Last Saturday I arrived at Walden Pond around 6:30pm. A firetruck and two police cruisers, lights flashing, were already stationed on the side of the road. The parking lot remained open so I turned into it, found a spot, grabbed my swim gear and walked to the pond’s main entrance.
“It’s closed,” said a uniformed cop at the crosswalk.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I can’t really say, it’s a medical situation,” he said. I took a step forward. “You can’t swim.”
I turned around. I desperately needed to swim after not having done so for several days. Back at the parking lot, I saw a couple and their teenage daughter walking towards the pond.
“It’s closed,” I said. “Something happened. A medical situation.”
“We heard someone drowned,” said the woman.
“Really?” I said. Which version was correct?
“If that’s the case, why are there still so many cars in the parking lot?” asked her husband. “Why did they let us park and why aren’t people leaving the beach?”
Indeed, there was a disconnect between the situation’s gravity and the level of activity. If it were an emergency, it was relatively silent. The three of them decided to access the pond via a wooded trail whose entrance is not monitored. I decided to follow, simply to surround myself with trees if the water was off limits. As I approached the pond, I saw plenty of swimmers in the water and sunbathers on the near shore. On the far shore, an emergency vehicle, lights flashing, had pulled up to the edge of the beach, visible for almost anyone around the pond’s perimeter to see. That people continued to enjoy the last vestiges of a spring day, despite signs of a problem, felt surreal. Still, I considered going in for a dip, just to savor the water for a few minutes. As I deliberated, two park staff drove up in a small beach mobile and said the pond would be closing early for a medical situation. By then it was around 7pm. Normally, the parking lot exit gate is locked at 8pm, trapping vehicles that overstay. Hardly anyone budged in response, speaking volumes about Walden’s magnetism as an oasis if not a refuge. Once you’re there, it can be challenging to pull away, even if someone is ordering you to leave.
The next day, Sunday, it rained heavily. Swimming would have to wait. I checked the news online in the morning. A 32 year old man, unnamed, had been pulled from Walden pond and was in critical condition at an area hospital. The spare report in the Boston Globe said he’d been found at around 7pm the evening before; by my account, it was probably 6:30pm, if not before. I wondered what else was missing from the article. Later, I refreshed the webpage. The story had been updated. The man, still unnamed, had died. Since foul play was not suspected, there wouldn’t be an inquiry.
I visited the pond yesterday evening, around the same time that I’d arrived Saturday. I prefer to go when the crowds have thinned and the sun is lower in the sky. Nothing about the scene hinted that someone had lost his life recently except for a woman chatting nearby with someone about the incident. As she left the sitting area to swim, I put sunscreen on my face and inflated my “SaferSwimmer“, an orange buoy that attaches to my waist and holds my keys, phone and a snack. I bought it last summer after seeing others use it. The orange buoy makes a person more visible to boaters and people on shore. I wondered if such a device, which offers limited floatation for a tired swimmer, would have saved the man. Had he tripped on a rock, went under, and couldn’t swim? Had he dived in and hit his head on something? I didn’t know.
Bright green pollen had amassed at the water’s edge. I stepped in and waded for a few feet before submerging my face. Making my way across the pond, I thought of how much its water gives me. In it I find a sense of freedom, peace and yes, safety, that often eludes me in so-called real life. To be immersed in the water and surrounded by the natural world, far beyond the roped and guarded swim area, offers a kind of security I am hard pressed to find elsewhere. On the far side I stopped to rest and rinse my goggles. A trio of mallards approached, completely indifferent to my lack of feathers and webbed feet. A large fish swam close by. Insects buzzed and darted at the water’s surface. Everything hummed and thrummed with life. Harmony reined.
About halfway across the pond on the return trip, as the mallard family swam to my left as if ushering me to shore, I heard the park wardens announce through megaphones that the park would be closing soon. I picked up my pace a bit. Back on the beach, the woman had also returned from her swim. She talked about the drowning with a different person, a bearded fellow. She said a friend of hers had pulled the unconscious man from the water, relatively close to shore, and knew it wasn’t going to end well. She wondered what “critical condition” really meant in such a case. Had the hospital kept his heart pumping even if his brain had died? With tragedies such as these, there are often more questions than answers.
Since the parking lot was about to close, I scrambled to change out of my bathing suit and put on my shoes. I quickly mentioned to her that the story in the Boston Globe didn’t have many details. Perhaps this woman knew more about the episode but there wasn’t time to dissect. Having an accurate account helps to create closure. Yet I wondered if additional information would change things for me, someone who over the years has turned her fear of open water swimming into a source of joy. I didn’t think so.