Salty but without the biting chill of the open ocean, murky but deceptively clean, the Gorge Waterway is unlike any other swimming spot in Greater Victoria. A watery playground of the city a century ago, ushering the inlet back to its glory days has been easier said than done.
Community groups and municipalities lining the waterway are helping launch the second Gorge Swim Fest in August, a revival of a revival from a decade ago, itself a revival from the early 1900s.
“There was a Gorge swim fest 100 years ago. There were no pools, people didn’t have cars to get to lakes,” says Jack Meredith, one of the swim fest organizers.
“The first time I went in it was a shock. I knew it was salty but I was surprised how salty it was. I was also surprised how warm it was. And I asked the question everyone asks – how safe is it to swim? I talked to (the health authority) and found out it was the cleanest water around. For me it was a wake-up call. I had lived here for 15 years and hadn’t taken advantage of this. “
Meredith, with the Vic West Community Association, and area resident John Sanderson launched the latest incarnation of the swim festival last year, to great success – thousands came out and more than 600 hit the water in Banfield Park in Vic West, Gorge Park (Curtis Point) in Saanich and Esquimalt Gorge Park, in Esquimalt.
“It’s cleaned up now. When I was growing up, you came down here to get polio,” Sanderson said joking. “It was polluted. It was the back end of the world.”
Environmental advocate John Roe helped prompt the cleanup of the toilet bowl of a waterway in the 1990s and organized swim fests in the opening years of the new millennium, including a 10 kilometre open water swim into the Inner Harbour.
“John Roe was a carpenter from Ontario who came out here and canoed to his job at Capital Iron. He got mad and said ‘Goddamn it I’m going to clean this up by 2000.’ That was 1996,” Sanderson recalled.
People still occasionally abandon junk in the Gorge, but long gone are the days of leaky septic systems, floating trash and stormwater flushing metals and oil into the water. As the swim fest organizers are quick to point out, the waterway tends to be cleaner than any popular swimming hole in the city, including Thetis and Elk lakes. Remove most of the urban pollutants and the flushing action of the tides keeps the fecal coliform levels low.
“When you talk to people about swimming in the Gorge, usually the response at first is ‘yuck.’ And then it’s ‘can you?’,” Meredith says.
Unfortunately, the Gorge’s enduring reputation for pollution, and the assumption the water is a hypothermia risk, drives swim fest. The event also about connecting with the city’s past, the early 1900s when swimming recreation and races were commonplace in the Gorge.
“The more people swimming in here the more will be concerned about taking care of the Gorge. It’s about taking care of our backyard,” Meredith said. “If people aren’t concerned it will go down hill again. If they are concerned, they’ll take care of it.”
As Sanderson describes it, the area around Banfield park at the turn of the 20th century was the “Uplands of Victoria,” but became run down after the 1940s.
“I think its neat this was the resort spot of Victoria. I’d love to see it brought back as a resort again,” Meredith remarked.
Despite the men insisting its the “warmest water in Victoria,” when this reporter jumped in on a sunny afternoon, the Gorge carried an invigorating salty chill. For someone accustomed to the cool fresh water of Thetis or Langford lakes, swimming in the same water as passing harbour ferries is a novelty, as is feeling the pull of the tide.
“When I get in, I forget it’s salty,” remarked Lori Garcia-Meredith, wife of Jack Meredith. “It looks like a river, but its easier to swim and float.”
Swim fest volunteer Bernard Von Schulmann swims in the Gorge near Tillicum Bridge, an area with few boats. Rocks near the bridge create the phenomenon of a “reverse waterfall” in the middle of the inlet, he said, when the tide is flowing out.
“A couple times per year there are massive water outflows. It ramps up to 20 km/h going out, about 7 km/h surging in,” von Schulmann said. “You could swim against it, but I don’t think you’d want to.”
During swim fest, organizations like TriStars Training will show their support. The Saanich-based triathlon club doesn’t plan to swap Thetis for the Gorge for open water swims, but co-owner Carolyn Gebbie said the waterway gives Victorians another recreation choice.
“We’re just trying to help change people’s perceptions that the Gorge can’t be swam in,” she said.
Island Swimming too will be on hand to celebrate its 100th anniversary – it was born in the Gorge during the heyday of 1913.
Joanne Forsythe, general manager of Island Swimming, said most of their elite athletes are competing in Spain or Russia, but the young swimmers will take the saltwater plunge, many for the first time.
“Most of our swimmers are younger,” Forsythe said. “Our oldest is probably (Olympian) Ryan Cochrane at 25. It about making them more aware of the Gorge.”
The Gorge Swim Fest is Aug. 11, noon to 4 p.m. at Banfield Park, Gorge Park (Curtis Point) and Esquimalt Gorge Park. Check out gorgewaterway.ca/gorgeswimfest.htm.
Fecal coliform readings from the Vancouver Island Health Authority, early July (fecal coliform count per 100 mL of water)
Gorge – Craigflower Kosapson Park: 2
Gorge – Curtis Point :5
Gorge – Banfield Park: 10
Esquimalt-Gorge Park: 11
Island View Beach: 19
Willows Beach: 1
Beaver Lake: 120
Durrance Lake: 140
Elk Lake – Hamsterly east: 97
Sooke Pot Holes: 9
Thetis Lake: 110