There is something about a swimming hole that implies elusiveness. Compare it to the beach, which, at least in California, one could reach from just about anywhere by heading west: The coast is a line, but a swimming hole is a dot on the map, a point in space and time.
Twelve years ago, an old boyfriend took me on my first “backpacking” trip in Big Sur (“backpacking” in quotes because, unlike him, I was sporting a regular book bag with a sleepover-era sleeping bag clumsily attached, and wearing Converse sneakers with the soles worn down). He had recently come across an old paperback guide that detailed directions to a secluded swimming hole, and had planned our whole hike around it. The trail was hot, dusty and exposed; I endured by picturing the secret pool at the end.
But when we got to the place in the trees where we were meant to turn, the so-called path was so overgrown that it looked like someone had rolled a ball down the hill. We scrambled down through the bushes, me cursing and my sneakers slipping, only to find … nothing. The swimming hole didn’t exist. We had erred in our timing or this wasn’t the place. Probably a fork of a creek had dried up, as many do.
Since then, I have successfully made it to swimming holes that did, in fact, exist at the time of my arrival. These include spots along the Russian River, which snakes through the redwoods in the Sonoma Mountains, and areas on the Trinity River, which tumbles over the rocks of the formidable Klamath Mountains.
Both are strong, rushing rivers, harnessed to provide water for hundreds of thousands of people and farmland and vineyards, with reservoirs that are increasingly at risk, imperiled by cycles of drought and deluge. The swimming holes are what happen when the water pauses on its own and, entering into some felicitous arrangement with the rocks and soil, renders a space wide and deep enough to hold some stillness.
I get the feeling that Northern Californians especially love swimming holes because our beaches are so un-beachy. Take Ocean Beach in San Francisco, an expanse of intimidating waves and frigid water. Sometimes swept with fog and a punishing wind, the beach has no lifeguards and, instead, a sign that says: “Danger – Rip Currents. People Have Died Swimming and Wading Here.” Pescadero State Beach, which I went to as a kid, had similar warning signs (although that didn’t prevent my dad from wading alone into the breakers). The beach was a place to have salt, sand and a cold mist whipped through your hair — and maybe see a gray whale or an orca if you were lucky — but not so much a place for tanning and swimming.
For that, people head inland, where they can float along the American River in an inner tube, a beer nestled in its cup holder, or wade in the Tuolumne in Yosemite, spreading their towels on boulders. (I have fond memories of getting myself good and cold in the water there, and then laying on various hot rocks, imagining I was a Western fence lizard.)
I live in Oakland now, not too far from what could be called a man-made swimming hole. In 1938, the a creek was dammed in the part of the Berkeley Hills that had recently been designated as Tilden Park. A joint project of the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration, the resulting “recreational reservoir” was named Lake Anza and is still a popular swimming spot today, complete with a small beach, a lifeguard, a bathhouse, and a stand selling sandwiches and milkshakes. Like so many New Deal-era projects, it’s the kind of optimistic, leisure-focused space that clearly hails from another time.
Lake Anza may be more permanent than the swimming hole I never found, but a visitor can still find herself there in the wrong time or place. Swimming is only allowed in the summer, and even then, officially, only inside a marked-off area near the beach. To actually swim in the deeper part of that area, which is further restricted, you have to pass a swim test. Such barriers always accentuate my feelings of difference from the river otters, sunfish and rainbow trout, to whom both clock time and floating partitions are a mere curiosity. (A friend once told me that a river otter swam alongside him as he did laps there.) And, in fact some swimmers do come in the winter: buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, mergansers and other waterfowl visiting from the north.
The lake has rules for humans, but humans are sneaky. On my last visit this August, I saw people swimming in a corner of the lake hidden from the lifeguard by oak trees. The secretive, shady enclosure reconstituted the spirit of a swimming hole: a hole within a hole. Across the lake, directly opposite the lifeguard, a giant boulder teemed with people who seemed dry and restless. At 6 p.m., when the lifeguard left, they all got up and jumped one at a time into the water: graceful dives, cannonballs, front flips and that unnamed flail where you wave your arms and legs the entire way down.
At one point, four uniformed members of the Berkeley Fire Department walked up. They looked contemplatively down at the water from a bridge over the creek. “Uh oh,” said one bather, noticing them. “Something we should be worried about, officers?”
“Nope,” one of them answered. He sighed. “Just wishing we weren’t working today.”