Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Wild swimming through the South

(Photo courtesy Austyn Gaffney)

How wading through water can be an antidote to climate anxiety.

On one of the hottest July weekends of the hottest year on record, my brother and I float on Dollar General tubes down Floyd’s Fork, a 62-mile tributary of the Salt River flowing near my home in Louisville. The creek’s reflection mutes the green canopy grey. Every soft thing smells of damp earth. 

It was here just a year ago where I found a rusted out pistol, shredded plastic looped around tree trunks, the treacherous tin lids of tin cans cracked open like clam shells. I swam by an unidentified water snake, its dime-sized head peeking toward me. I picked up crawdads, squeezing just below their claws.

This shallow stretch of creek is just one watering hole of many I’ve found over the last year and a half. Whenever despair over COVID-19 and climate change or craters of heartache spread through me like dye tracers, I uncovered a new one. I swam in Swift Creek three miles into Red River Gorge. I dove from a hill of granite rip-rap into Cave Run Lake. I skinny-dipped off Big South Fork’s Honey Creek Loop, washed my hair under an old bridge in Elkhorn Creek, cannonballed into the sandstone pools of Cane Run Creek, and tread water above the dark, pancake-flat surface of rock quarries.

Roger Deakin, author of Waterlog, a 1980’s book cataloguing his own swims across Britain, calls this kind of “wild swimming” a subversive activity. He says it allows us “to regain a sense of what is old and wild… by getting off the beaten track and breaking free of the official version of things.” 

The escapism of Kentucky’s swimming holes feeds the part of me forever trying to bend reality, and in this way becomes a practice in self-delusion. 

As an environmental reporter, I know much of my state’s 90,000 miles of streams—more running water than any U.S. state besides Alaska—are polluted with agricultural runoff, fossil fuel outputs, and outdated sewer and stormwater systems. During college, as a summer camp counselor, I canoed with dozens of kids along the Ohio River, consistently ranked by the EPA as one of the nation’s most polluted waterways. We’d often slip out to swim a few miles from the outlet of Mill Creek, home to a coal-fired generating station where, years later, a hidden camera showed the plant routinely spilled toxic coal ash into the river. 

This summer, when I jogged to the banks of the Ohio River, the air was hazy. Wildfire smoke has begun connecting our deeply green summers to the west coast like a net. The web of the climate crisis at times feels so overwhelming it is hard to write of what remains good. 

But being in water, even when contaminated, is a reprieve. I have no excuse—I know they are polluted, and I explore them anyway—except that I love to swim. I love to be near when patches of light pool perfectly over river stones, catch on ocean waves like a shimmer of fish scales, turn the surface of a lake into a mirror. What we’ve branded “wild swimming” engulfs the most guttural, immersive sensation of peacefulness I’ve ever known.  

I felt the same contradiction earlier this summer, when I escaped Kentucky heat to backpack through Wyoming’s Wind River Range. In one day, I swam in five different ice-cold alpine lakes. Above me, the glaciers—the Dinwoody, the Gannett, the Gooseneck—were melting too rapidly to reform; rising global temperatures will soon disappear our world’s largest cache of fresh water. Yet, my sense of joy, of everything-in-its-right-place, was overwhelming. My body was tired, yet my heart was so light it neared effervescence. 


Read more: Swimming stories

We asked readers to submit their favorite Southern watering holes.


I grew up lucky, spending school breaks with my Canadian family on the eastern half of Lake Huron. Every day we leapt off the dock of an old lighthouse warding ships from a sharp coast for over a century. Swimming became ritualistic; swims before coffee at sunrise, swims by starlight after dinner, entire days spent in damp bathing suits, our bodies all limbs and string, slipping in and out of the water, gliding over mossy rocks and diving deep to spy fish until our ears ached and our lips tinted blue. 

“We submerge ourselves in the natural world because the natural world has a way of eliciting awe,” says Bonnie Tsui, author of Why We Swim. Awe, she describes, is a present-focused notion, where we “feel more time-rich, less impatient, more generous.” Here we can be our “better selves.”

Swimming offers spaciousness from the anxieties of life, but also makes me more attentive to the very life I am momentarily escaping from, and to the web of human and non-human lives that surround me. Eventually, drought will lower the Great Lake levels, impacting shoreline ecosystems while warmer waters will feed the non-native mussels already collapsing fisheries.

But in this body of water that surrounds my lighthouse, and so too, the most important part of my life, I feel tied not only to the fish and the frogs, the snakes and the sandhill cranes, the loons and the lightning bugs, but to my family. I feel connected to our lineage here, the last half century as caretakers, the childhoods and holidays and marriages of my cousins and friends and old lovers recorded on the parchment of my grandfather’s log book. 

The sanctuary of this water body’s now-ness is also a free space for reflection. Wallace J. Nichols has described the feeling one has near water as having a “blue mind,” where fluid daydreaming leads to fresh connections, to creativity. Hand-wringing isn’t possible during a lap swim, or an open water swim, or a walk down the creek meditatively searching for crawdads. In the overwhelming sense of the present, it’s easier to envision a world where abundance and enough-ness are the norms. 

Since I can’t travel to Canada due to COVID-19 restrictions, I try to find the same feeling in my adoptive home of Kentucky. I create a ritual: I bike from downtown Louisville to a bank of the Ohio River a mile beyond the bridge to Indiana. Next to a barge landing, the ground is broken into brick-sized chunks from flood and erosion. When I feel my toes squish into the muddy river bottom, though I know it’s as polluted as sin, I feel a deep sense of comfort wash over me; I feel my molecules spreading out beyond me, connecting to the Ohio, to the Mississippi, to Gulf of Mexico, to the Caribbean, to the Atlantic Ocean. To an entire world shaped by water.  

As I wrote this essay, I visited Florida’s Gulf Coast with two close friends. Every morning, we drove to Siesta Key—a spit of soft white sand consistently ranked as the top beach in the U.S.—to see if it smelled like dead fish.  Red tide, a concentration of harmful algal blooms that turns water rust-colored, feeds off human acts: an unprecedented spill of phosphorus, the climate crisis raising and warming the seas. The algae causes massive fish kills and respiratory illness in people. While coughing fits pushed us from the beach to a pool, red tide killed over 600 tons of marine life in Florida this year alone. While we lounged, 586 wildfires burned across Greece. Floods killed 173 people in Germany; in China, the death toll exceeded 300; after I came home, over 20 more were lost to surprise floods in Tennessee. Just this week, Hurricane Ida tore through the South’s electric grid, leaving more than a million in Louisiana and Mississippi without power while temperatures rose towards 100 degrees. Ida raged through the northeast: 3.1 inches of rain fell in an hour in Manhattan, causing flash flooding. 

The most dire edition of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report yet, released in August, said sea-level rise could increase to 16 feet by 2150—the timeline of my potential grandchildren’s lives. It is irreversible. 

In the midst of these warnings, we returned to the ocean. I dove underwater, flecked amber algae floating beyond me like silt. The water was still mostly blue, the sky tin-glinted with an approaching storm. The sharp side of a shell hinged against my foot, my legs were flaked with salt, my fanned out fingers waved through the ocean like starfish. I was blissed out, surrounded. Floating on my back, I can feel, however briefly, like we still have time. 

A few weeks ago, Margaret Renkl wrote in The New York Times about attentiveness as an antidote to climate anxiety: “I also remind myself sternly to attend to what is not dying, to focus as much on the exquisite beauties of this earth as on its staggering losses. Life is not at all a long process, and it would be wrong to spend my own remaining days in ceaseless grief.”

What remains is a feeling: of water, and the ability to slip beneath it like my arms through a silk dress. Last summer, I slid into Big South Fork, a river between Kentucky and Tennessee, off trail. I swam alone into the big blue expanse under the big blue sky and I felt deeply, intrinsically free. That feeling, of aliveness connected to other life, is the most human feeling I know. It is the most hopeful: that what remains will have to be enough.