An Ode to the Easy Adventure of Swimming Your Local River

A few weeks back an article appeared in a local newspaper about a reporter snorkeling in an Oakland, California, creek. The Oakland of the Raiders and the Warriors and decrepit BART train stations. But also, an Oakland of forested hills and once verdant natural areas. This reporter hit the water because they’d heard from a local fisheries ecologist that trout were making a comeback in Oakland watersheds, and he wanted to see for himself. What he discovered was a wonderland. Under the surface, he felt like he was in the wilderness. Young trout finned against the current, oblivious to being in one of the most populous cities in the country. The reporter discovered a sense of wonder about his own backyard, a renewed and fresh look at the wildness of a place that can feel hopelessly urban. The piece reminded me of this lovely essay below from Alastair Humphreys about a river swim he took near his England home.


Look at the normal with fresh eyes. Seek the extraordinary in the ordinary. Step away from the pleasant, unsurprising riverside picnic. Step away and slide down into the water. See the world from a different perspective. Be surprised. Swim a river.

Swimming down a river for a couple of days has been the most surprising experience of my year of microadventures. Once I had slipped past the green picnic meadow, past the surprised grins and sun/booze-flushed faces of the riverside pub garden I was into the wild. Wiltshire, England, yes, but wild.

My eyes were but an inch or two above the water’s surface so the banks of reeds, bushes, and sweet-smelling pink willowherb towered high above me. I could see very little beyond the watery channel that was sweeping me gently on my first river journey. The sun sweeping to and fro across the sky told me that my river was meandering through all points of the compass. It was disorientating and I found it impossible to gauge how fast I was traveling. But it didn’t matter one jot for I was here to explore this river, so whichever way the river went was the right way.

I swam through reeds beside the bank, startling moorhens and reed warblers. I imagined giant pike lurking in the murky water waiting to nibble my toes. I kicked a little faster.

Later I swam through lily pads, sweeping them aside with my hands as I glided by. I swam breaststroke, what Roger Deakin called “the naturalist’s stroke” as it is the best way to take in all the sights and sensations. Besides, recent rains meant that the warm water was thick with silt so there was nothing to see below the surface. This was a pity as I had looked forward to exploring the totally alien world beneath the surface. My strongest (and most annoying) demonstration that to swim a river is to dangle between two separate worlds was when I let go, for a fraction of a second, my expensive waterproof camera (a GoPro). And it was gone. Gone. Gone forever into the opaque underwater world below.

Warm water. Blue sky. Fluffy clouds. I lay on my back and kicked my legs for a few minutes, my waterproof red bag towing along gently behind me. I could not believe that I had never taken a journey (even a tiny one like this) down a river before. It was an experience quite unlike running or cycling or even canoeing. It felt wild, really wild. Feral and primitive. Not feral and primitive like the rioters who were -completely unbeknownst to me- smashing up London a few miles down my river. But feral because this most mundane and domesticated corner of southern England suddenly felt wild again.

I lay in a wood on the riverbank in my sleeping bag listening to the noises of a wild night. I couldn’t see lights or hear roads. I saw stars instead. I heard a long chorus of rooks. And throughout the night my wood was alive with crashing beasts – deer, rabbits, foxes – and occasional fat fish leaped and splashed in the black river by my feet.

Dawn. Coffee. My hair reeked of wood smoke. The silent river slid by. A silver mirror. Or a natural, beautiful, uplifting, thrilling version of those flat escalators that fat and mind-numbed people stand on to be moved around airports. This microadventure was so far from that sanitized, dreary world. But that is the world I am desperate to connect with through my microadventures: with people who’ve never camped, never cooked on a fire, never stared at stars, never swum in a river. A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to swim and stare and be surprised.

I eased myself down into the water and began another day of swimming, wishing that I could carry on this journey all the way down to the sea and the proper end. It has been a revelation. I suspect that this river swim is going to be my favorite of this year’s microadventures.

This post originally appeared at Alastair Humphrey’s blog, Living Adventurously. His new book, ‘My Midsummer Morning,’ can be purchased here.

Top photo: Thiago Palia




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