Surf’s up – The Beachcombing Season’s Finally Here

Photo by JRempel

Summer’s here, so gather your inflatables, sand pails, flippers, diving masks, skim boards and hit the nearest beach.

Vancouver’s blessed with 18 kilometres of fantastic recreational shorelines.

BC’s Pacific waters are often too cold for swimming throughout the year, but I’ve always enjoyed a nice dip in the lifting, freezing saltwater on a blistering day in July or August. A cool body drift over a quiet, rippling plain of water with the bright sun lording above represents the best part of a Vancouver summer.

The Musqueam nation, descendants of the Coast Salish, also loved their beaches. Although the nation lived in greater numbers in the Marpole area, there are remnants of the tribe throughout Greater Vancouver, especially near the water. The very name Musqueam relates to water, and means People of the River Grass.

The Musqueam practised selective logging. They burned certain trees to create working forests, and cleared meadows to make fruit and vegetable gardens for humans and game animals such as deer. Four thousand years ago, the Musqueam and other nations encouraged the growth of the Red Cedar, since the tree was crucial for constructing almost everything, including bark fibre clothing, housing, totem poles, and canoes.

Canoes were vital, since the Musqueam relied on river and sea travel. The Musqueam Nation must have also been accomplished swimmers, because they lived so harmoniously with the water.

In the 21st century, is Vancouver’s seawater still clean enough for swimming? The answer’s a resounding yes, but everyone should take precautions. Vancouver Coastal Health’s website,, shows the recent coliform bacterial counts on the city’s beaches. The coliform count measures the sewage contamination in the water. If the coliform count exceeds 200 parts in 100 millilitres of water, the Medical Health Officer must erect warning signs along the infected shoreline.

Some people believe we could have radioactive contamination in the seawater from the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency conducted radiation tests on a dozen fish on the British Columbian coast in August 2011.The agency also tested another dozen fish in February 2012, and they were unable to find nuclear contamination. A study of 24 fish might not seem exhaustive enough, however I went swimming several times in 2011, and I’ll keep jumping-in unless proven otherwise.

The cleanest beaches this summer include Third Beach, Jericho Beach, and Locarno Beach, each with healthy measurements of 15 -14 coliforms per 100 millilitres.

Third Beach remains my favourite, because of the thick forested trails leading to the tiny sandy bay below. The waters at Stanley Park’s Third Beach are quite deep, and it’s a great experience to do the front crawl with the mountains of North Vancouver looming overhead.

Spanish Banks West is another beloved destination, although the waters are quite shallow in this section of the Burrard Inlet. Whenever the tide rolls out, there are several sandy tidal pools left behind, which makes Spanish Banks a popular skim boarding beach during the low tide, when the sands appear to stretch all the way out to the emerald-blue mountains and islands on the western horizon.

In June 1792, Captain Vancouver bumped into Spanish Captain Dionisio Galiano near English Bay. Vancouver named Spanish Banks after Galliano as an acknowledgment of their surprising but amicable meeting.

The dirtiest beach is East Vancouver’s freshwater body, Trout Lake, measuring 196 counts of coliforms per 100mls. Much of the lake’s filth likely originates from an unholy accumulation of bird and dog poop.

Never mind the poop, Trout Lake’s still a favourite place to read a book year-around, and the city’s terrific summer Lantern Festival is also held here.

This pretty, treed urban lake has a unique industrial history. In 1867, Edward Stamp constructed a flume from Trout Lake to his sawmill on present-day Dunlevy Street, to help run the Stamp Mill’s steam-powered machinery.  In the 1890s, the lake became a pleasurable asset of the exclusive Cedar Cottage neighbourhood. In 1926, the park surrounding the east side of the lake was bestowed to the city by Aldyen Hamber; daughter of Hastings Sawmill proprietor, John Hendry.

English Bay, between Gilford Street and Bidwell, is perhaps the most accessible saltwater beach. Here, the boys show their muscles off to the girls. This crowded beach with Chinese palms is also a popular family destination. For a city beach, the waters of English Bay and Kitsilano Point are fairly clean, with coliform measurements ranging between 50-60 counts.

English Bay is named after Joe Fortes, who became the beach’s first official lifeguard in 1901. Twenty-year-old Fortes, originally from Barbados, jumped his ship and made a living by teaching Vancouverites how to swim.

Wreck Beach used to be my favourite beach. Now I find it cliquish and ruled by paranoia, but this fear is understandable. In the summer, the anything-goes, clothing optional beach is traipsed by venture capitalists selling an array of beer, spirits, and other refreshments. The RCMP often raid the beach and confiscate the inebriants on sale. More often, the beach has a friendly vibe, but whenever Wreck’s too busy, too hot, and too copped, there’s a poisonous ambience.

Despite my personal feelings, I salute the Wreck Beach Preservation Society for keeping the beach free from development since 1983.

The coliform count on Wreck Beach spans from a healthy 20 counts on Acadia, to 49 counts on Trail 7. Always remember, there’s an endless flight of stairs to climb afterwards, so it’s never a good idea to get too wrecked on Wreck.

False Creek is not a recreational water body. Rather, the lengthy seawater channel is a boating highway, but False Creek has a relatively clean count ranging from 23 in the west, to 76 parts on the eastern shore.

Enjoy the summer while it lasts. Make sure you go swimming, but be on the lookout for three-eyed glowing fish gobbling Wreck Beach mushrooms.