Yankee magazine has done a swimming hole list. New Hampshire magazine has, too. Heck, even the BBC published a short list of Vermont swimming holes a few years ago. There are entire websites and Facebook pages dedicated solely to swimming holes. I guess some people are well-traveled connoisseurs of these refreshing summer haunts, but I like the old familiar ones best.
There’s a swimming hole down the road I’ve visited since I was a child, where I return now with kids and dog on the hottest, muggiest days – or just when we need something easy to do away from the house. It’s not the deepest or the most beautiful, and it’s certainly no secret. But it’s conveniently close to home, and it offers endless cool fun on the long, hot dog days of summer.
My brothers and I splashed in this same spot when we were kids. For us, who came to the mountains mainly during winter, the river was a summer wonder. We were used to crossing the small bridge spanning the Ham Branch when its current was concealed in thick layers of snow and ice, a mere silvery sliver of moving water visible through all that white.
Sometimes, though, we found our way north in the summer. On hot days we’d make the short trek down from the house to find the river transformed in its summer color. We built dams and watched tiny fish swim through the water, threw rocks just to see the splashes they’d create. All things kids at rivers have probably always done. Things my kids at this river do now.
Some days we come to the swimming hole prepared with towels and snacks and snorkeling masks for peering through the moving water to see what’s below the surface. Often there are cars parked along both sides of the road, with sunbathers, splashers, and swimmers strewn upstream and down. Sometimes we have the spot all to ourselves.
The best swimming is right below the grated metal bridge, which hums with the occasional passing rumble of car or pickup truck tires. We wander the rocky river islands seeking flat stones for skimming and throw sticks into the deepest water for the dog, who prefers the crispness of winter to the heat and biting bugs of summer. I think swimming is summer’s sole redemption in the dog’s mind.
The spot where my brothers and I used to pile rocks as big as we could carry in a futile attempt to alter the water’s flow is a bit wider now than it was 30 years ago. But someone – or, likely, a series of someones – has extended the dam. Rocks are added and removed probably with each visitor. My children consult with each other as they work on their own renovations to the dam, placing fist-sized stones in the larger breaches, handfuls of pebbles to fill the gaps between, sand and clay to cover it all until the next rain and rising current.
The river flows through anyway, a comforting gurgle of water moving easily downstream.
Other times our swimming hole outings are brief. We stop by on the way home for a quick dip, or run down after dinner to cool off before bedtime. On one such evening venture a couple of years ago, as we stood with our toes in the water, my brother and sister-in-law came floating down the river in inner tubes, along with a pair of friends and a cooler (in its very own tube) ferrying refreshments. Cool rivers on hot nights are not just for kids and dogs, after all.
I’ve visited other swimming holes, of course. There’s one a bit further upstream where we happily slip and slide down gentle, flowing waterfalls, like river otters playing in the waves along the worn-smooth boulders. We sometimes go south to the Pemi, finding cool pockets of water pooled in smooth rock basins carved deep by eons of flowing water. We have found bullfrogs and thousands of tadpoles swimming in shallow concavities near the edge of the Pemi and huge, juicy blackberries nearby.
I have dipped into the deep, perfect pool at the base of Bridal Veil Falls, a sweet reward for a not-too-strenuous hike. One summer during college I leapt from cliff ledges along some Vermont river into the cool expanse below. I have waded into the almost unbearable chill of high alpine lakes in Colorado, enveloped in solitude and impossible beauty.
I am, like most of us probably, part intrepid explorer and part contented homebody. I love to wander to new places and experiences. But often I find myself returning to the familiar, to the places of my good memories. Places like my old standby swimming hole. It’s not the most scenic or secret or secluded. But it’s a darned good place to be on a hot summer day.
Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the July 24, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.