Ralph Gardner Jr: Taking A Pond's Temperature | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: Taking A Pond's Temperature

May 23, 2020

Ralph's new pool thermometer
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr,

During a pandemic you have to take your pleasure where you can. So I was probably more excited than I should or would have been in a normal world as I anticipated the arrival of a swimming pool thermometer that I’d purchased over the Internet.

I wasn’t planning to use it in a pool but in our swimming pond. I use the term “swimming” advisedly. I love to dog paddle there among the frogs and turtles, a couple of them snappers, and three grass carp hired to keep the weeds in check.

I understand those who prefer a pool. There are fewer surprises when you can see the bottom. At the pond you have no idea what lurks beneath the surface since it’s basically opaque, though in a deep pine green shade that’s sort of appealing. It also feels alive, probably because it is. There are more things swimming around next to you than at Jones Beach during a heat wave.

In addition to the aforementioned critters, there’s tadpoles, snakes and insects. And that doesn’t include your airborne companions – birds, flies, dragonflies, electric blue damselflies, mosquitos and bats were you to venture into the deep at dusk. I like to think of myself as being at one with nature but I haven’t yet mustered the courage to brave the pond at night.

But during the day it can be delightful, at least until creepy weeds start to ascend from its depths starting in late May or early June, though it feels as if their march begins earlier each year.

I realize I’m not painting an especially appealing picture here. But once the water temperature enters the survivable range there’s nothing quite like the experience of swimming its length, with its spring-fed cold and relatively warm regions; and with the hermit thrush singing through the forest, the sun shining bright and the breeze animating the oaks and maples that tower overhead.

While you’re obviously not aiming for a controlled chlorinated experience it would be helpful to know that the first time you braved the pond in spring you weren’t risking a heart attack because the water is so frigid. Hence, my investment in a pool thermometer.

I did some online research and finally found an attractive chrome model. More significantly, it was weighted so it would sink several feet below the water’s surface and provide an accurate reading. On a hot summer day the temperature on the surface can be several degrees warmer than a mere foot or two down. Best to avoid health-challenging surprises.

I tracked the equipment’s progress as it made its way across the United States with the avidity of a five-year-old awaiting an important birthday present. But I suffered something of a setback when it failed to show up, even though the merchant assured me that it had already arrived according to FedEx. Fortunately, a kindly, honest and courageous neighbor, given the current circumstances, to whom it had been delivered in error brought it to the foot of our house and I offered him a heartfelt, socially distanced thank you.

I’m convinced that Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin and Isaac Newton knew no greater anticipation of discovery than I did as I secured the complimentary string that came with the thermometer to our dock and lowered the instrument into the mire to let it sit there for a while. When I retrieved it the mercury read 62 degrees.

That may not sound cold. But the non-profit National Center for Cold Water Safety suggests you treat water below 70 degrees with caution. I concur. My first swim of the season is typically a brief encounter that leaves me clambering back onto the dock with the euphoria of one who is happy merely to have survived.

By way of comparison, the temperature of the water in Honolulu this week is 79 degrees and Jamaica 83. The temperature in my pond is identical to the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles.

There’s been some debate and criticism within the family – probably a symptom of sheltering in place with the same people for too long – about my placement of the thermometer.

My daughter thinks it ought to be stationed nearer the surface because that’s the depth where one typically swims. My feeling is that the best way to avoid surprises, as well as hypothermia, is to plunge it into the coldest water the pond can muster.

In any case, this discussion so far is theoretical because it’s been a cold, late spring and the water is only now becoming habitable. I’m hoping for a few warm days in succession – though my unscientific deduction is that it’s the nights that determine the temperature of the water, especially for a morning swim.

When I take the first plunge of the season, hopefully next week, it remains to be seen whether my new thermometer will have provided a helpful data point or merely increased my dread.

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

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