Lines from racerback suits crisscross the backs of women in the change room at Kitsilano Pool like white icing on a hot cross bun, dividing pale flesh from dark. The deep contrasts in skin are proof summer did in fact start for these lap swimmers when the city's big three outdoor public swimming pools opened Victoria Day weekend, contrary to fair-weather Vancouverites who declared with impatient indignation that summer only finally arrived three weeks ago.
Dana Cserepes bears the back branding of a regular swimmer-so regular she's in Kits Pool five to six times a week. "I just flash my back when somebody complains about what a lousy summer it's been," she says over the din of the wall dryers in the change room. Cserepes is one of the many of locals who use the longest saltwater swimming pool in the country for exercise, regardless of whether it's sunny or when it's Vancouver's version of October in June. "Ah," shrugs Cserepes, "When it's raining hard you get a bit of a massage while swimming." Interesting to note, there's a group of locals who only go to Kits to swim when it's raining, taking advantage of no crowds and the fact not everybody seems to know Vancouver's outdoor pools are heated all season long until they close Labour Day weekend (Sept. 9. for Kits Pool).
The big three-Kits, Second Beach and New Brighton pools-all feature shallow waters as well as the lanes. The other two outdoor pools-Hillcrest and Maple Grove-are the shallow cousins of the traditional swimming pool; pretty to look at, good with children, but not much else happening. (Although, it should be noted, swimming in bursts is possible in Hillcrest as it's a metre deep in areas.)
While regular Joe swimmers use the lanes at Second Beach and New Brighton, you almost need to be part amphibian to get from one side to the other at Kits because the lanes are a stunning 137.5 metres long. And some of the users, with their wetsuits, hand paddles, flippers, underwater ear buds, MP3 players, and torpedo-like speed, seem like they're only two generations away from developing gills.
"The triathletes come here to train," said one regular rather disdainfully. "There's no way I'd swim the lanes here right after work, around 5:30. They're all here." She described how one woman accidentally drifted over from the slow lane into the fast lane and cut off a man who batted water at her and screeched, "You're ruining my workout!"
For swimmers like Cserepes, who swim the 12 laps for a mile, the long lanes contribute to what she calls "Zen" swimming-unwinding after a day of work, in her case as an art history teacher at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
"Some people don't like swimming in this pool because the lanes are long but I love that you can't see the other side," says Cserepes.
Kits Pool is beautiful-a glorious aqua colour, mere feet away from the ocean, so large that whitecaps skip across the pool water on a windy day. And then there are the views. As Cserepes puts it, "You look up to breathe and you see the mountains." It's not just the views of nature that make Kits and Second Beach pools so loved; it's also the views of human surroundings that make for great people-watching.
Mike Klassen, an East Side resident best known for running the recently defunct CityCaucus.com blog and an outdoor pool lover, says, "Vancouver doesn't have a lot of public spaces where you can sit and watch the world go by, but that's what you do when you go to the pool. You go to see people and feel like being a part of your surroundings. Outdoor pools bring people together."
Klassen, late one night, got it in his head to mimic a movie he'd just watched called The Swimmer. Based on a John Cheever novel, the story focuses on Neddy Merrill, played by Burt Lancaster, who decides one summer day to swim through all the nearby outdoor backyard and public swimming pools on his way home. While the 1968 movie takes a dark turn, which has little to do with Klassen's quest, he liked the concept so much he decided to spend a day two summers ago sampling pools in New West, Burnaby and at the Kits and Second Beach pools, because he loves outdoor pools.
And those who love them are passionate, as evidenced by the closures of Sunset and Mount Pleasant pools. Some Mount Pleasant residents are still smarting after losing their pool at 16th and Ontario in 2006. According to the Vancouver park board, the pool, which was opened in 1965, had reached the end of its life span-and then some-and the decision was made to fill it in. Some residents reacted by forming the Vancouver Society for the Promotion of Outdoor Pools (VSPOP) whose top priority is getting its outdoor pool back. Completion of a recent public consultation led to the park board unanimously approving a space in the park for a pool, when funds become available, says VSPOP president Margery Duda, adding the park board must be pressured to make funds available in the next capital plan.
"It is wonderfully natural for people to want to go into the water in the summer months," says Duda. "Outdoor pools attract people who go and spend the day with their families or friends, or spend time quietly reading a book by the water between dips. It is essential to the quality of life in a city to have these options."
Aside from Hillcrest, a lovely and new aquatic centre smartly fitted with an indoor pool and a shallow outdoor family pool, no new outdoor pool has been built in Vancouver in decades. Due to tight budgets and the expense of running a seasonal and heavily subsidized operation (fees are $6 a day in Vancouver, free in Surrey), outdoor pools are a luxury of yesteryear. New Westminster is an exception. It opened its new Moody Pool three years ago. It wasn't part of the original plan but the public outcry, which included bathing-suit clad children protesting at city hall, over the closure of the previous old pool, was too loud to ignore. Vancouver intends on maintaining its five pools, but the great pool rush of the 1960s and '70s, when outdoor community pools were cropping up like dandelions on your neighbour's lawn, is a bygone era.
While the big three have undergone upgrades over the past two decades, their namesakes go back much earlier than the modern pool boom era. Kits, Second Beach and New Brighton pools were all built in 1930-31 as part of the city's make-work program during the Depression. All three pools were draw-and-fill (meaning they would be filled with ocean water via open valves and, when full, the valves would close to hold the water in.) Like Kits and Second Beach, New Brighton was also steps away from the ocean but when the current tank was built in the 1970s, the city decided to build a park, which created the grassy stretches seen today that buffer the pool from Burrard Inlet. The wall of the old Kits Pool is still visible, now part of the current seawall that runs adjacent to the pool. And incredibly, the original draw-and-fill pool used to be even longer at 201 metres.
Glenn Schultz, the man with the rather lengthy title of beaches and outdoor pools supervisor for the Vancouver park board, is an outdoor swimming pool enthusiast. He's held the position since 1980, and before that, was a Vancouver lifeguard since 1960. "People love these pools, there's no doubt about that," he says. "It takes them back to their childhood. People bring their kids in like their own parents brought them in. Let's face it: being at these pools is very enjoyable. There's nothing like swimming on your back and looking up at the blue sky."
Schultz is like the lifelong captain of a ship he adores. He knows every little detail of the pools: how they need to remain filled throughout the winter to provide downward pressure on the pool floor, otherwise upward pressure underground will crack it like an egg; how the south-facing Kits Pool makes it difficult for the lifeguards to see as the chairs face the sun (extra guards sit on the opposite side of the pool to counterbalance this); how there is often broken glass from thrown beer bottles that needs to be cleaned by staff prior to opening in the morning; how the birds that drop clams and such on the decks to get at their food leave a mess ("You should see the decks two weeks after we close. They're absolutely littered with shells."); and the fact that excess sunscreen from un-showered swimmers "is an extra load for the filters." Aside from the various peccadilloes, Schultz loves the pools and he loves it when people use them-or even just visit to dip a toe in the water.
Two fellows sit in the far west corner of the Kits Pool deck almost every sunny day they're free. They're not keen on attention-so they won't give up their names-but they're regulars. So much so that they get accused of "dominating the corner" with their Kits Pool deck chairs scooped up at early arrival. "This is the best pool around," says the more outgoing and already-bronzed of the two men, who added that Mayor Gregor Robertson and his wife Amy visit the pool on occasion. "Yeah, we joke that he's going to replace one of the swimming lanes with a bike lane on the bottom of the pool," he chortled before admitting he doesn't swim too much. "I build up to swimming one length over the entire summer. Hey, I'm not the Johnny Weissmuller of Kits Pool!"
Almost directly across English Bay from Kits is Second Beach Pool. It, too, is just a running jump from the ocean and upgrades in the mid-1990s give it that fancy resort infinity pool feel. Among the families, tourists, book readers and couples, Nazanin Gheitasian, who also happens to be a 2012 Miss Universe Canada pageant contestant, sunbathes with two friends. "I just love the water and the sun, that's why we come here," she said. Gheitasian, once a competitive swimmer who now teaches children at local community centres, says that while Vancouver and its pools are beautiful, she's contemplating moving to a warmer climate where she can have the same experience year-round. But, in the meantime, her friend Jay Jamm is looking for something more immediate: "I think we'll go to Kits Pool from now on. We like to have fun and here, it's pretty family oriented. We're looking for a pool party."
The party may not be at Kits Pool, but on the East Side at New Brighton Pool. It's the smallest of the three pools and while it isn't as immediately stunning as the two others-the view usually includes a huge ocean tanker and the trip there includes passing under a graffiti-covered tunnel under train tracks-it's a fun pool. Also unlike Kits and Second Beach, which feature grassy areas within the lounging sections, a chain-link fence tightly hugs the concrete pool decks at New Brighton. The result is everybody is so packed together that odds are, a good slap of sunscreen on your arm will splatter on your neighbour's book. But being at the pool, near-naked next to strangers, seems to connect people-a somewhat odd phenomenon in a city some call unfriendly.
Jodie Wenschlag, getting the start to her summer tan in a blue and rhinestone bikini borrowed from her adult daughter, Jessie, is a New Brighton regular of 15 years. It's her favourite outdoor pool in the city. "I find there's much more of a community here than, say, Kits Pool," she says. "I like the pool and I like the scene here. People are watching out for one another. If you do something bad here, you're gonna get called out on it. This is our pool so everybody behaves and gets along."
When Jessie was 10 years old, Wenschlag, a single working mom, used to let her spend her summer days at New Brighton by herself.
"She'd come here really early, while I was at work, park her stuff and mark her lair with books and drinks. I never worried about it and that's the great thing about this outdoor pool. It's almost a throwback to another time," Wenschlag says. "There's even the same lifeguard-everything's the same as it was. Just maybe more tattoos now."