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Swimming options for the overheated

Beating the heat with friends at a Columbia County pond
Courtesy of Ralph Gardner Jr.
Beating the heat with friends at a Columbia County pond

A heat wave, such as the one we’ve been mired in this week, focuses the mind — on water. Tap water, yes, but I’m thinking more of larger bodies of cool water where one can submerge the entire anatomy and change the story.

I’ve never been able to understand people who can go in only up to their shoulders because they don’t want to mess up their hair. For me it’s all or nothing. You can’t become one with the water, you can’t fully appreciate the majesty of the medium, unless you make a good faith effort to impersonate a fish.

But the recent torpor — rumor has it that it will continue on and off for the rest of the summer and perhaps human history — got me musing about best places to swim. We’re fortunate to have a pool and a pond so they’ve been top of mind.

They’re obviously very different experiences. For some, including members of my immediate family, plunging into a pond constitutes a profile in courage. I get it. There are those who find critters such as snapping turtles and snakes disqualifying. Also, ponds have a tendency to invite debris. There’s falling leaves and pollen floating over from the surrounding landscape, as well as plankton, or whatever that stuff is, rising from the bottom.

Not a pretty picture, I’ll admit. But spring-fed ponds have a special ability to make you feel more alive. Pools are the polar opposite experience. They are nature tamed, with the copious assistance of chemicals, to the extent that they qualify as nature at all. But they do provide the more squeamish a certain peace of mind.

In order of magnitude lakes come next. I’m not sure what the difference between a lake and a pond is? I’ve gone swimming in some large ponds and some small lakes. But why even choose? They’re both great.

And what about swimming holes, streams and rivers? A world-class Vermont swimming hole on a hot day is something every patriot should experience. Streams and rivers I know less about. My issue is that I have no control over what’s happening upstream. But I’ve vowed to dedicate myself to further aquatic study in this category in the very near future.

I suppose one can’t discuss swimming without raising the subject of skinny dipping. As far as I’m concerned there’s no comparison. Social norms and well as personal inhibitions prohibit the practice for many of us. But if one can be assured of something like privacy, to the extent that privilege isn’t all but gone, there’s no better way to bond with nature.

Bathing suits have gotten a lot better than they were in the Victorian era, when the standard was ankle-length, full-sleeve gowns. Light-weight modern-day fabrics can almost make you forget you’re wearing one; certainly combined with the singular way that swimming overwhelms the senses. But swimwear still constitutes a barrier, an obstacle to the spiritual appreciation of the natural world.

Water temperature’s another factor. I’m a wimp. I can’t suffer water much below 64°. I hang thermometers from both my pool and off the dock of my pond to eliminate surprises. Frigid water also constitutes something of a bummer in places like Maine for much of the year and the Pacific Ocean. The water looks so inviting but qualifies as a near death experience if you’re not wearing a wet suit.

That brings me to seas and oceans. Oceans scare me. I hate big waves. On the other hand, there’s a reason so much human development occurs on the cusp of continents. That much water, at least when it remains relatively tame, speaks to something beyond the ability of language to communicate. It’s a member of a fraternity, or a sorority if you prefer, that includes the moon and the stars. It’s as close as we come to experiencing the infinite. It forces humility on a species not known for it.

As far as I’m concerned seas constitute the best of all possible worlds, not that it’s easy to generalize. If the North Sea, where I passed up the opportunity to take a dip last October, and the Caribbean Sea have anything in common, besides copious quantities of H2O, I’m not sure what that is.

But the Caribbean and other tropical waters check off many of my boxes. They tend to be warm, reasonably tranquil, and filled with colorful life; even as we do our best to destroy it. There are few things more beautiful than the gradations of color along coral reefs, from green, to turquoise, to navy blue.

I should have mentioned that all the water discussed in this story, to my mind’s eye, takes place on a sunny day. Water gets its color, its personality and character from its interaction with sunlight. If I may momentarily return to my pond: I was somewhat alarmed by its opaque bright olive hue early in the season, even though the fish, turtles and frogs seemed unconcerned.

It has since reverted to form, turning almost black. But its fascination derives from the way the breeze gently ruffles the water, giving the sun the opportunity to show its stuff. It doesn’t just dazzle the eye. It fills you with something like gratitude to be alive. That’s a pretty neat trick.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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