Swimming into history

Swim the Canal 2017.

My new friend Andy seemed to need a little convincing.

This was his first time at Swim The Canal, after all. He was visiting his parents in Richmond County, with his wife and eight-year-old son from the Dusseldorf-Cologne area of Germany. And now, on this somewhat-improbable Sunday afternoon in August, he was going to take the plunge.

“They do this every year?”

“Yeah, this is the fourth. It’s only my second. This started just as a fun thing to do, because kids used to come here and swim during the summer. The first year, they got 85. Last year, they got close to 200. They’re doing a cut-off of 250 this summer.”

By this point of the afternoon, I had already driven through a pounding rainstorm along Highway 104 between Port Hawkesbury and St. Peter’s. As my tires splashed through the water that had collected on the road in the Lower River area, I started to wonder if I had lost my mind.

Andy might have had the same idea as he stood with the rest of us, clad only in swimsuits and sandals, waiting for the bus to take us from Battery Provincial Park to the Bras d’Or Lake side of the St. Peter’s Canal.

For me, every step of the journey was special. Before our bus arrived, I struck up a conversation with one of the last students to graduate from St. Peter’s District High School in the late ’90s. I was a classroom advisor for her Communications, Media and Technology Class under teacher Keith MacDonald, producing her interview segments for the weekly St. Peter’s Channel 10 broadcast “The Neighbourly News.” On this day, nearly two decades later, she’s got bright blue hair and she’s swimming the canal.

During our bus ride, I excitedly told Andy that the entire area has changed. Even the road into and out of Battery Park is different, since the work carried out over the past year on the canal included re-routing of the park entrance through hillsides that were solid rock only 14 months ago.

Finally, we were in the water, paddling our way towards the new two-lane bridge that had officially opened to marine and vehicle traffic two months earlier. I swore I wasn’t going to get emotional over a piece of infrastructure, but there was something special about seeing that major step forward for St. Peter’s from our vantage point in the canal.

Andy spotted his wife, happily taking pictures on the side of the canal alongside their son. I called out from the water: “Your dad is a super-hero!”

Heading toward the locks, I started chatting with a friend of mine from Roberta who was also making a return swim. We were both perplexed as to why her daughter, a high school classmate of mine who’s now a world-travelling SCUBA-diver and snorkeller, wasn’t doing Swim The Canal. We’ll work on her for next year.

A few feet in front of me, four women of various ages posed for a relative taking pictures on land, each lifting a leg and creating the effect of a synchronized-swimming routine (or an Esther Williams water ballet). During a breather at the midway point, as we waited for the canal locks to open, I learned that one of these mermaids-in-training was indeed a competitive synchronized swimmer, one of two (along with her sister) who had been here two years ago, the last time I did Swim The Canal.

Shortly before the end of that break, somebody (I can’t imagine who) got the idea to lead the Swim The Canal participants in a performance of the national anthem. Seeing video of hundreds of “O Canada” singers bobbing in the water a few days later on Facebook, one of my land-lubber friends said she got chills – “and not because of the water temperature.”

When the locks opened, the resulting current felt like a friendly guide rather than the rough-and-tumble surprise of years past. As it carried me past the three remaining Tall Ships in the canal, en route to our end point at the Battery Park beach, I struck up a conversation with a former River Bourgeois resident who now works at the Michelin Tire plant in Waterville. He had only heard about the swim four days earlier but was determined to join us.

I asked him when he had attended school in River Bourgeois. Upon hearing his answer, the mid-to-late ’70s, I asked: “Do you remember a teacher named Joe Cooke?” He did. “That’s my Dad.”

And suddenly, all 250 of us were back on land, toweling off at the tail-end of a lovely afternoon that could hosted the first rain-soaked Swim The Canal but instead allowed us to swim into history.

See you next year, friends.