Saanich's Dale Robinson

James Bay athlete swims into history books

Sitting on a large rock on the edge of the Great Bear Sea in Ocean Falls was a magical moment for Susan Simmons.

Sitting on a large rock on the edge of the Great Bear Sea in Ocean Falls was a magical moment for Susan Simmons.

It was an overcast Wednesday morning, with tall mountains looming in the background and nothing but calm water and trees for as far as the eye could see.

This was the start of Simmons’ historic 50-kilometre, two-day swim from Ocean Falls, at the head of the Cousins Inlet, to Bella Bella — one that no other swimmer has completed.

“I had decided that I was going to stay quiet and focused to get through this swim. It was a very magical moment because it was exactly how I wanted it to be,” said the James Bay resident.

“There’s nothing going on around you but wilderness. It’s quite spectacular to see the massive mountains.”

Two weeks ago, Simmons, who has multiple sclerosis, along with Saanich’s Dale Robinson and Gordon Head’s Jill Yoneda, took on the frigid temperatures of the Great Bear Sea as part of an unassisted open water swim to highlight some of the waterways in British Columbia and bring attention to Ocean Falls, home to Canadian swimmers from the 1960s, who made the Olympic team.

Their swim began in the best possible conditions, with the water at a cool 14 degrees Celsuis. By noon, the trio arrived at Fisher Channel and by 5 p.m. had reached Stoney Island, their designated stop point for the day.

The second day, however, was not so easy.

Already tired from the roughly 25-kilometre,10-hour swim she endured the day before, Simmons did not have enough time to warm up her body before she jumped into the water with only her swimsuit, goggles and cap, making the swim more difficult.

During the last 10 kilometres of the journey, the wind picked up and Simmons was forced to battle through two to three-foot chops that were pushing her further into shore. For two to three kilometres, she would swim 500 to 1,000 metres at a time, stop and look where she was to redirect herself.

“If I would have moments of fatigue, I would think about Mr. (George) Gates, who was the aquatic director at Pointe-Claire (swimming club). He coached Ocean Falls swimmers. I just had this picture of him in my head the entire time and kept thinking I’ve been trained for this,” she said, adding she swam through a pod of humpback whales without realizing it.

“I’ve learned to have the discipline, as a swimmer I can do this. Just keep moving forward.”

After stepping onto the shores of Bella Bella, Simmons, Robinson and Yoneda became the first athletes to swim the Great Bear Sea.

“I was just really happy to see people,” Simmons said, adding there was a group of First Nations who came to support the swim.

Despite the physical and mental challenges of an unassisted open water swim, Simmons said it won’t be her last.

The team is planning a 50-kilometre continuous swim of the Great Bear Sea from Bella Bella, heading further down the waterway past Namu, a small fishing port and First Nations community, next year.