Show­case: Swim­ming Great Bear

Three ded­i­cated swim­mers take on B.C.’S Great Bear Sea, seek­ing ad­ven­ture and gen­er­at­ing aware­ness

Our Canada - - Front Page - By Jill Yoneda, Vic­to­ria

Three ac­com­plished swim­mers tra­verse the Great Bear Sea in Bri­tish Columbia, rais­ing aware­ness and char­i­ta­ble funds in the process.

To say we’ve been called just a lit­tle crazy a cou­ple of times would be an un­der­state­ment. In­deed, it prob­a­bly isn’t your av­er­age sum­mer va­ca­tion to go swim the Great Bear Sea, but that’s ex­actly what three close friends did this July. On July 11, we de­parted from Port Hardy, B.C., by ferry to travel to B.C.’S cen­tral coast to at­tempt a two­day, staged swim from Ocean Falls to Bella Bella. Start­ing from the foot of the falls on day one, we swam the length of Cousins In­let into Fisher Chan­nel, veer­ing off into Gun­boat Pas­sage, where we ex­ited the wa­ter for the day. The next morn­ing, we picked up where we left off in hopes of catch­ing the tidal cur­rent through the nar­rows of Gun­boat, past the town of Shear­wa­ter, across Lama Pas­sage, land­ing on the shores of Bella Bella, com­plet­ing two back-to-back 25 kilo­me­tre swims. This was the first time these wa­ters have been swum, and prob­a­bly for good rea­son. The wa­ter reg­is­tered sur­face tem­per­a­tures in the range of 12°C to 17°C. Care­ful plan­ning was im­ple­mented be­fore the swim to ac­com­mo­date sur­face and tidal cur­rents.

So why would any­one want to do such a thing, you might ask? Well, that’s a re­ally good ques­tion. We were asked this ques­tion many times over the past year as we’ve put the wheels in mo­tion to make this lit­tle ad­ven­ture hap­pen. Of course, if you ask each of us that ques­tion, we’d likely each give you a dif­fer­ent an­swer. Sim­ply put though, we’re just a bunch of swim­mers who love to swim in unique and won­der­ful places. We love the chal­lenges and free­doms we con­front when we’re in the open wa­ter, es­pe­cially when sur­rounded by such nat­u­ral beauty. So I guess the easy an­swer is why not do it?

Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. For Dale Robin­son, swim­ming has al­ways played a huge role in his life, both as an ath­lete and a coach. As he gets older he finds him­self seek­ing out new and more ex­cit­ing ways to chal­lenge him­self within the sport, and the Great Bear Swim seemed liked a pretty good way to do just that. The swim was also his way of help­ing in the fight to bring at­ten­tion to the won­der that is the Great Bear ecosys­tem and the lo­cal-to-global need for its con­ser­va­tion. There is in­cred­i­ble di­ver­sity of life in the Great Bear, much of which is hid­den be­low the wa­ter­line. He be­lieves that as a hu­man race we’d bet­ter start col­lec­tively un­der­stand­ing just how crit­i­cal main­tain­ing that bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity is to our own con­tin­ued ex­is­tence on this planet.

For Su­san Sim­mons, swim­ming has heal­ing power. About 20 years ago, Su­san was di­ag­nosed with mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis and was ad­vised to avoid stren­u­ous ex­er­cise, only to watch help­lessly as her body be­gan to fail. She de­cided a dif­fer­ent ap­proach was war­ranted and now uses swim­ming as an ef­fec­tive man­age­ment tool for her symp­toms. And by all mea­sures it ap­pears her ap­proach has worked, as she can lay claim to be­ing one of the world’s most ac­com­plished open-wa­ter, ultra-marathon swim­mers. Her long­est non­stop swim to date took more than 30 hours while swim­ming a to­tal of 70 kilo­me­tres. She’s hop­ing to set an­other bench­mark in the near fu­ture by at­tempt­ing to swim more than 100 kilo­me­tres with­out stop­ping, other than to feed and hy­drate. So, the Great Bear swim was just an easy warm up for her.

In my case, es­pe­cially in light of my past ex­pe­ri­ences as a Cana­dian record-hold­ing free­d­iver, this

was a rare op­por­tu­nity to swim and dive in the pris­tine and abun­dant wa­ters along the B.C. coast. I’ve been free­d­iv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia among the sea lions, with manta rays in the Cay­man Is­lands, along a salmon run in Campbell River, B.c.—and I was ab­so­lutely thrilled to see hump­back whales in the Great Bear Sea. For me, this swim was also very much about hav­ing an op­por­tu­nity to meet, en­gage and share sto­ries with the peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ties along the route. The wa­ter­ways we were swim­ming in are part of the Heilt­suk First Na­tion’s tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory, with the town of Bella Bella be­ing a fo­cal point of their peo­ple and cul­ture. Ocean Falls holds a spe­cial place in the Cana­dian swim­ming com­mu­nity for be­ing called home­town to a dis­pro­por­tion­ately large num­ber of our Olympians in the 1960s. Now with barely 20 or so re­main­ing res­i­dents, Ocean Falls has fallen largely idle as an aban­doned ghost town.

Our ad­ven­ture took about a year to plan and train for, and we ended up with an amaz­ing 12-mem­ber crew who sup­plied our nav­i­ga­tion, safety and emer­gency sup­port. We also chose to sup­port three char­i­ta­ble and non-profit causes: the MS So­ci­ety of Canada; Pa­cific Wild, which is ded­i­cated to de­vel­op­ing con­ser­va­tion so­lu­tions for the Great Bear; and QQS Projects So­ci­ety, which runs Ko­eye Camp, an in­no­va­tive ed­u­ca­tional camp for Heilt­suk youth that helps pro­mote and foster sci­en­tific and tra­di­tional cul­tural knowl­edge.

All in all, it’s been a labour of love and has, more im­por­tantly, been an op­por­tu­nity for per­sonal growth and re­flec­tion, with each one of us re­al­iz­ing that we all have our own unique demons to con­front in tak­ing on a chal­lenge of this na­ture. Of course, the flip side is that we have also learned about our in­di­vid­ual strengths, and how that helps in com­fort­ing and sup­port­ing one an­other. It’s been such an amaz­ing ride over the past year, and our hope is that this will turn into a multi-year project that takes on a life of its own, as we seek out new and ex­tra­or­di­nary places to go swim­ming. n

Edi­tor’s note: Find out more about these tal­ented swim­mers and their re­mark­able feat, as well as the causes they sup­port, at www.great­bear­

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