Szymanski: The lure of the water hole, where we come of age

Szymanski: The lure of the water hole, where we come of age
Lois Szymanski's granddaughters Lexi and Norah enjoy their first foray into a water hole.

Last week my granddaughters, Lexi and Norah spent a few days with us, swimming in the pool, playing with the ponies, swinging on the grape arbor swing and just hanging out. It was idyllic, but they found the best kind of fun when we hiked down to the old water hole in the park at Big Pipe Creek.

“Really? Why would you want to get in a dirty creek water with snakes and crayfish?” my husband asked. After all, we have a perfectly clean 4-foot pool in the backyard.


“Creek water is super cold,” I said, hoping it would deter them.

But noooo. They wanted to swim at the Lions Park in Union Mills. So, we headed to the creek, shorts and shirts over bathing suits. Norah stopped on the edge of the creek to swing on a low hanging branch, feet dangling, her face lit up. She was already in heaven.

A bunch of kids were swimming in the deep, dammed up section. An older boy and a girl leaped from the high bank over roots and rocks, to land in the middle where the water closed over their heads before they paddled to the surface, laughing and spraying water every which way.

Lexi and Norah got in the shallow end and waded up to the dammed up section. Watching the bigger kids leap from the bank and seeing the water rise in giant splashes, 9-year-old Lexi and 7-year-old Norah grinned. I knew Norah would want to try that. She’s our little daredevil. I shook my head, hoping she wouldn’t. Then, without a word, she did, scraping a leg on a root on the bank before plopping into deep water. Moments later, she popped up to swim all the way to the other side. As her feet reached the gravel section, she stood and looked up at me, rubbing her leg, eyes gleaming with satisfaction. Lexi shook her head. She would never do that!

At the same time I was cringing at what might be in the water, I was also remembering the thrill of swimming in a natural pool of water. When I was a teen, a friend’s family took me along on a trip to Deep Creek Lake. On a foray to Swallow Falls, we hiked to an area below the waterfall where we could slide down rocks worn smooth by hundreds of years of flowing water, dropping into an icy cold pool. It was the coldest, most thrilling, crazy sweet memory, and when it bubbled up in my thoughts I had to smile. I understood the lure.

What is it about these age-old swimming holes that draws kids of all ages? They are so popular that Travel and Leisure magazine has a list of “America’s Favorite Swimming Holes” on their website.

“Swimming holes are where we shrug off responsibilities and play with the enthusiastic zeal of a child. They’re also places where we come of age,” an article on the website says.

That’s why water holes show up in some classic films. In “The Man in the Moon,” Reese Witherspoon plays 14-year-old Dani, a teen who lands her first kiss at the swimming hole, a setting where lessons about life and love abound.

My son-in-law — film critic and entertainment editor for WTOP radio — Jason Fraley recalled a memorable scene from the 1979 Academy Award winning movie, “Breaking Away,” a film that is ranked eighth on the American Film Institute’s list of America’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies.

In the film, four 19-year-old working-class friends, Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher, living in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, hang together at an old abandoned water-filled quarry. Between clashes with well-to-do college kids and dreaming of becoming a competitive bike rider, Dave falls for University student, Katherine, who he romances both at the water hole and away. The tale of his two loves, Katherine and biking, leads him into a competitive race and a new realm of adulthood.

My son-in-law eloquently explained the lure: “From ‘Breaking Away’ to ‘The Kings of Summer,’ coming-of-age films consistently go back to the well of watering holes because they remind us of our youth, back before bathing suits became business suits, when taking a dip had nothing to do with the stock market, when cannonballs were still peaceful, and when nothing was more magical than a well-timed splash.”

In the United Kingdom, swimming at natural swimming holes has a long history and over the years has come to be known as "wild swimming.” I can see why. It’s a way of communing with nature. You know there are crayfish and trout, frogs and even snakes sharing your space, but all that leaves your mind when you first dip your toe into the water, surrounded by rustling leaves, sunshine and the sound of water bubbling along its course — the same course it has taken for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. It is enchanting and exhilarating, all at once.

Researching, I learned there’s a lot of variety in swimming holes across our own United States. Some are hidden under sparkling waterfalls. Others swirl and bubble like natural jacuzzis. Many have giant rope swings that plop you right into the middle of an icy well of water, cold enough to cure anyone’s exhaustion with summer heat.

Swimming holes are so popular that the folks over at have listed them by state or region, with directions on how to get there and what to expect. Here in Carroll County we have quite a few, including the swimming hole in Big Pipe Creek at the Silver Run-Union Mills Lions Club Park in Union Mills, one in the waters of Morgan Run- south of Westminster, one with a rope swing off Henryton Road in Woodbine — near the Howard County line and other, less recorded spots where anyone can take a dip in a cool creek. It’s important to only go where signage permits it, to always swim with others, and to use care. You don’t want to become another statistical water rescue, or worse.


After a bit, I wrapped towels around my granddaughters and handed them their flip-flops and we began to work our way home. Their faces were bright with excitement and they chatted a mile a minute.

“Did you see that kid jump all the way to the middle?” Norah asked. “I wanted to do that, but didn’t make it that far!”

“You’re not tall enough or strong enough to leap that far,” I told her. “But you will be in time.”

My own children swam in that very same spot, I thought. History repeats itself. And it is true, that some things never change.

Lois Szymanski writes about the Great Big World Sundays in Life & Times.