It was late morning on a hot August day in northern New Hampshire as we paddled our way in kayaks between the spruces, birches and silver maples overhanging the upper Saco River.
We bounced through two easy rapids, and gathered in the pool below the second. Even now, years later, the day is vivid. Allison, who was 12, remembers that Scott, already a hockey player at age 8, wore a cap with the Dallas Stars logo. Why the Dallas Stars? Who knows; We live in Connecticut. Anyway, he dipped the hat in the river and splashed water over his head.
We had been on the water perhaps a half hour in what would be an 8-mile run along a section of the Saco that is sprightly in places, placid in others, but always cold, clear, and moving. This is a river on its way out of the White Mountains.
Let’s go swimming, the kids said.
We stopped a short distance downriver at a beach, of which there are many on the upper Saco. These are natural beaches; the sand is the product of centuries of water crashing its way down rocky mountainsides. It comes to rest in places where the river takes a rest. We would take a rest. In we went.
The river bottom was sand and small smooth stones, the ones that don’t hurt your feet. In four feet of water, every pebble was visible, as if they were part of some museum diorama. Earlier, an otter streaked downriver just off the bottom. The water had to have been eight feet deep, but the otter seemed an arm’s length away we saw it so well, right down to the wavy patterns the water made in its fur.
As we waded we found a spot where the current was just right; strong enough to carry us along, but not so strong that we couldn’t plant our feet and stop when we wanted. We pushed off the bottom with our toes, let the river take us where it would, and set our feet again. We were like astronauts in space, in a state that was Earth’s equivalent of gravity-free. Bounce off the bottom, slide downriver, set your feet. Swim back. Repeat. We jumped and splashed. We dove and swam under water with our eyes open. We were otters.
A big mistake, one we repeatedly chose to make, was to venture into deeper, swifter water. It was about five feet deep at the edge of the main channel, where the current was all business. Whoosh, there went our footing and under we went. We righted ourselves, stepped back a foot or two, and were back in equilibrium with the river, grinning.
It was summer, sand, sunshine, spruce, the Saco and us. Shrink a summer to a second and it was this one.
There were no lifeguards, no concession stand, of course. In fact, in a day of many dips, we saw comparatively few people. And isn’t that part of the romance of an outing in the outdoors, the pleasing sense of remoteness, an intimacy with a healthy river, a reassurance, however illusory, that our world – our nest – is not fouled?
I don’t want to be Martha Stewart fussy about this – well, sure I do – but there are components to a great swim that are every bit as important as the right stenciling for the hallway or the perfect petit four. More important.
How you get to your swimming hole matters, for one thing.
You can whisk yourself in a motorboat to the beach at the other end of the lake. But you won’t earn your swim, and can’t really appreciate it even if, at some level, you enjoy it. There is humdrum wine and there is noble wine and you can’t know the one until you’ve tasted the other.
Arrive by canoe at a little pool on the Saco and it is high adventure. This is your river, your trip; you are explorers, not passengers. You counted every spotted sandpiper along the way, worked your way around every fallen birch, saw the cardinal flowers. That three miles paddling was muscle warming exercise, not five noisy minutes. The state road may only be a half mile away, but now it feels like 10. With nothing more than a paddle, you realize, you transported your soul from one emotional time zone to another.
Where you swim matters, too. No water parks, please. No, no gimmicks, and no machines to pump and filter water time and again. The water that makes for a grand swim is filtered through a forest, where it emerges refreshing as the scent of just-cut birch, soft as the first emerging leaves of spring.
And who you swim with matters. A swim should be intimate, not a mob scene. I remember best the swims with just a few friends, or with family, or with the family and a few friends. Put Allison, Scott and I together and we can go on and on telling stories of swimming in remote lakes and rivers, places where we tossed the paddles in the boats and jumped in the water for the joy of it. A common denominator of all of these stories is the arrival by canoe or kayak – and the realization that a good swim is among life’s underappreciated joys.
A common denominator of all of these stories is the arrival by canoe or kayak – and the realization that a good swim is among life’s underappreciated joys.
Allison recalls that on the Saco I announced at mid-afternoon that if we stopped at one more sand bar, one more beach, one more rope hanging over a deep shady pool, we’d never get to the take out in time for supper.
“Who cares?” They didn’t.
Perhaps better than I, they knew not to hurry a swim for the ages.
This essay first appeared in Canoe Journal.