“Water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious.” – Carl Jung
How did I start dressing like Aquaman to chronicle my adventures in and around Lake Superior?
This is about my psychological relationship with water. I have always had a thing for it. Somewhere along the way I confused water with my own mind. I project myself into the water both literally and figuratively.
The spawn of educators, I grew up on a high-school campus with a recreational swimming pool, a stream, and a frog pond. Along with siblings and friends I learned to swim early in that pool, if not particularly well, but I grew comfortable in the water. Childhood games included throwing toys in the deep end – maybe 7 feet deep – and diving for them. I fell in love with that stream, which had a small clay deposit from which we made little cups and bowls. I have loved all streams since then, and seek out their hidden spaces. The wildlife of the stream and the pond sparked a fascination with water creatures. Around fourth grade, us kids started trying to swim the length of the pool in one breath, not a long distance – 50 feet? – but we had to work up to it, and I did it first. My lifelong dreams of deep water began around this time.
Those were the stirrings of who I am today, exploring the Duluth/Lake Superior region with a waterproof camera — and an alter-ego.
Breathing Underwater Dreams
I remember the first one clear as day. This was fourth grade. I dreamed I was submerged in a deep but well-lit span of ocean, and my breath hold had reached its limit. As I took in lungs-full of water, I found I breathed it comfortably, a second nature. Any anxiety about drowning vanished, replaced by an exhilarating liberation. Like a flying dream, but floating in a quiet world of diffuse light. My mother has always spoken of her wonderful flying dreams but I rarely have them, with me it’s breathing underwater dreams. I can soar and swoop there by swimming.
Many must have these dreams. I think they are memories from the womb, and maybe flying dreams are too. It’s the breathing of the water in my dreams which is so much like the breathing of amniotic fluid. It imbues these recurring dreams with a “deep” and primordial power. I awake feeling charged with import, ruminating on their meanings and symbology. The surface of water is the dividing line between conscious and unconscious. This interpretation has always been fruitful for me.
I grew up on the East Coast with regular family vacations to the Outer Banks (Nags Head), and even a couple beach vacations to Florida. I never swam very far out in the ocean, nor did I develop any interest in surfing or fishing. Dad took me deep sea bluefish fishing a couple times. But my consistent focus when at the ocean is to hurl myself into breaking waves and get tumbled about, and that remains true to this day. That is the most fun I ever had and so I’ve never wanted to go very far beyond the surf.
From the beach in Nags Head you often see dolphins swimming way out there, sometimes lines of them going up and down the coast, families with babies, it’s magnificent.
I remember a beach in Florida (third grade?) littered with shark teeth in great abundance. That did not stop me from playing in the surf. Only years later did I realize the local shark population must have been positively thriving.
“Jaws” which I saw on TV in the 70s as a grade schooler, scared the crap out of me and I have never fully recovered. The idea of being attacked by a predator from underneath, or from out of the gloom, is something I find so terrifying that it ruined the ocean for me. Even knowing the odds, I have zero interest in tempting them. One shark bite and I would panic and drown. I don’t know if it’s a full-blown phobia, and I understand that I could move past it if I had the interest. But I mainly manage it by just playing in the surf. I start getting skittish in just a few feet of water, scanning the surface for the slightest movement.
Once when I was around 30, I was in the Outer Banks for a couple days, and took morning swims where I waded out farther to build up my boldness. All that was dashed as two good-sized dolphins broke the water not 50 feet away and scared the hell out of me. Later I learned that swimming in the morning is more likely to coincide with when sharks are hunting. There had even been a fishing boat trawling along the horizon, and I had thought, “Maybe sharks are following them for scraps, but I know the odds of an attack are still slim,” so I was being all brave. But maybe there had been sharks in the water all along, and the dolphins headed off a shark attack. I’ll never know. But it was very startling and a good reminder that, where the water begins, there the wilderness begins also.
Where the ocean is expansive and global, streams are intimate. It’s easy for me to see how the ancient Greeks believed streams had their own semi-divine personifications, nymphs and other such characterizations. Streams are personal and I have loved them as if they were people, with their individual quirks and secrets. A stream ran by my high school outside of Austin, Texas and my rock-hopping skills blossomed there. Another stream running through that city’s college neighborhoods offered me profound kindnesses as well. A large tree by one of its pools had festooned itself with woody vines that hung high over the water; discovering they could support my weight, I spent many afternoons reading and writing in that natural hammock. From there I kept watch over the resident snapping turtle. When I lived in Burlington, Vermont after college, a stream that fed Lake Champlain ran under a railroad trestle and gave me much quiet solace. Sunbeams stabbed through the trestle spaces and lit up the water in little blocks like holograms. A stream in Santa Cruz, California, where I became a father, had such mystery and personality that I imagined she was my mossy lover. Moving to Duluth from there, I was introduced in turn to the fraternal twins, Tischer Creek and Chester Creek. Streams running through cities erode veneers of civilization to something more relatable. Streams point to larger, uncontrollable bodies of water, over which that veneer is a very thin film.
At a certain point sharks began appearing in my dreams. I interpret these as stress dreams. Sharks represent the sum of my fears. The first shark dream I remember occurred in early high school. I was on a bridge high over a body of water, and even as I spied a shark, I was down in the water with it. I don’t recall ever being attacked in a shark dream, but the threat of it is dire. That’s what the dreams have me face. My subconscious mind seems to be representing itself as deep water, which contains irrational fears. When I’m having a breathing underwater dream, or a shark dream, I feel in touch with primal forces. Either a womb-like security, or fear threatening to devour me. When I was in my early twenties I had just moved to a new city and my relationship was falling apart, and I had a shark dream where I was swimming at the surface of water that I suddenly realized was teeming with sharks. That is the typical form of my shark dreams.
Then whales migrated into my dreams, also during that failing relationship. My sex life had fallen apart and I was normally in a state of frustration, and I started dreaming about whales. At first they were purely symbols of raging libido, it was apparent to me from the start. I had a dream in that period where I was standing on a sidewalk by a body of water that writhed with orca whales. To me they have always seemed like the most powerful creatures in the sea; they could take down a sperm whale if they chose. The 80’s movie “Orca” scared me almost as much as “Jaws” did. The orca has all the social and cerebral traits of the dolphin, yet the dolphin has almost been fully humanized. To me at least, something about the stark markings of the orca give them a mysterious power, a fundamental unknowability that unnerves me. They are living symbols of wild forces. But so, in the dream I was looking over this expanse of water, packed with orcas like the hundreds of millions of spermatozoa I had produced that day, and an orca flopped up on land kind of like a boner. Then I was almost eaten, consumed by lust so to speak. The symbolism is plain. And so for a while, both the orcas and the sharks were against me; I felt threatened by each of them in dreams.
Given all that, in the logic of eventually becoming Lake Superior Aquaman, the orca dream I had next was significant. I was still in my twenties in that dying relationship and I was having orca dreams all the time. Sperm whales appeared too and other toothed whales, pods and pods of them, or sharks, or both. It was an anxious time. We were living in Berkeley but I hadn’t seen water in forever. Anyway: I had this dream where I was with an orca who I understood was the king of the sea, and he carried me on his back through the ocean and taught me to take his place. It was Neptune in the form of an orca, and I heard him in my mind as he told me the secrets of the sea and how to swim like him.
That dream blew my mind for days. For one thing the orca didn’t seem to be a symbol for libido anymore, but more of a higher mind, taking the shape of a whale to tell me stuff. The main message I got was about conquering fear. The way to conquer a fear of sharks is to become an orca, which knows no such fear. My shark dreams occur much more rarely these days. I have dreamed of other orcas but never again have I met the king of the sea. Having transferred his knowledge to me, and perhaps even his office, he departed. The dream offered me a vision of fearlessness to strive for.
Cities by the Water
Not too long after that I found myself single, just south of Berkeley in Santa Cruz. It’s a city on a wooded hillside overlooking a large body of water. It reminded me of my 1992 summer in Burlington, which has the same geography, except the water there was Lake Champlain. I know Lake Champlain is not a REAL Great Lake, but it was the only one I had ever seen. I had seen the Atlantic Ocean pretty good and whatnot. But I had little experience with most of the Great Lakes states. So this was my first Great Lake and as I always do with water, I projected my mind onto it. I loved its inky blackness like a mirror reflecting starless space. I didn’t love how chilly that summer was and it seemed like the lake wanted me to be cold. I was open-minded about the lake’s legendary sea monster “Champ,” and I took to prowling the shore at night hoping for a sighting. The image that always occurred to me was something like a great black plesiosaur rearing its bulk from the water. I no longer give the monster any credence except as a symbol.
And so later, living in Santa Cruz, I wasn’t really recreating in the water because I don’t surf and there are sharks there. Plus I was getting married and having a child with a homesick Duluthian. One thing led to another and I found myself on yet another wooded hillside overlooking a large body of water. The view of the lake from the top of Central Entrance is almost identical to a similar Santa Cruz view of the Pacific. I loved how Duluth was a beach town, an important amenity for this longtime beach town lover. Summers were spent in the water as a matter of course, and I got to know Lake Superior well – when it was warm enough to swim, and where the best locations are. I bought a pair of goggles and particularly loved exploring underwater at the rock beach known as the Ledges, with its varied fields of submerged boulders and crevasses.
There was still some fear to get rid of. There were no sharks in the Lake and so I could swim in deeper water than I would ever dare in the ocean – like, at all. Initially though, I had a hard time looking into deep water – irrationally I joked with myself, “There are no sharks in Lake Superior but there are definitely sea monsters.” I was certain that looking into the deep would bring me face to face with something scary. I had to force myself to open my eyes under water and look into the deep. The only things down there were my fears; gradually those lessened. After a while I could freely explore the lake.
Aquaman Swims into View
When my child was 10 or so, she got a cheap sports camera from her grandma, a Kodak PlaySport. When I realized it was waterproof to ten feet deep, I adopted it and then got one of my own. This was before the “selfie stick.” Initially I wouldn’t go deeper than ten feet, which seemed deep at the time – because that’s as deep as the camera remained waterproof. After 2-3 years of this, and releasing initial video experiments to perfectduluthday.com, I had explored everything at my favorite beaches that was in ten feet or less of water. I knew I would have to get a GoPro to properly document my further, deeper adventures. One thing that helped inspire me was the freediver on YouTube called “Freediver HD,” who was the first person I saw making videos with a camera stick underwater. I thought, “That’s what I’m going to do.” I consumed more and more freediving videos and gleaned breath-holding tips at every turn.
Since I was stepping up my underwater video game with the GoPro, camera stick, and greater freediving prowess (I have now dived to 30 feet which was easy), I wanted to rebrand and relaunch my DIY video/photo operation. For one thing I was tired at looking at myself, a shirtless swimmer feeling weird like I was trying to show off my “beach body.” I definitely wanted to video myself exploring, in order to have a subject showing what fun was possible. But why not make that subject something more than myself? If I could fold an aquatic persona into my project, I could “brand” it as something different than all the other nature photographer/videographers in the region. Being a superhero geek, I wanted to find an aquatic superhero to dress like, to make my videos and images more iconic, ironic, and fun.
I did NOT want to model myself after DC Comics’ Aquaman. He was so teased and silly – this was 2011, before the well-received Aquaman movie which made him cool. Ideally, I had wanted to find a character with a logo or chest decal that was instantly recognizable. But there was really no one as remotely recognizable as Aquaman. The only other contender was Marvel’s character “Namor the Sub-Mariner,” but he is not as well-known, and his shirtless speedo-wearing look did not suit me. So I embraced the Aquaman idea, silly as it was. Aquaman didn’t have an iconic symbol per se, but he did have iconic colors of gold and green. T-shirts modeled after his scale-armor orange top were available. I considered ordering a full-body Aquaman lycra suit, but I knew the lake would gradually wreck it – it is hard to get the lake scent out of swim clothes sometimes, and if I ever get a full-body Aquaman costume, I am going to want to wear it to parties. It was easy to order the t-shirt and find a green pair of swim trunks. I was ready. With my GoPro and new swim duds, Lake Superior Aquaman was born.
Fast forward a few years, and I had escaped an abusive relationship that left me with anxiety and a deep depression. During the two years of therapy that followed, I learned about accessing the healthier parts of my mind to fight anxiety. What I thought of as my “self” – Jim Richardson – was, in a way, sunk. But by this point, I had another, healthier persona in reserve – Lake Superior Aquaman. He was always ready with a smile for a fan, always ready to talk, always functional, always exploring, always “on.” The more I could access that persona in anxious situations, the more I could heal. That is when I declared my own death on perfectduluthday.com, writing, “Jim Richardson is dead, long live Lake Superior Aquaman.” I had created him, and now he was returning the favor.
Perhaps the best indicator of my recovery was the dream I had very recently that marked the return of whales after many years. In the dream I was rocking my aqua-colors at the Ledges, at my favorite dive spot, and there was a humpback whale in the water with me. This is the first dream I’ve had where I was with a whale in Lake Superior. The orcas, symbols of power and intensity, have transformed into this gentle giant, a baleen whale radiating nothing but curiosity and love. There was no sense of danger; it merely observed me with an affectionate, pacifist calm. After a while it was time to leave the water, reluctantly as always, but I started climbing out. I was at a steep point and it wasn’t easy. I sensed the whale wanted to help, but it just watched. It knew I could do it myself. It was a little bit of a job, but I accomplished it under the whale’s beneficent gaze. I didn’t need the help, but I was grateful for the support of whatever subconscious force it represented. I got out on my own power.
The kindly lake-whale awaits me there in dreams. The lake I think contains all there is. My salvation is in there, my personal reinvention. And yours is too, if you should seek it there. There is a Great Lake in all of us. Explore it.
-All my essays here.
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