of us,” says Schob, 60, a longtime Bend resident who races every year in the three-day Cascade Lake series and will compete in the 25th edition of the event this weekend at Elk Lake. “So the sport has really, really grown, just like grass roots.”
Schob, now a seasoned veteran in open-water swimming, remembers being somewhat afraid the first time she tried swimming in Elk Lake, with its surface area of more than 400 acres.
“I’d never done anything like that,” she says. “Just the simplicity of it and the bare bones of it is what I really remember. We started having more and more swims around the state and more and more people started joining in. Now there are lots of us.”
More than 140 swimmers are expected at Elk Lake this Friday through Sunday to compete in races of distances ranging from 500 meters to 5,000 meters.
Bob Bruce is the longtime organizer for the Cascade Lakes Swim Series and coach for Central Oregon Masters Aquatics (COMA). He says the swim series started as a one-day event in 1994. It was not held in 1995, but it has been staged every year since and is circled on the calendar of most of the area’s competitive open-water swimmers.
Bruce, 71, took over as coach of COMA in the late 1990s, and he actively recruited lap swimmers at Bend’s Juniper Swim & Fitness Center to join the club.
“I thought we had a good growth thing going,” Bruce recalls. “I thought that, given a little extra pool space, we could really make swimming thrive here in Central Oregon. In 1998 they covered the old pool at Juniper and that opened up all kinds of water space. We started being able to offer more practices, and Bend started its growth spurt right about then. So we came from a group of 15 or so people in 1996 to 250 now.”
The growth of COMA is reflected in the growth and popularity of the Cascade Lake Swim Series at Elk Lake, located about 35 miles southwest of Bend in the shadows of both South Sister and Mount Bachelor. The lake sits at an elevation of 4,900 feet, adding to the challenge for race participants. In 1994 the event hosted about 45 swimmers, but in recent years as many as 200 have taken to the clear water of Elk Lake.
Bruce took over as race director in 2003 when the event moved to a three-day model. This weekend will include five races over three days, including a 3,000-meter swim on Friday evening, 500- and 1,500-meter swims on Saturday, and 5,000- and 1,000-meter swims on Sunday. Saturday’s 1,500-meter swim will serve as the U.S. Masters Swimming Northwest Zone Championship.
Over the years, the Elk Lake event has hosted four U.S. Masters national championship swims and five Oregon state championship swims.
Most Cascade Lake Swim Series entries are from Oregon, but Bruce says the event also typically attracts swimmers from California, Washington and Idaho. He estimates that about 50 of the participants this weekend are from Central Oregon.
The event has evolved into a series throughout Oregon during the summer. Other venues include Foster Reservoir near Sweet Home, Applegate Lake near Medford, Lake of the Woods near Klamath Falls, the Willamette River in Portland and Eel Lake on the southern Oregon Coast.
Schob competes in most events in the series, but she says Elk Lake is her favorite.
“It’s been a huge piece of my life,” Schob says. “I’m camping up here (at Elk Lake) for a week because I have friends coming up to swim all week.”
Most participants camp with friends and family at Elk Lake or other nearby Cascade lakes for the event.
“It’s a chance to go up to the lake for a whole weekend with your swim pals and swim a bunch of times, get your families involved, and just hang out at one of the most beautiful lakes in the world,” Bruce says. “How many better places in the world are there to have this kind of event?”
While the vibe is mostly positive at the Cascade Lakes Swim Series, the event has felt some growing pains in recent years. Because it is staged at the extremely popular Beach day-use area at Elk Lake, conflicts with recreational visitors to the lake have been on the rise, as parking and beach space are limited.
“For personal and family recreation it would be wise to choose another beach and water space that weekend,” Bruce recommends. “We’ve gotten into situations where a bunch of people show up to Elk Lake on a hot Saturday and we’ve already gotten half the place taken up. If some people go to Sunset day-use (on the north end of Elk Lake) or one of the other lakes, that will be better.”
Bruce calls Elk Lake “the most-loved natural swim site in all of Central Oregon.” Still, operating a popular three-day sporting event from a day-use area in the middle of the Cascades has its challenges.
“There’s no electricity, no running water and pitiful parking,” Bruce says. “I’m amazed that we’ve run this successfully for 25 years.”