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Can you or can’t you swim in the Charles?

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Globe reporter David Filipov takes a dive into the Charles River.
Globe reporter David Filipov takes a dive into the Charles River.

I did it so you wouldn't have to.

But about half a dozen strokes after I dove into the Charles River on Monday afternoon, surrounded by the towers and traffic-clogged roadways that are the touchstones to an urban life, it occurred to me that maybe everyone should.

The water was warm, the views of the Esplanade were a shimmering emerald dream, and the odors were not nearly as swampy as I thought they'd be. And the experience was transcendental — maybe not Walden Pond transcendental, but think about it: I was out there paddling around in a river that not so long ago flowed pink and orange from toxic discharge. And come Tuesday, it will be open to the public to swim.


It's called CitySplash, a four-hour event held by the Charles River Conservancy. Bathers lucky enough to have snagged a slot — which is now sold out — will be able to jump off the Fiedler Dock, near the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, in a watery celebration of how far the cleanup of the river has come.

So if it's OK to swim in the Charles on Tuesday, was it OK on Monday?

I sent an inquiry to the Charles River Conservancy, then set out for the dock.

A hail out to a trooper on a passing State Police boat yielded an encouraging answer: "It's not illegal." Asked it that meant it was OK to jump in, the trooper pointed out that there were no ladders. "If you can pull yourself back up on the dock, I guess it's OK."

OK, then. But should anyone really swim in the Charles?

Last year more than 125 people dove in on a July day much like Monday, bolstered by the B-plus rating the US Environmental Protection Agency had given the river the previous May.


It was OK to swim in the Charles!

Then, a month later, it wasn't OK to swim in the Charles.

An algae bloom meant bacteria concentrations were roughly twice the recommended limit, prompting an advisory from health officials. The stuff turned the water murky blue-green — not the pink and orange of years past, but it still smelled bad.

Incidentally: If you grew up in the 1970s and played ecologically-themed board games like "Clean Water: The Water Pollution Game", and therefore had nightmares about tiny creatures such as copepods and rotifers, you'd never dream of swimming in the Charles. Nor would you if you remembered when people who accidentally fell in were advised to get a tetanus shot, and diving in meant a likely aquatic appointment with submerged cars and discarded laundry machines.

Also incidentally: Not being able to swim in the Charles didn't make us hate the Charles. This is a city that always embraced its weaknesses and reveled in its failures. The Battle of Bunker Hill was a defeat, after all. Paul Revere got captured and never made it to Concord. Our beloved baseball team never won.

And the city's fight song was about the Charles, the river that was too dirty to swim in.

Now, the Sox have won three championships, and Joe Majhess, a tourist from Boca Raton, Fla., wore a Boston baseball hat as he stood on the Fiedler Dock and recited the lyrics to the Standells' "Dirty Water."


He's also heard that the Charles is "one of the cleanest rivers in town," which is kind of like saying that the Intracoastal Waterway is one of the safest places in Florida to swim with bull sharks.

So, would he swim in the Charles?

"I'd have to do a little more research before I hopped in," he said.

Enough with the research!

I was going in.

I stripped off my shirt, rolled up my jeans, and dove in to clean river water! Not gummy and cold, like the salt water of the harbor, not crystal-tingly like northern New England lake water, not chlorine-yucky like pool water.

River water.


Later, the e-mail came.

"It is NOT permitted to swim in the Charles outside of authorized events," wrote SJ Port, director of development and communications for the Charles River Conservancy. "The public should not attempt to swim the Charles outside of authorized events like the annual CitySplash . . . ."

But I dove, so you wouldn't have to.

And I won't tell, if you don't.

David Filipov, shown preparing for his leap, found the conditions delightful. Only afterward did he receive contrary words about the undertaking.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

David Filipov can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.