by Bernard Brown
I waded in from a rocky bank in the mountains of Schuylkill County and quickly forgot what I was looking for. My plan on that hot afternoon had been to snorkel for turtles, a pursuit that involves actively investigating underwater boulders and snags. Instead, I watched the fish and rocks on the bottom scroll by like some angelic dream of flying, the sounds of the world cozily muffled by cool water.
I’ve continued snorkeling for turtles—and blissfully forgetting about it—in the rocky Delaware upstream from Trenton ever since.
So, as a committed West Philadelphian hooked on swimming in rivers, it’s only natural that I’d feel the urge to take a dip in the Schuylkill. Why drive almost an hour to frolic in other rivers when I’ve got a perfectly good one right here?
Wipe that grimace off your face. It’s been a week since I took the plunge, and I feel fine. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Once upon a time the Schuylkill deserved its reputation, but these days it’s a clean river.
It’s not the microbes or the chemicals in the Schuylkill that will kill you; it’s the current. Beneath its placid surface, the river flows with a smooth, unrelenting force. The murky water could be two or 12 feet deep—you can’t tell until you step in. At the end of May, a teenager (who apparently didn’t know how to swim) drowned near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge.
Of course, the power that makes the river so deadly also makes it incredibly fun for a strong swimmer. I’ve turned hundreds of miles of laps in pools; the calm chlorinated water just sits there while you plow right through it. The living current of a river wrestles you back. Working upstream is the swimming equivalent of climbing—you must earn every foot of progress. On the way back, the flow boosts each stroke, a thrill equivalent to racing downhill on a bicycle in a high gear.
I have spoken to other Schuylkill swimmers (they spoke anonymously; swimming in the river is generally illegal) who offered advice on where to jump in. Hordes of carefully shepherded triathletes race in the river every year—and some take it upon themselves to practice on the course. In fact, I based my plan on tips from a triathlon training blog.
I approached the river cautiously, watching the Schuylkill’s flow and temperature on a United States Geological Survey website to find a warm and relatively calm morning for my first swim. I also checked the water quality on Philly RiverCast’s website. I brought a friend along to keep an eye on me. (I don’t want to give the impression that the river is 100 percent safe, even for careful swimmers. I decided it was worth the risk, but every person needs to make an individual evaluation.)
According to Alice Ballard, an advocate for placing a pool in either the Schuylkill or the Delaware, local youth (interviewed on Kelly Drive) jump in on hot days—indeed the accidental drownings attest to the practice—confirming that the default human approach to a body of water is to get in.
Her proposed river swimming pool offers the best safe, lawful bet for Philadelphians hoping to take full advantage of our rivers as green space. Imagine a pool-sized basket, reached by a floating boardwalk from the bank. The current could flow through it, but the rigid wood and mesh would safely contain the swimmers. The William Penn Foundation, as part of its broader effort to engage Philadelphians with our magnificent waterways, funded a feasibility study for the project. Now the proponents are working with the City’s Parks and Recreation Department to hammer out the gritty details. No public project should be counted on until it has been completed, but I’ve got my hopes up.
Over the course of my careful consideration, I’ve become a little outraged that so many Philadelphians so readily accept that we should NOT swim in our rivers. Popularizing Philadelphia’s natural waters might take extra vigilance and attention to water quality, weather and currents; it might require asking more of us as swimmers; it might even require giant cages to keep us safe; but I think it’s worth the effort. We’ve done an admirable job bringing ourselves back to the banks with our parks and paths. Many of us flirt with the water, moving over it in boats, but we haven’t completed the project until we’ve moved through the water with our own skins—until we’re all the way in.
I snapped on my goggles and slid into the water. Green was everywhere; not scary like pond scum, but vibrant and alive, sunbeams lighting columns below me as I passed beneath openings in the leafy canopy along the bank. That bank inched by as I worked towards the middle of the river—more than once I fixated on a particular tree to assure myself that yes, I was moving upstream.
Eventually I stopped (or rather did a slow breaststroke to hold my position) and took in the green above the surface. The landscape term “river corridor” takes on a literal meaning from the water; I was walled in by willow, sycamore and maple. For a moment I hung there, feeling very alone with the river pushing against me, leaning on me. Then I turned and joined the flow.