The Week — Aug. 9: Swim fest water just fine

Gorge Swim Fest temps locals into water with clean bill of health

Local swimmers are already in the water before the Gorge Swim Fest hits on Aug. 12 — a first in decades.

Gorge Swim Fest temps locals into water with clean bill of health

I clutch the wooden edge of the dock rail with my feet and peer into dark water. Below me, I’m sure I see a minnow or Gorgeosaurus or something squiggle into the shadows of the deep. I take a breath and mutter, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

Then, I jump.

The water swallows me whole and I plummet down into the heavy cold. I’m weightless. Only a few kicks push me to the surface, and I feel the temperature change as my head erupts through the warmer top. I gasp — “It’s so salty!”

That sentiment is shared by most people the first time they swim in the Gorge Waterway, says Jack Meredith, who has swum the waters nearly every day this summer. “That’s what we hear from everyone who has jumped in — they are so surprised it’s salty, because the Gorge looks like a lake and they forget this is sea water,” he says. “That also means you can float better, so swimming is a little easier.”

Meredith is a board member of the Vic West Community Association, and a big part of the initiative to reintroduce the Gorge’s historic swimming potential to the community. He hopes that if people are able to remember the days of old, where athletes would come from across Canada to swim in Gorge competitions in the 1920s to the ’50s, everyone will take better care of the water. But residents and visitors don’t have to find a time machine. All can have their chance to dive in at the Gorge Swim Fest 2012, happening at three locations along the waterway on Sun., Aug. 12, from noon to 4pm: Banfield Park in Vic West, Gorge Park at Curtis Point and Gorge-Kinsmen Park in Esquimalt.

Just in case having a (very) local swimming hole isn’t enticing enough, however, the four hosting community associations bordering the Gorge Waterway (Vic West, Burnside-Gorge, Gorge-Tillicum and Esquimalt) have worked to gain sponsored prizes for anyone gutsy enough to get in the water — prizes like a return trip for two to Vancouver on Helijet, a return trip for two to Port Angeles on Blackball Ferry Line, a Harbour Ferries annual pass, gift certificates to restaurants around town and more. The event will also offer musical entertainment and food vendors at the locations, and authentic swim caps will be given to the event’s first 100 participants.

Why all the persuasion? Stigma is hard to wash away. While the Gorge had a long-standing reputation for being one of the warmest and most active swimming areas in Victoria 90 years ago, since the late 1950s, industry and transportation traffic turned the water from swimming hotspot to sludgepot and swimmers toweled off and walked away. Multi-million dollar cleaning efforts have taken place since the mid ’90s, including recent initiatives due to the Johnson Street Bridge project. Yet the “dirty” image has stuck.

“As soon as people hear we’re swimming in the Gorge, the first thing they say is ‘Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful,’” says Meredith. “Then they stop for a second, and say ‘Ew — is that safe, though?’”

Meredith and his crew are trying to prove that it is. The three designated swimming locations have low-to-no boating traffic, and recent tests performed by Vancouver Island Health Authority showed surprisingly low fecal coliform counts in the water. The Banfield Park dock location most recently showed a level of 2 cfu/100 ml, while Health Canada advises against swimming in levels higher than 200 cfu/100 ml. VIHA is testing the water regularly until the event, and the CRD is also performing additional tests for heavy metals in the water. But while these results have not yet been obtained, Meredith points out that most metals would be found near the bottom where people are not swimming.

“From what we’ve heard, this is basically as clean as any body of water you can find where birds may fly over top,” says John Sanderson, co-chair of the swim fest and board member of Burnside-Gorge Community Association. “Suffice to say, with the response we’ve had, we’re hoping to make this an annual event.”

Despite some hesitancy from locals for now, a number of swimming clubs, like TriStars Training, have declared excitement over the convenience the Gorge offers for training. TriStars has become a large part of showing residents the water’s just fine, which is wringing out the reputation, Meredith says. “How can we expect people to care for something when their first thought is ‘Ew’?” he says. “The more invested we are in this water, the more care we will demand for it — and that’s good for everyone.”

As I pull myself up on the dock and out of the cool, salty liquid, I feel the sun melt off the chill. Almost instantly, I’m ready to jump in again. M

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