Minnewaska Distance Swimmers’ Association beach offers watery haven

Lake Minnewaska (photos by Erin Quinn)

In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.
— Leonardo da Vinci

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing to be dazzled –
To cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
— Mary Oliver

It’s a quiet walk, at least during the weekdays. There are overlooks that give you glimpses of the water: little teasers, especially when the sun is resting heavy on your shoulders. There are a wooden gazebo and several rock outcrops where one can pause and take in a portion of the view — like looking out of one window and then running to the next, trying in vain to get the entire landscape to piece itself together. Or maybe like a poem: a line here and line there. And then comes the mountain laurel, its buds bursting open in early June – not all at once, but in waves of white, ballet-slipper pink into an entire bridal bouquet. The blooms are tattooed with tribal streaks and purple dots, the flowers’ fused-petal blossoms resembling intricate origami rice bowls or Portuguese tile. And the smell? Like being drenched in floral taffy. It sticks to you and with you and then it’s over. Like that: powerful and brief.

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Isn’t that the way with nature and life? Just as the path becomes worn and predictable, it changes course. The flowers quickly fade and the shady evergreen returns to its former self, a hardy shrub with leathery green leaves lining the path like shy suitors. And soon, just as the mountain laurel blooms are forgotten, come the wild daisies, white with bright-yellow centers or black-eyed Susans, mustard-petaled with blackish-brown centers, and then the lavender chicory, purple horsemint, milkweed, Queen Anne’s lace!

All of this is strewn along an old carriage road that winds around the western side of the lake towards the secret beach. Well, it’s not a secret; not really. But if it’s a rainy Tuesday or a chilly Sunday evening, if it’s overcast or even a sunny hot Saturday when the entire Hudson Valley is flooded with tourists, one can move beyond the throngs of visitors, hang a sharp right towards the little sign that reads “For Lap Swimmers Only” at the very southern edge of the lake and suddenly everything and everyone recedes. There is only the gentle slapping of the water against the beach that is not quite hidden, but not quite revealed.

If the Shawangunk Ridge and its vast ecosystem are known as one of the “Last Great Places,” then the Minnewaska Distance Swimmers’ Association (MSDA) beach is one of the “last great destinations” for water-lovers. As you take that sharp right and walk along a narrow footpath towards the “beach,” there is a natural rock jetty that guides swimmers into the lake, a bulletin board where members clip on their ID badges and a wooden “locker” with various medical kits, an AED machine, lost badges, goggles, caps and a healthy stash of canvas folding chairs for those who would like to sit before or after their swim.

Besides a bobbing thermometer, a Red Cross lifebuoy and a 200-yard blue-and-white cord tethered modestly in the middle of the lake, there is nothing else there but water and the wooded landscape beyond it. Just pure, clear, creek-fed, sky-lake-charmed, fresh, unadulterated mountain water ready and aching to be swum. And all it takes to become part of this world is a basic swim test, a photograph, a signed waiver pledging to follow the rules, and one receives the best local summer passport that $20 can buy.

While the park itself may be flooded with city-dwellers looking for some natural respite or tri-state visitors embarking on an outdoor adventure, less than a mile from the upper parking lot and myriad of metropolitan guests is this little patch of paradise with its own quiet culture. After that walk and sharp turn there is only the sound of water slapping against the shore or the gentle splashing of feet and hands. If it’s late in the afternoon on a hot weekend day, there could be a dozen folks spread along the various patches of rock and roots along the cove, and another dozen in the water. But as the loop, running counterclockwise, is a quarter of a mile, those 12 people swimming are so spread out that there’s a feeling of being both solitary and communal. It’s like going to a worship service, where people are quiet and respectful of each other’s space, kind and welcoming while allowing those who enter to remain in a meditative state, communicating with their God, or to embrace them in fellowship and enjoy celebrating that same God. Only this is a lakeside house of worship, and the entities being praised are the water and the mountain themselves, and Sunday’s dress is usually a bathing suit rather than starched linens.

Most days one can spot the great matriarch of the MDSA at the beach: Judy Mage, a lifelong activist who helped spearhead the distance-swimming movement at Minnewaska (not to mention being part of the great grassroots movement that succeeded in lobbying the State of New York to purchase the 23,000 acres of sky lakes, waterfalls, woodlands and cliffs for a public park rather than let it fall into private corporate hands; to learn the full history of these movements, go to www.minnewaskaswimmers.org/history). Mage can be found reading, socializing with friends on one of the folding chairs or careening down the carriage road in her polka-dotted motorized bike cruiser with her longtime partner, MSDA’s First Lady, Tona Wilson, walking close by. Both are like wood nymphs who seem perfectly at home along the rustic lake shore. They are reminiscent of the dwarf pines that are so unique to the Shawangunk ecosystem: the way they both reach towards the water and the sun, like the limbs of the dwarf pines, while rooted in thin, sandy soil, fixed in their desire to remain part of the landscape despite any harsh elements that may pass through.

“Only the hardy swimmers come out on a day like today,” says Mage on an unusually cold and foggy afternoon in mid-August, as she walks into the water, her human form quickly engulfed by the mist until she’s just part of the lake itself. Mage is in her 80s, which is not an uncommon age for many of the MDSA swimmers, who range vastly in both age and ability. Some are happy to float and stare at cloud formations and the contours of the mountain, while others put in some serious yardage, as they are there for a workout or could be training for some upcoming open-water swim or a triathlon like the Survival of the Shawangunks (SOS.) But there is no hierarchy; there is no “fast” lane or “slow” lane. In fact, there is just one body of water that supports all other bodies who are bold enough and brave enough to take the plunge and find themselves smack-dab in the middle of a lake, no concrete at the bottom, no ladder at the side, no lifeguard, no lifeboat — just themselves and the water and those drying off or reading on the shore. They are always looking out for one another, because this is a culture of kindness bound together by the love of swimming unencumbered.

There is the moment, wading waist-deep, adjusting goggles or a cap, when I pause and look out at the sun-stroked water before me, the pines and hemlocks and wooded contours that look like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing against a blue background, and then the steep and bold and white face of the cliffs jutting above. That smell of pine and water and rock and soil and evergreen all blend in like a sweet olfactory tonic. I breathe in deeply, intoxicated by the air and invigorated by the water. It’s a breath of gratitude and an exhalation of relief as I immerse myself in the water and begin the long swim home, back to myself.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Terry Laughlin, who inspired me to get back to swimming at Lake Minnewaska; to Judy Mage and her passion and energy to help carve out this precious haven; and to all of the MDSA pioneers who came before me and who continue to work and volunteer to keep this aqua-paradise for and of the people.


Growing up swimming in Lake Minnewaska

I had grown up swimming in Lake Minnewaska, leaping off its majestic white cliffs to the enticing water below. It was a magical playground in the summertime, owned then by the Phillips family. My sister was a lifeguard, and so, after cycling up and over the mountain (on a bike that had no gears), I would proudly gain admission with no fee and throw myself gleefully, parched from thirst and drenched in summer’s sweat, into the lake and swim. Just swim. There was no thought to it.

After a grassroots effort morphed into a successful full-scale regional movement to lobby the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to purchase the land from the Phillipses (saving it from falling into the hands of the Marriott Corporation) in 1983, the land and the lakes (Minnewaska and Awosting) remained preserved and open to the public, but legally unswimmable. After another Herculean grassroots effort, “public” beaches were created in the northern corners of each lake, and eventually, a band of open-water swim enthusiasts convinced the state to allow them their distance beach in 2002.

While these are for the most part free-spirited individuals, they are, in this case, absolute rule-followers, as they want to keep their great relationships with the Parks service. Everyone must have a “buddy” to swim with (just someone in the water, or who may be sitting on shore). There are strict hours to follow, down to the minute (you had better take your last stroke before 7 p.m.), and of course refraining from entering or quickly exiting the lake if there are any hints of thunder, lighting, storms or the rainfall is heavy so that it would be hard for a buddy to see their partner out in the water. It’s a small price to pay to be safe, have the state and MDSA be protected and to continue to enjoy this off-the-beaten-path treasure trove.

MDSA access begins in mid-June and goes to Labor Day. Once you take the test and pass, then you just have to renew your card with a $20 administration fee and you’re set for life. Most of it (save the actual swim test) can be done online, and there are dozens of volunteers who make this magic happen. To learn how to become an MDSA swimmer, a volunteer, a financial supporter or Facebook page member, and to learn the rich and inspiring history of MDSA and Minnewaska, itself go to www.minnewaskaswimmers.org.

There are 2 comments

  1. Always Ask Politely

    QUESTION: The Leach Infestation which closed the swimming beach this summer > Is It Finished? Over? Can we go swim safely again? The lake’s destination website says the beach and swimming are closed.

  2. MAURA ALIA BADJI

    Erin, this is a beautiful meditation on Minnewaska and swimming and natural beauty. I grew up swimming at Lake Minnewaska, too. I loved hiking around there in college. Thank you for this sparkling gem of an essay.

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