Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wild Swimming

Recently I saw a report on a British news channel about the growing popularity in the UK of something called “wild swimming”.  For me this immediately conjures up images of the kind of water play that my kids excelled at when they were small and couldn’t get enough of the wet stuff. 

Instead, “wild swimming” in the UK simply refers to the idea, apparently novel for most modern-day Brits, of swimming in lakes, ponds, rivers, or presumably any body of fresh water that is not a swimming pool.  There are, according the TV reporter, groups in Britain dedicated to promoting the sport and even guidebooks pointing to the best spots for swimming in untamed waters.  Public-safety authorities have also taken notice, sternly warning the citizenry to avoid this kind of rustic outdoors bathing.  Maybe there is such a thing as nanny-state overreach, after all.

From the perspective of someone in Finland, this all sounds patently ridiculous.  Here, “wild swimming” is what most people do on a regular basis (in summer, that is) without pausing to ever consider the it could possibly constitute a “fad” meriting special clubs, guidebooks or TV publicity. 

To be fair, you can’t expect overly urban Britain and overly rural Finland to share the same attitude toward swimming al fresco.  For one thing, with at least 60,000 lakes (with a combined shoreline of some 130,000 kilometers – seven times that of the Great Lakes) and a seacoast supposedly several times longer than Florida’s, Finland was made for “wild swimming”.  And then, of course, there’s sauna, the Finnish obsession that requires overheated Finns to dip repeatedly in the nearest lake, stream, or hole cut into the frozen surface of the sea.  No wonder wild swimming is nothing new for folks here.

My wife, who could swim by the age of six and spent much of her youth in the water, didn’t tip her toe in a man-made swimming pool until she was 14.  My own childhood, as for many other small-town Americans, was similar.  While I did learn in my hometown’s public pool, growing up we mostly swam in various mountain creeks and lakes, some more secluded than others.  One of our favorite spots was under a tall highway bridge on Mountaintown Creek, a perfect little swimming hole where the fast-moving waters of Mountaintown joined with a smaller creek to pause briefly in a wide pool, almost six-feet deep, before rushing downhill again. 

A nice thing about this swimming spot is its mix of warm and cold water, not typical in the mountains.  Because Mountaintown passes through a broad stretch of open pasture  one of the most scenic highway vistas in the county  before reaching the swimming hole, the water is warmer and muddier than most mountain streams when it merges with the cold, clear water of the smaller creek flowing in from the woods. 

Besides recreational splashing, the hole was also used by our church for baptisms, with the whole congregation standing on the banks in their Sunday best singing hymns while new converts were dunked under the muddy water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

The last time I visited this venerated swimming hole was seven or eight years ago when my father and I took my sons and nephews there.  The spot surely held lots of memories for my father as well, since the bridge over the creek is where he and his teenage buddies would hang out back in the 30s. 

On that visit, the younger generation of our family enthusiastically followed our Mountaintown tradition.  The four boys waded right in and had a great time of it, cooling off in a mountain stream and – like their fathers had done on hot summer days too long ago – swimming wild.  

"The Swimming Hole" by Thomas Eakins, 1885.


  1. I can't go to the mountains without going swimming in a mountain stream. Brisk, baby! I think part of the anomaly in the UK is that they're probably not accustomed to thinking of their waterways as clean. What with many centuries of crapping into them and all.

    One thing I was wondering--do you guys have leeches in Finland? If so, do they present a problem when swimming in ponds and lakes?

    Your illustration looks like something out of an Oscar Wilde personal fantasy.

  2. I don't think we have leeches in Finland. In fact, nothing really dangerous in the waters here, no urchins in the sea, etc. Are there leeches in North Carolina? I don't recall that they live in North Georgia, unless they've spread there recently. Just think, with global warming, maybe someday there'll be piranha in the Coosawattee. Scary.

  3. Sure there are leeches, but Finland isn't the Amazon. You probably only find one or two at most in the thick of weeds or some such place. I don't remember ever hearing about any first or second or third-hand accounts of leeches.