Sunday, August 16th, the annual Toronto Island Lake Swim will take place on Centre Island. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper is a proud partner of this event. The swim, now in its third year, continues to be something that LOW looks forward to all year. Not only is it thrilling to watch and to participate in, the event embodies a swimmable Lake Ontario.
The Toronto Island Lake Swim (TILS) started in 2013 with a focus on raising awareness about Lake Ontario’s water quality. TILS co-founders Steve Hulford and Bill Poole were also intent on enticing Torontonians to get back in the water, by breaking the stigma that Toronto’s waters are unswimmable.
It’s no secret that Lake Ontario’s waters were so polluted in the 1950s and 1960s that they consistently made people ill. The pollution in the lake brought the city’s vibrant water culture to a screeching halt. The hundreds of thousands of people that swam in Lake Ontario during the summers stopped coming. The marathon swims that attracted hundreds of participants, and gave rise to some of our nation’s’ greatest heroes, were cancelled. The streetcars that took kids to the beach stopped being free. The lake was no longer at the heart of the city. Instead it became a dirty backdrop.
Fast forward to 2015, the lake is still highly stressed. But the water quality has improved to the point that most beaches in Toronto, and on Lake Ontario, are clean enough to swim at most of the time.
Still, the idea that Toronto’s waters are not just swimmable, but beautiful, is something a lot of people have a hard time swallowing.
Even as the program manager for Swim Guide, and an employee of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, I was hardwired to believe I could not go into the lake without there being consequences until last year. As a child, my mother had gone swimming at Woodbine Beach. After just a short romp in the water, she and a number of other children had to be rushed to the hospital and treated for severe infections. My mom only swam in the Donald D. Summerville pool after that.
The consequence of my mom’s experience was that I grew up never once swimming in the lake. It was a precaution to protect my health. When someone gets sick from swimming, they withdraw from the water. It’s completely understandable, especially when there is little to contradict the correlation.
My first time in Lake Ontario was as a participant at the 2014 Toronto Island Lake Swim. I had 1.5 km to contemplate my city’s waters. As I swam I looked straight down through the clear water to the sand and rocks at the bottom. Every time I lifted my head up to adjust my course I could see sailboats and paddlers on the horizons. Beachgoers were laughing on the shore. Despite the dozens of swimmers around me, the lake was peaceful. And it was mine.
So, this is Lake Ontario. The lake is not a toxic monster. Rather, it is one of the most enchanting places in the world. I have a fresh water sea at my doorstep, and very good looking one to boot.
My first swim in Lake Ontario was an epiphany, but only because I had, like most people, spent most of my life without basic information about the lake’s water quality.
There is a reason why “Can I swim in Lake Ontario?” is the most popular question Lake Ontario Waterkeeper receives from the public. The recreational water quality of the lake is not well known and can be hard to understand. Like the weather, water quality constantly changes. If people don’t know when the lake is clean enough to swim in, they can get sick. They also miss out on opportunities to swim, fish, paddle and enjoy the lake if they don’t have accurate information on the health of the water.
It is fitting that this year’s Toronto Island Lake Swim comes on the heels of the Ministry of the Environment’s decision that Torontonians should receive alerts during and following wet weather events, when sewage and stormwater are released into the lake.
This is a major victory for the city and for the future of Toronto’s recreational waters. Access to information is fundamental in addressing Toronto’s water quality issues.
If it’s known there is contamination, people can decide to stay out of the water avoiding illness. And when the water is clean, well, there is no end to the opportunities when it comes to the recreational water activities Toronto has to offer. The more people know, the better their relationship with the water will be.
Come celebrate the swimmability of the city’s waters this weekend. It’s time to get back in the lake.
About the event
The Toronto Island Lake Swim is part of the Global Swim Series and Canaqua. This year’s race is sponsored by Enwave.
The 2015 event will be held on the Centre Island Pier Sunday, August 16th.
Registration begins at 9am and the first race starts at 11am.
See more at: http://www.torontoislandlakeswim.com