Hidden rivers are where locals escape from summer crowds
As the prospect of summertime looms, life in the Berkshires begins to slow down to a pace that invites relaxation, exploration, and an influx in population. For many, venturing off the beaten path is mandatory, and retreating to the banks of a nearby river—to lie across a lounge chair or a blanket, to swim, and to play—is tradition.
The Mahican Indians called the area Mahaiwe, meaning “the place downstream,” and, if one looks closely, cars lining the two-lane roadway are a tell-tale sign that one of south county’s many watering holes is within striking distance. Don’t look for more direction than that. These secret spots, coveted by the locals who frequent them, often remain hidden from the cache of usual landmarks.
“I don’t want to blow out any river spots,” says photographer Jake Borden of Egremont—home again for a short reprieve in the Berkshires from his travels around the world. “This is the beach to me, inland but with beautiful watering spots,” he adds with a sweeping gesture that threatens to disturb what unfolds before us. Red clover lines the dirt-packed footpath that, while immediately visible at the roadside, quickly disappears beneath the shade of cool, lush foliage.
After a scant few strides, clumps of Queen Anne’s Lace appear in rampant clusters that are soon interrupted by staghorn sumac and wild grape vines climbing in sticky tangles toward pockets of blue sky overhead. Upon emerging from the dense overgrowth, a sandy embankment rises on the far side of the meandering Green River in Great Barrington and stands in stark contrast to thick, dark mud at the river’s edge. Despite the genial disposition of those you will invariably meet while sinking your toes into the muddy banks, those less familiar with the terrain are left to stumble upon these locations whose exact locations remain enigmatic.
Christin Howard of West Stockbridge grew up on these banks. Like so many south county kids, she credits the hidden river spots for representing the magic of her childhood and the vibrancy of her young adulthood. “The river is so special because it feels so individual,” says Howard. “Each special spot you find is a private oasis just for you.”
In an area that relies on tourism to keep the local economy afloat year round, it often feels like there are fewer and fewer hidden gems. Most people simply want to soak in the scenery from the lawn at Tanglewood, take in the sweeping panoramas from atop Monument Mountain, or rock the afternoon away on the porch at the Red Lion Inn. Perhaps river spots elude the average tourist’s radar. After all, unlike most of the usual destinations, the area’s undulating rivers are symbolic spaces, neither curated nor overrun.
“Each year it feels like there is less and less room for locals,” says Howard. “These hidden river spots are purely ours. They are a representation of what makes the Berkshires so special—a little burst of the authentic, natural, and private beauty of our home.” Of course, she is referring to the gently arching willows at the water’s edge and the schools of tadpoles darting for cover, the distinctly audible croak of an invisible frog and the stark contrast between the river’s rocky bottom and cool, clear water.
Regardless of the draw, Howard is not alone in her affinity for these sacred spaces. “I’d say that the rivers are as much a part of the Berkshires as the hills they shaped,” says Borden. “When I think of coming home, my mind first goes to the variety of swimming holes which serve as meeting points for my friends.” During his young adult years, he adds, a typical Saturday would involve getting a sandwich in town and then driving to different river spots to see who was there.
Howard recalls trying to describe to her friends in college how wholesome and beautiful the river days were back home. “They were aghast at my insistence that all that us Berkshires kids did in the summer was go to the river. I’m sure they never understood.” Indeed, it can be hard to explain what makes the area so special. Take the Green River in Great Barrington, which is not so different than any other river in the region—yet, like every other river, it is. “I guess in the end, they are special because they are so uniquely beautiful and verdant,” Howard says, “but most importantly because they are simply ours.”
Along these banks of the Green River, the faint wisp of airplanes trailing white remnants across the sky suggest we are closer to civilization that one might imagine. Alas, all is not idyllic: At the river’s edge, there is a Band-Aid wrapper, an empty beer bottle, and two errant socks. Reminders, perhaps, that life goes beyond the confines of the museums and historic sites, arts and entertainment venues that serve as veritable magnets, attracting visitors to the area at a rapid clip.
There is a literal confluence happening at the water’s edge—a collision that has historical, social and environmental implications. And there is a romanticism reflected in the way writers incorporate river references into their works. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “One cannot step twice into the same river.” This sentiment, despite the ensuing centuries since the verse was penned, continues to hold true, even in its most literal sense. This so-called “inland beach” access changes every year as the river’s geography fluctuates. The location of deep swimming holes similarly changes due to rainfall and other intervention, whether by humans or nature—which somehow must coexist amidst the uncertainties that abound.
Despite the ebb and flow of the rivers that wend through the region, one thing remains constant: The link between locals and their hidden river spots is both deep and complex. Or, as Borden condenses into a single sentiment, “Rivers are the heart of how locals experience summer in the Berkshires.”