The seventh in a summer series of dispatches taking the pulse of Toronto’s beach culture. Last week: Gibraltar Point. KEW-BALMY BEACH Accessed Wednesday, July 6, 7:30 pm, via bicycle. To get there by TTC, take the 501 streetcar to Kenilworth Ave. and walk south. Temperature 28C, sunny Water Quality Safe to swim. Blue Flag-certified since 2009. Soundtrack The Beach Boys, Surfin’ USA At this juncture, I should confess: I haven’t been in the water yet. Not even a toe. Not because I fear I’ll be poisoned, grow an extra limb, or have children who look like Ewoks. I haven’t been in because it’s too damn cold. Co-workers talk about their polar bear plunges. Kids splash around at Centre Island Beach in June. You know what I think? Lunatics. All of them. 100%, bats-in-the-belfry unhinged. The surface water is barely above 12 degrees Celsius and there are people in the lake smiling like they’re at a swim-up bar in Cozumel. Clearly, the City is pulling a Netflix and hiring actors to convince us the Beaches Plan is working. Right? Anyway, who says you have to swim to enjoy the beach? Like any good Ontarian, I derive as much satisfaction from looking at the water as I do from actually soaking in it. Maybe that’s why I find Toronto’s no-swim beaches so endearing. Saves me the guilt of watching other people swim. In an effort to keep my no-swim streak alive, I biked the Waterfront Trail to Kew-Balmy Beach after work last Wednesday for a stand-up paddleboarding lesson. Paddleboarding is a sport where you stand on an oversized surfboard and paddle around. A water sport you’re kicking ass at if you’re dry as a county in Mississippi. Surfers use it as a cross-training exercise. Stars like Matthew McConaughey, Rihanna and Pierce Brosnan have been spotted doing it. Some people even combine yoga and paddleboarding for a maximum muscle work-out. I did it because Groupon dropped the deal into my inbox one day at more than half off the regular $80-per-lesson cost. And, as I mentioned, because I’m chicken when it comes to cold water. The lesson was given by Janna, a blonde Floridian who teaches at SUP Girlz, one of the city’s two stand-up paddleboarding clubs. True to the name, we were all girls of varying levels of sportiness except for Nelson, the lone male wolf. The lesson was simple: Janna gave us a few stroke tips, showed us how to enter and exit the lake, and then sent us gliding onto the glassy water. It took a few minutes to get used to steering the board, but once we got those basics under control, it was smooth sailing for the rest of the class. The key to keeping your balance on the board is to look outward, not down. It’s hard not to pretend you’re an explorer surveying a newfound continent when you’re gazing meaningfully out at the shore. From the water, Kew-Balmy is an ad for Tourism Toronto, a magical land where what’s happening in the rest of the city gets checked at the door. The city skyline hovers in the distant haze, animated at trunk-level by good-looking, active folks roaming the boardwalk with their good-looking kids and dogs. Located just east of super-sporty Woodbine Beach, Kew-Balmy is quieter sand, dotted south of the boardwalk by a few rocky outcrops that play host to intrepid kids and couples looking for a more private spot. I got so distracted by how picturesque the whole thing was that I forgot to keep paddling at one point and came close to being thrown in the water by the wake of a passing boat. But that’s a different column. Let’s take a minute to talk about the water. You may have noticed that a lot of people are doing a lot of work these days to make sure we know how clean our beaches are. There’s the City, which tests the water at our 11 swimming beaches and posts the results online daily. (The provincially set cut-off is 100 cfu of E.coli per 100 mL of water, lower than the national standard of 200 cfu per 100 mL of water and the American standard of 235.) The City also operates a beach quality hotline that you can call if you find yourself at Cherry Beach, say, and aren’t sure if you should dive in. There’s Environmental Defence, whose Blue Flag program evaluates beaches using 32 criteria, among them the level of E.coli, the quality of beach services, and the absence of sewer and industrial discharge. Beaches that meet these standards–and there are eight of them in Toronto now–are deemed Blue Flag-worthy, classified as some of the cleanest beaches in the world. There are organizations like Lake Ontario Waterkeeper (LOW), which recently released a free app called the Swim Guide that provides information on the history and location of beaches across the province as well as water-quality info on each beach. Real-time water-quality data is not yet widely available, so LOW calls the beach hotline every day for updated postings. “I think open data is the next big frontier for beach issues,” says Krystyn Tully, vice-president at LOW. Then there’s the media, who, this summer especially, have been clamouring for Torontonians to jump in the lake. Still, though, folks are afraid of the water. “People who live in Toronto and grew up around here fear the water because they’ve been raised to think it’s a dirty place, or to not even know about its existence,” says Tully. “To overcome the stigma, we just need beaches to become part of the tapestry of Toronto life. Initiatives like Blue Flag and Swim Guide inject beaches into people’s lives and, over time, I’m sure there will be a culture shift [back to the water].” And that’s the thing: it wasn’t always this way. When we think of the halcyon days of our beaches, when hotels and amusement parks dotted the shore, we often ignore the fact that fetid conditions reigned: raw sewage flowed freely into the Harbour, people dumped garbage on the shores and typhoid was rampant. When Kew-Balmy was known as Scarboro Beach, home to Scarboro Amusement Park and its Tunnel of Love and Double Down rollercoaster, water conditions were pretty bad. Fast-forward to six or seven years ago, and Kew-Balmy was posted as unsafe to swim in almost a month’s worth of summer days. Last year, it was 14. A lot of work has been done to reduce storm sewer overflows, industrial discharges and other pollution. The most common polluter now is bacteria from human and animal sources like dogs and Canada geese. In a highly debated move, the City restricted dogs from Kew-Balmy in 2009 in order to make the beach eligible for Blue Flag-certification. Which is all to say: now’s the time for us to bring our cultural efforts in line with our environmental ones. If you don’t want to swim because you like your water the temperature of saliva, that’s fine. Our water may still be far from perfect, but there’s no reason to be afraid of it.