From a hidden beach on the broad shipping channel in South Portland to the far end of secluded Deboullie Lake near Fort Kent, my husband, Douglas, and I have traveled the great state of Maine this summer in full compliance with the rules of the 2016 Summer Swim Challenge. Since the calendar summer started on June 20, we haven’t missed a single day of swimming, or at least dipping, in “wild water” — no pools allowed.
That’s the main rule — a daily dunk, no pools, no matter what. Also, you have to go for full immersion, hair and all. The challenge comes on days when you’re too busy, it’s too cold, you don’t feel like it, you’re someplace unfamiliar or you have some reason why you have to stay dressed up with your hair looking great. You still have to swim, or lose your “perfect” status. This is the fourth year Douglas and I have taken part in this pleasant but pointless endeavor, along with his adult daughters and several of their friends.
Wednesday was Day 59 of this year’s 94-day challenge, which started the day of the summer solstice and will wrap up on September 22, the day of the autumnal equinox. As we do most days, we swam shortly after sunrise in the cold Penobscot River, which flows near our home in Sandy Point.
We like starting our days this way, strolling barefoot down the driveway in our swimsuits and towels while we’re still a little sleepy, before coffee, before our minds are full of the day ahead. We cross the narrow road and step onto the wooded path our good neighbor Judy maintains so we can more easily access her steep stairs to the beach below. Sometimes our cats follow us, which is always charming.
I love swimming in the river. There’s almost never anyone else there, for one thing, so we have the beach to ourselves except for the occasional discreet dog walker. The water looks different every day, depending on the tide and the weather — glistening in the early morning sunlight one day and shrouded in a cool, mysterious mist the next. Sometimes the surface is polished and glassy; sometimes a storm drives a choppy surf onto the shore and sculpts new contours in the sand. Once in a while an osprey circles overhead. Earlier this summer, we were visited for a week or so by a pair of kestrels — I think — that swooped down low over the river in their curiosity.
I also like knowing that the Penobscot River flows out of the big lakes of north-central Maine, that the water I swim in has coursed hundreds of miles through forests and farmlands on its way to the sea. I know it picks up some pollutants along the way, but I also know it’s infinitely cleaner than it was 50 years ago, thanks to the Clean Water Act and the vigilance of environmental advocates. And I like how the fresh river water here mingles with the salt water of Penobscot Bay and the Gulf of Maine, and the way the incoming tide plays with the outflowing current.
So, for many reasons, the Penobscot is our go-to spot for the 2016 Summer Swim Challenge. We’ve had some sweet swims in other places, though. We have a few established favorites, including the little pocket beach in South Portland — a well-kept neighborhood secret — and a lovely spot on Harpswell Sound, outside of Brunswick. We’ve also enjoyed an evening dip at the edge of the swift-running Aroostook River in Caribou, a swim at dawn in the languid Narramissic River in Orland and a quick roadside immersion in Puffers Pond in Dexter.
Douglas swims sometimes in the Little River near Belfast, while I stop on my way home from work at pretty Swett’s Pond in Orrington. I’ve gotten landowner permission to check out a spot on Marsh Stream in Frankfort, but the water’s been so low lately I haven’t actually done it, although I hope to before the season is out.
It seems impossible, but there are only about four weeks left until the end of the swim challenge and the end of this glorious summer. By mid-September, as we’re gearing up for the Common Ground Country Fair, we’ll be heading for the river on mornings when the temperature is in the low 50s or even cooler. We won’t feel much like getting into the chill Penobscot, the ocean or any other body of water.
But it’s not about how much we do or don’t feel like taking a swim. That’s not the point. The point, if there is one, is to recognize each passing day of the short Maine summer and make it, briefly, our own.
Lots of Mainers make a commitment to swim regularly during the summer. Do you? Where are your favorite swimming spots, or are they too secret to share?