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Love that Dirty Water....no, really, dive in!
July 15, 2013 11:57 AM   Subscribe

For the first time since the 1950s, Boston's Charles River opened for public swimming.

The Charles River is famed for its dirty water. The 80 mile river runs from Hopkinton (also the start of the Boston Marathon) to Boston and passes through 23 different cities.

Recreations along the river include kayaking, community boating, and now swimming!

According to the EPA, the "Charles River has exhibited ecological problems stemming from human-induced pollution, and EPA has responded with a long-term effort to improve water quality and overall ecological health for the river. "

Numerous volunteer and citizens group have formed to clean up the Charles, including, but not limited to:

The Charles River Watershed Association
The Charles River Conservancy
and The Charles River Swimming Club, which sponsored this past weekend's swim. Since 2005, the Swimming Club has hosted mile long swims in the river's basin.

But a decade before the formation of the Swimming Club, Governor Bill Weld jumped unannounced into the river after signing the Rivers Protection Act to prove the safety of the Charles River.

The Charles also has a tragic history beyond the environmental pollution and is famed in Massachusetts for the number of bodies found in it, whether the result of suicide, accident, or suspicious enough to be investigated as murder. A few of the most recent cases are linked below.

April 26, 2013
October 14, 2009
October 9, 2012
February 5, 2012
posted by zizzle (58 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
(I get a paywall/registration required on the main link.)
posted by neustile at 12:00 PM on July 15, 2013


(That's weird. I just tested it on two different computers and in two different browsers on each with no problems. I also shared that link a bunch in other places and no one had a problem accessing it.....huh....)
posted by zizzle at 12:06 PM on July 15, 2013


Being a lifelong Massachusetts resident, I love how much the Charles has been rehabilitated. However, it will take a lot of deprogramming to get me to so much as stick my feet in the Charles.
posted by xingcat at 12:08 PM on July 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's a river, how do they "open" it?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:08 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The bottom of the river remains a toxic mess, but if a swimmer can get in and out of the water without touching the squishy bottom, no tetanus shot is necessary.

Yeah, no thanks.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:09 PM on July 15, 2013 [17 favorites]


I was just having a conversation over lunch with some colleagues from the Midwest about taxes. One of them made a crack about "Taxachusetts" and I couldn't help myself from responding that, yes, we pay our fair share and damned proud of it, too. Wish I had this effort to include in my list of Things I Am Happy To Pay For. Public transit, green spaces, good schools and safety systems, and probably most important, clean fucking water.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:10 PM on July 15, 2013 [14 favorites]


The river is "open," as in "people are allowed to swim in a certain area."
posted by filthy light thief at 12:11 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


> However, it will take a lot of deprogramming to get me to so much as stick my feet in the Charles.

The first time I went swimming in one of Toronto's Lake Ontario beaches, the people I told reacted as though they expected me to shamble out with my skin melting off like that dude who got toxic waste spilled on him in Robocop.

On the other hand...
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:13 PM on July 15, 2013


"people are allowed to swim in a certain area."

And in other areas, there are warning signs (source).
posted by filthy light thief at 12:16 PM on July 15, 2013


Just last year someone spotted a rare Atlantic Sturgeon in the river.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 12:26 PM on July 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Last week when I had family visiting, we took the architecture tour up the Chicago River where they talked about how when the East Bank Club opened in 1980, they didn't bother putting windows on the Chicago River because who the hell would want to look at that, which, as you see it now, seems ridiculous Now I wouldn't go swimming in it, but if I want kayaking, I would worry more about drowning than poisoning myself. (I'm not a strong swimmer.)

But then I think about the difference in size of the rivers, and I'm just really, really impressed with Massachusetts.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:31 PM on July 15, 2013


Almost ten years ago, I saw a young, attractive couple driving a jet-ski on the Charles above the Newton Upper Falls dam. I was talking with a couple friends, and we heard a distant engine noise. It got progressively louder until said couple shot by us, the fun they were having evident on their faces.

I still occasionally think about that day, how free, unrestrained, and most of all happy those two looked. Then I wonder if they stayed in love, if they eventually got married, and if so, how many heads their children have.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:32 PM on July 15, 2013 [59 favorites]


The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school (so, the '80s), two friends and I signed up at Community Boating to learn how to sail (and I see it's still a dollar - one dollar! - for low-income households). We were regularly instructed to *not* deliberately capsize, because then the launch would have to come out to make sure we were okay and to supervise us righting the boat and getting back in. It was a poor use of resources.

But on a hot, nearly windless day, stuck out in the middle of the river, hungry and sweaty - oh, the temptation was too great sometimes. That one time, I mean. Once. Yeah.

Never got a disease. More luck than anything else, I suppose, but still, even then, the Charles was clean enough to not kill you outright if you "fell" in!
posted by rtha at 12:44 PM on July 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can assure you, never in a million years. But it's nice to know that the authorities don't think it would kill you instantly.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:47 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I used to run along the Charles every day. It will always be my favorite spot in all of Boston. Like others here, I don't think I could ever erase the memory of what I know of that water, but I'm happy to see they've come so far since I left.

(Next stop: the Gowanus.)
posted by mykescipark at 12:49 PM on July 15, 2013


I know a lot of folks who used to sail in that river and drank their share.

I also just spent a weekend camping up on the Saco downstream from ~2000 blackout college kids fucking and puking in the water. I'm assuming that took more years off my life than a little bobbing in the Charles.
posted by es_de_bah at 12:52 PM on July 15, 2013


Apropos of nothing, this made me remember that my father used to work for the guys that caused this. Go fuck anyone who complains about tree-hugging hippies.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:54 PM on July 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a great post, thank you.

I'm still not sure I'd swim in it. I live in one of the suburban towns it runs through and this summer I bought a kayak. I've paddled a few sections and it's amazingly beautiful and surprisingly wild out in these parts. One day I made a friend.

Still though, the big challenge has always been to get in and out of the boat without touching that icky bottom. Getting in I've managed but I usually have to stick at least one foot in to get out.
posted by bondcliff at 12:56 PM on July 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I really can't decide whether I think those people are more brave or crazy. The zombie outbreak is probably going to start on the banks of the river Charles, people. Forewarned is forearmed.
posted by .kobayashi. at 12:57 PM on July 15, 2013


I see this mostly in terms of its communications brilliance -- "make the Charles swimmable" is a very easy to understand, measurable goal that lots of different organizations and individuals can get behind. It helps everyone who cares think about what they are or aren't doing to make the river safe for swimming. It ties together all that stuff from the EPA about water quality and pollutants into a neat package without losing any of it -- define "swimmable" and you can still include lots of precise requirements. So this could have been an announcement about how levels of bacteria and excess nutrients fell below some threshold, and it would have been buried on page 12 and most people would have skipped over it. Maybe it could have even been a neat infographic graphically showing the change in levels of bacteria and nutrients, and a few more people might read it and understand it. Instead, the announcement is a photograph of smiling people swimming in the Charles with some details about where and how it is safe to swim. That produces a quick emotional reaction, tells most people everything they need to know, and invites people to feel good about it, or reflect that there is still a long way to go before they would feel comfortable swimming in the river.

The people that organized this campaign have done a great job!
posted by cubby at 12:57 PM on July 15, 2013 [17 favorites]


Hampton Roads, Virginia (where I live - although I'll never call it anything other than "Tidewater") has worked very hard over the last several decades to clean up the local rivers and lower Chesapeake Bay. They've been pretty damn successful. One of the great quality-of-life issues is the birdlife that has rebounded so dramatically since the fish populations have a better place to live. Ospreys in particular are back with a vengeance - and I find it impossible to watch an osprey without smiling.

TL;DR: Good, clean, healthy water is good for your blood-pressure, too.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:02 PM on July 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've done the mile-long Charles River Swim two years in a row. It's a really pretty swim and the water is surprisingly warm (due to a lock that keeps it separated from the ocean). They announced this open swim at the end of this year's swim to much applause.

I've swam in the East and Hudson Rivers, too, and I have all my skin/arms/legs. The more we swim in our waterways, the more they are properly viewed as a public resource that needs protecting!

mykescipark, I live 3 blocks from the Gowanus. While it is tempting to hope for a swimmable future for it, the flushing tunnel needs to get finished and working or there is literally no chance. The Gowanus has only a very slight tidal flow which is simply not enough to clean it out. That said, I applaud the groups that are boating on the Gowanus and bringing its health to the forefront -- they are the way forward if there is to be a clean canal in our future.
posted by Xoder at 1:03 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Kramer Swims the East River
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:11 PM on July 15, 2013


I used to swim in questionable water as a kid. The repeated earaches curbed that habit.

I cringe when I think we used to eat blue crabs and catfish out of those canals (Tampa Bay) all the time as kids. Bottom feeders and scavengers from polluted waters, yay! Tight times financially so we thought catching food was a great way to help out. Guess it was but I wonder how much mercury (among other things) I'm carrying around these days.

At least we never ate the oysters.
posted by NoAccount at 1:14 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


When will it be safe to swim in the Gowanus?
Don't hold your breath.
Even better, hold your breath.
posted by hexatron at 1:18 PM on July 15, 2013


twoleftfeet: 300+ people swim in the East River (Actual people getting in the water at about 1:30)
posted by Xoder at 1:19 PM on July 15, 2013



"The Standells are a garage rock band from Los Angeles, who . . . "



 
posted by Herodios at 1:27 PM on July 15, 2013


Just last year someone spotted a rare Atlantic Sturgeon in the river.

I GUESS THE RIVER SHOULD CARRY A STURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING THEN
posted by Teakettle at 1:28 PM on July 15, 2013 [22 favorites]


The bottom of the river remains a toxic mess, but if a swimmer can get in and out of the water without touching the squishy bottom, no tetanus shot is necessary.

As I commented in the article, this sentence doesn't make sense. How do you go into a river without touching the bottom? Don't you have to walk in from the shore before you can start swimming?
posted by Melismata at 1:39 PM on July 15, 2013


Melismata: You get in from a dock and climb back in via a ladder. That's how I did it for the two swims I've done in the Charles.
posted by Xoder at 1:43 PM on July 15, 2013


As I commented in the article, this sentence doesn't make sense. How do you go into a river without touching the bottom? Don't you have to walk in from the shore before you can start swimming?

Not if you have a dock.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:43 PM on July 15, 2013


Ah, thanks.

*pondering* Nope, thanks anyway. I'm not a great swimmer; wouldn't be able to enjoy myself if I were constantly thinking MUST. NOT. TOUCH. BOTTOM!! every two seconds.
posted by Melismata at 1:45 PM on July 15, 2013


Depends on the shape of the river. If its shape has been "controlled" at all, as most urban rivers are, you don't have the gradual ease into the water, but a sharp line between land and river.

On insta-preview, you could also walk on a dock and climb down a ladder.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:46 PM on July 15, 2013


Next priority: surfing on the Charles.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:52 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


hexatron: "When will it be safe to swim in the Gowanus?"

Damn near killed him!
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:00 PM on July 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I don't spend a lot of money on fancy bottled waters anymore. Charles™ has all the H2O I've come to expect from bottled waters, but with a new more sophisticated taste.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:01 PM on July 15, 2013


So, the same year the EPA graded the river a D is the same year that I got dumped in the river twice.

Maybe that explains the twitch. :)
posted by drewbage1847 at 2:05 PM on July 15, 2013


I think the Charles is only likely to get better. One of the main sources of pollution into the Charles is the troubled Muddy River that runs through the Back Bay Fens, and that's getting a major overhaul at the moment, with some of it currently seeing daylight for the first time in decades.
posted by clockbound at 2:06 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


How do you go into a river without touching the bottom?

Have someone throw you in.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:06 PM on July 15, 2013


You can't step in the same river twice, because the first time you stepped in it, tiny microbes on your shoes changed the minute chemical composition of the river.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:09 PM on July 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery has a section that describes what the area was like around the time of European discovery based on historical reports from explorers. Massive ancient oak forests. The waters so thick with whales the ships could hardly pass. It was a riot of life. Today, it's a riot of one fish.
posted by stbalbach at 2:12 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


My second greatest memory as a sports fan involves the Charles river, duck boats and the 2004 Red Sox victory parade. [see picture #2, cannonball, October 30th.]
posted by wensink at 2:22 PM on July 15, 2013


The joke at MIT was always that if you fell in sailing you had to get a tetanus shot. And that was if you managed to keep your mouth closed.
posted by maryr at 2:27 PM on July 15, 2013


The zombie outbreak is probably going to start on the banks of the river Charles, people. Forewarned is forearmed.

That may be true, but if so, it's probably the BL4 lab at BU that's the cause.
posted by maryr at 2:31 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


To raise awareness, Christopher Swain became probably the first person ever to swim the entire length of the Charles in 2004. Despite how much cleaner the river is, every six hundred strokes he still got out of the water to gargle hydrogen peroxide, and he also claims to have bumped into "old car, refrigerator, washer, dryer and tire that's ever been thrown into the river".

He kept a very detailed diary of the experience that's available online.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:01 PM on July 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Trivia:

The brown color of the Charles comes from tannins released by the river flora; it has been documented by the first settlers.
posted by Renoroc at 3:37 PM on July 15, 2013


I see this mostly in terms of its communications brilliance -- "make the Charles swimmable" is a very easy to understand, measurable goal that lots of different organizations and individuals can get behind.

One goal of the Clean Water Act is to make all waters fishable and swimmable. So while I agree that swimmable is a good framing technique, it's one that's been in use by the EPA and state agencies for over 40 years.
posted by MetalFingerz at 3:42 PM on July 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm with xingcat. I've lived in/ near Boston for twenty years, and while it's nice that the Charles is getting better, I'm not dipping a single toe into it. Nope nope nope nope.
posted by sarcasticah at 4:04 PM on July 15, 2013


twoleftfeet: 300+ people swim in the East River (Actual people getting in the water at about 1:30)

Brooklyn Bridge Swim! I did the 2013 swim just last weekend. The East River didn't seem so scary. It's "dirty", like actual dirt, but dirt won't kill you.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:56 PM on July 15, 2013


Uh, yeah, I must nth the sentiment: having grown up a block from the Charles in the 70s and spent countless childhood hours playing around various stinking, oil-slicked inlets brimming with tires, shopping carts, industrial equipment, etc., NO FUCKING WAY.
posted by mubba at 6:21 PM on July 15, 2013


This is what my local river did to a guy.

NOPE. DNW.
posted by geek anachronism at 6:43 PM on July 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bonus fact: The Charles River basin (the wide part between Cambridge and the Back Bay) has goldfish swimming in it. Goldfish that somehow survived being dumped into the river at the end of the school year by students to grow big and fat. This report says the largest ever caught was 13 inches long.

That report cites a couple of earlier reports by a pair of state biologists named Oatis and Lindenberg. Lindenberg was the expert on Charles River goldfish, and Oatis his boss. Sadly, they didn't get along and Lindenberg eventually shot Oatis to death. Their arguments had to do with job evaluations, not goldfish, however.
posted by adamg at 6:50 PM on July 15, 2013


I was sorry I missed this. I have a fondness for getting my fool self into bodies of water that horrify other people. Not long ago, I had to be talked down from going into Jerry's Pond in Cambridge, just because they've put steps down into it and it contains "none of the priority pollutants."
posted by Countess Elena at 7:25 PM on July 15, 2013


I couldn't tell from TFA, is the concern about the muddy bottom about runoff (mostly fecal bacterial contamination), toxic substances like heavy metals, or is it really tetanus, which is preventable and which is mostly about getting injured in a grotty environment? The organism that causes tetanus can't reproduce around oxygen, so it needs to be injected in its hardened spore form to the warm moist nurturing interior of you without spending much time exposed to air. If you don't oblige C. tetani with a puncture wound that closes itself to air and water, you're going to need an injury thickly coated with mud to get tetanus. (Or you could stand motionless in completely stagnant water, that'd probably do it, but the churn from swimming would probably oxygenate water enough to prevent infection.)

Anyway. Personally I'd be more worried about gastroenteritis from fecal coliforms or outright poisoning from polluted sediment.
posted by gingerest at 7:59 PM on July 15, 2013


Feh - I know someone who actually competed in a boat race on the Gowanus riding a stand-up paddleboard (he's quoted in the link). Swimming in the Charles is nuthin'.

As for pollution in general - I weekly get splashed by the East River, and often will get into it calf-deep (I volunteer with a kayak program and I'm often launching boats). and I've actually noticed some improvement - this past spring I noticed a whole lot of healthy-sized oyster shells washed up on shore. There's been an oyster reseeding program for the past 9 years, and oysters do clean and filter the water, so if they lived long enough to get that big, in that great a number, then that's actually kind of a good sign. We humans are learning.

(Boston - try oysters in the Charles. May help.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:07 PM on July 15, 2013


What MIT joke?? Somewhere in the archives I have evidence of our first Swim Test, which required swimming from the Esplanade (Boston) to the MIT Sailing Pavilion (Cambridge). The swim test started about ten years ago and needless to say has never been an official MIT event, falling in the awesome realm of random traditions started and carried on by students themselves.

Besides the swim test I have many many happy memories of kayaking, sculling, and rowing on the Charles. Of walking across the bridges and watching reflections. Of putting my toes in the water. I loved to take a kayak out and go up to Watertown, lunch in the kayak, laze under the sun at the dock, and head back. In short, yay for continued rehabilitation.
posted by whatzit at 12:50 AM on July 16, 2013


thepinksuperhero, I was a Swim Angel* for both the 2012 and 2013 Brooklyn Bridge Swims. They are so much fun and so pretty!

* Sorry, the site appears not well cared-for.
posted by Xoder at 5:44 AM on July 16, 2013


What MIT joke?? Somewhere in the archives I have evidence of our first Swim Test, which required swimming from the Esplanade (Boston) to the MIT Sailing Pavilion (Cambridge). The swim test started about ten years ago and needless to say has never been an official MIT event, falling in the awesome realm of random traditions started and carried on by students themselves.

Maybe it was just a joke with my friends? Maybe it is just a general Charles joke? I am just familiar with it in regards to overturning your sailboat. We all knew it wasn't true. *shrug* Didn't mean to imply it was canon or anything. Perhaps I should have said "The joke I heard at MIT was..."

I know nothing of the Swim Test of which you speak, having graduated about 10 years ago. The only swim test I know of consists of four lengths of the Alumni Pool and treading water some length of time.
posted by maryr at 8:25 AM on July 16, 2013


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