By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN While many households are just waking up and getting ready to start their day, Dr. Jim Neff and his wife, Mary, are returning home to Winsted after a brisk, morning swim in Lake Mary.
Rising early, they don their wet suits, grab their face masks, snorkels, and fins, and head for the lake for a 40-minute swim; 20 minutes out, and 20 minutes back. It’s all part of a total body workout the couple does to keep fit for their other passtime scuba (self contained underwater breathing apparatus) diving.
“We like to be prepared to handle emergencies (when scuba diving) if something were to happen,” Mary said, “which means you have to be more fit than the current activity requires.”
Swimming with snorkels and fins is a good conditioning activity, according to Mary.
“See that house on the other side of the lake?” Jim asked. “My goal is to get there, but like today, I was still short. I needed just a few more minutes.”
The couple likes to be outdoors as much as possible, so during Minnesota’s warmer months, May to October, the Neffs swim in the lake; and during the colder months, they swim in the high school pool in Watertown.
By wearing their scuba apparel, they are able to keep warm outdoors when the lake and air temperatures get a bit chilly.
The Neffs enjoy their early morning swim in Lake Mary with the bass, perch, and sunnies. Nothing too scary. Not like swimming in the ocean with sharks and barracudas.
Jim recalled a time when they paid extra money to go shark diving. He said he kept his hands close as a shark swam within 6 inches of him.
“Every once in awhile I will see a barracuda that is pretty big, and you’re not supposed to wear any shiny jewelry because they might want it,” Mary said laughing. “And it might be attached to an arm or a finger.”
But there has been excitement at Lake Mary, as well, dealing with Minnesota’s changing weather.
Last year, the Neffs’ final swim date at the lake was Oct. 4. With an air temperature in the 40s, the couple got out of the water only to discover they had locked their keys in their truck.
“We were freezing, but someone was here and let us take his truck and go home to get our keys,” Mary said.
“Which is so neat about small towns,” Jim added. “And how many people would say, ‘Here go take my truck?’”
In August, the Neffs will leave for diving in Bonaire, an island territory off the coast of Venezuela, which is owned by the Netherlands. It’s a place to which they have been a number of times, and their favorite place to scuba dive.
“It is like diving heaven,” Mary said. “They have it set up so that the people who know how to dive can be on their own and don’t have to be on a dive boat with a dive master monitoring every activity.”
The Neffs have also been scuba diving off the coast of Belize, which is a small country by Guatemala, where they have seen the Great Blue Hole. The site was made famous by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who declared it one of the top 10 scuba diving sites in the world.
“Caves have collapsed and created the hole, and the water looks deeper blue,” Mary said.
“And you get to go to the edge of the caves and see the stalactites and stalagmites, and they are huge gargantuan,” Jim added.
“And your mouth is just hanging open,” Mary said. “And then, you lay on your back and look up and there are reef sharks swimming around. And it is just heavenly.”
They have also had the opportunity to dive in Costa Rica, Honduras, the Caymen Islands, Jamaica; as well as doing lots of diving in the lakes of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“The mine pits up in Crosby were fun,” Mary said.
“Because it is clear and you can see for 50 feet,” Jim added. “But it is more fun in the ocean. It is the colors of the fish and the reefs. It is just amazing.”
Besides swimming, the Neffs also keep fit cross country skiing in the winter, and biking and kayaking in the summer.
“When I was single, I prayed to God for a husband who liked to do things,” Mary said laughing. “I got my prayer more than answered. I am doing things that I never thought I would do. It is just so fun.”
When Jim and Mary were married 11 years ago, for a wedding present, Jim gave Mary a bike. Later, for their first Christmas, he gave her scuba diving lessons.
For Mary, even with all of the modern-day diving equipment, scuba diving was a difficult undertaking and really took some getting used to.
“At first she didn’t even want to put her face in the water,” Jim said.
“I wasn’t much of a swimmer,” Mary said. “I didn’t really like the water, but I wanted to do this with Jim, so I took lessons, one-on-one lessons, and it took a long, long time for me to be able to do it.”
That was eight years ago.
Today, Mary is an advanced diver who has been down to 151 feet below the surface.
Still, even with the lessons and the amount of scuba diving she has done, she will occasionally have some breathing issues.
“I am excitable and every once in awhile I will start breathing wrong, and you need to breath slowly and deeply when you are diving. If you gasp air, you will get too much oxygen and your chest starts feeling tight,” Mary said.
Jim began scuba diving about 1968. He said it was about the same time that “Sea Hunt,” with Lloyd Bridges, became popular.
“That was back in the day when you knew you were running out of air because it got harder to breathe,” Jim said.
“I actually had this one tank (back in the ‘60s) that had a lever on it and you knew, when you ran out of air, you could pull that lever and you had 300 pounds which gave you plenty of time to get up to the surface,” Jim said.
Jim grew up on Lake Wissota by Chippewa Falls, and from his very first dive, has enjoyed scuba diving.
“One of my friends was diving and he let me try it and I just thought, ‘man this is just really fun,’” he said.
Jim was even able to make a little money when he was younger by recovering items that had fallen into the lake. He made $10 once for recovering a motor that had fallen off of a boat, and he was also hired to retrieve items like eyeglasses that had fallen into the lake.
There is much better diving equipment today than what was available in the late ‘60s, when Jim first learned to dive.
Buoyancy compensation (BC) device vests can be worn with the tank attached to them.
The vest can be inflated and it helps the diver float on the surface and it can be deflated as the diver goes down, according to Mary.
Another piece of diving equipment today is a small computer, which is attached to the BC, that tells how much air is left, depth, and the time below the surface.
For anyone interested in scuba diving, it’s necessary to take lessons to become certified, according to the Neffs.
“You do the training so you are comfortable with it (scuba diving),” Mary said. “During training, they even make you take your mask off under water, and clear it out so all of the water is out of it, because if you are diving and something pulls your mask off, you have to know what to do.”
The Neffs like to keep themselves in shape for scuba diving, and look forward to diving well into their “old age.”
“But you don’t have to be extremely fit to scuba dive,” Jim said. “It’s, what level do you want to dive at?”