Mom rescued me. But not before the underwater view of that rowboat’s keel took permanent residence in my brain. A few years later, my younger sister and I bused alone to our first swimming lessons in a Port Arthur, Ontario outdoor pool. My mother’s desire to prevent our premature death by drowning was well-intentioned. But later we learned that the “natural flow through” filtration system and resultant murky water had actually contributed to a number of fatalities. The diverted river’s water that rejuvenated the pool flowed ever fresh. And damn cold.
Not unlike Lake Superior itself - where we summer vacationed in the late 50s. Our rented lakefront cottage rested a mere twenty miles from Port Arthur in a place called Silver Harbour. Despite that precious moniker, it was apparently too far for Dad to commute daily. So while he stayed home and sold life insurance during the week, we celebrated “camp” with the other Moms and kids. Lots of kids.
Attempts to swim in Lake Superior were met with a variety of water conditions, winds and whitecaps. One day we’d awake to clear, warm water; the next to an eight-foot band of black pulp waste blanketing the beach. Most often, it was simply too cold to put your big toe in. So swimming lessons relocated to a nearby (and warmer) pond. Yet for some life-lesson rationale, our final test had to taken back in Lake Superior. Liberally coated in Vaseline petroleum jelly - with warming blankets at the ready.
A grainy, Super 8 film features my father running playfully through Superior’s cold surf on the weekend – chased by all seven of his kids. But little did we know, he couldn’t swim a stroke. To prevent him from ever trying to rescue us, swimming lessons became mandatory family fare dished out under mother’s orders.
Canadian Red Cross Learn-to-Swim badges soon collected on our bathing suits, when we moved to sub-tropical (by comparison to The Lakehead) Oshawa, Ontario. Here, my love of swimming blossomed.
Shortly after perfecting my strokes in the pristine, public pools of this prosperous GM town, I became an instructor/lifeguard for the Oshawa Recreation Department. We taught lessons in the mornings, actually saved a few floundering kids in the afternoons and after work, practiced mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with the girls of summer. In the 60s. It remains my best job ever.
Friendships made “at the pool” led to weekend camping beside the warm, bass-rich Kawartha Lakes. Buckhorn, Kashabog and Balsam all come to mind. Here we embellished our tans with homemade suntan concoctions. The winner - a mix of baby oil and iodine - left you with an orangey, bronzy tan. With antiseptic fringe benefits.
Our good times in these warm waters inspired strong teenage emotions. Even fear (at the height of the JAWS great-white-shark mania.) And most notably while skinny-dipping under the midnight meteor showers of a humid August night.
University tuition demands shelved my low-paying, lifeguarding career. A job opportunity and the chance to travel across Canada brought me to Williams Lake, B.C. a.k.a. Cariboo Country. And home to one of the biggest, wildest, drunkest rodeos in Canada. Cowboys, Indians, East Indians and a melting pot of mainly male, transient labourers called Williams Lake home. It was the summer of ’72. Many, like me, were coming off some form of romantic breakup. So in a retrospective song, I’ve recalled Williams Lake as “The Town of Broken Hearts.”
“In the town of Broken Hearts you do not stay for long... In the town of Broken Hearts what was right is now so wrong.... In the town of Broken Hearts there’s nothing left unsaid... In the town of Broken Hearts we’re all searchin’ here instead.”
Hard, sweaty labour on the sawmill’s planer chain called for a swim after work. Unfortunately, near my tent camp, Williams Lake was a polluted mess. The shoreline was clogged with wood waste, seaplane fuel and garbage. A travesty.
So, on weekends, we went in search of clean water. And discovered heaven. The crystal clear, glacial lakes of the Chilcotin. Where you could count the speckles on the trout as they nibbled your toes. Or watch a beaver swim underwater for a hundred feet after he’d warned you off with his tail smack!
Sometimes, we simply drove the high mountain logging roads to gawk at these aquamarine gems - surrounded by virgin forest. Our weekend backcountry SUV was a two-tone, ‘57 Chevy with a three-on-the-tree tranny. Driven through the mountains by my fearless shift boss: a Filipino, anti-Marcos, political refugee with a wife and eight kids back home to feed. And a mutual love of clean water. Those Chilcotin lakes were almost the same colour as the Florida Gulf two years later. Our university gang had driven all night for some heat on our Spring Break. Right into the heart of the 1974 gas crisis, freezing temperatures and a “red tide” that left six feet of dead fish fouling the beaches. Shades of Lake Superior pulp.
But we made the best of a bad situation - dug windbreak trenches in the white sand and pretended to enjoy getting a “study tan” at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. At least, we didn’t need ice in the beer cooler. Warmer water would soon come my way though. After working in Toronto for three years, splitting with my fiancé and swimming frustrated lengths in overheated, chlorine-heavy pools, I took a sabbatical. It began with a ski-bum winter in the Rockies. Our daily powder adventures often climaxed with a visit to the Banff Hot Springs pool, steaming under the winter stars. Better yet – to their indoor super hot pool and spa. Here, you started with a steam bath. Then, after a strictly-timed dip in that super hot pool, you were mummified in soft blankets atop wooden platforms. This three-stage process cranked up your core temperature and suspended you in a blissful coma-like state. Unfortunately for some overworked ski tourists, it became their final resting place.
As the spring sun melted the glorious summit of the Lake Louise Ski Resort, I headed for Vancouver’s UBC - right above “clothing-optional” Wreck Beach. In 1978, this was one special spot. How could I ever forget those naked, beer-peddling nymphs who strolled the sands with their hand-woven satchels of suds? They kept me rooted to the beach – except for the occasional dash to the cold shower relief of springtime English Bay.
My sabbatical continued in the summer waters of Europe. Old-world charming but far, far from Chilcotin purity. Like a swim in the Thames past Christine Keeler’s “fornication cottage”, a float down the Rhine below the mighty (by European standards) Rheinfalls or that blessedly warm week on a trash-littered Spanish Mediterranean beach. We shared it with half the tourist population of West Germany. All clad in Adidas tracksuits, talking ‘Amerikaan’ and slurping one-litre Cokes – the beverage of choice over European tap water in 1978.
But these natural European waters couldn’t compete with my favourite swim memory - an Italian campground pool just outside Rome. It came complete with a poolside bar, nightly disco and a regular rotation of tour buses bearing Australian women in search of beer - and lifeguarding. In the 40-degree Celsius heat, I didn’t see much
Now approaching thirty, working again in Toronto and doomed to singledom by my perplexed mother, I ventured on a solo bicycle holiday in the Maritimes. Here, I literally collided with my wife-to-be in Tracadie, New Brunswick. Together, we discovered the Atlantic beaches and each other.
With few exceptions, the water was brisk – and the views spectacular. Whether lying wind-blown on the red dunes of Cavendish Beach in PEI or marveling at the diving gannets on New Brunswick’s Kouchibouguac. This ocean was special – and so was my biking Québécoise companion, even if she couldn’t swim or speak much English. As a consolation, she managed to piggyback me across a rain-swollen beach creek on a dare. And ultimately bore our three children with the same strength.
With kids in tow, our aquatic adventures took off - particularly after we moved to Vancouver in pre-Expo 1986. Our summer days were spent together on English Bay beaches: Ambleside, Jericho and our favourite, 3rd beach in Stanley Park. Where the sun set in your face and the only threatening thing on the horizon was a visiting American warship.
Countless swimming adventures lay within easy reach of our North Vancouver home. Together, we raced to the raft in glacier-fed Birkenhead Lake, floated in the warm, milky tides of Howe Sound and plunged deep into the mountain pools of Lynn Creek – shared with wild trout and even wilder cliff jumpers. Stone-mounted plaques immortalize those who died in Lynn Canyon’s treacherous whirlpools. A romantic weekend getaway even exposed us to the eclectic hot pools of the Harrison River Valley. Clothing optional. And no kids.
Then one spring day, we decided to take a family ferry ride to the Sunshine Coast – so named for its plentiful (by comparison) sunset hours. Indeed, we were rewarded with a high-beam kind of day. The first person we spotted in the water was a kid riding a surfboard at Henderson Beach in Roberts Creek - in April. We’d swim here for the next ten years.
The Sunshine Coast is a sparkling necklace of Pacific beaches. They range from the warm, wide sands of Davis Bay to rocky, starfish hideaways like Smugglers Cove. With a few extraordinary gems in between. Thormanby Island just might be the nicest beach I’ve ever experienced. Think of an entire island of sandy cliffs and beaches in the middle of Georgia Strait – awash in warm South Pacific tides. Spectacular is an understatement. Unless you’ve experienced a Long Beach sunset on Vancouver Island. There, you’ll be speechless.
When you live a beach life it’s hard to give it up, even in winter. So every January 1st, our Ultimate Frisbee team tackled the Roberts Creek polar bear swim. I can’t think of a better way to confirm that you are truly alive. Mind you, it’s been known to stop a few hearts – at least temporarily. And particularly after a Creeker New Year’s
Swimming with your dog is fun. I churned out ocean lengths along the Roberts Creek shoreline with our border collie cross. It took Scrub a while to understand that she didn’t have to rescue me. Mind you, I could have used her support on my first and only open-water Keats Island swim. That’s an interesting experience for neophytes - especially when you are dealing with tides. Because they do tend to go out. Meanwhile, the local swimmers got a big kick out of my totally unnecessary Vaseline coating.
Along with these salt-water experiences, one of my favourite Sunshine Coast dips was a fresh-water screamer in McNair Lake, high on the Tetrahedron Plateau. On this sunny spring day, the lake beckoned despite being partially ice-covered with residue from our record snowfall telemark ski season. That “Mc Swim” didn’t last more than ten seconds. But it sure took the sting out of the mountain heat and the spring bugs.
To grandma’s delight, our children adapted like seal pups to our Sunshine Coast water world. They also shared our love of discovering local swimming holes. A road trip to visit family in the East in 1994 was dubbed our “swim across Canada.” And believe me, wherever there was water, we all dove in.
Local swimming holes do tend to reflect a community’s personality. We fondly recall the rugged beaches of Lac St Jean, Quebec; windy, mosquito-friendly Long Beach on Lake Winnipeg; the oasis-like splash parks in rural, sun-soaked Saskatchewan; West Edmonton Mall’s neck-wrenching water slides; and finally, the community pool in Lytton, B.C. – perched above the “hot-spot” junction of the mighty Fraser and Thompson Rivers. They’re all simply, refreshingly grand. And memorable enough to inspire this verse: “You’ll swim in rivers, bays and lakes... You might see frogs and even snakes.... But don’t you worry, don’t you fear.... Kids have come here all these years.”
I was now approaching midlife.... melancholy and waterlogged. But my quest for new swimming adventures continued. Driven by my growing inability to play sports on land - without Advil.
So after fifteen years on the Wet Coast, I decided to escape my rain- induced depression, re-visit familiar places and say a proper goodbye to my now-widower father. So Andrée and I loaded up the truck and moved to a hot, humid Montreal in July 2001. A whole new world of shorts, sandals and separatists. Sans kids.
Like many snow-shocked Montrealers, we soon visited the Caribbean’s Dominican Republic. A swimmer’s paradise. And a parting gift from my Dad. In this tropical climate, a twelve-foot-deep pool was too hot for swimming except in the very early morning. So you had to be content with “Camozzin’ up” to the pool’s shaded margarita bar in the afternoon. Or swimming in the ocean. Not bad since half the women were topless. The biggest risk I faced in that ultra-buoyant salt water was accidentally boob butting hefty Americans who splashed across my bow. Sort of like blond warships. Needless to say, I could learn to love tropical ocean waters.
Atlantic Canada, unfortunately, still doesn’t quite qualify. We re-confirmed this on a 25th wedding anniversary tour in 2007. Our beach on the Bay of Chaleur wasn’t quite what its warm name promised. At least during our stay, where Chaleur translated to “cool water dodging stinging jellyfish.” But the Gaspé seafood was first rate and so were the rest stops – arguably the longest string of clean washrooms in Canada. All leading to jaw-dropping Percé Rock. Dad woulda loved it.
A welcome return to PEI with our bicycles brought us to deserted pocket-beaches on the western shores. With warm water and comfy, shallow sandbars. Great for after-dinner sunset soaks that recalled English Bay. It remains a true highlight of our anniversary junket - along with a warm spot in our heart near Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Meanwhile, all three of our seal-pup kids stayed in B.C. We get the photos and stories via Facebook, Skype and email. Hot springin’ across the province, rock climbin’ above an ocean landing pad on Jedidiah and wetsuit surfin’ in Tofino – while planning an Australian beach holiday. I should be jealous. But Andrée (who now swims and speaks very good English) and yours truly are busy sampling Laurentian mountain lakes in the summer, Olympic training pools in winter and the big, big waters of Vermont’s Lake Champlain in between. Not to mention a slowly-rejuvenating St. Lawrence River – linking Ontario to the Oceans. So it is here, in Quebec, where the waters of my life have come together. And not a keel in sight.
L. P. Camozzi is an emerging Canadian writer. He has self-published a children picture book, Pasta Pazoo. More Better Spaghetti. He teaches at Concordia Univeristy.
September 15th, 2009
Jon Paul Fiorentino awarded 2009 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry
August 1st, 2009
Amatoritsero Ede publishes much anticipated book