Toronto’s (imaginary) Swimming Lanes


The swimming lanes on Harbord Street in Toronto are the world’s most exciting new sustainable commuting pilot project, but you might not have heard of them, because, for now at least, they exist only in my imagination.

The lanes allow swimmers to travel 1.8 kilometers, or 34 city blocks, along the popular low-rise shopping and residential street, featuring parks, cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. Glass barriers separate the swimming lanes from bikes lanes and the sidewalk. You can enter or exit the water via gates at regular intervals along Harbord. The lanes are set just below street level, to allow swimmers to pass underneath north-south traffic through brightly-lit tunnels.

“It’s a great way to start the day,” says one fictional Toronto resident. “I send my work clothes ahead to the end of the line via the handy pneumatic-tube conveyors, grab a quick shower and change in the facilities provided, and then get on the bus headed downtown.”


click to enlarge

In real life, I ride my bike along Harbord almost every day, and in my mind I see swimmers travelling along beside me. Young and old, breaststrokers and butterflyers, swimming through the city, stopping maybe for a coffee or a new tattoo. Sunlight shining down through the trees along the sidewalk, swimmers moving smoothly past traffic. There are no stoplights in the water.

“I lock up my bike on Ossington and swim right to school ,” a student from Harbord Collegiate might say.

In winter months, hypothetical Torontonians skate on the swimming lanes, although skaters aren’t able to travel the entire distance due to north-south traffic. Imaginary city planners are researching options to make skating commutes available.


prehistoric swimmers: Tiktaalik vs. Puijila

Okay – so they never actually fought. In fact, they lived over 350 million years apart. But if  I could put these two in a ring together, I’d be rooting for the one on the right.

Puijila and Tiktaalik are pre-historic species discovered in the past  decade, and notable as “missing links,” filling gaps in our understanding of evolution. To make a long story short, one learned to swim and the other forgot how to.

And though you can’t go back in time and kill your own grandfather, I’d like nothing more than to send Puijila back to the Devonian age to knock some sense into our common ancestor. To hold Tiktaalik’s flat head underwater til his lungs shrivel up and he remembers to breathe with his elegant gills. To smack down his jointed fins and throttle his evolutionary-ladder-climbing neck. The thing is, Tiktaalik is the link to our water-dwelling ancestors. And, in giving up the life aquatic in favour of terra firma, he sealed the fate of his descendants. If, like me, you spend your days sitting at a desk instead of swimming, it’s because Tiktaalik couldn’t leave well enough alone.

But every family has its black sheep, and the Tetrapods (that’s us, and every other four-limbed creature for the last 380-ish million years) are no exception. Though in this case, the troublemakers weren’t actually sheep, but rather, small carnivorous mammals. Around 55 million years ago, Pakicetids and Indohyus left their home on dry land to become whales. And about 30 million years after that, impressionable Puijila developed webbed feet, began hunting in the water, and showed signs of terrestrial unrest.

When researchers from the Canadian Museum of Nature discovered Puijila in 2007, it was clear that he had been well on his way to life as a marine mammal, with a skull more closely resembling those of modern pinnipeds than those of his otter-like lineage. If Puijila could come back and see the beautifully adapted flippers of his walrus and seal progeny, I know he would be proud. Unless he saw them at Marineland. And if he did, he’d see how we big-brained humans and our precious curiosity can really mess things up. Which brings me back to to ambitious Tiktaalik.

Despite my disdain for my ancestor’s choices, I suppose it must be said (and I’m sure it has) that Tiktaalik was a stand-up guy. A brave pioneer whose first clumsy flounderings on dry land paved the way for generations of feet. He was successful and his children thrived, embodying the American Dream before America even existed. But I prefer Puijila, our cool mammal cousin who dropped out of school to go scuba-diving, and never came back.

prodigal blogger

Oh dear. It’s been four months.
And I don’t know the etiquette of these things – do I go on like nothing’s happened or make excuses for my absence?

I’ve been swimming, but not writing about it. Four times this week in the saltwater pool, which is killing my hair, but making me happy. A hotel pool in October with my five-year-old niece  and an indoor/outdoor waterslide. And this one, from the early September heat wave, when a not-so-juvenile delinquent climbed the fence to swim after hours.

if I ran the G20

Toronto, last weekend, was too argument-y
We’d all have gone swimming if I ran the G20.

The leaders and spouses, the agents from CSIS,
the cops and their horses, we all would join forces.
The bloggers and tweeters, the do-not-eat-meat-ers
the peaceful protesters, the quick-to-arrest-ers
the citizen journalists all over town,
we’d jump in the water, it would calm us all down.
The anarchist Black Bloc would stop all their drama
to play Marco Polo with Barack Obama.

I’d spend a cool billion, I’d use the whole budget
so that we could all swim – no one would begrudge it.

My fake lake would stretch from the east to the west, hey,
I’d make a pool out of the Gardiner Expressway.

I’d fill up the Skydome, just pour in some water
If I ran the G20 (and I really oughta).


Toronto environmental awareness group Ecologos is promoting June 11, 8–9 pm as Waterhour, a time (like Earthhour) to celebrate water and promote conservation and water ecology.

My cats are celebrating (and conserving) by drinking from a puddle outside, and I’m filling my glass from the tap. No flushing tonight, and – what the heck – no dishwashing either (not so uncommon for me), though I might sneak in a quick trip to the pool.

the first lake swim in May

… makes everything okay.

This week, the city thinks it’s August.
Thirty-two degrees feels like the long, drawn-out blast of a heel of a hand on a car horn. A persistent, whiny quarter-tone played in the key of cranky. The city could use a shower. And I could use a swim.

If I time it right, I can be in the lake (the less polluted part, that is) in half an hour. Ward’s Island Beach is a 20-minute bike ride, a 10-minute ferry ride, and a 3-minute walk, from my house. Even in the heat and the concrete, cycling is so good, almost as good as swimming. On my wishlist of ideal body modifications, wheels come in a close second to fins and gills.

At 5 pm, it’s rush hour on the passenger ferry, and vestiges of crankiness cling – a whining tired child, a dumb buzzing bee circling popsicle puddles, loudspeaker static that makes my brain itch. All passengers something-something… And then we’re on the water.

It’s cooler on the island, where the air and sand believe it’s summer, though the lake knows it’s only May. My ankles ache in the little lake-waves. This water that I skated on in February is still adjusting to the change.

I’d imagined myself plunging into the water, like the happy dogs at the end of the beach, but I pause at waist-deep. I get soft over the winter, used to heated water and enclosed space. The first lake swim is like a cage door opening at the zoo, and the lazy wild creature in me is both thrilled and not quite ready to embrace freedom.

I wish I could slow down time to notice the moment between when my apprehensive warm arms poise to dive, and when my cool wet head surfaces seconds later. After the initial shock of the cold, my body temperature lowers, so that my feet no longer ache and swimming seems possible. The words “refreshing” and “delicious” come to mind, with their splashy “sh” sound, but they’re soft-drink words, fizzy and commercial. Maybe simply “cold” comes closest to naming this underwater feeling of evenness and solid blue. But if I think too much about these things, the experience gets lost.

So I swim, in a straight line at first, out of habit, and then change directions, diving down to explore the pockets of cold below the surface. The heat of summer, even in May, makes absolute sense when there is perfect cold like this in the water. I know that tonight, at home, I’ll be cursing the heat, but right now I can’t really remember how that feels.

keep your pantalones on

Mother, may I go out to swim?
Yes, my darling daughter:
Hang your clothes on a hickory limb
and don’t go near the water.

Apparently, tourists in Spain have been taking this old rhyme too literally.

Last week, the City of Barcelona began distributing posters with the image above, to discourage tourists from walking through the streets and entering shops wearing only their swimsuits. According to the report by Agence France-Press, the posters will be put up “in the metro, buses and in all public areas.” A spokesperson stated that “the mayor has sent letters to businesses, hotels, bars, restaurants … encouraging them to download the poster and paste it on their walls.”