I began the summer with two simple goals: grow a garden and find a place to swim, a place to cool down and clean up after hoeing and weeding, a watery area to call our own, a swimming hole. We live on the New River, one of the oldest rivers, flowing north out of the Carolina mountains and through Virginia on its way to the Ohio. The New is the cleanest mainstem river in Virginia by all accounts, but rarely will you see people swimming in it. They mostly paddle and fish, sometimes tube on this stretch, but rarely will you see swimmers, people out swimming, taking a leisurely and refreshing dip.
I grew up in a town on the Delaware, also a river town, but with a whole river culture. The houses all face the water, high up on the bank. And down on the river, people have boat docks, platforms to swim from. In Radford, the river almost seems an afterthought to town planners. In some places, one has to traverse six lanes of railroad tracks to get to it. At 58-acre Bisset Park, with about a half-mile of river bank, there’s no official access.
I swam in the Delaware River, bathed in it—it cleansed me. Used to keep a bar of soap on a barrel under the dock. My friend Michael and I would try to jump in earlier each spring, later and later each fall. I made it to November once, when the river was low and clear. Jumped in once late March, the river breathtakingly cold, bragging-rights cold.
To most people, even swimming in the river was crazy. “You swim in that river?” A common view is that rivers are merely cesspools, sewage transport. Some of them are. According to the EPA, 40 percent of America’s rivers are not clean enough to swim in. But some of them, thanks to the Clean Water Act, are cleaner than ever. Fresh water, cool, clean water, running downstream from some forested hillside that collects and distributes rain.
But something else keeps people out of the river too. David Sobel defines ecophobia as a fear of the natural world but also its deterioration. Because there’s so much bad news about the environment, children disassociate themselves from it, like a victim of abuse “cutting themselves off from the pain.” For Sobel, children fear nature, too, because so much of their learning about it is abstract. They study rainforests, for example, that are far removed from home. All kids really need to feel comfortable in the natural world is “modeling by a responsible adult,” contact with nature and an adult to help them form a relationship.
If there is something like ecophobia, perhaps it manifests itself most often in and around natural water courses. I have heard more than one kid confuse crayfish with crabs, and refuse to go in the water because of either. They ask if there are sharks in the river or other creatures that bite, such as water moccasins (found only miles south and east of here). No toe-eating bass, though a rabid otter did bite (nay maul in her words) a woman this summer in upstream Claytor Lake (where the New is impounded by a dam), a story the newspaper felt worthy of the front page: “Deranged Otter Attacks Pregnant Woman.” “It was like a scene from Jaws,” noted one witness.
A friend once told me that she swims only when she can see bottom. “Who knows what could be down there,” she tells me. “I need to see my feet.” When I touted the cleanliness of the New River in class, a student said: “That river? But it’s not blue.” The paint on the bottoms of swimming pools and the spring break brochures had convinced her of water’s hue. Swimming in the river is so aberrant that my friend Mark was mistaken for committing suicide by drowning. He waded in to cool his shin splints after a run and woman came waving and hollering across the grass from the parking lot, “Don’t do it! Don’t!”
I have set two more ongoing goals: to help my daughter forge a bond with the natural world and develop a sense of physical competence and adventure, both readily fostered in boys but overlooked in girls as a basis for a forming a strong, independent self. She will often have to swim against the currents (so hard for some girls to fight) of front-page glossies: how to be chic, how to fit in, how to be completely anxious about you are. Older brother Sam would rather fish, but six-year-old Elliot acts like a fish, wriggling with delight whenever in or around water.
She has mostly avoided the fear of the watery world beneath the surface, that water horror of traps, hidden depths, old rusty cars and weeds waiting to grab hold of a leg or foot. Admittedly, sometimes something brushes my leg, or I touch something squishy and I move fast. But it’s always nothing, just me twitching. For the most part, kids get over the ick factor fast, rolling up the seaweed into balls or bombs, draping it over their hair to make crowns, or the locks of Medusa. Part of the fun of swimming in a river is overcoming that fear, knowing that we can ride that wave.
With the New, the fear of natural water is compounded by the fact that we live several miles downstream from a hydroelectric dam. The water is thought to rise suddenly, producing a surge, even a wave. At a picnic, I once approached our mayor about the possibility of an access area in the park, a Bisset Beach, asking him to leave questions of liability aside for the moment. “I don’t know. That river rises awful fast.” He couldn’t leave liability aside.
It doesn’t help that the river is rumored to have been called “The River of Death.” I can find mention of this name only in Patricia Givens Johnson’s New River Early Settlement, which notes that the “Indians of West Virginia” called it this, but there was no West Virginia then, not even a Virginia. The Shawnee are said to have called it Keninskeha, which means “river of evil spirits,” and in the New River Gorge of West Virginia, the river is much more dangerous. An almost countervailing myth, were it not historically accurate, concerns the story of Mary Draper Ingles, kidnapped by the Shawnee and taken all the way to the Ohio. To find her way home, for 43 days, she would have to “follow the river,” a historical novel by James Thom.
The river can certainly rise fast in flood conditions, sometimes flooding the park and the freshman parking lots near Radford University. But no one I know swims during (or after) storms. From April 15 to October 15 the Claytor Hydro Plant performs an annual “run of the river” release, a levelized operation “designed to accommodate recreational needs and activities downstream from the dam on New River.” The USGS hosts a website of real-time data, revealing the discharges and gauge height of the New. In August, the graph spikes twice a day, enough to raise the tailwater elevation at most a half a foot, but mostly it levels off, a consistent 1,730 feet above sea level.
Other than from heavy rains, the river rises once a year. On October 15, American Electric Power performs a “drawdown,” lowering the lake elevation so property owners can make repairs to their docks. On that day, Radford residents have reported a bubble of up to four feet high. Sherriff Mark Armentrout tells me he has ridden it some 30 river miles to Pearisburg on a jet ski.
I don’t mean to downplay the dangers of the New, for every year someone drowns in it. But my kids have picked up on the erroneous perception that you can be walking along in shallow water and all of sudden be sucked into a deep hole, as if there was an undertow in a river. When the depth of a river changes fast, its underwater secret is most often revealed on the surface, in the form eddies, swirls, or bubbles. These and the swift water of certain places, such at the gorge in West Virginia, or flood conditions, are to be avoided. My job as parent is to help them read the water, test the current, and assess the risk.
The search for a swimming hole has taken on some urgency because my city has closed down the only public pool. Citing maintenance costs and neglect, they closed the pool in the park overlooking the river, filling it in with soil and covering it over with grass.
This is the second pool the city has closed. We had one made in the valley of another park, Wildwood Park, with water fed by a New River tributary. The December 20, 1928, Radford News-Journal said that “for adults and for children alike, provision for adequate recreation is important” and so they endorsed a new pool. It was to be “a new place of assemblage, where people of various groups will come together, play together.” The pool opened on Independence Day in 1929 and averaged more than 400 people a day despite its cold conditions due to cold creek-fed water and shade from the nearby steep hillsides.
But in 1964, citing neglect and maintenance costs, the pool closed. In 1964 a series of cultural changes were also sweeping through the South. On July 6, 1964, the News-Journal carried this report. “Integration came to the city of Radford Sunday at the public swimming pool. A family of Negroes requested entrance at the gate of the pool. Their money was refused, but they entered the pool.” City officials did not comment. In 1977 the pool was filled with dirt, covered over with grass.
There’s a swim club nearby, a private pool—chlorine sterile—but it requires us to buy stock to belong. I’d rather put my stock in the river, even if it means my kids have poor swimming form: they are doggie paddlers and nose holders, clueless around a diving board, even more so about the pre-teen strutting and towel snapping at pool’s edge.
So we head down to the river, where no one is refused, cross the grass of the soccer field and nearby playground, kids (can we come?) and their parents (can you do that?) looking on, past the NO SWIMMING sign (merely for liability), to a small opening in the trees. We climb down the roots, the rebar of the river bank, stay away from the poison ivy, and drape our shirts on nearby branches. With a whiff of the river silt, I am a boy again floating down the Delaware. Then we walk out the gravely bottom (old sneakers help), past the shade of the leaners, and release our bodies to the current, let the gentle flow caress us, wedge toes on the rocky bottom. No need to fear hidden feet: we can look down and spot skipping stones when the water is waist-high.
There’s a spot under the railroad bridge with a bedrock bottom, ideal for bridge pillars, also good for swimming holes. But in the water we see railroad tie spikes and tie plates (do they come loose and fall?), and then hear the hoot and rumble of the train overhead. This spot is also used for beer drinking and fishing (ubiquitous bait cups and eagle claw packages), probably at the same time, and so feels a little junky—the vista is also closed off by rough-cut stone pillars and an iron bridge above, a rust rain when the locomotive passes over. Another spot looks good from the bike trail, but the current is a little swift, the rocky beach too filled with glass and pottery shards. In another, near the islands upstream from town, and the fish weir believed to be left by Indians—just up from the remains of Ingles Ferry—Elliot jumps out of the canoe. One leg sinks thigh-high in mud, the other remains in the boat, it slowly pushing away from shore.
In pursuit of a good swimming hole, we’ve even expanded the search to a two hundred-mile radius from home. There are many good ones in this mountain region. All you need is some running water, some seclusion, and a depression in the nearby stream-bed causing or eliciting joy. To narrow down the search, we are aided by the internet, specifically swimminghole.org, a not-for-profit website focusing on “moving, fresh water spots . . . especially beautiful or fun for swimming.”
On Memorial Day weekend, we try our first, Blue Bend in West Virginia, with nearby camping and a “family friendly” designation. Elliot and I swim out to a gravel bar and then across another deep stretch to the other side. Then we hold hands and run until we fall in the water, stroke back to the other side, and repeat. We kick up silt, bits of mica that the minnows swim after, swimming with us.
The next day, we go to a more remote hole, nearby Hippy Hole (“bathing suits may be optional”). The information is always anecdotal: “very shortly you will ford the creek and in a short distance more you will come to a trail junction. Go left and when the trail comes back to Anthony’s Creek and makes a sharp bend left you will be at Hippy.” When we arrive, others are camping there (damn hippies), so we wade downstream and find eddies. Cold mountain water tumbles though the tall canyon on the first warm day of spring. We sit in thrones, impressions in the rock, and let the stream surround our feet, legs, waist.
Next to Devil’s Bathtub, “not really close to anywhere.” The mile and a half trail takes you through a luxuriant forest, up an old logging road framed by laurels and hemlock, the forest floor damp with rattlesnake orchid (Goodyera pubescens) and many mushrooms, some rose-red and some that look like coral. The walk feels like a quest through some forest primeval, a river Styx, but nothing satanic about it. After many stream crossings, the cascades grow in size and frequency until we arrive at a crystal clear pool, a small waterfall crashing into it, ledges on both sides that could be benches for Naiads.
Above it, there is a section of rock scooped out by water, in the shape of a tub, water tripping over bedrock steps and swirling currents into the tub, only the water is not warm like a bath. It is cold, bone tingling cold, but so invigorating. The rocks there are moss covered, slippery, and we try to slide on them, but no waterslide exists in nature: one is always reminded that what one’s bottom bumps over is rock. A guy we meet on his horse says he hasn’t been back there since he was a kid: “That water will take your breath away, buddy.” We also see a copperhead on the way up that takes our breath away.
Then to the nearby Cascades, a lacy sixty-foot waterfall at the end of a two-mile hike. We go on the hottest day of the year, a 100 degree day, with three other neighborhood kids, and meet a man who drove two and a half hours from Charlottesville to get here. He swims out in the deep water, but the kids hug the shore, jump off small rocks, hide behind the waterfall curtain, laughter echoing over the rocks. “This has to be the best swimming hole,” the man says. “I’ll be back.” So will we. We try Dismal Falls but it’s too close to the road, and because so, there is trash: tampons and toilet paper, bottle caps and butts, a pair of sunglasses hanging from a knot in a tree, a rubber raft. One wonders what would happen if the falls weren’t named Dismal? If the county wasn’t Bland (and if there wasn’t a 600-person correctional facility nearby)?
Still, it is good place to explore. While Sam fishes for minnows, using the smallest fly I have, Elliot says “follow me Dad” and I am taken aback by the reversal of our roles. She balances across a log bridge over the upper creek, then up a trail under the rhodies, back into the creek and up some rocks, a steep crag, exploring, climbing, adventuring. A good swimming hole, after all, is made by rocks moving and misbehaving long ago.
Then to Wolf Creek in Narrows (“Narz” to some), where the New River narrows, and their swimming hole “the boom,” because it was a log boom. Elliot jumps from the platform on the far shore.
Mostly, though, it’s back to our place on the New, not really a hole since it’s not circular, unless all rivers are holes in the ground. On summer nights we ride our bikes down to cool off before bed. Usually, it’s just us kids, but once it was filled with people. Perry Slaughter, The Associate Pastor of Valley Harvest Ministries, told me that baptism is symbolic of being “buried with Christ and rising to something new,” a public declaration of faith. The church has a dunking tank on site, but that day they decided to take it to the New, making their ceremony even more public. As we approached, we became mesmerized by their song: the phrase “take me to the water” repeated, the word “water” rising in pitch until “take me to the waaaaaterrrrr,” wait a beat, “to be baptized.”
Just upstream from this spot, under what is now Claytor Lake, was a town called Dunkard’s Bottom. A “Dunkard” was a term of derision for people who were “dunkers,” German Baptists who practiced a trine (as in Trinity) immersion baptism.
The second verse crescendos to “none but the riiiigtheous,” and then trails off to “shall see God.” We see a lot of omniscient creatures at the river, mortal spirits. We see the periwinkle blue dancer, a damsel fly, skim across the surface. Great blue herons glide toward landings, sometimes squawking, and belted kingfishers dart near the shoreline, often rattling, like a heavy fishing reel. There are always ducks down there, and orioles and bluebirds in spring. Young, acrobatic swallows play by dropping a feather for a playmate to catch below, practice for hunting insects. Like bluebirds, tree swallows are secondary cavity-nesters, preferring to use a nest already there rather than create or excavate a new one. So are we with our swimming holes.
In Historic Springs of the Virginias, Stan Cohen documents about 75 healing springs, spas, and baths, all “founded on the premise that their waters, no matter what type, could cure common diseases at a time when medical science really could not do much for patients.” Neither cholera nor yellow fever were common in the mountains, the former because it existed mostly downstream, the latter because it was mostly found in the warmer seacoast. There was Yellow Sulphur and White Sulphur Springs (and a blue and a red one too), Hot Springs and Warm Springs (both still there), Sparkling Springs and Healing Springs. Often these were places for the elite (in some cases still are), but some also bottled their water, sold it as an elixir, an elusive fountain of youth.
We don’t drink the water here on the New when we swim (but our drinking water comes from it), but we do find healing, youthful properties in it. After Elliot dives under she emerges again on top, breaking the surface of the water, pulling the wet hair from her eyes, wiping the beads from her eyelashes. We go down together, keep our eyes open to look at one another—our hair floating up toward the light—until one of us makes a face and the other releases a burst of bubbly laughter. We come to the river to cool down, but I hope this water also provides a spark in my daughter: an immutable kinship with nature, a connection to her home waters, the wisdom to overcome fear.
At the onset of evening, summer almost over, I take the kids to the river. Elliot and I swim out to the middle, past where her mom likes us to be. She asks to jump from my shoulders, then kicks away by herself and comes back to me, her dock, a life buoy, a balding guy on his tiptoes standing in the middle of the New. One day we will swim to the other side. We started this year in early May. Next year we will shoot for April. We could keep swimming this year through fall. She and I have made a pact to swim together anywhere, anytime. Tonight, she refuses to get out, though I’m shivering on shore. “No way. Swimming is my destiny!” School will start soon and she will sit in straight, dry rows, but for now she swims, knowing that it’s safe to go in the water.