Although infamous among local police for its dangerous nature, the Ledyard Challenge is a beloved Dartmouth summer tradition. As legend has it, the Ledyard Challenge began in the early 90s after four students plunged into the Connecticut River, naked of course, and ran back across the Ledyard bridge. While two of the streakers managed to get away, the remaining two were not as lucky and were arrested by Hanover Police.
The challenge originates from supposed loopholes in the laws of neighboring states New Hampshire and Vermont. Because public nudity is illegal in New Hampshire, but not in Vermont, and stripping is illegal in Vermont, the streakers strip in New Hampshire, swim across the Connecticut and race back from Vermont naked. Broken down, phase one is stripping, phase two is skinny-dipping, and phase three is the naked dash across state lines.
My introduction to the challenge came one summer night during FYSEP summer sessions. Overlooking the Connecticut River, my friend and I could see about a dozen sophomores attempting the Ledyard Challenge. Some were halfway across the river and others were still stripping when Safety and Security officers broke up the scene. We had no idea what we had just witnessed.
On the winding path back to campus, a girl caught up to us and asked if we were headed to Sig Nu. Looking over at my friend, we silently agreed to honor the frat ban but take her most of the way. Although I had anticipated a cold reception from upperclassmen, the girl was chatty and friendly. Seizing the moment, I asked the million dollar question: “So, what were you guys doing back there?”
Giddy, she turned to us and explained the lore behind the Ledyard Challenge. She said it was her third or fourth time completing it, she could not remember which. As we neared Webster Avenue, I realized the only Greek letters I knew were from my calc AB class. Elated from our first “real” night at Dartmouth, my friend and I walked back to our dorms, mentally swimming in Greek symbols.
Restless in bed that night, I decided I would complete the Ledyard Challenge during my sophomore summer. Students complete the challenge at any time the water is warm enough, but I felt like it was a quintessential sophomore summer activity.
Almost a year out from that hazy memory, some of my thoughts on the challenge have changed. Like every freshman, I was inundated with a million traditions or challenges I just had to take part in to get “the full Dartmouth experience.” Some traditions are harmless, like rubbing the Warner Bentley bust nose for good luck and staying up till midnight for a campus-wide snowball fight. Other traditions have been outright banned, like attempting to touch the bonfire and throwing tennis balls on the rink during hockey games against Princeton. Finally, some unofficial traditions are illegal, dangerous or both. Go figure, Dartmouth Seven and the Ledyard Challenge.
In 2005, a Bulgarian student from Trinity College named Valentine Valkov drowned while taking part in the Ledyard Challenge. He was on campus in the summer to participate in a program at the Tuck School of Business. Following the tragedy, another student said the College was fortunate to not experience accidents like that more often. The reports from the accident read exactly like what I had seen that summer night a year ago: After a night out, a few friends decided to complete the famed Ledyard Challenge.
Suddenly, I realized that scene I witnessed could have played out a lot differently. It was clear the girl we encountered had been drinking, just like Valkov had been. However, from the popularity of the challenge, it seems that more of the student body knows about the challenge and not enough know about Valkov’s story. Others, like myself, may be under the false impression that the Dartmouth bubble is some impenetrable field where nothing bad can happen.
The decision to take part in the Ledyard Challenge is a calculated risk. The issue is that sometimes that calculation is influenced by outside factors, including peer pressure. According to a Valley News article, Valkov had told others he was afraid of the water because he was not a strong swimmer. Yet, after drinking at a bar he joined a group of friends in attempting the challenge.
As long students continue to partake in the Ledyard Challenge, there is a collective responsibility to mitigate its dangers. If anyone expresses any amount of hesitation to the challenge, it is no one else’s place to egg them on —it is that individual’s decision alone to make. Importantly, that decision cannot be made under the influence of any amount of alcohol. Swimming across the Connecticut River is challenging enough on its own, but swimming across while intoxicated is a prelude to disaster.
Being off campus this summer, I am only beginning to understand how silly some of these traditions are. Don’t get me wrong, I love most of them, but there is no need to complete each one to get a bona fide Dartmouth experience, whatever that is. The Dartmouth experience is everyone’s for the making. You can feel just as connected to the College’s history by throwing a snowball at midnight as you can streaking across the Ledyard bridge. I might still complete the challenge, I might not, but when I make that decision I’ll be sure to assess the risk carefully before I dive in.