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Walden Has Always Been For Everyone. Don't Make Swimming Across It A Crime

Walden Pond beach in Concord, Mass in 2019. (John Greim/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Walden Pond beach in Concord, Mass in 2019. (John Greim/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Update: After public outcry, the Baker administration says it will allow open water swimming at Walden Pond again — with some caveats. Read more here.

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Boston might like to think of itself as the “hub of the universe,” but it has nothing on Walden Pond.

On a broiling day, you can walk the path around the pond and observe a multiracial, multilingual spectrum of Massachusetts denizens, congregating under the red maples for one of life’s most elemental pleasures — an open water swim. This could mean swimming across the entire pond, or simply floating in one of the pond’s secluded coves. It’s a centuries-old draw. Before Henry David Thoreau planted his beans here, the pond was home to Indigenous peoples and formerly enslaved Black Concord residents who built their own community in the Walden Woods. As the historian Laura Walls put it, Walden Pond was a place where you could “live out life on the margins of society, without anybody minding too much.”

Today, as a state reservation, Walden holds another distinction. It’s one of the few publicly accessible swimming ponds in the Greater Boston area. While many swimming venues in or around the city are only for paying members or local residents, Walden is there for everyone. That’s not to say there aren’t structural barriers — it’s tricky to reach the pond without a car unless you’re game for walking a few miles of trail from the Lincoln commuter rail station. But in a nation with a history of segregation at swimming holes, a pond like Walden is a precious gem.

But in a nation with a history of segregation at swimming holes, a pond like Walden is a precious gem.

It’s no wonder, then, that Massachusetts residents were outraged last Friday when the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation announced a new set of swimming restrictions for Walden Pond. For the indefinite future, swimming will only be allowed in roped-in areas with beaches. Anyone who’s ever visited Walden knows what a blow this is to the Walden experience. The pond is reliably bustling, so typically, you walk the path with your beach towel and find a good place to “put in.” Limiting swimming to only a few designated areas would be like closing all but one of the trails on Mount Washington — a concentration of recreational activity to one tight space. The new rules will dramatically shrink Walden Pond’s capacity for swimming, and those who break them risk a hefty fine.

The Walden restrictions were announced by the DCR just as Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled new legislation that would increase fines for open water swimming in any undesignated waterfronts in the state (i.e., waterfronts without roped-in swim zones or lifeguards). It’s unclear how the state would consistently enforce these rules — there’s a lot of waterfront to cover, and not many lifeguards — but those caught swimming in open water could be fined as much as $500. Baker’s bill is a reaction to the alarming spate of drownings in Massachusetts lately — 28 people in May and June. The latest fatality occurred just off Castle Island last Thursday. In a press release, Baker described his proposed open water swimming fines as a means of discouraging “dangerous” swimming and ensuring “the safety of visitors to our state parks and beaches.”

[The drownings] also speak to deep racial inequities.

The drownings point to a nationalized trend. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans have acquainted themselves with the joy of outdoor recreation. Naturally, when more of us go hiking, biking or swimming, more accidents are likely to happen. Last October, New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Colonel Kevin Jordan noted an uptick in climbing accidents and drownings in the Granite State. This summer, search and rescue teams in Colorado have observed a surge of distress calls from hikers. The drownings in Massachusetts have occurred in both natural waters and in pools, but they speak to a widespread thirst for time spent outdoors.

They also speak to deep racial inequities. Some of the deceased have been Black people or people of color. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate at which Black people drown is 1.5 times higher than for white people — and for Black children, the rate is 3.6 times higher than it is for white kids. Access to pools and swimming lessons is a telling factor behind these stats. Worse yet, a 2017 report from the USA Swimming Foundation found that 79% of youth from households with less than $50,000 annual income had little to no swimming abilities.

Open water swimming can be dangerous in certain scenarios — particularly, wading out into the ocean, where currents can whisk people away into deeper waters. But with a foundational understanding of how to swim and what to watch out for, open water swimming is a highly effective means of staying in shape, enduring summer heatwaves, and feeling at peace. Calm waters like those at Walden are the ideal venue for open water swimming of all types. And given how many similar ponds and lakes in Massachusetts are already closed to swimmers, it’s no wonder that the Walden rule-change has sent shockwaves through Greater Boston. An online petition to reverse the restrictions has already amassed more than 9,000 signatures; comments from signatories alluding to the mental health benefits of swimming (especially during a pandemic).

The drowning crisis is ultimately a crisis of access and the state should be working to rectify this ...

The drowning crisis is ultimately a crisis of access and the state should be working to rectify this, not criminalizing people who want to cool off but don’t have a pool or a country club membership. Imagine if Baker had responded to the drownings with a bill that would establish universal swimming lessons for K-12 students in Massachusetts. Consider the ripple effects of opening up more Massachusetts ponds and lakes for swimming? In the wake of the drownings, the state has begun to hire more lifeguards at a higher wage: an acknowledgment of the heightened demand for swimming. Why not go further and address the roots of the problem?

Unfortunately, for now, it will be incumbent on Massachusetts residents to demand this shift. But the new swimming restrictions at Walden Pond — the epitome of Baker’s wrongheaded approach to the recent drownings — may give even the most privileged swimmers some skin in the game. Antipathy toward public resources, a recurring theme of Baker’s governorship, has a way of spoiling the places we share. We should ensure that the freedom of access to Walden is restored — but better yet, we must enshrine access to swimming as a right for everyone.

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This article was originally published on July 07, 2021.

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Miles Howard Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Miles Howard is a freelance writer who covers culture, travel and transformational politics.

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