One of the high points of my summer for the past several years has been an annual, mile-long swim across the Hudson River. And as a volunteer in this fundraising event, I find myself repeating one statement over and over, year after year, to participants: “It’s not a race. It’s a swim.”
The Newburgh-to-Beacon swim, now in its ninth year, supports The River Pool at Beacon, a nonprofit in New York’s Hudson Valley that manages a small, flow-through swimming pool for kids. Because the pool is in the river and the river is in the pool, the idea behind it is to nurture a kind of experiential activism: If kids get into the river, they may learn to love it and take care of it.
The Hudson up here is wide, fast and deep, so safety precautions mandate that the river be closed to traffic ranging from pleasure craft to barges; that the Coast Guard auxiliary patrol be on the water; and that some hundred kayakers be on hand to escort 200 or so swimmers, ages 10 to 80-something, across the river.
Before we splash in at the docks in Newburgh, the legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, now 93, sings a few tunes to get us in the spirit. He’s local to the area, and the river pool was his vision for decades before it was finally designed, manufactured and put in the river in 2007. When he gets us to accompany him in “This Land Is Your Land,” his old buddy Woody Guthrie’s eco-anthem, it tends to shift the occasion from being a test of personal endurance to a larger commitment to stewardship and community.
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And then we jump into the river. The inevitable handful of triathletes in training make the crossing as fast as they possibly can. With their quick, efficient strokes, they can reach the other side in 25 minutes or less. Once the rest of us get there, I sometimes hear teenagers and 20-somethings comparing the number of minutes and seconds the swim took them. Small wonder that the organizers are accustomed to hearing people refer to the event as “a race.”
As a volunteer and swimmer since the event started, however, I have noticed there is always a substantial contingent of swimmers who do not need to be told that this is not a race. They are not out to break any records. They’re simply adults, parents and grandparents out for a summer swim. For them, the crossing might take 45 minutes or an hour, or more.
Their perspective may be worth considering now, as we watch 17 days of Olympic events in which athletes’ times are ticked off in microseconds.
Sometimes these river swimmers are observing a landmark. Louisa swam the Hudson the first time to celebrate her 70th birthday. “I needed a challenge,” she told me. “To learn to do the crawl to get across the river, I had to learn to put my head in the water — under the water. This year is my fifth swim.”
For others, the swim marks a divorce or the end of chemo or another difficult milestone. One year I spoke to a woman in her 50s whose son was being deployed to Afghanistan the following week. “I just had to swim the river,” she said.
Many return summer after summer. As one participant, Cheryl, a social worker involved in hospice care, put it, “Swimming the river is a metaphor for all the strength for everything you need in life. You think of all the things that people go through after a diagnosis…. So I do this every year. I have a bad shoulder, a bad hand.” But these don’t keep her out of the river: “There is something in the inspiration of the water, and I keep coming back.”
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My friend Karen, who is 60, feels similarly. “I look forward to this all year," she tells me. "It gives me the strength to do what I need to do.” In her view, the swim is celebratory as well. She always wears a chic animal-print swimsuit, as though she's dressing for a festive occasion. “I wouldn’t dream of wearing a Speedo,” she says with a laugh.
Then there's Graham, who drives down from Toronto every summer. He missed last year, though, because a few days before he was to set out, he suffered a massive heart attack. This year he showed up a bit leaner, with a calm smile on his face and a new spark in his eye. “Because it’s a river,” he says, “you feel the effect of that water, of the sun…. You look at the conditions of the sky, and you’re aware of the river in all its perpetuity.”
For me, the swim is an opportunity to catch a bit of momentum from the majestic Hudson: its current, tide and powerful flow. There is a profound certainty in its sense of direction as it surges toward the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet there is also a quality of the unseen and unknown. I haven’t a clue how deep the water is mid-channel, nor do I know what fish are swimming around me, or what’s at rest on the riverbed below me. But we live with the unknown in everything we do, and this convergence of the sure and unsure is exhilarating to me.
Swimming in the river means something different to each of us. Yet what I've heard over the years is that many of us share a particular moment: When we have reached what seems to be mid-river, we pause. We stop swimming and tread water — looking back, ahead, north to the bridge that spans the Hudson upriver, south to where the river narrows in the highlands. As my friend Michael, in his early 60s, says, “It’s not just the beauty of it. You get such a great sense of peace — the mountains on either side — and you can’t help but feel the great strength of the river.”
There is something about the continuity of the river that is deeply reassuring. That continuity is a life force, and to be in the Hudson on a July morning is to be immersed in it. I suspect that may be why we stop momentarily to drift, to languish in the current, to watch the light play on the water’s surface and to feel the pull of the tide. Whatever struggle may be associated with this swim — chemo, a child going to war, recovery from an accident, illness or divorce — life goes on. We do, too. And there's no reason we can't take our time getting to the other side.