I met Dana Cooksey as she glided into the muddy landing on Spa Creek, gracefully stepping off her paddleboard.

It was 90 degrees, and my hunt for places to swim in Annapolis creeks had led me to Amos Garrett Park. This little street end was my last stop on a hot afternoon.

As we talked, we couldn’t help but notice the group on the opposite shore, where the eroded walking trails at Truxtun Park reach down to the water’s edge. We could hear them laughing, human pyramids collapsing into cafe con leche-colored water to the tune of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”

“I’d be willing to bet they aren’t from Annapolis,” Cooksey said.

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They were not. It was a group of eight St. John’s College students, who hailed from as far away as Texas and as close as Baltimore County. They’d seen others in the water — a group of fishermen chest-deep were a hundred yards downstream, laughing and calling out in Spanish — and wanted to see what they could find.

“I was worried about water quality until an amoeba ate the part of my brain where fear lives,” Josh Billig quipped.

The later State Sen. Bernie Fowler used to conduct an annual water quality test, wading into the Chesapeake Bay until he couldn't see his feet. At Amos Garret Park in Annapolis on Friday, July 5, I could see mine as I went in up to my shorts.
The late state Sen. Bernie Fowler conducted an annual water quality test, walking into the Chesapeake Bay until he couldn't see his feet. Many of the sites on a city public water access plan are better suited for wading than swimming. (Rick Hutzell)

The city of Annapolis is developing a plan to make it easier to get into the water without fear of brain-eating amoebas or sarcastic college students. The Annapolis Equitable Public Water Access Plan identifies places to launch a paddleboard, sit quietly by the water or even swim on Spa, Back and Weems creeks and on the Severn River in Annapolis.

The plan lists dozens of public access spots and more than 60 with potential for the future. It’s an attempt to save something of Annapolis’ past, an open waterfront if you knew where to look. As the value of waterfront real estate transformed the city, many of these places have disappeared behind “No Trespassing” signs.

That’s how it was when Eric Leshinsky was growing up. Now the city’s chief of comprehensive planning, he wasn’t surprised by the students’ story.

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“To some degree, what you’re seeing there are people sort of finding their own spot,” said Leshinsky, a key architect of the water access plan. “I think it’s a level of desperation, you know, that we haven’t really clarified the better places to go swimming or where it makes sense.”

Even though Annapolis contains 1.2 square miles of water and 22 miles of shoreline, very few people use them for swimming. They might jump off a boat or a private dock for a plunge — or something else that starts with “p” — but heading out for a few casual strokes or even a long swim isn’t common.

There are exceptions. Mayor Gavin Buckley keeps a pontoon boat so his kids and their friends can cruise Spa Creek for “flippies off the back.”

“My kids have been on that boat,” said Cooksey, one of the mayor’s neighbors.

Better water access is often listed as one of the top concerns among residents when surveyed by the city, and there is widespread interest in the plan. An information session is planned from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Moyer Recreation Center.

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“There’s a lot of people who’ve been beating the drum on this issue,” Leshinsky said. “Then you have people you know, I guess you could say with micro-neighborhood concerns … that improving public water access for the city is going to change their neighborhood.”

Very few people have asked about more swimming.

Mayor Gavin Buckley's pontoon boat, a neon pink vessel he bought so his kids could do "flippies off the back" into Spa Creek.
Mayor Gavin Buckley's pontoon boat, a neon-pink vessel he bought so his kids could do "flippies off the back" into Spa Creek. (Courtesy of Gavin Buckley)

I’ve been interested in open-water swimming for years. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not a strong swimmer. But I grew up at the beach, and I’ve taken short swims in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Sea of Cortez, and the Irish Sea. I’ve taken that Chesapeake Bay dip, too.

And it is an interesting moment for swimming. Baltimore just staged the first public swim of its Inner Harbor in memory. The annual Chesapeake Bay swim was last month, and artist Katie Pumphrey just completed a 24-mile swim from the Bay Bridge to the Inner Harbor.

Organizers of the Paris Olympics may fall short of their plan to make the Seine safe enough for swimming later this month, but the effort to clean up the polluted river was laudable.

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“That’s the idea, right?” Amy Clements of the Spa Creek Conservancy said. “Livable, swimmable waters.”

But when I asked about swimming in the city’s waterways, she gasped.

“You mean, go swimming now?” she said.

Heavy rains in late June flushed all sorts of pollution — plastic, paper and more poop than you want to imagine — into Annapolis creeks. Readings of E. coli bacteria, indicating the presence of fecal matter, taken by the conservancy and posted online, were through the roof.

Skepticism was common as I asked about places to swim in Annapolis. People on Reddit pointed to pollution, dangerous currents, or bodies regularly pulled from the creeks. Those last two were untrue, but that is how people view urban waterways.

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With a few restrictions, it is perfectly legal to go swimming in Annapolis.

“Folks are not permitted to swim [within] 150 feet of any portion of Susan Campbell Park without the approval of the harbormaster,” Harbormaster Beth Bellis wrote in an email. “It’s a busy maritime environment and poses a danger.

“With that said, we have had triathlons and other swimming events in Spa Creek.”

Would Bellis, whose staff patrols the city’s waterways aboard small boats, recommend it? She wouldn’t say.

My tour of the sites listed for swimming in the Annapolis water access plan found boat ladders over rotting bulkheads, and spots better suited for wading than swimming.
My tour of the sites listed for swimming in the Annapolis water access plan found boat ladders over rotting bulkheads, and spots better suited for wading than swimming. (Rick Hutzell)

Nor would the Natural Resources Police. It’s common to see people in creeks and coves off the South and Severn rivers, but not much beyond that.

There is no swimming at Quiet Waters Park near Annapolis on the South River, but there is a plan to replenish the beach at Elktonia-Carr’s Beach purchased last year by the city. Crossing Currents, an Annapolis swim school, has a course upriver on the South.

One reason is the popularity of boating.

“Whether you’re in the Severn River or South River, it is unbelievably busy and congested with boat traffic,” acting Sgt. Chris Neville said. “I would say that would probably be high up among the contributing factors why you would not see more swimming.”

It can also be dangerous. In June alone, a 17-year-old boy died while swimming with his family in Pasadena, a 32-year-old Laurel man drowned while swimming from a boat anchored in Whitehall Bay near Annapolis, and a 36-year-old man died while three others were rescued from the water near Port Covington in South Baltimore.

There are common-sense precautions. Never swim alone. Don’t underestimate tide and wind. Know your limits, and don’t swim drunk or high. Don’t go in for 48 hours after a rain. Wear a floatation device.

My tour of swimming spots in the city plan didn’t reveal any hidden paradise. Some street ends were marked with a boat ladder over a rotting bulkhead. The water was so shallow in places that wading was the realistic option.

“I have some second thoughts about a few of them, to be honest, but we put them out there because that’s kind of what we thought were the best options at this point and we’re kind of interested in hearing what people think,” Leshinsky said.

Of the potential access sites, 26 are in some stage of planning, funding or development. A few are at the city’s biggest green space, Truxtun Park, at the head of Spa Creek.

Swimming in Spa Creek is not encouraged there today. Trails can be treacherous, and the city seems to have accepted a mild electrical current in the water at the boat ramp as unfixable.

A group of St. John's College friends swim in Spa Creek on Friday afternoon.
A group of St. John's College friends swim in Spa Creek on Friday afternoon. (Courtesy of Paolo Medelius)

The eight St. John’s students I talked to said they felt Spa Creek was safe, despite a cable crossing a few yards upstream and broken glass on the bottom — “old and not jagged.” It was what they wanted — a place to cool off and horse around without the $10 charged non-residents at the city public pool.

“Oh, lovely,” a few of them chimed when I asked how the water felt.

Monday, I emailed Helen Wagner, incoming student editor of a college publication, to ask if any of her friends felt sick after swimming.

“Personally, I feel great,” she wrote in an email. “We actually went back the next day and swam there again, haha!”