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If You Build It, They Will Come

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

Years ago I was in Bahamas and had a chance to go swimming with sharks. A company took us in the middle of the Caribbean, tossed down a box of chum into the ocean and then tossed a line off the back of the boat to hold onto. There was no dive cage. You jumped into the water and prayed that the reef sharks that you were about to swim with know that they are bottom feeders and aren’t not in the mood to try something fattier.

Before we went on this ridiculously stupid expedition, we had to sign a waiver that said that if I was attacked by sharks, no attempt of rescue would be made. If in the unlikely chance I made it back to the boat, no first aid would be administrated and if I made to the shore without bleeding out, there would be no assistance given to me there either. I did what anyone would do that was going through an early stage midlife crisis would do, I signed it and got on the boat.

People do reckless things here in Saskatoon. Rather than have us sign waivers that stops us from doing stupid things like swimming with sharks, we have by-laws that prohibit things like swimming in the South Saskatchewan River. Even though we know the river has an undertow and a fast current, people do it all of the time. Whether it at the beach at the bottom of Ravine Drive or heading up to swim at Cranberry Flats, the lure of the water and the beach is a strong one for many people on hot summer days. While it may give people a break from the heat, it does pose some inherent risk. It risks those that are caught in the river’s undercurrent and it puts people at risk who are called on to save them; whether that be onlookers or the Saskatoon Fire Department. Too often by the time people are able to respond, it’s too late.

While this explains the by-laws designed to keep us out of the river in the city, it also means there aren’t a lot of places for people to escape the Saskatoon summer (if it ever gets here). Saskatoon does make an effort in trying to give people a place to go. There has been the significant upgrade to Mayfair Pool, changes and improvements to the spray parks, and even the transformation of River Landing all give us options than swimming in the river, yet people still flock to the beach on Ravine Drive where there is no parking, limited access, no life guards and during much of the summer, dangerous river conditions.

Calgary was faced with the same dilemma in the late 1970s and in 1978, they opened Sikome Lake in Fish Creek Provincial Park. The lake isn’t that much larger than the “lake” in Lakeview but it’s designed to be swam in. It features a hard sand bottom, a circulating spray fountain, change rooms, concession stands, and the same washed out orange sun shades that were installed when it opened. The best part of it is that it is surrounded by a wide sandy beach. Further back from the beach are picnic and barbecue areas. While it’s not that impressive to look at compared to many of Saskatchewan’s amazing lakes, it invited you into it to swim and cool down and enjoy the summer. Being in the city, it was easy to get to by car or bicycle. It also gave people another option than wading into the Bow River. While it used to be open year round, the lake is drained every winter and filled again (it takes three weeks) in the spring.

The results are that on many hot summer weekends, over 20,000 people flock there each day. The picnic spots are all taken and there is barely any spot on the beach at all. While it may not be my idea of a perfect day, it is for a lot of people, especially people who don’t have the time or the means to get away to the lake. With the average home price in Saskatoon over $300,000 and cabin prices at many northern lakes going for that much, heading away to the lake is an option for fewer and fewer people. There is Pike Lake but any lake that has to build a swimming pool right beside the lake, doesn’t seem to be a great option and so we default back to debating access to a lousy sandbar. Instead of having the same old debate about the same old sandbar that is right beside a dangerous undertow, let’s build something else. While the sandbar along the river may not be safe, it does prove one thing, if you build it, we will come.

One Comment

  1. Luke Longway says:

    Hello,

    I used to live in Saskatoon and know the Cranberry flats area well. I also know Sikome lake has a few challenges that you should know about before considering building something similar. First is the cost which is in excess of a quarter million to run every year by Alberta Provincial Parks.( not by the City of Calgary) This covers (somewhat) the cost of staffing, maintenance and the water treatment plant ( also a considerable cost to build during the 90’s when visitation outgrew what was originally designed for and water quality issues developed.) Sikome Lake and area is also a significant enforcement headache for Parks Conservation Officers (again its a provincial park not a City of Calgary facility) With over 20,000 on a busy day thecarea attracts large amounts of depreciative behaviour, vandalism and public drunkeness. The province has had discussions with the city to turn it over however the city has always declined due to the large numbers of difficulties with it. (prompting them to fence the area to control some of the problems) The facility does not meet the definitions of a pool or a lake and is a very difficult lake to guard.(can’t see the bottom also several hundred to thousands of people) The province states clearly it’s use at your own risk and “no lifeguards on duty” at the entrance although “water safety staff ” can be seen providing rescues at the site. If Saskatoon were to develop something similar it should be aware of the challenges is all I want to put across. The article seemed to paint a rosy picture while it’s certainly not.

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