The BLOG: Lifestyle

Making the memorable Charles swimmable as well

The Charles River is more than a frame of reference around Boston. It’s an 80-mile stream of consciousness linking 35 communities to the Atlantic Ocean and the world. Its blue ribbon waves past Brandeis, Harvard, Boston University and MIT, dotting campus scenery with sailboats, motorboats, and a compliment of birds who fish the eco-diverse source morning, noon and night. This world class compass point is the scene of Boston’s Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival each June, the Hatch Shell’s Pops celebrations each summer, and The Head of the Charles regatta every October. The banks of the river have been featured in movies, television shows and the every-day occasions of Bostonians so frequently the Charles is somewhat of a super model.

In the very best sense, the Charles is a model of community activism. Jeffrey A. Simon, senior principal with the design and consulting company Stentec, told the Charles River Conservancy, “Many cities around the country and the world are realizing how great an asset their urban waterfront can be and are investing in the protection, revitalization and redesign of their waterways, many focusing on restoring opportunities for swimming in these urban rivers.”

(Photo by Diane Kilgore)

(Photo by Diane Kilgore)

The CRC is coordinating efforts and expertise to understand what needs to happen to bring about a swimmable Charles River. A feasibility study funded through a partnership grant from Common Impact with volunteer professionals from Stantec explored the possibility of establishing a permanent swimming facility in the Charles at North Point Park. The CRC intends to make the Charles “the first urban river in the country to reintroduce swimming.”

“Due to decades and hundreds of millions of dollars of remediation, Boston and Cambridge are poised to set an example for other American cities by leading the country with a safe and innovative swimming facility that is accessible and beautiful,” CRC Founder and President Renata von Tscharner recently said. “We want to challenge perceptions that the river is filled with dirty water … the Charles River is the cleanest urban river in America.”

Undercurrents of the swim initiative began in 1996 after Gov. William F. Weld signed the Rivers Protection Act then jumped, fully clothed, into a sewage-saturated Charles.

Since that initiative, the Charles River has regained a swimmable status. In 2007 the Charles River Swimming Club began an annual one-mile swim race for experienced open-water swimmers in the river. This year the race was held on June 11. As the goal to establish a permanent swim center continues to be studied and funding efforts launch, the Charles River Conservancy hosts an annual, open to anyone splashy, Swim the Charles event.

On Tuesday, July 12, hundreds of people took the plunge into the Charles from a river dock tethered within ear shot of the Hatch Shell and Arthur Fiedler’s statue. Erica Sauer, a prospect researcher at Simmons College, took a vacation day to accommodate her exciting blue skied 2 p.m. dunk from the dock. She feels this water calls to her, saying it must be in her genes as her mom is an aquatic yoga instructor and swim teacher to autistic children and fearful adults in New Jersey. This was the first time Erica has been in the Charles, but she said she loved her 30-minute swim describing the water as warm and clean.

Fifty-nine-year-old Lisa Liu of Randolph was another swimmer eager to participate in the glorious 90-degree day of dipping. Lisa, a native of China, was in the past part of the Asian women’s swim team chosen to honor Chairman Mao’s memory by swimming across the Pearl River. Ms. Lui’s daughter, Amanda Kwong, a student at Emmanuel College, explained her mother believes river life is a vital part of her culture and recreational experiences. Amanda says her mother is an active participant in the Dragon Boat festival and knows her relatives around the world will be happy to know she’s involved in Boston’s river in her new homeland.

Since 2000, Renata von Tscharner has been working on the Charles River Parklands. The native of Switzerland was also a dynamic force behind the development of the Lynch Family Skate Park. She spoke at the opening of the concrete canyons with enormous enthusiasm for Boston’s communities, saying “the 400 acres of urban parklands between Boston Harbor and Watertown can become increasingly more accessible, active spaces used for public interest.”

Renata von Tscharner

Renata von Tscharner

As the CRC explains, for many years North Point Park was underdeveloped and used for industrial purposes. As the big dig impacted the city, new commercial and residential lots developed with green spaces and MBTA connections. Renata said the heart of the city with direct access to the river opened up ready to be used in imaginative new ways and that “an urban riverfront swimming area would add an entirely new dimension to the recreational opportunities for everyone in the down town area.”

The collective of landscape architects, civil engineers, environmental scientists, urban planners and others determined with further studies, and due diligence, a permanent swimming facility is feasible. Through the Charles River Conservancy’s vision and stewardship with the support of the Clean Charles River Initiatives, Charles River Watershed Association and the fund raising efforts of the CRC’s Swim the Charles campaign, Boston’s urban landscape will eventually include a vibrant water park.

As proposed, out of all boating traffic, a dock would be built to accommodate river bathers near the Museum of Science. The water area would have a permanent foundation covering river silt as a control for potential contaminants mixing into swimming water. Parameters of the space would be netted and marked. Standing on the river dock adjacent to the Fielder sculpture when asked what von Tschamer will focus on after construction of the water park begins, she responded in a with the energy of a vortex: “We need a better bike path to connect all of these beautiful places together.”

Construction of the water park remains in the development stage but given the popularity of the Swim the Charles initiative, and the ambitious accomplishments of the Charles River Conservancy, the compass points to an appearance of Boston’s next super model making the scene on the banks of the Charles in the not too distant future.

For additional details about the Swimmable Charles Initiative contact Kelsey Pramik at 617-300-8164 or [email protected].

Contact Diane Kilgore at [email protected].