New Orleans’ Lake Pontchartrain is only 12 feet deep. But that’s deep enough to drown. And you can drown there — that is, if the alligators don’t get to you first. And if the alligators do get you, you won’t have to worry about a coffin. The scraps of your flesh that they leave behind will be eaten by the bull sharks and the alligator gar: ugly prehistoric looking fish with massive jaws full of spiny teeth.
The gar, the alligators and the sharks provide a grim backdrop to Boulder resident Matthew Moseley’s attempt to become the first person to solo swim across the Lake Pontchartrain. But he’s worried about none of that.
“The wind chop is the hardest thing,” admits Moseley, who is no stranger to Pontchartrain, having braved the lake several times over the past few years as a swimmer in several relay events, including a 2012 effort that saw him and his partner, Glynde Mangum, swim 29 miles across the lake in just over 12 hours.
That successful crossing, along with a prior effort in 2007, were done to raise funds to rebuild the New Canal Lighthouse which was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and to benefit Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, which focuses on the restoration of the lake and surrounding waterways.
The Foundation will be this year’s beneficiary from Moseley’s solo attempt.
“Over the years, I’ve come to learn that the lake used to be an iconic place in the world, a centerpiece for New Orleans, but then they started to dredge the lake and that basically destroyed the lake,” says Moseley. “The clams and the oysters died, and for decades and decades Lake Pontchartrain was a toxic dump. People stopped swimming in the lake and all recreation really ceased. I did the first swim to bring awareness to the lake to help protect it and give it some love. When you tell people in New Orleans that you are swimming in Lake Pontchartrain, people say, ‘Why would you do that? There are bull sharks, alligators, alligator gar, nutra rats.’ But I’m not really scared of that. The chop is the hardest thing.”
When Moseley talks about the lake, it’s possible to detect a faint hint of a southern accent in his voice. And it’s his southern roots that connect him to New Orleans. Originally from Lafayette, La., Moseley fell in love with the vibrant culture of the city at a young age. He moved to Telluride, Colo., after graduating from Louisiana Tech University, intending to spend only a year or two in the ski town.
“I always thought that I’d be in Telluride for only a year and then go back to New Orleans,” says Moseley. But a chance to obtain a graduate degree in public policy from the University of Colorado Boulder brought him to Boulder, where he’s since carved out a career as a communications strategist and advocate. Still, as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of New Orleans but you can’t take the New Orleans out of the boy.
“New Orleans is my soul city,” says Moseley. “I love the city. I feel Boulder is my home and my family, but my heart and soul is in New Orleans. My remedy is to go back there a lot, and this swim is a way to keep my connection with the city.”
And like the water runs thought the swamps, levees and ditches of Louisiana, water is in Moseley’s veins.
“I started swimming when I was in third grade,” he recalls. “I swam through high school and then when I came to Boulder to pursue my graduate degree, I was swimming at CU and started to swim with the Masters club.”
That was just the start. Bestowed with a free spirit and sense of adventure, Moseley started to take his swimming in a new direction. Looking for something more, he decided to swim from Moab to the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in 2006. The successful effort took two days and was named one of the top 10 adventure moments for that year by the Rocky Mountain News.
“I wish I would have done open water swimming as a kid,” says Moseley. “It is much more free. There are no lane lines, no clock. You feel you are part of the water, part of the world around you, that you are alive. Sometimes I’ve experienced the same thing running or skiing. You can get to that same place, with nothing else around you except what you are doing right then. There is something very spiritual and ancient when I swim. We are of the water. And what I hope to accomplish with the swim a little bit is to get people to understand their connection with the water. You have to treat it with care and respect, because when it goes, we go, too.”
Moseley knows that in this day and age of hyper media, it’s not enough to merely be able to swim across the lake (although that feat, would be enough for most in our lifetimes). To get his message out, he’s stepping up this year’s project on a variety levels. First, a documentary is in the works.
The movie plans to showcase Moseley’s swim as part of the larger efforts by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, as well as showcasing the journey of the lake from its toxic era that ended in 2006 to the Lake’s remarkable recovery as well as the ever present threats to the future of not only the Lake’s ecosystem but to the entire New Orleans basin ecosystem.
The swim will also be what Moseley terms an “art” project.
“It’s swimming as art,” he says, and laughs. “This swim is the fifth time that I’ve done some sort of incarnation of swimming across Pontchartrain. There are going to be three or four supporting boats, a party barge, live music, fire and different art pieces that are nocturnal. We’ll have the medium of fire at night, moving across the lake, it will be one giant art project.”
“And,” says Moseley, “when I crawl on the shore and my last stroke is done and my feet touch the terra firma, it will be gone, forever.”
If it sounds that Moseley is trying to make a splash, well, he is. This is a guy, after all, who works in a media-savvy environment and political frenzy that surrounds the Colorado State House. He also wrote a book about Hunter S. Thompson, Dear Dr. Thompson: Felony Murder, Hunter S. Thompson and the Last Gonzo Campaign. So when Moseley tells you that this year’s 23-mile solo attempt on Pontchartrain is an exercise in “Gonzo swimming,” you tend to laugh and agree. Because, with the fire and the party barge and the live music, it is Gonzo swimming, the kind of thing that Thompson himself would have liked (especially the fire and the party barge part).
It’s also true to the New Orleans vibe of, if you’re going to do something, you might as well make it into a party.
“A friend said to me,” Moseley says with a laugh, “‘you’ve created a carnival around you, you have to make it.’ ” He laughs again. “And I will make it, or I’ll die trying. Either way it will be killer!”