Swimming on the wild side in Echo Lake

On one of his morning swims across Echo Lake, as the early summer sun danced off nearby Beech Cliffs, Rob Benson discovered he could stand on water.

At least, that how it appeared to his fellow swimmers on that weekday crossing. “It wasn’t really like that,” the minister said, a wry smile crossing his face. The lake, straddling the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, has some unique geological features that Rob took advantage of. During their 2.8-mile swim across the lake, he discovered a fabled rock. A car-sized boulder submerged a few feet underwater.

“I was swimming ahead, and I found the rock. I was so excited; it was my first time [finding it]. So I stood on it,” Rob related. A member of the group looked up to see the Harbor Congregational Church’s pastor standing straight up in deep water. From then on, the spot had a name: Jesus Rock.

Rob preparing for his morning swim.

Rob loves telling this story, but he’s serious about swimming. He belongs to a group that regularly swims outdoors on and around Mount Desert Island. They power across Echo Lake and, on occasion, Long Pond. The crossings are a biweekly routine that allow Rob to do the sports he loves amid the natural beauty of Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park.

South of the Mount Desert village of Somesville, Echo Lake is a freshwater haven for both locals and park-goers, featuring a small sand beach on its southern end.

Early one July morning, armed with his cap and goggles, Rob headed to Echo Vista, a rocky lakeside spot about a mile north of Echo Lake Beach. Roadside parking is available and there’s a large boulder to stow his towel.

Rob generally swims with two to six other open-water enthusiasts, who are members of a triathlon training-focused Facebook group, Tri-This. While Rob is not a triathlete, the group allows him to connect with like-minded swimmers for his 6:30 a.m. sessions. Mostly like-minded, that is.

“We normally have to negotiate a bit about how far we’re going,” he said.

A swimmer at Williams College during his undergrad days, Rob’s passion for the sport has compelled him to seek it out wherever his job takes him. While he’s no longer interested in competitive swimming, he trains frequently at the Mount Desert Island YMCA and has competed in open-water events around Frenchman Bay, including swims from both Bar Island and Hadley Point to Hulls Cove.

Acadia’s Beech Cliffs rising high over Echo Lake.

“I love working out hard, and I feel at home in the water,” the pastor said. “I’ve always felt somewhat self-conscious on land, but in the water, it is totally different. I have always loved that.”

The outdoor swims also allow him time in nature. He speaks fondly of the “stunningly beautiful” sunrises on Echo Lake and the chance to see early light on the water. He’s also had some encounters with local wildlife.

“I have had a loon swim under me once, 3 or 4 feet [away],” the athlete said. “They are so elongated in the water, it’s incredible. Seeing a loon next to you, that’s pretty cool.”

If you are interested in swimming around Echo Lake, safety is key. Rob recommends that prospective lake-crossers have extensive indoor swimming experience, swim with a buddy, and even use a swim buoy (a low-resistance inflatable used by many open-water swimmers for visibility and safety).

Water temperatures also can be chilly, especially early in the season.

Both Echo Lake Beach and Echo Vista are accessible off Route 102 on the western side of the island. Echo Lake Beach falls within Acadia National Park, and requires a park pass for access. For those who don’t want to swim the lake’s whole length the beach is a great place to take a dip.

For hiking-minded visitors, Echo Beach is located near to the trailhead for the Beech Cliffs and Canada Cliffs trails, which offer sweeping views of the lake and the nearby fjord Somes Sound.