By Bill Hatfield | Photos by Wade Snider
Through the treetops above Donner Lake, Craig Meacham can just see glimpses of the water from his dining room, but he’ll double check the wind forecast on his computer anyway. If the conditions are to his liking — and today they are — he’ll drive to the east end of the lake, pull to the right on Donner Pass Road, and walk along a path to a rocky beach beneath Jeffrey and lodgepole pines.
He stands 6 feet tall with a full head of silver-gray hair and a complexion that suggests he’s spent his life outdoors. Though his view of the lake has changed over the years, his morning ritual has been unwavering: swim.
For nearly 50 summers now, Meacham has been swimming laps on Donner Lake. A mile-and-a-half out-and-back route almost every day, up to 18 consecutive days sometimes.
If you walked past Meacham along this path, or anywhere else for that matter, you could be excused for not realizing you had just seen a 73-year-old athlete who recently completed a stunning accomplishment of consistency and vigor.
Last year, amidst pandemic-related travel restrictions, Meacham swam exactly a hundred days between June and October.
“Sixty days was my personal best,” he says. “When I got to 60, I thought, ‘I’m 73 so I should swim my age.’ Then I got to 73 and I thought I could get to 80.” As summer turned to fall, Meacham’s wife, Susan Lindstrom, suggested he get a wetsuit. “At that point I decided to go for triple digits.” Meacham swam his 100th day on Oct. 28, wearing the wetsuit for the final 20 swims.
For today’s swim he’ll pull on the suit. “I’ll probably stop wearing it next week,” he says as he dons two silicone swim caps then a neoprene hood, and inserts clear swimmer’s earplugs.
He takes a few cautious steps into Donner Lake, dunks his goggles in the water before stretching them over his head, then dives in and starts a freestyle stroke, angling toward the southern bank. Turning due west, Meacham parallels the land about 75 yards offshore until he’s out of sight, rounding a bend toward China Cove, where he’ll turn around at a landmark he calls guano rock and head back.
Behind him lies a pile of clothes and decades in the water.
Born in Oakland, Meacham moved to Phoenix when he was 4 where he began swimming at a club where his father played golf. “It was a small town then,” he says of Phoenix.
Eventually his family returned to the Bay Area, where he swam competitively in high school in Walnut Creek, and again in college at UC Berkeley, during which time he worked as a lifeguard in the summers.
Lifeguards from up and down the coast would compete in open water swimming competitions. Meacham recalls one event, held in the pitch-black night in Huntington Beach, where contestants swam 500 yards to a lighted boat and back.
“I would stay in the middle of the pack,” Meacham says chuckling, hoping that any sharks would help themselves to someone on the outside before they got to him.
In 1967, he competed in the NCAA championships in Florida in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle and at one point ranked fifth in the country in the men’s 200-yard freestyle. The following year, Meacham qualified for the Olympic trials, but decided to go body surfing in Santa Cruz with a friend instead of competing in the trials.
After college in Berkeley, where he graduated with a BA in Business Administration in 1969, he joined the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco, and with them swam the Maui Channel Relay from Lanai to Maui. His club did various open-water swims in the Bay Area, including a route under the Golden Gate Bridge, and another from Alcatraz to the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco — once swimming on New Year’s Day when the water was about 52 degrees, he says.
“I couldn’t remember my name, I was so cold,” Meacham recalls.
Meacham worked as a street artist, making belts, purses, and leather goods in Berkeley in the early 1970s, then spent time in Sun Valley, Idaho, and the Wind River Range in Wyoming, where he worked for the National Outdoor Leadership School. He moved to Truckee in 1972 and began working as a cross-country ski instructor at Royal Gorge.
“Wintertime was teaching cross-country skiing,” he says. In the summers, when he wasn’t working construction, he began swimming the route on Donner Lake that he swims to this day.
“I try and stay out of the pools because the lakes are just so great,” he says. “It’s just really refreshing, invigorating, and interesting.”
Eventually Meacham got his contractor’s license and started his own company: Meacham Design and Construction. A general contractor in Truckee meant “glorified carpenter,” he says. Every contractor he knew continued pounding nails. “I had the bags on until I quit,” he adds.
Meacham participated in open water swimming competitions until his late 50s, such as the Lake Tahoe Polar Bear Swim and the Trans-Tahoe Relay, a 13-mile race which his South End Rowing Club team won in about 1980. He also regularly swam the Donner Lake Open Water Swim, which he helped organize in the late 1970s.
In addition to his professional career designing and building homes in the area, he’s been involved in the community constantly over the years. Nearly every corner of Truckee has been touched by Meacham at some point.
He helped organize a group of volunteer lifeguards who worked to keep Truckee High School’s pool open to the public when it was the only one in town.
“I feel like it’s important that people know how to swim, especially up here,” he says. “You may end up saving your own life or somebody else’s.”
He was part of the group that searched for 12-year-old Lance Sevison and a friend on the backside of Northstar in 1974, which ultimately led to the formation of Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team — still in operation today. And in the closing hours of April 15, 1978, at Squaw Valley, when one of the resort’s aerial trams was damaged by a dislodged cable, killing four people, he was one of more than 300 volunteers who participated in the rescue efforts.
“When you get to be 73 you have a long history,” he says.
As he rounds the bend and heads back toward the beach, splashing in the dark blue lake among paddleboarders and kayakers, he thinks about little more than his stroke.
“You just kinda get in that zone,” he says. “It’s almost like sensory deprivation after a while.”
Meacham steps out of the water breathing heavily — but not for long. “That’s my therapy,” he says as he towels off. “Physical and mental.”
Even now, with a hundred days swam last year, he says he’ll try to do more this year. “I get motivated by that challenge,” he says. “I just figure the more I can do for as long as I can do it, the better off I’ll be.”