With more than a month of summer left, there’s still lots of time to swim at one of Toronto’s many beaches found along its 46 kilometres of shoreline, in addition to the Toronto Islands. For decades the lake was notoriously polluted but dramatic improvements have been made and now we’re blessed with some great beaches. This season, eight of Toronto’s 11 swimming beaches have been given the “Blue Flag,” an international standard of beach cleanliness, an award accessed on an annual basis.
Still, it could be better. Here’s a look a three places that could be improved.
In 1999 there was a passionate battle at city council over a pilot project to designate Hanlan’s Point beach as clothing optional. So passionate was it that then-councillor Giorgio Mammoliti took his jacket and shirt off in council chambers to protest the potential nudity, as one does when protesting nakedness. After the pilot was launched, the controversy faded away and in 2002 the southern portion of Hanlan’s was made clothing optional and it’s been fine ever since. Until recently, that is.
The trouble is the beach is a sliver of what it used to be. Even in years where flooding isn’t an issue, as it is this year, the beach has been slowly eroding away. Once it was possible to walk to the southern point, now it’s underwater and each season more trees have fallen into the lake. The designated clothing optional area is a fraction of what it was in 1999.
As this area has always been a special spot for the LGBT community since the early 1970s when it was the site of early Pride picnics, the community has also lost part of its recreation space, not to mention the families and everyone else who enjoys this beach together.
Before somebody says this was an act of God, smiting the naked and the gay, remember the creation of the Leslie Street Spit blocked the replenishing sands that came from the Scarborough Bluffs, so this is partially a human-made problem, and we were born naked anyway. It’s time, then, that all of Hanlan’s be made clothing optional; there are more than enough beaches in Toronto for those who’d rather not see people exercising their option. It’s only fair.
Closer to downtown, Ontario Place is another recreational space in flux as the provincial government has put out a call for “world class” proposals to “unlock the great potential” of the site. Public space advocates, in an effort to remind us that this is indeed public space, and to put a potential swimming hole on our radars, held a clandestine swim last Saturday on the rocky beach on the west side of the site.
Co-Organized by Park People, Swim Drink Fish Canada and the grassroots community organization Ontario Place for All, the event was clandestine because swimming is prohibited here. Yet Swim Drink Fish’s water quality monitoring found that this artificial beach regularly has some of the highest quality along Toronto’s waterfront.
A few dozen people came out for the swim but not everyone got in the water as the lake had “flipped” due to upwelling, a phenomenon where cold water from the bottom of the lake comes to the surface. One day the lake could be a tropical 20 C or more, the next, as it was on Saturday, down to 13 C. Still, I jumped in and can attest to how clean and clear it was. Once in, it wasn’t that cold either, though I’d prefer the lake flip back to summer.
Swim Drink Fish president Mark Mattson thinks a swimming pier would be great here, like the Gord Edgar Downie Pier they helped create in Kingston. Named after the late Tragically Hip singer and designed by Claude Cormier of Berczy Park dog fountain fame, the wildly popular pier has given Kingston an easy way to swim in the lake. As Mattson and others point out, maps of the original Ontario Place show four areas that were designated as beaches. A pier here, providing some shelter and a place to dive in, would making open water swimming possible very close to downtown.
In Scarborough, Bluffer’s Park is an environmental protection success story. As recently as 2005, the expansive Bluffer’s beach was closed 93 per cent of the time due to high E. coli counts. Since then the pollution has been redirected and it’s now one of the city’s cleanest beaches, which has made it very popular.
This popularity has made it harder to visit.
Bluffer’s is located down a long ravine with no sidewalks and is difficult to access without a car. Though the limit is 30 km/h, few drivers obey it so walking or biking is fraught. Worse, the parking lots on nice days fill up quickly and cars sometimes park on the narrow entrance road, making it even more dangerous to walk. While a special TTC bus was recently started from Kennedy subway station, it only runs on weekends and holidays, meaning only people with cars can visit otherwise, unless they’re willing to drudge down and up the narrow, steep road.
For a destination as popular and important as this, bus service should be all day, everyday, during the warmer months.
Toronto is remembering it’s a beach city after years of pollution. We can do more to help that process along.
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Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef