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Wild Blue Yonder

Swimming in cement? Give me seaweed and sand

Four or five mornings each week, I glide back and forth across what Jethro Bodine of the 1960s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies would describe as a cement pond. As much as I appreciate these swim practices, led by a coach who stands on deck and hollers instructions that keep me healthy and fit, I prefer a wild swim over a dip in a blue rectangle of chlorinated water any day.

Wild swims—in rivers, lakes and oceans—come with undulating aquatic plants, squishy mud and rogue waves. Sometimes they include appearances by aquatic creatures like fish and turtles or even snakes and sharks. There are no formal black stripes or lines of buoys to ensure straight swimming, and flip turns are all but impossible.

I like living my life a little out of bounds, so I count all these things as positives. They make swimming feel a little less civilized and more like a daring adventure.

For years, when I worked as a staff writer at the Austin-American Statesman, I crisscrossed Barton Springs Pool in Austin at noon once a week. Sometimes I’d watch cormorants dive deep into the blue-green depths, hunting for lunch. I’d see crawfish prowl the mucky bottom and thumb-sized silvery fish swirl beneath limestone ledges.

What’s the appeal? No chlorine, for one. My eyes don’t turn red and sting after too much time in a natural swimming hole. I don’t mind getting dirty, and I like to observe the native life. In a secluded setting, I also can’t resist skinny-dipping, a pastime generally frowned upon at public pools but perfectly acceptable during backpacking trips into the wilderness.

For me, wilder is better.

I’ve leaped into the gin-clear waters of the Devils and Pecos rivers in West Texas, swam in all seven of the Highland Lakes, and soaked in a fern-lined stretch of the Blanco River that reminds me of Shangri-La. I’ve swum alongside dolphins in Hawaii, whale sharks in Mexico and humpback whales in the Dominican Republic.

During a relay swim race across Lake Tahoe, I got distracted watching shafts of light flicker into the 1,644-foot depths. Once I swam, as one-half of a two-woman team, a combined 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island—up the East River, through the Harlem River and down the Hudson River. (Each one had its own distinctive flavor, as my partner says.)

I don’t care if I can’t see the bottom.

I don’t mind if a minnow nips my toes. Some days, I almost expect a mermaid to rise from the blue, and that would be OK, too. To me, swimming is like getting a full-body hug from Mother Nature. And I love hugs.