The local pool will soon close as the end of summer nears and swimmers hang up their beach towels to return to school.
There was a time when “the pool” never closed. It was the river.
Rural Manitobans of a certain vintage will remember diving into their favourite swimming holes off riverbanks, but their children and grandchildren probably swim in local pools or at nearby lakes.
A heritage committee in Carman wants us to remember when and where people swam in the Boyne.
It has erected signage at a site along the river where, during the 1940s and 1950s, thousands came to swim.
A couple living nearby brought it to their attention. They had been quietly maintaining the site where there are some remaining steps, retaining walls and partial walkways that once led to long-gone change houses.
The site was operated starting in the mid-1940s by the Carman Swimming Club, and after 1950 by the Carman Kinsmen. It was a hub of activity in its day, says Shirley Snider, treasurer with the Carman Dufferin Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee.
And this was no mere clearing with a rope for swinging into the dark waters below.
“When you look at the old write-ups (in the Valley Leader) and see that 2,000 people used to attend here, that’s pretty significant to the history of Carman,” says Snider.
Scores of swimmers and spectators gathered at the banks for swim meets where fine sand was hauled in to create a beach. There were tennis courts, horseshoe pits and a bandstand nearby. Black and white photos of the era show a tree-lined river teeming with young people.
The commemorative plaque says swimming ended in 1960 when safety concerns prompted the Kinsmen to construct a swimming pool. After that houses were built at the location.
No doubt, it was the swimmer’s itch, fears about river currents, and worries about the depth that made it less desirable. There is also a record of a young girl drowning here in 1958.
Manitoba historian Gordon Goldsborough says he’s unaware of any other swimming hole that’s been recognized the way it is in Carman.
“It is an interesting idea,” he said, adding that river swimming dates to a time when the provincial road networks were less developed.
“I’m aware of two other spots along rivers that were once popular swimming areas, and I expect there are lots more. There is one east of Portage la Prairie on the Assiniboine River, and Lido Plage west of Headingley also on the Assiniboine,” he said.
Could the Boyne — and other once-popular places to dive or wade in become swimming sites again? Unlikely, says Ina Bramadat, deputy chair with Snider’s group.
There’s trash at the bottom of the Boyne, and people are suspicious of the water quality, she said.
“At the present time I think there would be no question of swimming in the river,” she said. “There’s all sorts of junk in here. It would need a substantial cleanup.”
Plus, parental attitudes are different than they were 50 years ago, there are more public pools and lakes to swim in, and less of the river is now publicly accessible than it was years ago. Private homes now line both sides of much of the Boyne’s banks through Carman.
Manitobans who do have access to rivers do still enjoy recreation on them, even if they don’t actually swim in them, says Justin Reid, manager of the La Salle Redboine Conservation District.
“I know along the La Salle there’s a lot of people who live along the river who like to boat and canoe and even jet ski,” he said. “I think there’s pockets of places that will use the rivers and creeks.”
Water quality has declined
Reid agrees it’s suspicions about water quality that keep people from actually swimming in them. Rivers have become off limits generally, especially as people come to view them as dirtier or smellier than they remember. In fact, rivers can be more silted than they once were, as reduced vegetation along their banks means more topsoil and nutrients entering from surface water run-off.
“It may not be as nice as it used to be,” he said. “That’s given rivers a bad name,” he said.
Yet, the water quality oftentimes isn’t as bad as some may think, he adds.
Provincial authorities say rivers in southern Manitoba like the Boyne, Assiniboine, Brokenhead, La Salle, Little Saskatchewan, Red, Roseau, Seine, and Souris generally do meet recreational water quality guidelines for E. coli. These rivers are also generally rated “good” or “fair” using a provincial water quality index rating.
More so, it is changing times, with more pools and parks now accessible that’s turned our backs on rivers as places to swim.
“Yet, wouldn’t it be lovely if you could comfortably swim in our rivers again?” Bramadat said.
There might actually be some intangible benefits to creating sites along Manitoba’s rivers for swimming again, says Reid.
“It’s not altogether a bad idea,” he said. “I’m quite sure when communities were using their rivers as swimming holes they were probably a lot more connected to the health of the river.”
Learn more about the Boyne River swimming pool at carmandufferinheritage.ca.