All photos/art by Jarrod McCabe
Children come of age in the cold,deep swimming holes of summer.
I grew up in the village of Walpole, New Hampshire, a mile from a little swimming hole called “Hovey’s.” It was nothing more than a deep spot in a brook, really–probably not known to more than a handful of local families. But I can still see the clear water shimmering golden in the sunlight, can still feel the soothing coolness after a sweaty Little League baseball game or an afternoon of haying.
Our family took one vacation every year, to North Conway on Labor Day weekend, and part of the ritual was pulling over on the Kancamagus Highway on the way home to take a final dip among the shallow pools and bleached granite boulders of the Swift River before calling it a summer.
As my brothers and I got older, we graduated to the Ledges on the Cold River in Drewsville–a long bike ride from the house, but bigger water (slightly tannic), with a heavier current, and cliffs for jumping and showing off and proving ourselves.
During college and then for a summer on the Appalachian Mountain Club trail crew, I collected more swimming holes across the Upper Connecticut River Valley and the White Mountains–some in the shadow of covered bridges, some with smooth rock slides–and, later, added a few more in the watery towns where I lived on the northern edge of the Monadnock region. I’ve continued seeking them out: places where the quirks of geology and hydraulics have created beautiful, sometimes magical, places to swim in clear-flowing water. I’ve wondered what I would miss most if I moved away from this landscape, and my mind keeps coming back to summer, and those swimming holes.
Lately, I’ve been going out of my way to share my favorites with our kids, and last summer I hiked with my 12-year-old daughter, Ursula, and a couple of her friends up to Emerald Pool in North Chatham, along the Maine border just below Evans Notch.
As White Mountain swimming holes go, Emerald Pool is on the small side, like a gem. A torrent of water–not quite a waterfall–rushes down through cleft granite into the head of the pool, then widens between mossy ledges into a shimmering, depthless green that gives the swimming hole its name. It was the amazing color of the water that mesmerized me when I first hiked in two decades ago (the pool is almost a mile from the road), and it’s what draws me back. That, and a quality that is special here and hard to explain: very cold water that feels soft and velvety, not bracing and sharp, at least not in July and August. I’ve learned that the emerald color of the water depends on the play of water and light. What’s needed is overhead sun filtering down through the hemlocks, bright on the clear-flowing water. An overcast day or a late afternoon turns the transcendent green to a foreboding forest-gray-green–lovely still, but not magical, and cold before I even dip in.
Ursula had been here before. She appreciates private, green worlds as much as I do, and she’d excitedly described Emerald Pool to her friends. They skipped ahead of me and heard the water first, several minutes before we reached the cut-off trail down to the stream. The sound of rushing current, though, was joined by a chorus of shouts and laughter. As it turned out, a dozen or more teenaged girls on a daytrip from a camp in Oxford, Maine, had overtaken the pool. One after another, the girls were jumping off an eight-foot-high ledge into the deep water, splashing and laughing and scrambling up the wet rocks and muddy bank to do it again.
Even the water looked different. Following a night of heavy rain, it appeared transparent, but there was just enough silt in it to turn the pool amber, even in the bright sunshine. Ursula frowned. She walked right past it and led her friends upstream–grumpily, I thought–to where they could rock-hop and explore the little eddies and mini-pools until they could get the swimming hole to themselves.
But the campers were in no hurry. One of them had set a goal of 50 jumps off the ledge, and as she got closer and closer–40, 41, 42–each jump was met by cheers and shouts of encouragement.
Eventually Ursula returned, and grudgingly joined in the fun. She got in line and jumped off the ledge herself into the cold water, and beamed as she popped back up in the current. She scrambled up the bank and did it again. Her friend Mercy overcame her nervousness and jumped from a lower shelf on the opposite side of the pool. The campers’ fearlessness might have inspired her.
And I suddenly remembered what it felt like to be 12 again, and finally daring to jump off the highest spot at the Ledges. How big it made me feel. How proud. The camper made her 50th jump into Emerald Pool, and I cheered with the rest of them.
As Ursula was toweling off, I swear she looked older. She said to Mercy, “Isn’t this place awesome?” Something had gotten into her.