Local swimmers say nothing compares to an early-morning dip in the pristine waters of historic Walden Pond in Concord, but now they fear a recent crackdown by police on parking before 7 a.m. may jeopardize what has become a daily ritual for many.
“It’s one of the greatest places to swim in the entire country,’’ said Juan-Andres Leon, who lives in Somerville.
Leon said he typically swims twice a week at Walden, a 102-foot-deep glacial kettle-hole pond made famous by Henry David Thoreau, but he gave up on Monday after cars parked along nearby Route 126 had been ticketed by 6 a.m. He also said that a parking lot typically available before the state reservation’s gated main lot opens at 7 a.m. was blocked off by barricades.
“For many years, you simply go and park in the small parking lot used by the shop,’’ Leon said. “People know that they have to leave by 7.’’
A spokeswoman with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation said agency officials are trying to work out a solution.
Leon said when the 10-space lot next to the Thoreau Society Shop at Walden Pond State Reservation is full in the early morning, some people park on the side of the road. He said it hadn’t been an issue until about two weeks ago, when cars along the road after 7 a.m. started getting tickets. Within the past week, ticketing started before 7, the shop lot was barricaded, and police were patrolling the area, Leon said.
Concord Police Sergeant Jack Kennedy said a Department of Conservation and Recreation park ranger called his department on July 5 to report that a complaint had been made about cars parked in a crosswalk on Route 126 between the parking lot and the pond on the other side of the street. Kennedy said an officer responded and found parking violations, so cars were ticketed. Motorists are not allowed to park on the state highway, but the crosswalk areas are especially important for clear pedestrian sight lines, Kennedy said.
‘The best time is when the steam is rising early in the morning. It’s an incredible experience.’
Since then, Kennedy said, Concord officers have continued to patrol the area.
“We’re following up on that complaint and trying to discourage any further complaints from the public,’’ Kennedy said.
Hudson resident Megan Gurley, a swim coach for adult triathletes, said she hopes the swimmers and state and town officials can reach a compromise and find somewhere safe to park if the shop lot is full or not available. She said the swimmers are willing to pay for an annual pass and park in the main lot if it is open. Parking at Walden is $5 a day, or $35 for an annual pass.
“They aren’t going to get people to stop going there, so how do they want us to resolve the issue?’’ Gurley said. “If given the chance, people would do the right thing.’’
One idea, Gurley said, is to open the main lot and use an honor system before it is staffed.
S.J. Port, a spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said officials hope to come up with a plan soon. She said one issue is that cross-pond swimming is technically not allowed, for safety reasons. There is a roped off section for swimming near the beach, with lifeguards on duty during the day.
“Cross-pond swimming is not allowed — safety has to come first,’’ Port said. “We at DCR realize this is an increasingly popular activity, and we’re beginning conversations with the community about what the best steps are.’’
Port said early-morning park visitors can use the gift shop lot before it opens, but it has been filling up quickly this year. “We do want to work with the community to find a resolution,’’ she said.
Richard Smith, a Thoreau Society employee who works at the gift shop, said the lot there has traditionally been used by early birds. “Once the gate opens at 7, they have to move their cars or leave,’’ he said. “The rangers and state turn a blind eye until 7.’’
Smith said he thinks a barricade is put up only when the reservation has reached parking capacity during the day. If they are up in the morning, it’s likely because the rangers forgot to remove them the night before, he said.
Port said the DCR will make a concerted effort to make sure the barricades are not up in the morning.
Leon and Gurley said the hours between 5 and 7 a.m. are popular with long-distance swimmers looking for a workout before the pond fills up with beachgoers.
Gurley, noting she swims at Walden six days a week, said there are as many as 200 people swimming before 7 on a typical Friday, the busiest day of the week there. She also organizes a meet-up at Walden to give swimmers an opportunity to train with others.
Gurley said Walden is an increasingly popular destination for many reasons. She said the swim distances are well known, it’s clean, serene, close to Boston, closed off to motorized boats, and typically accessible. She said many other ponds or lakes have residency requirements.
“Unless you’ve been in the middle of Walden Pond, you don’t know what heaven is,’’ she said. “It’s open-water swimming at its best. The best time is when the steam is rising early in the morning. It’s an incredible experience.’’
Thoreau wrote extensively about the beauty of the pond while living in a cabin nearby from July 1845 to September 1847. His experiences provided the material for his book “Walden,’’ which is credited with helping to inspire awareness and respect for the natural environment. Walden Pond has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is considered the birthplace of the conservation movement.
The Thoreau Society is holding its annual gathering this weekend in Concord and Lincoln, including events at Walden Pond. The theme of this year’s event is “Celebrating 150 Years of Thoreau’s Life, Works, and Legacy.’’Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.