- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2001

Summer simplified at swimming holes Old-fashioned getaways not dried up yet
But, Joe, there ain't such another swimming-place anywhere.

Mark Twain, "Tom Sawyer"

Charles Pridgen, 14, emerges from the 18-foot-deep waters of the old Milford Mill quarry dripping but triumphant.
"That was awesome," says Charles, who will be a freshman at Mount Hebron Academy in Ellicott City, Md., in the fall. "And to think I wasn't even going to come."
Swimming holes, the real kind, offer a touch of a simpler time. The studied innocence of Mark Twain aside, good swimming holes at quarries, lakes or rivers offer a timeless, unchlorinated quality that local pools just can't match.
In the immediate Washington-Baltimore area, such places are very few. The quarry at Milford Mill is one of them. Dark and mysterious, complete with ropes and a zip line to swing yourself in on, it's certainly rustic and it's definitely for experienced swimmers only.
"You'll never go to a swimming pool and find stuff like this here," says Charles, who has come here with his aunt, a member of Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, for a church picnic.
"This is even more fun than Oregon Ridge," he says, alluding to another quarry north of Baltimore.
Of course, even swimming holes have to keep up with the times. For some years now the Milford Mill quarry has been part of the Milford Mill Swim Club, a swimming spot that incorporates the best of several worlds. A kiddie pool and beach let youngsters splash around to their hearts' content. Indoor and outdoor pools allow serious swimmers to do laps or practice their underwater strokes. And for good swimmers like Charles there's the old quarry.

West of Baltimore near Randallstown, Md., the swim club began in 1950, when the area, then dotted with quarries, was just beginning to be settled by Baltimore City residents seeking greener pastures. The club was owned by the same family until 1999, when William Walker, a veteran swimming coach and former chief executive officer of SwimAmerica of Maryland, bought the place after the death of the owner.
He's made changes, instituting a rigorous swimming test that quarry swimmers must pass before even stepping on the platform.
"We don't let you get into the quarry until you can prove you can swim," Mr. Walker says.
That means swimming 100 yards and treading water for two minutes. "You must be able to demonstrate that you are a consistently strong swimmer," Mr. Walker says. "And if you can't swim, we'll teach you."
Mr. Walker runs swimming programs in Dundalk and Fort Meade, Md., as well as at Milford Mill. His wife, Gail, teaches Red Cross swimming and CPR. He takes the pick of his teams for his junior lifeguard program at the quarry. Any given day finds the Walkers, eagle-eyed and watchful, making sure that only those who have passed the test make it into the quarry. The Walkers have been known to turn away swimmers three times their size.
"I was a little uneasy at first when I saw how deep the quarry was," says young Charles. "But then I saw how careful the guards were and I felt a lot more comfortable."
The place is still a family affair. Mr. and Mrs. Walker live on the premises with their dog. Mr. Walker's daughters run the catering and concession operations. His sons help out when needed. And his wife is available to teach swimming and CPR. Granddaughter Kirsten is a summer fixture, and at 8 she is already qualified to swim in the quarry.
Other things have changed, too. Gone are the dances and the crystal ball that once graced the pavilion. Trees have grown down the sides of the quarry, obscuring some of the old sign and the sheer rock walls. Beyond them are new apartments and town houses with a fresh influx of people who have moved from the city.
Much is still the same, however, says Mary Cason, 78, who has been working at Milford Mill for the past 30 years.
"You can't move the quarry," says Mrs. Cason, who has been known to take a dip every now and then. "Some things just won't let you change them too much."
She means things like the Tarzan swing, which lets swimmers soar high over the quarry before dropping down, or the set of five ropes that allow a few strong souls to swing from one to the other without ever getting wet. Even the undulating canopy that shelters sunbathers at the outdoor pool seems a stubborn relic of a bygone time.
If you tire of swinging from rope to rope, you can relax over a game of horseshoes or chow down on Milford Mill's famous cheese fries. And there's always the chance to lie in the sun, build a sand castle or even try your hand at a video game or two.

Milford Mill's particular charms have captivated any number of people. It was featured in director John Waters' movie "Cry Baby," and a scene from Barry Levinson's 1999 movie "Liberty Heights" was filmed there.
Cynthia Nicholson, director of the Pikesville-Lochearn Trip Camp, brings her campers here every few weeks. Many are handicapped children, but that doesn't stop them from swimming. The fact that the other children are so supportive means a lot.
"We love it here," Mrs. Nicholson says. "There's just something special that happens when you get a bunch of kids in the water."
It is not just about the water. Milton and Miriam Kaplan have been coming to Milford Mill for 38 years, ever since their daughter was 2. Since then, they have seen the neighborhood change, and most of their friends who lined up the beach chairs with them have moved on to Florida. But the two still set out their beach chairs nearly every weekend.
"Frankly, I don't swim," says Mrs. Kaplan, settling in for an afternoon by the water. "I wade, though."
The Kaplans remember other times at Milford Mill, when every Tuesday was hot dog night and people flocked to Saturday night dances. Mr. Kaplan even sports a complete wardrobe of Milford Mill accessories hat, T shirt, and commemorative cup.
"It's a great place," he says, watching a boy teaching his young sister to blow bubbles in the pool. "And some things never change."

But the days when boys from Capitol Hill would dive into the Anacostia under what is now the Sousa Bridge are long gone. The bathing beach at the Tidal Basin is the stuff of memory. Even the most hardy among us shrink from the thought of even just wading in Rock Creek.
The fact is, if you are looking for a swimming experience that is not the pool and not the ocean, you may have to search around. It helps if you do your searching on the Internet.
"It can be a challenge to find one," says swimming hole enthusiast Tom Hillegass. "You have to be willing to venture out a little."
Mr. Hillegass' Web site, www.swimmingholes.org, is a compendium of more than 400 swimming holes around the country. There are a number within a day's drive of our area, rated and ranked by Mr. Hillegass and his cohort of swimming-hole enthusiasts.
"Different swimming holes offer different kind of experiences," says Mr. Hillegass, an Alexandria resident who developed his love of swimming holes while living in Oregon 20 years ago. "You can find one where you can be solitary, or another where you can socialize with others."
What a real swimming hole offers the swimmer, Mr. Hillegass says, is much more than simply a place to swim. It's a chance to enjoy the landscape, fit in with the environment, and just relax.
"Swimming in natural surroundings can be a very soulful experience," says Mr. Hillegass, who includes Milford Mill on his list of Maryland holes. "It's the one thing kids will remember from their vacation."

You have to be careful. Swimming holes are filled with hidden dangers.
"Since 1996, over 100 people have been injured while swimming illegally here," says Walter McDowney, site manager at Great Falls Park in Virginia. "There are a lot of rocks you can't see from the surface, and people miscalculate."
Unsanctioned holes are not patrolled by lifeguards. Couple that with drinking, poor swimming skills and just plain stupidity, and what you have is an accident waiting to happen, Mr. McDowney says.
"The problem if you get hurt there is that there is no one to help you," he says.
By the time somebody gets to you, it could be too late.
That's why places like Milford Mill, with its lifeguards and rigorous swimming test, works for folks looking for a safe swimming spot that still retains a bit of the natural landscape.

If you are not up for quarry swimming, you can enjoy the swimming hole experience at Cunningham Falls State Park, north of Frederick. It may not have the Tarzan ropes, but its two beach-fronted lakes offer places to spread out a towel or two and easy access to the picnic areas. It is all very low-key here, particularly on the weekdays, when the beach is fairly uncrowded and smoke from the grills in the wooded area curls lazily along the shoreline if the wind is right.
Often, though, there's not much swimming going on. Children race to the water's edge and then back again the moment their toes get wet. A few spend their time "digging to China." Teen-agers stroll along the shoreline. Many of those folks who do venture into the water simply hunker down in water up to their necks and talk.
"It's a great place to come in and cool down," says Ernie Pitt of Frederick, Md., who has been coming to the park regularly for the past five years. A Washington-area transplant, Mr. Pitt likes being able to look up and see trees rather than diving boards.
"This is such a good place to decompress," he says. "I just like to lay on my back and float. It makes me feel a bit like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn or one of those guys."

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