One question people frequently ask us is: “How cold is the seawater up in Maine? Can you swim in the ocean?”
It’s not an easy question to answer. Some people enjoy the bracing ocean waters — but only if they are wearing wetsuits. Others stick to the shallow water, where at least the majority of their bodies can enjoy the sun’s heat. And, admittedly, there are others, who apparently count polar bears among their distant ancestors, who will actually splash around in the water in nothing but a bathing suit. I tip my hat to those foolhardy and intrepid souls.
But here’s a concrete example of how cold the water is. During a recent visit from friends, on a beautiful, sunny day, we took a favored hike through the Barred Island Preserve out to the shoreline across from Barred Island — so called because it is blocked from the mainland by a tidal channel at all but low tide, when you can walk over while the water is receded. When we got to the crossing point it was about midway between low tide and high tide, and the water was a little over knee-high for an adult male. The distance to the island through the water was maybe 30 yards or so, as shown in the picture above.
I tried to walk over — but just couldn’t do it. The water was so brutally cold it was a shock to the system, like plunging your face into ice cube-filled water — except colder, somehow. It took my breath away, and my feet almost immediately became numb. The thought of going knee-deep in the frigidity, even if only for a short 30-yard slog over to the island, was unimaginable. So call me a wuss — but I declined. I’ll save the stroll over to Barred Island for a day when I get there at low tide and can walk over without experiencing water so cold it is like a punch to the gut.
There is one good thing about the ocean water temperature in Maine — when you step out of the water and let the sun heat your chilled feet back to normal temperatures, it really feels good. That’s how cold the water is.
The ocean alone the Maine coastline is scenic and rugged, but it’s pretty brisk for a leisurely swim. So when the Deer Isle residents want to take a dip, they head to the “Lily Pond,” don their swimming caps, and make like Mark Spitz. When we visited today, some of the swimmers were impressively doing freestyle laps from one end of the pond to the other — which is a distance of at least several hundred yards.
The Lily Pond has been the swimming hole for so long that generations of Deer Islers used the same rope swing, on the same tree, to launch themselves out into the pond. Alas! Some years ago the tree broke and the rope swing was a tradition and rite of passage no longer. The locals say the Pond just hasn’t been the same since.
Kish and I took a brief detour to Maine, because it just isn’t summer without a trip to the Granite State. On our brief visit we had the best lobster roll I’ve ever eaten — packed with absolutely fresh lobster, with a juicy, light sauce — and also ran across this dock. Who wouldn’t feel like getting a running start and taking a jump into the cool water on a hot summer day?
Yesterday we went swimming in Lake Squam. The water was cold when we first plopped in, but soon became comfortable as we got acclimated.
About 40 yards away from the end of our dock was a floating dock. I felt my inner 10-year-old decide that I was going to swim over and check out that dock, and before I knew it I was following that mental command and swimming freestyle toward the dock.
Yikes! My swimming skills are ridiculously rusty, and the lifeguard who taught UJ and me to swim decades ago would have had lots of strong comments about my form as I floundered toward the dock, breathing to the side every few strokes. Still, I made it, and it felt good to feel the steps of the floating dock ladder, cool and slick with algae, under my palms.
I ended up making several round trips to that dock, sometimes diving down toward the bottom of the lake, which was clearly visible through the cool water. A few fish swam lazily by, and I experimented with the back stroke and breast stroke as I went. Lake swimming is the best swimming if all, with no chlorine or salt to bother you or keep you from opening your eyes underwater.
The sun shone down and glinted off the surface of the water, and in the distance I heard the thrum of a motorboat. For a while I felt like a kid again.