Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Summer’s no sweat at chilly swimming holes
If the sight of flabby arms, legs and belly makes you queasy, don’t watch a video of the writer trying out her first swimming hole. But if you do watch, check out her face at the 58-second mark. It’s so cold, her left eyebrow literally tries to climb off her face: [youtube]http://youtu.be/GXrj-9cVgw8[/youtube]
BY EDIE GROSS
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
The water was so cold that, for a moment, I couldn’t catch my breath.
So shockingly cold, in fact, that I was seeing spots.
I’d just driven more than six hours to find this secluded Tennessee swimming hole, and I was determined not to leave until I’d taken the plunge. But the water, only waist-deep at this point, was so icy, I gasped. I could feel my resolve slipping away.
And truth be told, if my husband hadn’t been videotaping me, I might have called it a day.
But no one wants their cowardice recorded for posterity. So I braced myself and slipped off my rocky perch, into the frigid pool.
‘SURROUNDED BY NATURE’
Like a lot of families, we combat the summer heat with frequent visits to crowded pools, beaches and water parks.
My husband wanted to try something a little more old-fashioned this year, so he turned to swimmingholes.org.
The website, maintained by Alexandria resident Tom Hillegass and Dave Hajdasz of Connecticut, features descriptions, photos and detailed driving directions to natural swimming holes and hot springs throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Hillegass, a retired engineer, lived in Oregon in the ’80s and enjoyed swimming in rivers. When he moved back East, he started collecting information about swimming holes, mostly in Virginia and West Virginia. He’d stuff articles and passages from hiking books into a file so he could visit those spots later.
When his daughter helped him start the website in 1994, it included information about 35 swimming holes. With help from readers, the list has expanded to include more than 1,000.
His website lists about 85 spots in Virginia alone, including the Falmouth Beach along the Rappahannock River.
“A lot of people have a hobby like collecting stamps or spotting birds,” said Hillegass. “This is a hobby—we collect swimming holes. And we have over a million people a year enjoying our hobby.”
It takes a bit of an adventurous spirit to visit a natural swimming hole. They’re often off the beaten path, nowhere near restrooms, snack bars or lifeguard shacks.
But if you find peace and quiet a refreshing change, there’s nothing better, said Hillegass.
“When you’re in a swimming hole, you’re surrounded by nature, and it’s really nice,” he said. “The feel of the water on your skin, it seems to last for hours.”
For our first venture, my husband set his sights on Blue Hole–Mill Creek near Hunter, Tenn., just south of Bristol and Interstate 81.
It would take us more than six hours to get there, but to get a little more bang for our buck, we planned to stop off at Due South barbecue restaurant in Christiansburg, Va., on the way.
My husband and I are avid ’cue fans, and in our quest to find the perfect rack of ribs or pulled pork sandwich, we’ve endured a lot of bad meals. It is our personal belief that the manufacture of cut-rate barbecue ought to be a class 1 felony punishable by life imprisonment and a tofu-only diet.
But we knew Due South wouldn’t disappoint us as soon as we stepped out of the car and inhaled the unmistakable scent of slow-smoked meat. Everything on the menu looked fabulous, so I asked a regular what she recommended. She suggested “The Trough,” a pulled pork sandwich with hushpuppies and two sides. Sold.
My husband and stepson split a rack of ribs. The meat was so tender it practically fell off the bone.
My sandwich was delicious as were the fried green tomatoes and the “sweet tater casserole” I ordered with it. The restaurant offers five different barbecue sauces. Our favorite was the spicy red.
The menu also features homemade fried apple pie and banana pudding, but we wanted to be able to fit into the bathing suits we’d packed, so we passed.
AN EXHILARATING PLUNGE
Fortified by an outstanding meal, we drove another two hours to Cherokee National Forest near Hunter, Tenn., carefully following the turn-by-turn directions posted on swimmingholes.org.
Some of these places show up on GPS, but many of them don’t. To keep from getting lost, it’s best to follow the suggestions provided on the site by swimmers, who use unmarked gravel roads, old general stores and oddly shaped boulders as handy landmarks.
Sure enough, Blue Hole was right where the website said it would be—off a wooded fire trail, which was off a gravel road, which itself seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.
My husband’s 10-year-old sprinted from the car, down about two dozen steep steps made from logs and dirt and over to the swimming hole’s edge.
A small waterfall emptied into the pool, which was surrounded by flat rocks and small cliffs. It was beautiful and very private. A mother and her two children were the only other visitors. My husband got into the water first, and his look of glee quickly turned to shock.
“It’s too cold,” he said with a sharp gasp.
No body of water has ever been too cold for him. I started to worry.
Still, he seemed reluctant to get out. He paddled over to the waterfall, hopped onto a slippery rock behind it and, using it as a chute, slid back into the pool right through the falls.
“It’s so cold my head hurts,” he said when he swam back over to the edge. “It’s like getting an ice cream headache from the outside.”
But by now, he had a big grin on his face and was genuinely enjoying the experience. My stepson spent a few chilly minutes in the water before opting instead to explore the craggy rocks and wooded trails around the pool.
That’s about the time I finally worked up the nerve to get in. On a 100-degree day, that swimming hole would be nothing less than a godsend. But it wasn’t all that hot the day we went, and the water was colder than any I’d ever experienced, probably in the 50s.
According to the video shot by my husband, I spent a grand total of about 4 seconds in the water before vaulting onto a nearby rock to stave off hypothermia.
It was incredibly invigorating—and a little bit mind-altering. For the next few minutes, as my body recovered from the shock, it sounded like my husband was speaking to me from the other end of a tunnel.
Though I was wet for only a few seconds, the water’s chill stayed with me for hours. But so did that feeling of exhilaration—which means we’ll definitely be going back.
SWEET ON SWIMMING HOLES
Swimmingholes.org, a website maintained by Tom Hillegass and Dave Hajdasz, features descriptions, photos and detailed driving directions to more than 1,000 natural swimming holes and hot springs throughout the U.S. and Canada. The site also includes links to information about campgrounds and public gardens as well important safety tips.
Blue Hole–Mill Creek is abbreviated BLUM on the site’s Tennessee map. It’s about a 6-hour drive from Fredericksburg. If you go, be sure to stop off at Due South barbecue restaurant in Christiansburg, Va. (duesouthbbq.com). You’re probably also better off camping in Cherokee National Forest so you don’t have to drive back on the same day.
We also visited Mountain Run swimming hole near Harrisonburg, abbreviated MOUN on the Virginia map. This pool, about 2 hours away, was chilly but not nearly as cold as Blue Hole. However, reaching it meant scrambling over a rock field and getting a bit turned around along a wooded trail, so it might be tough with very small children. Still, it’s a beautiful spot to relax with a picnic.
If you visit Vermont, you might be interested to know that Hajdasz has just written a book called “Take The Plunge: An Explorer’s Guide to Swimming Holes of Vermont,” available from publisher Huntington Graphics for $16. All proceeds support the Vermont River Conservancy.
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428