The old rope swing at Fox Hill Shipyard in Norwell.

It was ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, the first day of summer. I had just finished teaching a yoga class on the banks of the Indian Head River in Pembroke. As we were leaving, one of my students remarked at how yoga — with its salutes to the sun and the moon — was an ideal way to celebrate the Summer Solstice. She hoped that I would teach the course again next year — she wanted to make it an annual event in her life — a ritual.

Perhaps we each have our own way of recognizing the beginning of summer. “It’s not summer till I can wear sandals,” I’ve heard people say, “or shorts.” For others it’s that first trip to the beach — or to Dairy Queen. Still others follow the calendar, waiting for the last day of school or the the Solstice. For me, summer doesn’t begin until I’ve gone swimming in the North River.

My ritual of celebrating summer’s arrival this way began seven years ago, the time I usually refer to as “The Rope Swing Summer.” I call it that because, although I worked full time and had the typical social obligations of an 18-year-old, my schedule revolved around a daily trip to Norwell, to ride the rope swing.

My friend Derek had discovered the rope swing the year before. The swing had been there for a long time, but like a good fishing hole, it was the kind of place people preferred to keep secret. Unless someone showed it to you — either from the water or through the woods — you would never find it. All winter, I’d heard tales of Derek’s and other friends’ adventures there, but I had yet to experience the swing myself.

With all Derek had told me, I knew that I would love the rope swing — or hate it. Riding the swing involved climbing at least ten feet (usually higher) into a tree, sitting on a knotted rope, and then jumping out, letting go of the rope, and falling into the river. The experience evoked an ever-shifting array of emotions for most people — apprehension, fear, thrill, and elation. Some emerged from the river stony-eyed and solemn, never to ride again, others headed right back up the tree, shouting with joy.

It turned out that I loved it. Riding the swing was exciting — and challenging too. No matter how many times I jumped out of the tree, no matter how many times I swung out over the water and let myself fall in, I was never quite able to let go of the fear I experienced while climbing the tree and seating myself on the knot. In those tense moments before jumping, it was hard not to think of what might happen if the branch that the rope was tied to — or the rope itself — suddenly snapped.

Visiting the rope swing became a regular activity for me. There was always at least one friend who was able to come along, often a crowd, and as long as the conditions were right (you want a high tide and clean water) we would swing every day. By mid-summer we hardly even needed to consult a tide chart. We felt the river in our blood.

So much emphasis was placed on the rope swing that summer that I hardly noticed how much I enjoyed swimming in the river. Swimming was what you did while someone else was in the tree. It was a staging ground — a waiting area — not an event in itself.

Until that summer I had never swum in the North River. I had “discovered” the river itself a few years earlier — but my experience thus far had involved only canoeing and rafting. If you had told me then, I never would have believed that swimming would become more important to me than the rope swing.

September arrived and we all went back to school, leaving the rope swing behind for another year. By the time the next summer came around, a lot had changed in our lives. We had different jobs, different interests, different friends. We still spent time together, but the rope swing played a far less important role. We visited it occasionally, but then someone got hurt and not long after that the swing and its supporting branch were cut down, never to be replaced.

Another year passed, summer began again, and I found myself back at the site of the rope swing. I certainly glanced at the tree, noticing how the rungs we’d nailed into its trunk to form a makeshift ladder were now falling into disrepair, but my attention was drawn more toward the water. I wanted to swim.

Swimming in a river like the North is a lot different from swimming in the ocean. First of all, you can’t see through the water. It’s dark brown, and generally quite silty. Unless an unscrupulous motor-boater has just come by, there are no waves, but the current can be very strong. Depth can vary greatly — often changing suddenly and dramatically. The water tends to be brackish, so you get some of the advantages of salt water — increased buoyancy, absence of leeches — along with the characteristics of fresh water, particularly a soft, murky river bottom with unidentifiable organic matter and the occasional fish scuttling around your feet. It also tends to be very warm.

I didn’t miss the swing so much. In fact, looking up at the tree, I could hardly believe that I had once — and repeatedly –jumped out of it. But I was surprised by how much I missed swimming. I waded in to my knees, and then deeper, cautiously feeling my way along the muddy, irregular river bottom.

There is nothing quite like the feeling I get while swimming in the river. At those times more than any other I feel connected to the natural world. The water is warm, nurturingly so, and it smells fresh and potent . . . full of life, like soil or a forest. I look around at the marsh and the woods, notice the sun on my face, and feel the current drawing me in. Although I always begin by wading, the experience is never complete until I dive underwater and then flip onto my back to float with the tide, surrendering for a time to the way of the river. It is rarely a long swim — just enough to be refreshing — but when I emerge, despite the fine layer of silt that clings to my body, I feel clean; renewed. I’ve begun to think of it as a baptism.

The North River has long felt like home to me. Year after year, I am drawn there at the beginning of the summer. Submerging myself in its waters, letting the current lift and carry me, I am able to let go of the past year and step forward into the next. The visit is never planned, but several years have passed now and I’ve never missed it.

Note: there aren’t really any designated swimming places on the North and South Rivers, but two sites I’d recommend are Couch Beach (off Union Street on the North River) and the South River at Rexhame Dunes, both in Marshfield. A few precautions: be mindful of the current, which can be strong and unpredictable. Never swim alone. Bring safety gear and watch out for boat traffic. Pollution levels in the rivers vary from day to day, but in most places water quality is generally appropriate for swimming. A good rule of thumb is to avoid swimming for up to three days after a rain storm.

by Kezia Bacon
Assistant Director, North and South Rivers Watershed Association
July 1997