Gorge Swim Fest lifts pollution stigma

Some timidly dipped their toes, others dove and the brave cannonballed — all into the Gorge Waterway Sunday afternoon to take part in the Gorge Swim Fest.

Organized by four community associations that surround the narrow inlet between Craigflower bridge and Selkirk bridge, the family-oriented event brought attention to the underappreciated waterfront.                      

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“It’s a great hidden waterway,” said volunteer John Boehme, who has been swimming in the Gorge for the past decade. "The stigma of it being unclean has lifted."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Reintroducing the community to the Gorge as a social gathering place and swimming haven was the main goal of organizers of the event.

From the mid-19th century to the 1920s, the Gorge was a hot spot for swimming, but by the 1940s it was becoming polluted. Co-organizer John Sanderson remembers not being allowed to swim there as a child.

But in 2000, the Veins of Life Watershed Society led a cleanup of the waterway and, later that year, an international swim event was held.

“What worried me and what got me involved in this is that 12 years have gone by since the Gorge has been clean, and people are beginning to forget what it was,” Sanderson said.

Sunday’s event took place at three parks surrounding the Gorge including Esquimalt Gorge Park, Gorge Park in Saanich and Banfield Park.

At Banfield Park in Vic West, more than 240 people took the plunge into the waterway. For many, it was their first time.

Vic West resident Kim Toombs says she’ll come more often now to the Gorge. “It’s right here, I think we should be,” she said.

Highlighting the tradition of swimming in the Gorge was the vintage swimsuit fashion show at Banfield Park. Polka dots, leopard prints and stripes were popular among the old-school swimsuits displayed.

Live music was also performed as families soaked in the sun and took to the water — just as people did a hundred years ago.


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