Walden Pond: How to save open swimming

A swimmer prepared for an early morning workout in Walden Pond.
Porter Gifford
A swimmer prepared for an early morning workout in Walden Pond.

When a 63-year-old man died while swimming in Walden Pond last year, it revived a perennial debate at the cherished Concord landmark. Nearly every morning, long-distance swimmers practice in open water at the pond, a devoted group drawn to Walden’s beauty and relative accessibility. For years, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has looked the other way, even though open-water swimming is technically against the rules. But after 13 rescues outside the designated swimming area over the last three years, officials recently proposed more aggressive enforcement. The department quickly backed off, but the underlying issue remains unresolved: Park officials and swimmers must find a way to legalize the thriving open-water community at Walden, while also building in more safeguards to keep unprepared swimmers out of danger.

The dispute at Walden is unusual, since no other DCR pond attracts such a following. But the dilemma echoes similar concerns at parks across New England. How much risk should hikers, swimmers, rock-climbers, and others be allowed to take? Reasonable safety limitations shouldn’t automatically be dismissed as nannyism. Taxpayers bear the cost of saving people who choose to run those risks. In New Hampshire, costs grew so high that the state began billing reckless hikers for their rescues.

Another approach worth studying, also under consideration in New Hampshire, would create a voluntary licensing system. Hikers — or, perhaps, open-water swimmers — would pay a small fee for a license, and in exchange wouldn’t be charged for rescues. The application process could also provide a check to ensure swimmers have adequate training. Ideally, the system should defray rescue costs, while discouraging unprepared adventurers from swimming outside the lines.