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Leif Zurmuhlen

The Old Swimming Hole
Getting wet the way Mother Nature intended
By Kirsten Ferguson

I have friends who wouldn’t dunk their pinky toes in a natural body of water if they could glom access to someone else’s swimming pool instead. To hear them tell it, murky water of unknown depths and zoology is downright repellent, while the crystal-clear water of a backyard concrete-lined pool is pure luxury. Certified rednecks like myself, however, have spent countless summer hours stubbing our toes on rocky river bottoms and thrashing our legs through knee-deep lake weeds. We know the truth: There’s nothing more fulfilling than splashing in a natural swimming hole, where each mouthful of boggy water or brush against an unidentified creature is an encounter with nature at its finest. That, and we can’t stand chlorine.

Granted, even I draw the line at swimming in places where the water teems with predators. A guy I know owns a Catskills pond that is stocked with pesky bluegills. The fish will nip (even drawing blood) at any human body part that ventures under the surface of the water, from butts that sag through inner tubes to—swear to God—nipples exposed as their owners swim to shore via the breaststroke. But the Catskills are an aberration. In all my years swimming in remote places around the Capital Region, I’ve had nary a leech attach itself to my flesh, and no other traumatic encounters with mean-spirited fish.

So for those who would rather swim in fish detritus than the pee of little children, nature’s swimming holes offer another advantage over public pools: solitude. Secluded swimming spots are appealing to people who avoid being seen in bathing suits. Of course, nature offers the option of swimming sans suits. I tend to think that skinny dipping is best reserved for nighttime, since darkness is truly nature’s cover-all. And you’ll be spared the embarrassment if any strangers should happen along. Back to night swimming (and I don’t mean the R.E.M. song): If you’ve never been swimming with friends at night in a lake during a full moon (mushrooms optional), give it a shot. It may be one of the best things you ever do.

For those without a pool, or a lakeside cottage, or a friend with a lakeside cottage, swimming holes have to be sought. Ask around. Locals who look too po’ to own a pool are a good bet. The Adirondacks especially are well stocked with swimming holes that have garnered plenty of local lore. There’s the “black hole” in Warrensburg—a deep impression worn for centuries in the riverbed rock, where people sit as numbingly cold water swirls around them. Lake George’s Log Bay has the “kettle,” a whirlpool at the bottom of a tumbling waterfall.

Non-public swimming holes are as alluring as they are illicit. Of course, nothing is more forbidden than swimming in drinking-water reservoirs, and I know plenty of people who do just that. The Hudson River, in places, contains its own dubious danger: A friend of mine swims, without concern, in a part of the Hudson that is extremely close to the polluted “hot spots.” Further upstream, past the abandoned GE capacitor plant, is an area where the river bends, flattens and becomes nearly still, providing great swimming.

There are some area swimming spots so dangerous that they claim lives each year. At Rockwell Falls in Luzerne, for instance, bridge-jumpers often get pinned by water currents against rock. I tend to avoid swimming holes that contain any element of danger. Dangerous amusements like cliff diving, bridge jumping and rope swinging tend to attract a beer-swilling crowd that has far too little concern for life.

I can understand why some swimmers prefer the rush and unpredictability of rivers, but my heart remains with lakes. I like to swim for distance (still trying to redeem my teenage failure of the Red Cross lifeguard test), which is hard to do in a river. In a lake, the game becomes back-stroking to the opposite shore or crawling to a raft anchored halfway out. Lakes are also relatively safe—no tides, currents or undertows. I sometimes imagine that a lake monster might reach up and grab my leg to yank me down to its underwater lair, but that has yet to happen.

In one sense, swimming holes are no different from swimming pools: The best part of the experience comes after the swim, when you dry off with a towel, flop down on the ground, slap on some sunscreen and break out the reading material.


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