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An open water swimmer on the return leg while swimming in Lake Ontario.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Kathleen McDonnell is the author of Growing Old, Going Cold: Notes on Swimming, Aging and Finishing Last, from which this essay is adapted.

Back in early 2020, there was a brief period when it looked like the pandemic might help solve the climate crisis. No one could go anywhere. Airports were shut down. Photos showed city streets completely empty of cars. Carbon emissions dropped significantly in 2020, with reductions approaching 20 per cent in some places. Of course, that didn’t last. But some of the changes COVID-19 has wrought in our lives really do seem to be turning out for the better. Case in point: The pandemic is encouraging us to take better care of the Great Lakes, and ourselves as well.

In the beginning, at least, I didn’t find the lockdown much of an inconvenience. Shelter-in-place? No problem. My spouse and I already worked from home. Physical distancing? No problem there, either. On this part of Toronto Island, where I live, the houses are close together – sometimes a bit too close together – so we don’t feel isolated. Get outside once a day for exercise? Let’s see, I live on an island, and my preferred form of exercise takes place in water. I venture outside, walk less than five minutes from my house, and I’m in Lake Ontario. There couldn’t be a better situation for a swimmer.

I knew how lucky I was. With pools shut down, many swimmers were going through severe withdrawal. On social media, there was chatter about “endless pools,” single lane spas that provide a jet resistance you swim against – going nowhere, endlessly. Among those who couldn’t think of spending the thousands of dollars required, there was a flurry of interest in more affordable options. I saw photos of swimmers who set up brightly-coloured inflatable pools in their backyards and tethered themselves to stationary objects so they could “swim” in place. As pitiful as it all looked to me, I could totally understand their desperation. It’s an addiction, this need to be in water. I felt a bit guilty. They had postage-stamp-sized pools, and I had a Great Lake.

As summer came on and lockdown measures began to ease up, outdoor pools in Toronto reopened, but with restrictions. The city imposed strict limits on the number of people in the pool at any one time, and each swimmer was limited to 45 minutes. People found they had to wait in line, sometimes for hours, and often didn’t even manage to get into the water. Lanes had to be booked ahead, and time spent in change rooms was minimized. Limits on numbers are still in force in many pools, to the joy of those who usually must avoid crashing into other swimmers in crowded lanes.

COVID-19 wasn’t the first pandemic to close pools. During the polio scare in the 1940s, there was panic and fear that children could be exposed to the virus in public pools. A 1946 study showed that chlorine was one of the few known chemicals that could kill the polio virus. With the introduction of the Salk vaccine in 1955, the polio pandemic began to recede, and people gradually returned to swimming in pools. Chlorine became the near-universal method of pool sanitation, and strict regulations on chlorine use were put in place.

But the pandemic has transformed the swimming universe – perhaps permanently – by getting swimmers out of those concrete-and-chlorine tubs and introducing them to the joys of open water. As outdoor swimming becomes more and more normalized, a lot of them will never go back. When I first moved to Toronto Island in the eighties, lots of people went to the beach, but very few went in the water. It was a not-unreasonable fear of pollution, given the city’s practice of allowing untreated sewage to spill into the lake during heavy storms. When I started swimming regularly in Lake Ontario, I got a lot of comments along the lines of “you couldn’t pay me to swim in that cesspool” and questions like “don’t you get sick?” I was treated to neighbours’ accounts of the severe illnesses they suffered as a result – they were quite convinced – of going in the lake. I assured them that, no, I had never gotten sick after swimming. I’d joke that after a lifetime of swimming in the Great Lakes, I’d developed antibodies to all the pollutants. “And I haven’t sprouted a second head yet.”

I thought that the people who blamed the lake for their illnesses were driven by a fear and loathing of water that I didn’t share – that, in fact, mystified me. The sight of water, far from repelling me or making me wary, draws me in. I’ve never (well, almost never) met a natural body of water that I didn’t want to plunge into. With the city’s adoption of the international Blue Flag designation, the water quality at Toronto beaches has greatly improved in the past two decades. Since 2011, the group SwimDrinkFish has put out an annual Swim Guide, with information on water quality at thousands of beaches in the Great Lakes basin as well as across Canada and the United States. With so many more people venturing into the lake, I’m no longer a pariah, or even much of a curiosity.

Okay, so the water quality is better, but what about the temperature? The Great Lakes are so cold! News flash: There’s a growing body of evidence that spending time in cold water is good for you. Scientists in the United Kingdom have been accumulating evidence about the health benefits of cold water, giving support to anecdotal accounts that have been making the rounds for years. University of Portsmouth professors Michael Tipton and Heather Massey, who study human physiological responses to cold and other extreme conditions, have published a comprehensive review of cold-water immersion studies, showing that it has measurable benefits for mood disorders, immune function and other conditions. While they don’t minimize the risks that come with swimming in cold water, their interest is in demonstrating how it can be done safely. Interestingly, both are athletes as well as scientists, giving their work a practical, real-life perspective. Prof. Tipton has done ironman triathlons, and Dr. Massey, a seasoned cold-water swimmer, completed a solo crossing of the English Channel in 2019.

In fact, the curative power of cold water has a long history: “Melancholia” was one of the chief conditions for which people sought treatment during the 19th-century spa boom. Nowadays, those who suffer from depression and other emotional stresses are finding mutual support in cold-water activities, sharing their experiences through Facebook groups such as Mental Health Swims and Swimming4Sanity. It’s certainly helped me get through the pandemic.

Still, I accept that plunging into cold water is a hard sell for most people. But the pandemic has pushed us outdoors more than ever, and changed the way we relate to the bodies of water around us. We’re no longer satisfied with watery vistas and pretty views. We want to be in relationship with water – swimming in it, relaxing near it, paddling a board or canoe on it. And the hope is that this deeper connection to water will lead humans to take better care of it.

That was the life purpose of Josephine Mandamin, a respected Anishinaabe elder from the Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island. In the early 2000s, Grandmother Josephine felt a calling to become a Water Protector, and embarked on an ambitious project to walk around all 27,200 kilometres of Great Lakes shoreline. She began with Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, a remarkable feat that took her more than a month to complete. In the ensuing years, she led a series of ceremonial Water Walks around the other Great Lakes, as well as along rivers and other bodies of water. It’s estimated that in that time, she walked the equivalent of more than half the circumference of the Earth.

Josephine Mandamin passed away in 2019, not long before the pandemic began. Her mission was about more than raising awareness of pollution and water scarcity. To Grandmother Josephine, water was sacred. Her signature phrase was “Water is life.” Not “water is necessary for life.” Water is life. In our modern urban society, where water flows with a turn of a tap, we’ve lost touch with that simple truth. It’s in our self-interest to take care of water, but more than that, it’s a spiritual and moral imperative.

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