Art of the dog paddle

Mary Letson’s love of ocean swimming is nothing new – she first swam across King Edward Bay at four years old – but with each decade, her relationship with the ocean transforms, as does her style

My grandpa sent me a letter the summer of 1967 congratulating me on swimming all the way across King Edward Bay. I was four years old. He enclosed a dollar bill as a reward for my efforts. I still have the letter but was not so lucky (or smart) with the dollar and spent it on something important like penny candy. As children we spent our summers at King Edward Bay, learning to swim in the ocean with our eyes open under water like seals. We memorized the beach and shore line like it was our second home (because it was), and knew all the tidal pools, where the bullheads hid, when the tide was just right for diving off the “Big Rock” and the flattest rocks to stretch out to warm our almost blue bodies after hours in the bay.

Our parents were militant about the rules around swimming: no adult present meant no swimming. Period. Since our parents didn’t arrive at the beach until the afternoon, swimming never commenced until the tide was high, the water warming itself slowly over the rocks. Mom arrived at the beach in her black and white pinstriped one-piece, her beach bag heavy with a family-sized thermos brimming with her homemade lemonade called Imperial. At the bottom of her bag, there was a small, serious, plastic bag enclosing a CPR mask, something that as a child I found vaguely mysterious and a little scary knowing that it was a big deal if this equipment was ever required. It never was.

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I didn’t ever get formal swimming lessons, and other than my grandparents swimming pool, I only ever swam in the ocean during the summer. We all dog paddled our way around the bay, our heads above water to get from A to B, diving down when we needed to. Which was often. This is clearly a dated way to swim as I don’t ever see anyone dog paddling anymore. In fact, a quick Google search clarifies that the dog paddle was “…used by ancient humans and seen in Prehistoric cave paintings…” My parents weren’t ones to fuss with the latest trends.

I remember how adult all our parents were at the beach next to our splashing and dashing barefoot along the stony beach. I wondered how they could be so calm in the midst of so much fun. They strolled to the water’s edge, stepped out of their flip-flops to toss them up the beach out of the tide’s way. With a mincing walk, they made their way knee deep into the water to then stop and talk for what seemed a lifetime before lowering themselves slowly into the water. My dad however embraced the theatrical. He would lower himself into the water making hooting noises then submerged himself just until his eyes were above the water line, blowing bubbles and pretending to be a crocodile. Flipping himself onto his back he floated with toes pointed to the arc of blue sky, his arms out to his sides scalloping the water, still hooting. I marvelled at my dad’s ability to float. He was miraculous.

The summer my son was born, I spent long afternoons in the shade of the maple tree on that same beach nursing, reading, chatting, playing Scrabble with my Mom and yes, swimming. Clad in my Mom’s old two-piece bathing suit (the only thing that would fit my post pregnant curves) and with wee son in his granny’s arms, I took to swimming to the south point and back over and over and over. Thankfully, I shed the ancient art of the dog paddle for free style and – thanks to my dad’s genes – I had a knack for endurance. I found the long, submerged exhale comforting and King Edward Bay’s solitude restorative. 

This summer I will take to another bay on the same island to train for my own personal event. In lieu of the annual SwimBowen event I will swim from Tunstall Bay to Bowen Bay (1.6 km) in late August. My love of ocean swimming sparked in me so many years ago with a humble stroke and rewarded so poignantly by my grandpa continue to buoy me. Dear grampa, look at me now. I do believe I have earned the dollar.

© Copyright Bowen Island Undercurrent

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