Top 25 things vanishing from America: #15 -- Creek swimming

This series explores aspects of America that may soon be just a memory -- some to be missed, some gladly left behind. From the least impactful to the most, here are 25 bits of vanishing America.

I don't remember which of my classmates first said the word candiru, and I have no idea how a fourth grade kid knew the name of the notorious spiny fish that swims up the urethra of unsuspecting Amazonians. Even so, finding out about the frightening little monsters cast a pall over my first creek-swimming experience. We were at Cunningham Falls and, after our teachers warned us about slipping, falling, broken bones, and the dangers of drinking untreated water, we were suitably frightened to ensure fifteen to twenty minutes of careful play before we began engaging in feats of idiotic derring-do. However, our discovery of the dread candiru really dampened the fun, and much of the rest of the day was spent worrying that every little tickle of a current was the invasion of a tropical parasite.

Over time, I learned that candiru simply cannot survive in the relatively cold waters of the mid-Atlantic states. Frankly, this discovery was a blessing, as much of my last 25 years or so has been spent swimming, tubing, and wading in a variety of creeks, ponds, and small lakes. I've learned to watch out for water moccasins and how to avoid screaming like a ninny every time a fish brushes my foot. I am even pretty good at detaching leeches, a skill that I never thought I'd have to learn. You see, this post to the contrary, freshwater swimming isn't entirely dead, even if it's had a hard time competing with the crystalline temptations of the community swimming pool. Most of the creeks and lakes where I spent my childhood are still in business, even if they now tend to be populated by die-hard freshwater junkies; this isn't particularly surprising, given that pollution, mercury scares, and warnings about fecal-associated bacteria have scared all but the smallest fraction of creek swimmers out of the water.

My mother would sympathize. One of the greatest dangers to my creek swimming activities was my mother, who was very protective and had considerable problems with my aforementioned leeches and water moccasins. Then there was the time when I was watching a news special on dioxin and it showed a clip of a creek at a local army base. A month earlier, I had visited the base on a Boy Scout campout and had, in fact, frolicked in the very creek that I was now watching on the tube. Of course, I didn't tell mom, but she somehow found out anyway. At other times, I discovered sewer outlets on my creek adventures and, to be honest, I'm pretty surprised that I've never been caught amoebic dysentery or typhoid. Of course, I kept most of these experiences to myself; I didn't need to worry mom.

In retrospect, maybe the boss lady was right. Checking out the USGS' National Stream Reconnaissance website, I was disturbed to discover that 80% of the streams that they sampled contained a devil's brew of chemicals. In retrospect, I guess I'm lucky that my daughter doesn't have gills. Still, dangers aside, I'd argue that there's much to be said for the wonders of freshwater frolicking. Unlike pools or the ocean, creeks, rivers, lakes and ponds tend to be either slimy or rocky, which helps weed out the faint-of-heart. For that matter, the fact that freshwater swimmers often can't see the bottom of the creek or pond makes things a little more exciting. After all, there's nothing quite so interesting as feeling something brush your leg and not knowing if its a fish, an eel, a bit of twig, or a sea monster. Most importantly, these freshwater spots often feel like places where one shouldn't go. When I go swimming in a creek, I feel like an outlaw redneck, even if I'm just a sheltered geek who's edging his way into deeper water.

Try getting that feeling from a pool!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. His favorite freshwater swimming hole is the glacial potholes in Shelbourne Falls, Massachusetts--although he'd never actually consider swimming there, as doing so is illegal. He was just looking for a contact lens, officer...

Also read: How safe are America's streams?

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