Are Lakes Safe to Swim In?

Q: Everyone always talks about going to the beach in the summer, but there's nothing I like better than hiking in the woods. Give me those lakes over oceans any day. However, I am a bit squeamish with the creepy crawlies. Bugs I can handle; it's the larger things that get me jumpy. I'm thrilled I don't have to worry about jellyfish stings or shark bites (I know, I know, highly unlikely), but do I have anything to fear in freshwater? Snakes? Eels? Lake monsters?

A: Amen, brother. Over the past 30-odd summers, I’ve had (mostly) the pleasure of taking dips in numerous bodies of water ranging from crystalline alpine lakes to pink-sanded Bermudian bays to seaweed-y sounds (mostly of the Puget variety), and although I do enjoy a nice coastal beach, I’ll forever be a freshwater lake man mostly because my easiest formative swimming-in-something-that-isn’t-a-swimming pool experiences were in one — a particularly beautiful one at that. For me, lake swimming is refreshing, soothing and just feels right. Plus, I find immersing myself in a lake an entirely less stressful experience than the ocean, given the absence of things like rowdy crowds, rip currents, sea lice and apex predators with curious mouths.

But as you mention, depending on where you are geographically, freshwater lakes can indeed by filled with creepy, crawly creatures that may be less nightmarish than marauding jellyfish but can still cause a swimmer to furiously doggy-paddle toward shore in a millisecond. Because really, a quick nibble or a sudden, mysterious brush against the leg while you tread water can be extraordinarily panic-inducing no matter where you are.

That said, you have nothing to really fear while swimming in freshwater as long as you use a bit of plain old common sense before taking a plunge. Perform a bit of recon work (don’t just assume that every lake is safe to swim in), observe any signs and postings and, for the love of God, don’t swim here.

Below, you’ll find a quick list of things — including the aforementioned creepy crawlies like eels, snakes and assorted monsters — to be mindful of before you partake in a bit of summertime lake hopping. Some may just be a slight nuisance and won’t keep you from lake bathing, while the presence of others may keep you far away from the water, depending on the situation.

  • Even the most remote, pristine-looking lakes can experience some level of pollution, so be aware of any signage that may indicate this. Some lakes may allow boating and/or fishing but not swimming depending on pollution levels.
  • A few critters found in and around American freshwater lakes can be the source of unease, annoyance and, in some cases, major concern. If the words “infestation,” “plagued” or “overrun with” are associated with a particular lake, proceed with caution. Watch out for: Snakes (including venomous ones), snapping turtles, alligators, leeches, Asian carp, etc.
  • Although coastal marine waters are known for the type of harmful algal bloom (HAB) known as red tide, freshwater lakes can also host toxin-producing HABs that can be dangerous to human health. Keep an eye out for (and avoid) a bluish/greenish film that may also stink to high heaven.
  • Pleasure boats, Jet Skis, and other type of watercraft both large and small.
  • Cliff divers (don’t copy them!)
  • Beaver Fever! (Also known as giardia)
  • Ogopogo, Nessie, Champ, Tahoe Tessie, prehistoric piranhas, the reanimated corpse of Jason Vorhees, and other assorted monsters and cryptozoological creatures.

Happy swimming this summer! Let me know if you find a perfect, super-pristine freshwater swimming hole this summer. I’ll promise not to tell too many others.
— Matt