Swimming in the Wild Will Change You
One man’s journey through public waterways—whether sparkling or dirty or algae-filled—challenges us to look differently at the commons.
Some months ago, as the weather was first turning warm, I was out walking along the Mill River in New Haven when I saw a young man emerge from the water. He appeared to have gone for a swim wearing nothing more than boxer briefs. The sight was shocking; the river had barely thawed, and I’d always thought the unspoken rule about urban rivers was that you didn’t get into them (especially not half naked). This particular stretch at the base of East Rock Park looked idyllic enough, with willows and elms growing along its banks, but around the bend, the water passed through an industrial area with rotting factories and massive dunes of road salt.
I asked him why he had decided to swim there. Given that a year ago, a sewage spill had dumped more than 2 million tons of waste into the river and the Long Island Sound, and signs had been posted telling people not to get close, I imagined he would address my surprise head-on. But his response was remarkably unneurotic. “This was here, and I felt like swimming,” he said dreamily. I wanted to ask him whether he was worried about getting a rash, or cholera, but didn’t. After he left, I put my hand in the water and considered the river anew. Could I imagine myself going for a swim in this spot?
I might have once filed away swimming in the Mill River under classic case of adolescent insanity, but a year of quarantining has revealed that all kinds of previously unthinkable hobbies are viable, even welcome, forms of leisure. One unforeseen boon of the pandemic has been a newfound attunement to the local, as restricted travel has forced us to tap into our immediate surroundings. Many of us have spent the past year getting to know our block, our park, researching our neighborhood’s histories and monuments, its flora and fauna. Perhaps wild swimming—the practice of swimming in rivers, ponds, and lakes, which I had caught this young man engaging in—could be a new opportunity to pay more attention to the waterways close to home.
Wild swimming is a splashy term for what humans have always done, but the custom was given full shape and expression with the publication of one seminal book. During a drenching rainstorm in the summer of 1996, while taking a swim in the moat behind his Elizabethan farmhouse, the environmentalist and writer Roger Deakin conceived an idea to swim through the waterways of Britain. “I wanted to follow the rain on its meanderings about our land to rejoin the sea,” he wrote, “to break out of the frustration of a lifetime doing lengths.” Inspired by John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer,” in which the protagonist, Ned Merrill, “swims home” via a quasi-subterranean “stream” of backyard swimming pools, Deakin began to imagine a similarly linked byway of lakes, rivers, marshes, and swimming holes across the country. In his early 50s and mourning the end of a long love, Deakin yearned for a “medieval quest.” Like Merlin’s transforming King Arthur into a fish as part of his education, swimming would be a way of “getting under the skin of things, of learning something new.”
The resulting journey became the subject of Roger Deakin’s first book, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, which is now being published stateside for the first time. In the U.K., Waterlog’s publication galvanized a movement. According to Sport England, a national organization that promotes physical exercise, some half a million people in England were regularly taking dips in frigid lakes and streams as of 2020. Wild swimming is so popular that it has sprouted its own industry. Bookstores abound with “swimmoirs” by devotees who claim that the practice does wonders for their health. Today, you can take guided swim tours across the country or even rent out Deakin’s Suffolk home and swim in his moat, an experience the New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead described last year as “starkly beautiful.”
Wild swimming’s popularity may be due, in large part, to the seductions of Deakin’s writing. The liveliness of his prose disarms the skeptic into shaking off natural doubts and hesitancies; his voice is as encouraging as a camp counselor’s. Before his untimely death in 2006, at age 63, Deakin had been a co-founder of the environmental activist group Common Ground, and made a life’s work of promoting outdoor activities such as walking, swimming, and biking. He believed that the most effective way to bond people to the landscape was to engage the pleasure principle. The essayist Olivia Laing has written that “Deakin’s greatest gift—indeed, his legacy—is to make the ecologically minded life a matter of gleeful fun.” Arguably, Waterlog is a memoir in name but a manifesto in deed, inspiring action not by appealing to the reader’s sense of duty or guilt, but by showing how joyful swimming outdoors can be.
Waterlog is, at its most basic, what the title suggests—an assiduous “log” of each of Deakin’s encounters with water. But it’s also a beautiful ode to the act of swimming outdoors that morphs into a rousing reminder of the importance of caring for the commons. Through ecstatic and exacting descriptions of his many swims, Deakin introduces the reader both to the pleasures of outdoor swimming and to the richness of the natural landscape. He paddles about in sun-warmed tide pools and squelches in tidal mud. He bodysurfs around boulders in clear rushing rivers and snorkels with salmon migrating upstream. One section about descending, or “potholing,” into the evocatively named Hell Gill canyon made me stab at the page margins with anxious exclamation marks.
Deakin re-creates the sensuousness and sublimity of his swims so well that at times I found myself holding my breath. “From water level, I observed the mating dragonflies joined in flight like refuelling aircraft, and the random progress of the dandelion clocks that drifted on the thermals over the moat,” Deakin observes. “I kept meeting a solitary whirligig beetle making its way from one end to the other in a series of loops and circles like calligraphy.” An eel is “so mottled and green and varnished in mucus it could be an uprooted plant, a mandrake root come to life.” This is travel at its most intimate, among invisible denizens one would normally ignore. After reading, you’d be hard-pressed to waste time enduring the boredom of swimming laps in a sterile pool.
Waterlog is simultaneously a travelogue, a history, and an environmental treatise, as each swim provides an occasion to delve into local and natural lore. Deakin haunts the Cambridge University Library’s map room, tracking down “esoteric swims” and researching how certain bodies of water around the U.K. were once used. A trip to Malvern, a spa town, allows him to explore a Victorian version of hydrotherapy. Patients were wrapped in wet cloth and dunked in cold water before breakfast, marched through the forest for an open-air shower before lunch, then submerged in a cold bath before dinner. (Charles Darwin was a famous patient; he first arrived in Malvern depressed and unable to write, but became so convinced of hydrotherapy’s efficacy that he returned three more times.)
Deakin often finds himself searching for water that no longer matches its past description. Around Cambridge, hunting for Aristotle’s Well, an “unusually pure and cold well” that Samuel Pepys once drank from as an undergraduate during the summer of 1653, Deakin discovers only a soggy field and “an ancient brick structure like a buried egg,” covered with a concrete lid. The Granta was once clear, but too many fertilizers now leach off the adjacent land, and the river is choked in waterweed. Along the banks of the Dart, people used to pass the time watching otters play, but chemicals from a carpet factory polluted the water, and the otters died. A deep sense of loss pervades these scenes.
Although Deakin writes evocatively of his many swims in pristine places, his less salubrious excursions were the ones I found most moving. Dare to make a commitment, he seems to be urging himself as he descends into the “chocolate water” of an urban canal. He makes himself swim in the arsenic-contaminated Red River, and in mucky bays possibly filled with E. coli and excrement. One of the most bittersweet chapters describes his swim in the inimitable River Lark, which old-timers remember as “sparkling and transparent,” so clean that baptisms were once performed there. When Deakin visits, it has been polluted, culverted, and degraded beyond recognition. He follows the river as it flows through a Tesco parking lot: “I witnessed the public humiliation of the Jordan of the Fens. By the Bury St. Edmunds Tesco, I sat down and wept.”
At its core, Waterlog is animated by a desire to protect waterways not just from various forms of environmental degradation, but from what Deakin perceives to be the degrading forces of governmental overreach and privatization. To demonstrate the former, Deakin visits members of one family that has been swimming in a local river for generations, who appear hale and lively despite repeated warnings from the Environment Agency that their activities are unsafe. In a letter, which Deakin quotes at length, the agency cites the possible risks: sewage effluent; leptospires, bacteria carried in animal urine that can result in death; and dangerous currents. The letter sums up: “I would strongly recommend that children are discouraged from swimming in the river but are taken to a local swimming pool instead.”
By juxtaposing staid bureaucratic speech with a scene of ordinary people reveling (for free) in a familiar stretch of water, Deakin is attempting to right our upside-down notion that swimming in sanctioned places is the only proper way to swim. He writes:
Most of us live in a world where more and more places and things are signposted, labelled, and officially “interpreted.” There is something about all this that is turning the reality of things into virtual reality. It is the reason why walking, cycling, and swimming will always be subversive activities. They allow us to regain a sense of what is old and wild in these islands, by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.
Throughout the book, Deakin good-humoredly waves off water bailiffs and coast guards and other well-meaning authorities who are constantly swooping in to tell him that his swimming is prohibited, but he never acknowledges the validity of the official position. The cautious reader knows that there are times when swimming in a polluted river or harbor might present a public-health risk. The CDC estimates that 1 million cases of leptospirosis occur annually worldwide, the majority of them in tropical or subtropical regions; 59,000 end in death. Though deaths are rare in the U.S. and U.K., they have been reported: In 2010, the British Olympic rowing champion Andy Holmes died of Weil’s disease, caused by Leptospira bacteria, which may have entered his body through blisters on his hands.
Waterlog has too much evangelical fervor for its cause to address these risks; Deakin’s swims are as much exercises of political will as they are exercises of personal wellness. A defiant plunge in the River Itchen, for instance—a body of water that, at the time of Deakin’s visit, had been repurposed for “leisure enterprises” such as trout fishing, available only to the paying elite—sets the stage for a central ideological debate about public access. In the memorable scene, Deakin trespasses and is confronted, predictably, by a river keeper and an angry porter with a big dog. “Does that fence mean anything to you?” the two men shout. Caught dripping wet and standing half naked in a nettle patch, Deakin holds his ground:
“But surely,” I said sweetly, “we should all have access to swim in our rivers just as we should be free to walk in our own countryside. Don’t they belong to all of us?”
The River Keeper practically fell off his bike. The porter flushed a deeper strawberry and allowed the Alsatian a little closer to my person.
Reading this lighthearted exchange while America is reckoning with its violent policing history, I couldn’t help but think how quickly this same situation could have escalated here for a Black or brown swimmer. Historically, swimming in unsanctioned places in the U.S. has proved deadly for people of color. As the historian Andrew W. Kahrl has written, in 1919 Chicago, Eugene Williams, a Black teenager, accidentally drifted over to a customarily “whites only” section of Lake Michigan, and drowned after rocks were hurled at him from shore. When police officers refused to arrest the suspect whom witnesses identified as the rock thrower, protests erupted, then riots. A Chicago resident, Dempsey Travis, later recounted: “I was never permitted to learn to swim [as a boy]. For six years, we lived within two blocks of the lake, but that did not change [my parents’] attitude. To Dad and Mama, the blue lake always had a tinge of red from the blood of that young black boy.”
In ensuing decades, segregation and other exclusionary practices continued to isolate swimmers of different racial and economic backgrounds. Kahrl notes that in New Orleans, during the Jim Crow era, African Americans prohibited from using Pontchartrain Beach bathed at Lincoln Beach, a remote location bordered by polluting fishing operations. Though segregation was explicit in the South, in the Northeast, exclusion was enforced by other means: “resident only” beaches, high fees, and lack of public transportation to swimming areas, which made certain beaches effectively off-limits to the urban poor and people of color. Unequal access to safe bodies of water had life-threatening consequences. In Connecticut, for example, during the 1960s, the drowning deaths of several children from housing projects spurred protests and “wade-ins” in wealthy neighborhoods, such as Madison, to call attention to the disparities between the town’s well-appointed, lifeguarded beaches and the dangerous rivers running through Hartford.
Although Deakin never directly addresses the risk of “swimming while Other”—nor engages with America’s specific history—he does make exceedingly clear that water is inherently political. Our survival depends on it; our bodies are made of it; conflicts are fought over it. Swimming, an act of immersion in this vital medium, forces one to care, intimately, about where the water comes from and where it’s going. Whether one can wild-swim safely in one’s community can serve as a valuable indicator of environmental and economic well-being. Is your waterway buried under concrete or daylighted and available for use? Is it polluted? Is it cordoned off, cut up into parcels of private property? As these questions unspool, one begins to see that Deakin’s insistence on wild swimming for all is really an insistence on a better ecosystem for all.
Judging from the #wildswimming hashtag on social media alone, it might be easy to dismiss the activity as yet another pastime for the nature-starved urban elite. But on this front, my post-Waterlog thoughts surprise me. While environmental movements can sometimes feel myopic and self-congratulatory in any ecosystem, every small change accumulates and trickles down and has resounding effects. If the mandate is that all waterways must be swimmable again, then a ripple effect of other consequences follows. Water quality must be better monitored, the public must recommit itself to swimming literacy, and waterway access must be opened up. As a result, people become happier and healthier for less, and environmental health improves. It’s an optimistic reverie that may take generations to see to fruition—given our long, painful history—but one worth having.
At least one thing is certain: Waterlog will ignite an urgent desire to go swimming. I went to Schreeder Pond in Connecticut’s Chatfield Hollow State Park (free for state residents), and parked by the beach. The pond was surrounded by pine trees, and the water had an amber tint, like tea, from tannins left by forest debris. But otherwise the water was crystal clear and cold. I could see baby fish darting in the shallows. Step by step—shin, knee, thigh, hip—then panting through the shock of full immersion, I settled my body into the cold. I swam, as Deakin would have said, at “frog’s-eye view,” watching water skimmers trace golden swirls of pollen across the surface. Cormorants were hunting and diving in one section of the pond; a great blue heron stood sentry along another shore, looking like a whiskered old sage with his hands clasped behind his back. I flipped over and looked at the sky, vibrantly blue, and thought about what Deakin said about water’s power to cure. After more than a year in pandemic isolation, most of us could benefit from a swim like this: a healing experience that costs practically nothing. After a few lengths back and forth, my limbs felt tingly, numb, wonderful. Cue Deakin: “I can dive in with a long face and what feels like a terminal case of depression, and come out a whistling idiot.”
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