I almost drowned twice in my life. Once in a canoe mishap in Ontario when I was 10. The other time when I was 23 and showing off, foolishly, for a young lady in Bermuda.
While I was a Boy Scout and winter camped a lot growing up, I was not one for going to summer camp, overnight or day programs. And never learned to swim until my future wife, horrified that I did not have this vital "life skill," enrolled me in swimming lessons at age 28.
We have two grown kids and they are strong swimmers, courtesy of city lessons at a young age and their own summer camp experiences, which included early morning "polar bear dips," canoeing and other water activities.
Summer day camps and overnight camps in Ontario provide an incredible opportunity for youth to learn how to safely have fun in the water.
"This is a life skill," says Denise Fruchter, founder of Camp Winston on Sparrow Lake in Muskoka, one of the camps supported by the Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund. Thanks to generous donations from the public, campers across Ontario have been given the opportunity to get those and other skills. Fruchter’s camp serves children with neurobiological disorders, including autism. The camp and parents set goals for individualized programs including swimming lessons given by National Lifeguard-Lifesaving Society-trained staff.
At Camp Ekon on Lake Joseph in Muskoka, swimming is taken equally seriously. Campers enjoying the summer experience can take swimming lessons that follow the Canadian Lifesaving Society Program. The "swim test" that is familiar to most who attend a day or overnight camp takes place at the start of camp, and those who want to learn or improve their skills are placed in the appropriate level of instruction. "Swimming is definitely a life skill and many children may not have had the opportunity to learn and we want to give them that opportunity," says Meg Doherty, camp director.
My parents did not have a lot of disposable income growing up, a situation similar to many who cannot afford summer camp. As to why I never learned to swim, my dad was a builder and renovator and most of my summers and weekends were spent working for him. No regrets and I loved every minute of it. My mom, a Maritimer, believed that people "just swim" and my father, who served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, was a non-swimmer. A creek cut through our rural property outside Lambeth, Ont., and I would lash together beams and branches to make rafts and float in deep spring water, oblivious to the danger in non-helicopter parenting days.
I asked Dad once, "Could you save me if I went under?" "Yes," he said, "but I would probably have a heart attack."
Swimming truly is a life skill. For so many early years of my life I was the guy who stayed around the edge of the pool. Non-swimmers are typically embarrassed that they are not confident in the water, and I can tell you from personal experience they will pretend they can swim. That’s where the controlled swim test at a summer camp comes in. It separates the swimmer from the non-swimmer.
It’s frightening being in the water, feeling nothing beneath your feet and going down. That happened to me trying to empty a swamped canoe of water when I was 10. Someone grabbed me and got me to hold on to the side of the canoe.
The Bermuda experience was worse. I was visiting a friend I had worked with at the university paper at Western. She and her dad told me there was a really cool thing they loved doing: jump off a bridge into the sea and tread water while a rushing current created by the tide whips you in an arc. Back to safety as long as you can swim. Sure, I said, hiding the fact that I, at age 23, did not swim. I was embarrassed. What was the worst that can happen, I told myself.
The three of us did the route once. It was taxing but, using all my strength and what little water skills I had figured out, I survived. Let’s do it again, they both said. Everybody good? Yes, I said. That’s when I got into trouble. Halfway through the arc I was struggling, then going down. That’s the only time I have ever been truly terrified, and I spent time under fire in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 and in Kuwait during the Gulf War. My friend helped me focus (she kept yelling "FOCUS!" as she wisely stayed clear of my thrashing arms). Then a windsurfer dude slid over, and I grabbed his board and he took me to safety. I have a scar on my leg from where coral cut me getting out.
Five years later I was enrolled by Kelly (we married after I learned to swim) in swimming lessons at the Etobicoke Olympium. Every Monday at 6 p.m. I raced from whatever I was covering for the Star and did private lessons with Wayne, 18. In the lanes beside me, little kids were cutting through the water like Penny Oleksiak. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. The whole experience of trying to teach an adult to swim stymied Wayne at first. One day, Wayne said, "OK, I have been trying to learn guitar. My instructor was about to give up and then he said, ‘Why don’t we go back to the basics? Let’s break it all down, starting with how to hold the darn thing.’"
For me (thanks Wayne, wherever you are) it was learning to float, then moving on from there to treading water. Learning to swim as an adult is tough. Learn when you are young, that’s my advice. Today I am a strong swimmer and worry for those who are not.
Barbara Byers, public education director of the Lifesaving Society, said learning to swim as part of a camp (day or overnight) is something every young person should experience. "Some kids just never have the opportunity," she said, noting as an example that new Canadians are often so busy with a new job, living in a new country, that swimming is not on the radar. "If a kid can go to camp and learn to swim that is fantastic."
The Lifesaving Society has a standard instruction course that many camps follow. "It’s a life skill and also a social experience in a place that has more fresh water than any country in the world."
Between 140 and 170 people drown in Ontario each year. Byers worries that with camps and other swim lesson opportunities closed by the pandemic, the future may be bleak, and she hopes lessons and camp soon get back on track.
The Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund provides grants that annually help provides the camping experience to 25,000 campers in 104 camps: 52 overnight and 52 day camps. The pandemic closed overnight camps last summer and many day camps were not allowed to open. With new guidelines about to be released for this year, there is hope in the air for summer camp experiences, and the Fresh Air Fund will distribute funds to camps that are allowed to open.
Kevin Donovan can be reached at email@example.com or 416-312-3503.
If you have been touched by the Fresh Air Fund or have a story to tell, email FreshAirFund@thestar.ca or phone 416-869-4847.
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Correction - June 2, 2021 - This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Denise Fruchter's name.