A white person wearing a black swim cap and small goggles swims in gray water on a cloudy day.
Photo: Unsplash/Todd Quackenbush

Wild Swimming

On the dangers, joys, and damp insurgency of public water

NIGHTS ARE GETTING CHILLY in the Northeast and I am more often alone when I enter the water now, propelled there not by the heat but because, under water the border with the natural world, and even the unnatural one, is blurred. Twenty-four years ago, wild swimming hero Roger Deakin wrote that in water we are part of nature, “in a far more complete way than on dry land.” In his book Waterlog, Deakin swam the rain’s journey back to the sea. The account is rife with revolution. “Walking, cycling and swimming will always be subversive activities.” Because of Deakin, each time I jump in the water I’m part of a damp insurgency.

Though we never knew the term, I come from a family of wild swimmers. Our father led his six children on treks through inhospitable, sometimes illegal environments to reach crystal waters and frigid falls. Despite this early indoctrination, my own plans for an epic swim didn’t take shape until last week, after a visit to Vermont’s Museum of Everyday Life where curator Clare Dolan celebrates the beauty, utility and “mysterious delight embedded in the banal but beloved objects we touch every day.” This self-service museum housed in a former dairy barn—shut off the lights when you leave—hosts exhibits on scissors, lists, keys, nails, baths, knots, matches, wheels, dust and other marvels of mundanity. The museum’s spirit of simplicity urged me to slow my pace on the short drive back to my sister’s house, to continue seeing the familiar with eyes of wonder. In my slowness, a secret and shining path that wends through a small part of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom revealed itself: Tildy’s Pond, Bruce Pond, Shadow Lake, Baker Pond, Crystal Lake, the Lamoille River, Lake Willoughby, May Pond, Bean Pond, Vail Pond, Marl Pond, Dolloffs Ponds, Bald Hill Pond, Newark Pond, Jobs Pond, Center Pond, the Passumpsic River, and a universe of other, unnamed watery bodies. I asked my thirteen-year-old daughters to join me immediately, to jump in now. They gave me one pond, one pond they already knew quite well, a pond that is eighty feet deep, clear and gorgeous.

But it nagged me that Deakin did not limit his swims to the pleasant. He swam past expressways, supermarket car parks, storm drains and ugly concrete weirs. He lamented, “I witnessed the public humiliation of the Jordan of the Fens. By the Bury St. Edmunds Tesco, I sat down and wept.” But witness, he did.

Back in the Hudson Valley where I live, I was plotting a Vermont swim route when my friend Jaqueline Goss texted me. Jackie is a filmmaker and fellow damp insurgent who once asked me to read Wilhelm Reich books underwater, at night, in October, for the film she made with Peggy Ahwesh about Reich, OR119. Jackie reminded me that Lewis Pugh, the activist athlete who swims troubled ecosystems to raise awareness, was passing through our hometown on his 315-mile Hudson River journey that very morning.

As a wild swimmer I feel our vulnerability like the thin-skinned frogs who often bear the first deformities of our toxic ways, but I also feel a responsibility. I bristle at any force that tries to keep me out of the water, be it pollution or private property.

I made it to the river in time to see him. He’d started his swim in the Hudson’s source, Lake Tear in the Clouds and was on his way to New York City. Pugh’s pace and power were thrilling despite how tiny he looked in the large, large river. In a pale but spirited imitation of his epic swim, I stripped down to my undies and jumped into the river. Most of us who live here don’t swim in the Hudson. It’s huge. It’s polluted. It has strange currents and it is home to tankers the size of small villages. And though Pugh writes that, “All rivers should be drinkable, fishable and swimmable. It is really that simple,” he also says that as he passes through my part of the Hudson, he takes prophylactic doses of Pepto-Bismol and astringent mouthwash then scrubs off with a microbial soap afterwards.

The day after my Hudson dip, I come down with something. Maybe a cold but who knows? As a wild swimmer I feel our vulnerability like the thin-skinned frogs who often bear the first deformities of our toxic ways, but I also feel a responsibility. I bristle at any force that tries to keep me out of the water, be it pollution or private property.

The Supreme Court says no one can own water but this clear truth gets muddied as laws are dispersed state by state; as corporations dump their filth into our waterways; as indigenous water rights are violated again and again; and as private property butts heads with public access.

Deakin, once stopped by a river keeper, was asked, “Does that fence mean anything to you?” Deakin leapt over the fence invoking Woody Guthrie’s oft-skipped verse, “A sign was painted said, private property. But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing. This land was made for you and me.” Deakin lived in a country with an established Right to Roam. He lived in a country with sensible gun laws. Any wild swimmer in America feels the tension of private property. My worst fears in plotting my own long swim come not from the dread of cold or pollution or drowning or exhaustion or sludge or algae or even water snakes but rather from the fear I’ll encounter an angry human with a gun, someone like Sam Brewton who shot a high-powered rifle into a group of anglers on the Flint River. Brewton claimed he was protecting a river he believed his family owned. No one was hit, Brewton is serving a ten-year sentence, and water, in its tremendous shapelessness, remains ever-tricky to legislate.

Dolan asks, “What would it look like to defy the commodity-based model of collection?” She’s talking about her museum but her question applies to water as well. We are comfortable with the idea of ownership, but what if rather than owners we became guardians? All of us.

Rivers, lakes, streams, and ponds are mouths, ears, nostrils, and eyes. The places where we are most open, are the places where we are most vulnerable. Vermont’s devastating summer floods and the killing droughts out west are a contrast that screams a message of our interconnectivity. How much clearer can it be that this is one body?

We are comfortable with the idea of ownership, but what if rather than owners we became guardians?

I so admire Pugh’s swim. I love when people’s passions push them to do absurd and, almost impossible things, but I am also looking for our non-heroic heroes. Those amateurs who jump in though they are not professional outdoorsmen, even if they lack access to high tech gear and support teams. Amateurs from amator, Latin for lover. I’m looking for the lovers, for the people who champion the lowliest, humblest, most degraded bodies of water. Artist Marie Lorenz, writer Dana Spiotta and musician Kurt Rohde whose opera, Newtown Odyssey, celebrates the toxic and lowly Newtown Creek, a superfund site that runs between Queens and Brooklyn, write “Throughout it all, the canalized, long-polluted, ever-beautiful urban waterway remains the main character.” Waterways are living entities, even when we try to kill them.

My swim will be terribly non-professional. It will be the swim of a daughter, mother, writer, teacher, amateur who is generally overwhelmed by responsibility, work and care of others. My swim will be slow. I am a bad swimmer. I can’t even do the crawl. I rely on the buoyancy of my curves to stay afloat.

I invited my brother Charley to join me. He said yes. He said, “Might take us the rest of our lives.” Meaning we will move slowly. Meaning we have a lot of work to do.

“I know,” I told him. “I’m ready.”

Samantha Hunt is the author of the nonfiction book The Unwritten Book, a story collection The Dark Dark, and the novels Mr. Splitfoot, The Invention of Everything Else, and The Seas. Hunt is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Bard Fiction Prize, the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 prize, and the St. Francis College Literary Prize. She teaches at Pratt Institute. See more of her work at: samanthahunt.net.