Editor’s note: This article was originally published July 9, 2013
Swimming holes are like fine chocolate, wine or Italian food - I could spend an entire vacation sampling them, debating their merits, and ranking them in order of best to worst.
Which is what I did on a recent trip to Massachusetts to visit some much-loved friends. Between catching a fireworks show, watching whales and eating lobster rolls on the beach, we made it a point to dip our toes into four fresh-water ponds scattered from Cape Cod to Concord.
We hit the first, Reservoir Beach, in the Boston suburb of Arlington, the morning of July Fourth, when it was packed with kids in swim diapers and families tossing balls. A man-made quasi-pond with a separated swim area that’s chlorinated and filtered, it sneaks in at the bottom of my list.
We waded into murky water topped with leaves, stems and narrow blades of grass, sort of like candy sprinkles on ice cream. Despite the crowds, shallow water and definitely-not-for-distance-swimmers environs, I never turn up my nose too much at an outdoor swimming pool. We cooled off for an hour, picnicked under a shade tree and admired the scenery.
Things only got better when we headed to Cape Cod the next day.
Shortly after settling in, we headed to Flax Pond, a golden dewdrop of an oasis plopped in the midst of a stand of pine trees. Besides a few dogs and their owners, no one else seemed to know the place existed, which earns big points in my book.
I waded into the tea-colored water, then plunged in full bore. I swam to the center, twirled around, dove straight down and surfaced like an otter. Thirty minutes later I sloshed toward the sandy beach, emerging like Godzilla from the sea, sparkling rivulets of water rolling off my skin.
But the best was yet to come.
The next morning, we headed to Scargo Lake, a beach out of a 1960s summer camp: White-washed wooden lifeguard stands, kids with buckets and shovels and a roped-off swim area.
I leaped right in, swam out to the middle of the sandy-bottomed pond and then kept going all the way across. The water here was clearer and crisper than at Flax. I glided half a mile down, turned around and came back, winking at the ducks flapping overhead and smiling at the two people on paddleboards. I day dreamed a little, too, about what it would be like to live in one of the houses that backs up to the water.
Something about swimming this way, in a deep, kettle-shaped pool designed by nature, without stripes on the bottom to guide me or walls to constrain me or chlorine to tickle my nose, makes me blissfully happy.
It turns out Cape Cod is covered with ponds. Just look at a map - there are so many, and most visitors are so bent on heading to the ocean, that they’re practically ignored.
My last pond visit came after we left The Cape and headed back to Boston.
Walden Pond is the quintessential swimming pool, tucked in a slice of piney woods so heavenly all you want to do is jump in, roll onto your back and smile up at the gods who created it. No wonder Henry David Thoreau spent two years here in the 1840s, reveling in its beauty and writing about its solitude.
I have but one complaint: Today Walden Pond draws great crowds, especially on hot summer weekends. If you don’t arrive by about 9 a.m., you’re told to leave and come back another time. Because Walden Pond State Reservation operators are trying to minimize impact and limit overcrowding, you have to really want to go to Walden Pond to get there.
We, of course, did. We parked at a nearby school and walked three-quarters of a mile to the pond. As soon as I saw it glistening in front of me, I got that giddy feeling I always got as a kid when my mom took me to the pool or lake. We veered away from the tiny but bustling beach and found a cozy little inlet to stash our towels and ease into the water.
Walden Pond is the living, breathing happy place I imagine when I’m trying to relax. It’s a giant bowl of cool green water rimmed by a halo of boulders and shaded by tall pines standing shoulder to shoulder.
The open-water swimming community is on to it, and at least a dozen people were slicing across the half-mile length of the pond when we arrived. We quickly joined them, swimming to the center of the lake. Out there in the middle I paused to spin around, absorbing the beauty and serenity and dipping my toes low, into a deep layer of cold.
This, my fellow swimmers, was the best.
Now I’m on a mission. I’m going back to Massachusetts, and with each visit I’m going to check out new ponds. Happily, it’s going to take a good long time.