NEWS FEATURE: Back in the swim at Victoria’s Gorge

Summer event aims to welcome back the masses to the warm waters of the once-polluted waterway

A Victoria and Island Athletic Association water polo match is in action at Curtis Point

Ask a dozen people whether they would ever swim in the Gorge Waterway, and a majority will likely react with an unequivocal: no way.

Whether warranted or not, the Gorge’s polluted reputation from decades past continues to dog the narrow ocean inlet that winds through three municipalities.

Of course, the Gorge has its defenders, who argue its waters are some of the warmest in the region. In August, the temperature has been recorded at 24 C. Contrary to popular opinion, they also claim the water is cleaner than the popular swimming beach at Elk Lake.

If true, it begs the question: are Victorians bypassing paradise in their own backyard as they drive to the outskirts of Saanich and the West Shore for a dip on a hot summer’s day?

The “yuck” response is an attitude organizers of an upcoming swimming event hope to challenge.

“We have this wonderful waterway in our community that used to be a wonderful swimming hole,” said Jack Meredith, a board member of the Vic West Community Association. “It would be a wonderful thing to celebrate on the (City of Victoria’s) 150th anniversary.”

The idea has caught on, winning buy-in from community groups in Victoria, Saanich and Esquimalt. On Aug. 12, three swimming parties will kick off simultaneously on beaches in all three municipalities. The goal is to attract the masses back to the once-beloved swimming mecca that lured thousands to its shores for water sports, swimming lessons, championships and just splashing about.

“Everybody we talked to is enthusiastic about having the glory days of the Gorge brought back,” Meredith said.

The response suggests there is an undercurrent of people ready and waiting to embrace the Gorge as a place for more than rowing, paddling and other boating.

“It is the best swimming water in Victoria and nobody knows that,” said John Sanderson, who grew up listening to his mother tell stories about swimming in the Gorge in the 1920s.

Sanderson, a board member of the Burnside-Gorge Community Association, is helping to organize the event.

“Once people experience it as a swimming place, it becomes special. And once it’s special, it’s cared for and admired and loved.”

A major clean-up effort in the 1990s has vastly improved water quality. Septic systems draining into the Gorge were removed and annual volunteer efforts see garbage hauled away from its shorelines.

Today, water quality studies are limited, but seem to indicate the Gorge is safe to swim in.

“The water quality at the one beach we do sample is very good,” said Erwin Dyck, Vancouver Island Health Authority’s supervisor of health protection.

“Because there is quite a bit of tidal flushing through there, we wouldn’t expect the numbers would be dramatically different from one end to the other, but frankly we don’t have that kind of information along the full length of the Gorge at this point.”

During swimming season, VIHA takes monthly water samples at Kosapsom Park, near Admirals Road.

More beaches could soon be added to the monitoring list soon.

“It might be useful for us to do a little more sampling at some of the park areas. It is something we are reviewing this year anyways,” Dyck said.

The health authority tests levels of fecal coliforms in the water, due mainly to geese and other animal waste, he said. The Capital Regional District tests for other storm water contaminants, such as metals and nutrients.

Before the big swim day in August, event organizers are partnering with other organizations for more thorough inspections of the water at multiple points.

Meanwhile, they’re looking for volunteers and ideas for fun ways to celebrate Swim the Gorge Day.

It’s been almost a decade since the last organized swimming event on the waterway. That gathering featured swimming competitions and attracted world-class athletes.

This year’s focus will be on fun, with music, a barbecue and prizes for people who take the plunge.

“If you get your hair wet, then you’ve swam,” said Meredith.

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