Views / Toronto

Wading in the (not so) waning days of summer: Micallef

A Toronto beach is a remarkable place but people are always too quick to declare summer over and miss out on swimming pleasures.

Beach-goers enjoy a dip in the lake off Sunnyside park. With so much water surrounding the city we should have a robust population of open water swimmers, but we don’t, Shawn Micallef writes.

MARCUS OLENIUK / TORSTAR NEWS SERVICE FILE PHOTO

Beach-goers enjoy a dip in the lake off Sunnyside park. With so much water surrounding the city we should have a robust population of open water swimmers, but we don’t, Shawn Micallef writes.

Summer is an odd thing in Canada. We pine all winter for it, then when it does come the murmurs that it’s almost over soon begin. Come Labour Day, an arbitrary holiday, summer is declared officially done. Pools are closed and drained, and white pants put away, though there are three more weeks of official summer followed by fall days that are often summer-warm. It’s like a season falls out of fashion, and we have to look to the next new thing: there’s no fidelity to the true seasons.

That these kinds of terminating sentiments are already bubbling up seem more annoying this year because of the truncated swimming season we’ve had due to high lake levels that closed the Toronto Islands until a few weeks ago. Some mainland beaches were swimmable, but often drastically reduced in size.

A trip to Hanlan’s Point Beach this past weekend revealed much pent-up demand as it was jammed like a European beach, where towels touch neighbouring towels and the moment a space vacated another party took it. Given that the entire southern end of the beach is still gone, and there’s a new pond in the middle, space will remain scarce.

Then there’s the lake itself. Apart from the boats and jet skis crowding into the beach — the equivalent of driving a car or SUV into a park — the cold water meant there was a lot of space there. As people waded in they hooted and screamed as the waterline inched up their bodies: some screams were louder than others.

Lake Ontario is deep and cold, really only consistently warming up around now, and staying that way into fall. The lake can change, or “turn,” fast though, and some people reported that the weekend before last was tropical in comparison.

Once in, we acclimatize to the cold and swimming at Hanlan’s is the most calm and sublime thing I’ve experienced in this city: floating in the clean water, looking at the CN Tower and the rest of the city. A Toronto beach is a remarkable border between the urban landscape and wilderness. And being in the water, literally immersing yourself in the geography, gives a connection to this place like little else.

Such ideas are explored in Turning: A Year in the Water, a new memoir by Jessica Lee, a former Torontonian who now lives in Berlin. In an effort to feel more at home in her new city, she set out to swim 52 of the many lakes in and around Berlin, along the way exploring her family history, fear of the water and the city itself. She also swam all year round, putting those of us who complain about Lake Ontario’s chill to shame.

“A swimmer can sense the turning of the lake,” she writes in the opening chapter. “There’s a moment in the season when the water changes. It isn’t something you can see, it’s something you can feel.” Sharp winter waters, warm frothy summers, there’s an intimacy with the landscape that swimming affords.

If you hang around any of Toronto’s beaches you’ll see many open water enthusiasts like Lee, perhaps swimming alone at Cherry or doing lengths at Woodbine. One informal group of swimmers put together a guide to Toronto’s swimmable beaches on the Living Toronto Journal, rating them from Rouge Park at the Pickering Border to Marie Curtis at the Mississauga end.

“We are swimmers,” writes the guide’s author, Schuster Gindin. “We don’t just go to the beach, we jump in the lake. Not that we’re athletes or racers-in-training, we simply revel in the pure liquid pleasure. We are at ease and in our element outdoors in natural water; swimming regularly is essential to our summer.”

With so much water surrounding the city we should have a robust population of open water swimmers, but we don’t. When I visit Malta I love seeing what I call the “floating nannas” who spend hours in baseball caps and sunglasses bobbing in the sea and gossiping about their grandchildren. Perhaps it was the decades of pollution that stifled that culture here, but groups such as the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and their excellent Swim Guide give beach and water information across Ontario and beyond. The water, you’ll find, is most often fine to swim in.

In Turning, Lee also writes of how swimming is so connected to growing up around these parts, whether in outdoor pools, at lessons at the YMCA, spending winters in Florida and summers at a cottage or variations of all that depending on the means of each family.

Swimmers enjoy the beach near the pier. Toronto Islands have reopened to the public just in time for the first hot spell of the summer.

Steve Russell/Torstar News Service

Swimmers enjoy the beach near the pier. Toronto Islands have reopened to the public just in time for the first hot spell of the summer.

The summer pools bit is especially important here, where getting out to farther flung lakes can be difficult or impossible for many. Three Toronto swimmer-writers keep a blog of their forays called Swimming Holes We Have Known, and while they like the lakes, outdoor pools are also a focus. Sunnyside is the biggest of course, but it may come as a surprise that there are 58 City of Toronto outdoor pools across the city, with more in the 905. So many that you could re-enact a public version of the 1968 film The Swimmer, based on the John Cheever story, where Burt Lancaster in his small swimsuit “swims” across suburban Connecticut through backyard pools.

A shame, though, that they’re open just a couple months of the year here. In the U.K., some pools, like the London Fields Lido, are heated and open year round, though the winters are milder there of course. How nice it would be to have outdoor pools open longer into bumper seasons, but that’s unlikely in a city that struggles to keep indoor pools open in an era of austere budgets despite such extreme wealth.

“I long for the ice,” writes Lee of her winter Berlin swims. “The sharp cut of freezing water on my feet. The immeasurable black of the lake at its coldest. Swimming then means cold, pain and elation.”

We insist summer is over too quickly, so be sure to have a dip soon. They can’t close the beaches though, only our own bravery decides when we can’t swim.

Shawn Micallef writes every Saturday about where and how we live in the GTA. Wander the streets with him on Twitter @shawnmicallef

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