Sea Changes Underfoot at Dug Pond

Amy Mevorach
Issue Date: 
July, 2019
Article Body: 

Less than ten years ago, on a few Saturdays every summer, Natick residents would line up along West Street at the break of dawn, not for a parade or for Stacey Peasley tickets, but to register for the next session of Memorial Beach swim lessons. Brinley Vickers remembers it fondly. “We’d literally line up between 4 and 5 in the morning, and the line would go down the block. People brought muffins. You had to be there to get the time and instructor you wanted for the kids.”
A two week session of lessons was $35, and recently rose for the first time in seven years to $41 for two weeks and $53 for three weeks to offset the costs of a longer season. “It’s the most affordable way to spend the summer with your kids,” says Vickers, who has been swimming at Memorial Beach, aka Dug Pond, since before her children, now 12 and 9, were born.
In recent years, the demand for lessons has dropped so significantly that only one full-time instructor, Rebecca Walz, is employed to teach swim lessons, with her sister Olivia Walz, teaching part time and coaching the swim team in afternoons. Registration is now online and there are no muffins.
“The population of the Town of Natick has changed,” says Dan Keefe, Assistant Director of Natick Recreation and Parks. Keefe completed six levels of swim lessons as a youth, worked as a lifeguard for ten years, then proceeded to oversee beach operations for the past 25 years. “Young couples moving in might get a year round YMCA membership or join a private pool. They go away to their beach house or their house in New Hampshire. That wasn’t the case 15 or 25 years ago. Families that went on vacation were very few.” Keefe also attributes some of the drop in membership to families needing to have two working parents.
Another challenge of running the beach is finding lifeguards. “Natick not unique in this,” said Keefe, citing Wellesley’s Morse Pond, Lake Cochituate and Massachusetts State Parks as examples of lakes experiencing lifeguard shortages. “Kids don’t have to work, and volunteerism has grown.” Also, the pressures of finding a job in one’s field of study funnel college students away from lifeguarding into specialized career work. “That’s how competitive it’s getting.” When Keefe began lifeguarding at 16, “that wasn’t the nature of the beast. I was still guarding after I graduated from college.” The Dug Pond community, he says, “was like a built-in second family.”
For regulars like Vickers, her husband Greg Richard and their two boys, Sebastian and Kai, Dug Pond has that sense of family. “We know the lifeguards. We watched them grow up and know some of them as adults now. They know our kids and call them out by name.”
The Town of Natick supports the pond by providing a pre-season treatment with alum, a clumping agent that increases visibility and reduces algae blooms. Still, says Vickers, “I hear moms say they don’t want to get dirty, they don’t want to deal with sand. We love the pond. I love sand in my suit.”
While she acknowledges that Dug Pond has lost many families to private pools, Vickers doesn’t mind having more space on the sand. “I really felt like I had to be the first person on the beach or I wouldn’t have a shady spot. Now we’re not on top of each other.”
In navigating the changing scene, Keefe’s goal is to keep the pond available and affordable. “Water is dangerous, which is why I keep pushing to offer swim lessons. If you look down on Natick from a bird’s eye view, the volume of water is huge.” Lessons are taught by Red Cross-certified Water Safety Instructors in levels 1-6 and preschool classes, and the swim team practices weekday afternoons, for ages 6-18. Hours and registration can be found on the town website at