By Rachel Schoeler

It’s the quiet of the ocean that does it for me. There is nothing like getting lost in the “swish, swish” of the water that passes your ears. It’s where I feel most relaxed and where I get my best ideas. 

What about you? What do you love most about swimming in the ocean?

It’s the end of October already!?

I find that October is often a time of reflection for me. And this year, I reflect with a love letter of sorts to the ocean, to the open water swimming community, and to Fraser Riverkeeper and Swim Drink Fish Canada.

Nearly 9 years ago, I was lucky enough to join the Fraser Riverkeeper team right out of university. It was a total dream to work on Swim Guide and learn more about recreational water quality in the Vancouver area. 

At the time, my work life was focused on recreational water quality, my volunteer life was dedicated to the Vancouver Open Water Swim Association, and my personal life was all about swimming and exploring the waterways around Vancouver.

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Rachel preparing for a winter swim

Not too much has changed 9 years later. 

My work life now focuses on protecting the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (an issue still very much connected to the ocean and water quality). My volunteer life is dedicated to a new open water swim club, Swim Wild Squamish. My personal life is all about discovering the lakes, rivers, and ocean beaches in my new neighbourhood in Squamish. 

After such an odd year, it’s incredible to see how consistently swimming has kept me grounded and connected year after year after year.

Home is where the open water swim community grows

I moved to Squamish, BC in September of 2020 and having lived in Vancouver for the last 10 years, it was hard to leave my community behind. One of the first things I did when I arrived in Squamish was jump in the Mamquam River, just steps from our new apartment. Water—there’s something about it that always makes you feel at home.

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Swim Wild Squamish members swimming the course set up at Nexen Beach

Luckily, I was able to connect with the swimming community in Squamish pretty quickly. One of the most amazing people I met was Marlaina Rhymer. Marlaina is a relatively new swimmer with a HUGE passion for the open water. She had a vision to develop an open water swim club in Squamish dedicated to bringing people together and swimming wild. Her passion, energy, and drive to build a community caught my attention right away. I had to be a part of it. 

Starting an open water swim club can be challenging, but we were lucky to have lots of support along the way. Long-standing clubs like The Vancouver Open Water Swim Association (VOWSA) and the Lake Ontario Swim Team (LOST) helped us navigate these early days.

But is the water safe to swim in? Let’s test it!

We really wanted to offer one lake swim and one ocean swim each week to the club members. We settled on an ocean swim at Nexen Beach in Squamish. However, we had a few questions about water quality before we felt totally confident jumping in with a group of swimmers. Nexen Beach is at the mouth of the Mamquam Blind Channel, which gives me a bit of a False Creek vibe, as there are marinas, industry, and other things that might impact the water.) 

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Swim Wild Squamish open water swimming at Nexen Beach

Even though Nexen Beach is one of the only ocean beaches in town, we couldn’t find much historical data about the water quality. Vancouver Coastal Health shared some data they collected during testing they did with the Squamish Marina (a bit further up the channel) a few years ago, but shockingly, that was all we had.

The Swim Drink Fish team immediately came to mind. A few years ago, I volunteered with the Vancouver Water Monitoring Program and did some water quality testing in False Creek, so I knew they had a lab in Vancouver.

Sadie and Imogene were AMAZING. They immediately stepped into action to offer us training and supplies so we could do an initial water quality test at Nexen Beach.

At the same time, I was also in conversations with Vancouver Coastal Health but didn’t quite have the buy-in for weekly testing yet. Working with Swim Drink Fish and getting that initial test was essential to demonstrate how serious we are about water quality. Vancouver Coastal Health couldn’t ignore the fact that we were going to get water quality tests done, whether they were involved or not. 

This sparked a great working relationship with Vancouver Coastal Health representatives here in Squamish. With support from Vancouver Coast Health, we were able to have two Swim Wild Squamish volunteers collect three water samples each week. 

Nexen Beach was open all summer long. This is a big deal. 

Having access to the water quality information undeniably changed people’s perceptions of Nexen Beach. Including my own. With access to water quality data, we were able to confidently connect people to a body of water in their community that they had previously assumed was unsafe for swimming.

We have one summer of sampling under our belt, and we are looking forward to the next one!

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Swim Wild Squamish members at Nexen Beach

We did it!

As I reflect on this year, I’m just so grateful to Swim Drink Fish, Vancouver Coastal Health, Marlaina, the Swim Wild Squamish water testing volunteers (Sasha and Heather), and the whole Swim Wild Squamish community.

We have come a long way in just one year. As I said earlier, it’s the quiet of the ocean that does it for me. It’s where I feel most relaxed and I get my best ideas. Hopefully, by providing safe and accessible opportunities to swim wild in our community, even more people have fallen in love with the ocean, lakes and rivers I’ve come to love so very much.

So, what’s next? How can we further build this connection to our wild swimming spots?

“Brr, it feels so cold. What’s the temperature?” or “Oh wow, it feels like bathwater. What’s the temperature?”.  

These are common phrases that I’ve heard from hundreds of swimmers over the years. And I’ve said them once or twice myself too.

I recently read a blog about water temperature sensors in Lake Ontario, and honestly, I’m just blown away by how SMART the whole program is.

If we can connect real-time water temperature information to Swim Guide, we have a win-win-win situation. Here’s why:

  1. We would actually know the water temperature!
  2. By offering temperature information on Swim Guide, we would also be encouraging swimmers to get into the habit of regularly checking the water quality at their favourite beaches too.
  3. Knowing water temperature and water quality builds a deeper connection to our favourite waterways, which encourages individuals to stand up and protect them for years to come.

I’m looking forward to seeing if there are ways we can develop a program like this in Vancouver or Squamish too!

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Rachel swimming off of the Southern Gulf Islands in October

See you in the water

The Swim Wild Squamish summer swim season is over, but that’s not it for us! We are sticking around for the fall, winter and spring and will be leading a swim (or dip!) every other Saturday at different locations throughout the Sea to Sky. We are getting really wild now!

We won’t do year-round water quality testing at Nexen Beach, but we will definitely pick it up again next summer. Now that we have built the relationships to both our local Health Authority and our local waterway, we can’t stop now!

I hope that next October, when I’m once again reflecting on the year gone by, that water, swimming, and community continue to shape my memories. I hope that I can confidently and conveniently tell you just how warm Alice Lake was in the middle of the summer or how cold Nexen Beach is.

I’m not sure what this next year has in store, but I’ll work and volunteer and build relationships to ensure that the water is always there to enjoy. I hope you’ll do the same.

 

Rachel Schoeler

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