Lake Superior Aquaman Interview on DNT’s Pressroom Podcast

In which I field a bunch of excellent questions.

I have taken the liberty of transcribing this, below the fold.

Any errors are mine. I have omitted the last five minutes which is the “What we’re into this week” segment, but this is the meat of the interview here:

Brady Slater: Welcome listeners, I’m Brady Slater.

Christa Lawler: And I’m Christa Lawler.

Brady: We’re reporters for the Duluth News-Tribune.

Christa: And this is our weekly Pressroom Podcast.

Brady: Thanks for tuning in to the most Duluth-centric podcast on the internet.

Christa: Every week we talk to people about all things Duluth, and this week we have with us a sort of superhero of the unsalted sea. I actually hate the phrase “unsalted sea,” it really killed me to write that, but I did! I…did. The Lake Superior Aquaman – welcome, Jim Richardson. How are you?

Jim Richardson: I’m well thanks.

Christa: Thanks for coming!

Jim: Thanks for having me.

Christa: And we should tell people that he is wearing his signature orange scaly shirt.

Brady: Yes.

Jim: Yes, this is – it’s not a full Aquaman costume, but it stands for Aquaman in the comic books, who is the – probably the least cool superhero. Which is, in part, why I decided to model myself after him.

Christa: We’d like to open with an icebreaker, and um, every superhero has an origin story. What’s yours?

Jim: Well, I guess the origin of Lake Superior Aquaman would be that I moved to Duluth from Santa Cruz California, where I had really wanted to be a beach bum. And by marrying a Duluth native out there, she imported me here. And what I found was, Duluth was actually a decent stand-in for Santa Cruz, and other wooded hillside cities overlooking large bodies of water, like Burlington Vermont, or Berkeley California. And I guess I really just like that kind of locale, so I took to it here. The weather never bothered me. And, but immediately, I started swimming avidly in the summertime. And with the advent of cheap underwater cameras, I began this hobby of just documenting everything that happens to me in and around the water. And at a certain point I started dressing like Aquaman. Kinda just as a joke, also to take focus off of me personally – I’m not trying to show off my beach body or whatever. I kinda just want to make it fun. So, that’s my origin story. And so, in seasons besides the summer, I will get video around the lake, if not in the lake, but also up the rivers; I’ll take hikes into the woods – anything natural, or scenic, or interesting – I can put it on video and share it that way. Part of it is, I’m just really committed to the area and the natural beauty of it, and I want to share it. I don’t think the world really knows what’s going on up here, in the Northland. I know I didn’t. I’ve had experience on both coasts of the country, so the Midwest was always flyover territory for me. But having come here now, I realize it’s actually spectacular. And uh, I know you’re not supposed to share what’s great about Duluth with the outside world, because then they might come here – but what can I say? It’s my bag.

Brady: What are you looking for underwater? Are you looking for known commodities, or are you exploring and sharing new things?

Jim: I’ll do both. I’ll develop little projects where I’ll want to try to get x, y, or z – this or that shot. But also I have the camera on every time I’m in the water just swimming recreationally, and that’s because sometimes interesting things happen, or it’s just, you know, it’s beautiful down there – the play of light in water is lovely. And so, as a for instance, this was supposed to be the summer of shipwrecks, where I had these grand plans to go to the Apostle Islands – there’s a couple of shallow shipwrecks there. By shallow I mean 30 feet of water or less, which is about my limit for diving. And I just never got around to doing that, and instead, I found I was finding a lot of fish here in Duluth. And so it became the summer of fish. And mergansers. I got some great shots of diving waterfowl that I’m really proud of. And so that kind of takes away from the pain of failing in my shipwreck project, is that I got this great natural footage. And that’s kinda just how I do it. I’m shooting from the hip.

Brady: They’re still going to be there.

Jim: The shipwrecks?

Brady: Yeah.

Jim: Yes. Yes.

Brady: They’re not going anywhere.

Jim: Next year.

Brady: Yeah.

Christa: And you are diving without scuba equipment.

Jim: Correct. I’m a freedivier, meaning I eschew scuba equipment. I don’t even use a snorkel. I would like to start using a weight belt – that way you’re not fighting the buoyancy of your wetsuit and kind of wasting oxygen that way. So I’m always refining my technique. I’ve never actually been trained in freediving, which is a specific athletic skill, and sport. But as a recreational swimmer who wants to maximize my time under the water, I have seen a bunch of videos and kind of picked up tips and pointers for how to hold your breath longer, and things of that nature.

Brady: Are the freedivers the ones that follow the rope as far down as they can go?

Jim: That is one aspect of that, yeah.

Brady: Okay.

Jim: And so in competitive freediving, you have people holding their breath for up to eight or ten minutes at a time, and diving hundreds of feet –

Brady: Right –

Jim: – and I don’t do that at all. I can manage about one minute underwater. Although I have held my breath for four minutes – that’s sitting on a couch doing nothing, just trying to hold my breath. But once you’re underwater, doing stuff, you’re burning oxygen, and a minute is about my limit. And 30 feet is about as deep as I can go.

Christa: You have a video of – someone had actually called on your services, which I thought was kind of funny, in tying in with the superhero theme – to find some missing glasses and goggles in – was it Lester?

Jim: Yeah – yup.

Christa: And you were under there, and then you got to that underwater, like, divot –

Jim: Yes.

Christa: And you were down so long, and when you came to that divot and you went down, I went “Oh no – oh no -”

Jim: That’s so great, I’m glad you picked out that sort of detail, because that camerawork is not my best, but I’m glad that came through. Because that is a feature of the waterfall there, is that you think you’re on the bottom, but you’re really just on a ledge on the way to the bottom. And yeah, it’s scary.

Christa: I was gasping for air, for you.

Jim: I’ve heard that – that people will hold their breath while watching my videos.

Christa: I was doing that, yeah.

Brady: You brought your camera.

Jim: Yeah.

Brady: You swim with, while holding that the whole time?

Jim: Yes, I do. This is a GoPro on a stick. In the popular nomenclature it’s called a selfie-stick, but I like to call it a camera pole – it’s not always pointed at myself. It’s great for sticking into holes and things like that just to see what’s in there. It’s good for getting unusual camera angles and things. I would like to mention that this is probably the cheapest GoPro, and the kind of worst one you could possibly get, so my technology is not great. But my enthusiasm kind of makes up for it, you know? Like this is a several-years-old camera, it was the sort of cheapest of the line when it came out, and I got it. I should have spent an extra hundred bucks on the more deluxe edition, I think it would have served me a little better in terms of image quality. But my philosophy has always been, you know, the product has to exist, period. And you can get fussy about the technical aspects, but that may prevent you from actually doing the project. You know, if I had waited for that extra hundred bucks and the better camera, I might not have started that summer. Know what I mean?

Brady: Maybe like, a person who takes a Toyota to a million miles, you’ll get a free one from the company. You should just write them and tell them, “I’m using the cheapest camera and getting the best mileage out of it.”

Jim: I certainly am, yeah. And that’s not a bad idea whatsoever.

Christa: What have you seen? What are some of your – when you’re kind of giving people your elevator pitch, what are your – what do you –

Jim: In terms of what I’ve seen, sometimes I draw a blank, because, um, there’s not a lot down there if you were to compare the bottom of Lake Superior with coral reefs, or anything in the oceans – there’s not a ton of colored fish, or plant life. But you do see stuff. And some of the best stuff I’ve seen was just recently – with this sort of summer of fish I’ve had – but I found myself swimming alongside a three-foot muskie a few days ago.

Christa: Oh no.

Jim: And it was a wonderful, spiritual experience. Just a very long moment where I had just taken a deep breath. I had just slipped under the water. It was a place where the water becomes very deep very quickly, and so this fish was undoubtedly finding itself like right next to the shoreline kind of all of a sudden, and there I was with the camera. And we swam together side-by-side for, it must have been a minute. And this thing was regarding me balefully, you know? It’s got a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth. It’s said that they will bite like anything shiny, so I was worried about it; at one point it sort of turned towards me, very slowly, but I think it was just getting a better look. Anyway, that was probably the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in the water. And kind of true to form, I blew the shot. Which is to say, the camera was not pointed directly centered on the fish. And so, I was able to grab an image, but it basically was a ruined video moment, that has to remain kind of like a private thing. Which has some kind of spiritual point to it, I think. One immediate effect it had was, it discouraged me for the next couple weeks from getting in the water at all. You know, the fact that I screwed up the video totally sent me into a minor depression, because it was such an amazing fish.

Brady: But it sounds like you got the moment. For yourself.

Jim: I did, and I was able to grab an image of it, just to prove, you know, “Hey look, this is a giant muskie.” And it was right there, it really was. So that’s something. That’s just life. But what else have I seen…? You see weird pieces of junk. You see fishing lures. And really the other amazing thing I’ve seen was, these mergansers, these diving birds. Where I wasn’t in the water with them, but I knew where they were feeding, and I knew that I could set my camera down there. And I had timed it just right. They swam right in front of the camera. I was 50 feet away, watching, peeking over a rock, like getting very excited – I knew they were swimming right in front of it. So that was very gratifying. So I think the best stuff is the nature stuff. Just the beauty of it, the animal life.

Christa: Do you do this anyplace outside of Lake Superior?

Jim: I haven’t done it in the ocean; I do have a bit of a shark phobia. This would have prevented me from being Aquaman in Santa Cruz. Because Santa Cruz is right on a great white, like, feeding line, like it’s a drive-through restaurant for great white sharks. So I don’t know how people do it, I couldn’t. So the answer is sort of no, but I also will do the rivers; I’ve been to the French River, and Lester. I’ve been in Chester creek. The whole region. Anywhere there’s water, I can stick this camera in.

Christa: Are you always seeking out new adventures, or are you sometimes like going “home,” is there a certain home base for you in the water?

Jim: My favorite place to dive and film around here is the rock beach known as the Ledges, which if you go to the Perkins on London Road, and cut down to the lake, you’ll find a – it’s basically a flat expanse of rock that goes down into the water. And it’s got to be one of the best beaches in the world. And I’ve done so much filming there I call it “the lab” in my mind, because I’ve worked out so many things there.

Christa: Did you just do underwater dog footage there?

Jim: Right. That turned out really well. Not all the underwater dogs have worked out well. But you know, that’s part of it. So many conditions have to line up just right for really great video in the lake. It can be very cloudy some days, or too cold other days. Everything can seem just right, but then, you know, as a for instance: I was in Washburn this past few days camping. There’s a great camp spot there right on the water, where everything was perfect. It was so beautiful, it was sunny, these were on the last swimmable days of the summer. The water was clear and warm. But my camera battery was dead. And it was so disappointing. I watched a family of mergansers swim right in front of me without a care, it would have been a beautiful shot, but you kind of just have to eat that sort of thing.

Christa: Pics or it didn’t happen.

Jim: That’s right, exactly.

Brady: You have a lighter side. Aren’t you the one who introduced us to the Lake Superior crocodiles?

Jim: Oh. Yes. Yeah – that was a, I guess you could call it a hoax, or a practical joke, at Mayor Larson’s expense. You know, the joke for a while was that Mayor Ness had kept the lake free of sharks, and so when Mayor Larson came in, I thought, “Well what about this crocodile problem.” So there’s that. I’ve also, with my – I have a writing partner in my other hobbies including writing and cartooning for the Transistor, which is a local street sheet – but with my brother and writing partner Allen Richardson, we ran a puppet for Mayor a few years ago. And we had a photo shoot done in this very room, I suddenly remembered I was here a few years ago. So there’s that. That puppet has also run for City Council.

Christa: And just pops up randomly.

Jim: Yes. Every now and then he’ll have something to say. But like I say, you can only be so serious and dress as Aquaman, who, in the movies, they are going to try and make him like a cool, barbarian, warrior king kinda. But in the comic books, classically, he’s the least cool superhero.

Brady: Why do you think that is?

Jim: I don’t know, he just can’t get any respect. Part of it is, water powers are goofy – they’re kind of the ghetto of superhero powers. Like, he can talk to fish – he’ll never live that down. And so, the joke with me is, that I’m like Aquaman’s less cool cousin, who’s not even king of the ocean, but king of Lake Superior, around the Duluth area. You know, just very diminutive.

Brady: For some reason, sky and terrestrial powers trump the aqua-powers.

Jim: Yes.

Brady: Even though there’s probably more land under water.

Jim. Yeah – right. And they’re always trying to rehabilitate the water characters, but they’re limited to the water, in general.

Christa: You – are there a lot of people doing this?

Jim: No, I don’t think there are. In fact, that’s one thing that sparked my interest in engaging in this years-long project, was that I wanted to know what it was like under the water here, and I was searching YouTube looking for – like, I know there’s scuba clubs around and I wanted to see what they had. And no one had anything. No one had anything. And so I feel like I’m filling a vacuum. And as the years go by, I’m pointing the camera away from myself more and more. I think initially part of it was just a gag, like “look at what I’m doing,” but also, “look how much fun you can have here.” But after a while it became more like, “I don’t want to miss any fish.” Because sometimes a fish will swim by, and if you have to adjust your camera real quick, you’ve missed the shot. And so it’s becoming more about the fish… yeah.

Christa: What’s your feedback like? I mean when people see you on the street and know you from your videos?

Jim: Well, I should say at the outset I believe I have some detractors. Not everybody thinks I’m cool, not everybody gets the joke. Some people are sick of it; there are days when – well first of all, when I make a video I immediately put it on, and in the summer I’m producing a lot more because I’m in the water more. And there are days when my material dominates that blog, and you’ll see four or five things from me on the front page. And privately I want to, at least once, have every post be mine on the front page.

Christa: “The gauntlet,” I think.

Brady: Oh, is that what that would be called?

Christa: Mm-hm. Sure.

Jim: I would love to run the gauntlet. So, you know, people will start groaning a little bit if they’re not into it. But, I also get shout-outs on the street, “Hey, Aquaman!” and things like that. I’m recognized by people who I’ve never met, and that’s gratifying, and they’ll give me positive feedback, yeah.

Christa: You have at least one video that has over 100,000 views.

Jim: Yeah, a video of Lake Superior in December, where it’s basically covered in crushed ice, and it looks very surreal. That video’s taken off, it just surpassed 100,000 views. So, not viral, but I think of it in terms of the population of Duluth, which is about 90,000, in which case it’s sort of like everyone in town has seen it. So I can imagine that, anyway.

Christa: What’s your personal favorite video?

Jim: I’m proudest I think of the one where I dive to the bottom of the buoy in the outer harbor. Which was, I guess you could call it a stunt. But it was also my first time at that depth. And again, 30 feet is not that deep. You know, you talk to a scuba diver, they’ll scoff at you; a freediver will scoff at you. But for me it was my first time going to 30 feet. I knew that was the depth there and so it was a personal challenge. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but the video exists, so therefore, I did it. But it was a lot of fun, super fun day.

Brady: Have you ever been in peril?

Jim: Not really. I’ve done some dumb things, that maybe I shouldn’t have, just for the sake of trying to get good video. I think the dumbest thing, or the most peril I’ve been in, was leaping off the tallest spot at the Deeps, which is kind of the popular swimming hole around here. Periodically it will take someone’s life. People have missed that jump and cracked their pelvis before. And that’s what almost happened to me. There’s a little ledge at the bottom that you can’t see from the top. And so I was like, “This is going to make a great shot!” And I just went off the top, and I missed that ledge by a hair’s width. It can only be described as a hair’s width. And again, it’s on video, it’s right there, so – and the way I turn that into a positive is by keeping the video online and saying, “Look, I was really stupid – here’s the evidence. Don’t do this yourself.” And I have talked with a woman recently about doing a video talking about the dangers of the Deeps in general. It’s not a sanctioned swimming hole, and so I think there’s a general lack of warning signs around there. And every now and then, like this young man who just lost his life this summer, people are tempted to jump in when it’s really running, when after a big rain. But what happens is you get an undertow basically at the bottom – the Deeps is a very deep hole basically. It’s probably not 20 feet deep but just shy of it. And if you get churning water in there, you can get a suction pull at the bottom that can hold you down, basically.

Brady: Lake Superior Aquaman seems perfect for a public service announcement.

Christa: That does kind of seem great. You were born for this.

Jim: I will try to do that. Every now and then, I am invited to do something for charity; I haven’t really found the right thing. But I would like to sort of break into that. There is one stunt I’d like to do that maybe could raise money somehow, but I’d love to dive in the fish feeding tank at the Great Lakes Aquarium. You see scuba divers down there feeding fish. There’s no certification for what I do, so I don’t know that that could ever be legally allowed, I’d have to sign my life away to do it. But it’d be fun, it could generate some publicity, you know. So that kind of thing I think about.

Christa: All right non-profits, if you’re listening.

Jim: That’s right – “I’m available…”

Brady: You could probably get in the same tank as the water-skiing squirrels, when that shows up.

Jim: Yeah, maybe.

Brady: That’s not as cool.

Jim: No. It’s a good tip though.


Barrett Chase

about 7 years ago

To listen to the Lake Superior Aquaman episode of the News Tribune's Pressroom Podcast, click here.

To browse all the episodes of the Pressroom Podcast, click here.

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