Photo: Finding liberty through ocean night swimming

(Credit: Hamish Baxter via Flickr)

The police officers, in their heavy uniforms and gadgety belts, were helpless to stop me as I dove into the sea and sped off towards the darkening horizon. It troubled me that they held authority to force me and my friends to leave the beach following sunset, but this concern seemed to wash away with the rolling waves because I knew that while Vancouver's beaches may sometimes close, the ocean is always open.

I had last seen my friends as they were launching their canoe from the far end of Wreck beach under the watchful eye of one of the police officers enforcing Vancouver's beach closure policy. I would have felt more comfortable swimming out into the uncertain waters had my friends been with me, but I left them before entering the water myself to run up and down the access stairs to build some body heat. Despite feeling a bit alone, these were familiar waters and as long as I was able to eventually find them down shore I could retrieve my gear from their canoe, which included my warm clothes, my dinner and the key to my bike lock. I was hoping they would arrive safely because there was some major ocean swell coming in, almost too much for a canoe to handle.

The horizon ahead of me was burning a fiery orange and red while the sky above still had a vibrant, almost neon blue tint. The old trees above Wreck Beach still glowed in warm light from the horizon and the unique shapes of tall Douglas-firs and arching alders were still distinct amidst the forest.

Swimming out from the shore towards the first point felt liberating because the beach had been so crowded and now I was alone. Also, I knew I was one of a few beach goers who would actually enjoy the sunset on this fine evening. 'Sunset' does not end when the sun dips below the horizon. Sunset is never an instantaneous event, rather it is a period of the day that lasts for many calm, sometimes euphoric hours. It should be legal to enjoy this period of day that is undoubtedly appreciated by most people, but in Vancouver all beaches are closed the moment the sun sets and they remain closed until 8am, long past the time that the sun rises.

But this didn't matter, those troubles were long behind, I was now passing the big rock at the first point and could see the first Tower up ahead. It is getting dark, though, and the forest has lost its glow and the water below me has become obscure and black. Removing my goggles for clearer vision I switch onto my back and see there are stars over head, dozens of them. The ocean swells are the largest I have swam in along these typically calm shores but they are moving with me, propelling me and I enjoy their slow lift and gentle drop. I cant help but wonder what may be in the water below or around me but it doesn't matter because whatever is there is not a threat. Harmony is with me on this swim.

Soon, more stars are appearing and the empty space around Earth grows ever bigger, more expansive, until I have to pause and float motionlessly in the rolling swell. Tilting my head back and chin up I can see a horizon of water appearing above me and stars and endless space in between. I am dumbfounded by the vastness of the universe from my deep perspective. Despite being at least 40m from solid land, I feel deeply grounded in the Earth and while my focus and imagination drifts towards distant galaxies I know where my physical self remains.

A camp fire is lit along the shore so I holler towards it in a way that my friends would recognize me if they were there. The people at the fire respond enthusiastically, as if they have been greeted by a talking seal somewhere out in the dark waters. I suspect they cannot see me. It is not my friends so I swim onwards with my eyes peering into the now black ominous water below me. About 30 minutes ago I considered landing on shore and walking but I knew that the shore is extremely rough and rocky and the going would be no safer or easier, so I continue.

Finally, I near the second tower and my shouts are greeted by those of my friends. I swim towards them, cross the intertidal zone and am finally able to sit down and relax. We join an already lit fire powered by the constant supply of driftwood from passing log booms and experience a beautiful and healthy evening, meeting some interesting people and watching the annual Perseid meteor shower that reached its climax this night. There is no better place to be around this city for watching the meteors, listening to gentle roar of waves and spending time with friends by a campfire, so I stay until it is becoming light again. This is one of the simplest, but most pleasurable evenings I know. Finally, at 5:30am I decide to leave, sleep is appealing to me and I am aware that the park rangers may soon be coming down the shore to tell us that it is illegal for us to be there until 8am. It is forbidden to watch the sunrise (6:04 am on this day) from there.

From my discussion with police officers and parks officials, my understanding is that our city's beaches and parks close at night due to past incidences of violence and/or sexual assaults that have occurred during the night. Presumably, the rules are also intended to keep squatters from the beaches and reduce littering caused by beach users. While I agree, that we should respond to these incidences, as we should always periodically examine our rules and laws based on emerging empirical evidence, I question whether closing down our city's beaches is an acceptable solution. While I suspect, though I'm not sure, that this has lowered undesired incidences, it comes at significant costs on our liberty and enjoyment of ourselves and for me. I feel that my rights and fundamental freedoms (sec 2) are being infringed upon. This includes my right to gather peacefully in public spaces, as well as freedom of religion. If my freedom of religion seems irrelevant please read, but in short I will point out that my spiritual well-being is almost entirely fulfilled by my interaction with nature and that sunset and sunrise are specific times of day where I often slow down and embrace the beauty of our Earth that feeds my creativity and sense of wholeness and well-being.

While rigid regulations may meet the objectives they were set out to fulfill, they come at varying costs so I think its essential for democracy that we question them. If I had more time and energy, the next time a police officer interrupts my beach meditation, especially if it is after a very long and stressful week of work, I would politely explain to the officer the importance of my time down there and refuse to leave. This might end up in a fine or unlikely in an arrest but it would be interesting to see how it played out in court.

Connections with the forest and sea result in citizens appreciating and respecting the environment around them. If Vancouver wants to be the 'greenest city' by 2020, it must encourage interaction with nature rather than forbid it.

Message to Canadians: Explore the nature around you.

By Ira Sutherland

Vancouver, BC

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