Karen Byer, 61, knows she’ll never join the 13,000 “ADK 46ers” who have summited all 46 of the major peaks in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. For one thing, she isn’t a fan of heights. But she’s part of an even more exclusive club of adventurers: the “ADK 47 Lakers,” a playful appellation for the small crew of “lake baggers” who have swum 47 lakes in the Adirondack Park.
Similar to “peak bagging,” where hikers or mountaineers tick off a list of summits to reach, lake bagging has swimmers tracking the bodies of water they take a dip in. Unlike peak bagging, lake bagging is less established, with little or no formal recognition or structure, although individuals and groups are increasingly sharing their criteria and online maps. Generally, enthusiasts do it for fun and friendly local competition, or as a personal challenge. “We just made up our own rules,” Byer explains.
This summer, with rising interest in wild swimming and peak bagging, lake bagging is poised to be the next DIY wilderness adventure trend. If done responsibly, it could also take pressure off of sensitive peak areas suffering from overuse, a problem that has plagued the Adirondacks in recent years.
A report published last August by the Adirondack Council, an environmental stewardship group, cited litter, crowding, and trail degradation among the problems caused by tourists—12.4 million in 2018—who now pack the park year-round. The group released 52 recommendations, among them limiting use at times, increasing Leave No Trace training, and possibly implementing a permit system.
Lake bagging, then and now
The history of lake bagging goes back decades—if not longer—in the United Kingdom. In the 1950s, two enthusiastic swimmers, Colin Dodgson and Timothy Tyson, took a dunk in every small mountain lake, or tarn, in England’s Lake District National Park—some 463 tarns by their count. Many of their outings took place in winter, with the men (who were 49 and 75 respectively when they finished their feat) swimming each one naked.
The University of Bristol Expeditions Society, founded in 1960, describes its annual lake bagging competition as a “long-lived” tradition, complete with a point system that awards extra points for “special heroics.”
In the states, Michael Donnelly, 72, began lake bagging in the 1990s. At the time, he was the vice president of the Oregon Natural Resources Council (now Oregon Wild), a coalition of small, grassroots environmental groups from across the state, whose members liked to camp, hike, and swim.
“The way the landscape is out here, there’s places where you can hit 10, 12 little lakes in a day,” Donnelly says. Lake bagging arose as a natural and friendly competition among the environmentalists.
“Soon people were reporting that they had bagged 15, 20, 25 lakes in a day,” Donnelly’s friend TJ McDevitt recalls in an email. “Cross-examination, however, revealed that these scoundrels were engaging in bogus bagging practices like removing their shirt, pushing their pants down to their ankles, and flopping into the water, booted feet still on the shore, pronouncing the lake, ‘bagged,’ and trotting off to the next one.”
That’s when Donnelly, McDevitt, and others decided to implement some rules for their group that require swimmers to submerge themselves. They also created a point scale from one to 10, with extra points for the quality as well as the quantity of lakes. “Not all lakes were created equal,” explains McDevitt. “Wilderness lakes requiring miles of trekking and orienteering skill received extra points. Lakes were also rated for aesthetics. Some were emerald ponds set in forests, some had sapphire fingers reaching between chalky cliffs at the base of glaciated volcanos. Some were in the craters or calderas of volcanoes.”
Others put greater emphasis on swimming distance. Byer and her cadre of Adirondack “adventure swimmers,” as they call themselves, have agreed on two rules: No wetsuits, and at least a half-mile swim—enough to get “a taste of what that lake is like,” Byer explains.
She and her friend Cheryl Marron have each swum in 47 lakes in the Adirondack Park, while the married couple Bob Singer and Deb Roberts have swum in at least 46. Byer estimates that she’s logged up to five miles in some lakes, but distance isn’t the point.
That’s precisely what attracted Jessica Kieras, 41, to the hobby. “To me, lake bagging is: you go to a lake … get in and swim around for a while, and you get out. You don’t worry about how long you were in there for,” she says. “There’s a requirement to have no requirement.”
Kieras dove into the pastime while on a break from competitive swimming. She had been on the Texas A&M swim team in college and after graduating began competing in open water races and triathlons in Oregon. But during a period of disillusionment with competition, she turned to lake bagging.
“I’m just going to take this year off,” Kieras remembers thinking. “I’m not going to do any races or anything. I’m just going to get in lakes and swim around. I’m not even going to tell anybody how far I went or anything like that. And I just had the best time.”
Now Kieras documents her aquatic adventures on her blog, Oregon Lake Bagging, to inspire others to explore open-water swimming.
For the love of nature
While some engage in friendly competition, most often, lake bagging is about discovery, wonder, and the wilderness experience. Donnelly recalls only one summer when people aggressively competed for the greatest number of lakes bagged in a single season. Otherwise, wild swimming is a great way to connect with the natural world, especially when would-be swimmers seek less-popular spots.
“It’s pretty low impact,” says John Sheehan, the director of communications at the Adirondack Council, an organization created to protect the “ecological integrity and wild character” of the Adirondack Park. “Folks are essentially doing something that requires no particular equipment and is generally going to be free—as far as public policy goes, that’s a pretty good, healthy recreational pursuit.”
As in Oregon, there are ample opportunities for swimming in Adirondack Park. Sheehan says there are some 3,000 lakes greater than 10 acres in size, allowing for swims of a mile or more.
Like any outdoor recreational activity, lake bagging is not without its risks. Kieras says the biggest danger to swimmers—especially those going longer distances—are powerboats and irresponsible or intoxicated boaters. For that reason, Byer prefers swimming in lakes that allow motorized boats only on weekdays when there’s less traffic. “Never go alone,” Sheehan warns.
Byer and Kieras are both hearty and strong swimmers—serious enough to own floating buoys that they use whenever they share a lake with motorboats. Swimming with a kayaker alongside is even safer.
Kieras advises swimmers to look out for toxic algal blooms, which can occur in both salt and freshwater, and can cause stomach pain, headaches, muscle weakness or dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and liver damage. Avoid any algae that looks like “spilled paint” she says, as the blooms can be any color.
With the increasing popularity of wild swimming, Donnelly and his group suggest that lake baggers pack out trash left by others, leaving the lake in better shape than they found it. They also suggest bringing a bathing suit, just in case other people are around.
But if you’re ready to take the plunge, the best news is that anybody can become a lake bagger. “You don’t have to be fast,” says Byer. “You just have to be persistent. And you can do it at any age. So, when I say I’m not done, I mean, I’m not done. I’ve got so many more lakes to go.”