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I Love That Dirty Water: Swimming The Charles River

When I told people I was going swimming in the Charles, the response was either “Ewww,” or, “Can I come too?”

When an email from Charles River Conservancy offered me the chance to take part in the first community swim in 50 years, I didn’t hesitate.

When I told people I was going swimming in the Charles, the response was either “Ewww,” or, “Can I come too?”

I have been crazy in love with the Charles since I moved to Boston in 1975. I walk its banks almost daily, grateful for birdsong and shade in summer, silence and open sky in winter. When I’m driving and catch a glimpse of the water — blue or grey depending on the sky — I say, “Look at that! Isn’t it beautiful?” — whether or not anyone else is in the car.

I’ve traveled the river on a tour boat, a powerboat, a duck boat, a sailboat and a canoe. If you’ve never seen the city from the middle of the Charles, you should. The perspective and maybe the buoyancy let you see even the most familiar landmarks with new eyes. The bridges you’ve crossed a thousand thoughtless times may become favorite works of public art.

I have also been underwater in the Charles. Many years ago, the sailboat I was in capsized. The rescue (thanks to Community Boating) was quick, but the mast got stuck in the mud, which is where the century-old toxins and smelly sludge still lodge, so I got a nose full of what ails our river. I took an epic hot shower when I got home, but even back then, no tetanus shot was required.

The author happily treads water in the Charles. (Courtesy)
The author happily treads water in the Charles. (Courtesy)

Today, the Charles is one of the cleanest rivers in the United States and most days meets the standards for safe swimming. So it was with little trepidation that I arrived at the River Dock on the Esplanade, not far from the Hatch Shell, on July 13.

This was not a distance event — no swimming from Boston to Cambridge, which is what I had imagined. This was a carefully monitored and symbolic event, with 150 participants — ages 12 and way up — paddling around in groups of 30. We were limited to a roped-off area the size of a large swimming pool, with lifeguards in kayaks nearby. There was barely enough room for the few intrepid lap swimmers to cross without bumping into the rest of us, who were treading water, grinning and chatting about how cool it was to be there.

Before I went in and saw that most folks were happily bareheaded, I left my cap and goggles on shore and jumped in, feet first. The water was cool and silky. The yellow-brown color is what inspired the Standell’s song, “Dirty Water,” but it’s just a natural organic stain, common in slow-moving rivers and lakes.

It was a little slice of Boston heaven. Plans for next year are already afloat. I can’t wait.

I did the breaststroke for a while, but mostly I floated on my back, like an otter, noticing the top of the Citgo sign peeking from behind trees in full leaf, the squat MIT dome on the far shore, the skylines of two cities, and the parade of joggers and walkers staring at the maniacs in the water.

I chatted with strangers, several of whom remembered swimming in the Charles as children — from Magazine Beach in Cambridge, along the Esplanade and downstream from the Longfellow Bridge. “I never thought I’d be able to do this,” one woman said.

It was a little slice of Boston heaven. Plans for next year are already afloat. I can’t wait.


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This program aired on July 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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