The Swimming Hole

By George Bowering | May 9, 2013

Growing up as a kid in the South Okanagan, you expected to be in swimming most days between early May and late September, unless school and/or work made it hard to do. I lived in Oliver, B.C., in a kind of desert but surrounded by swimming sites.

Probably the most popular place was Tuc-el-Nuit Lake, which was not then surrounded by houses. It is the only lake I have ever swum across, so you can see how small it is. Back in those days it would freeze over, and we used to skate on it, enjoying the pings we heard in the ice in front of us. But in the summer, even though kids said it was bottomless, it was for swimming, and the few top inches of the water would be as warm as the coffee I am just now finishing. There was a lot of that green muck in it, though, because it was connected to the river somehow.

Just north of Tuc-el-Nuit were two small lakes called Gallagher Lake and Mud Lake. Mud lake was shallow and full of reeds, and all we did there was fish for yellow perch, but the south end of Gallagher Lake was our second most popular swimming place. There was a high rock cliff all along the east side. Highway 97 was just barely invisible up to the west. Apparently the nuns who ran the hospital in town lived at the north end. We never went there. But the south end of Gallagher Lake was a great place to gather, and in those days there were no drugs and sex at the beach. I even went there with my pal Fred Van Hoorn after he somehow acquired my girlfriend Barbara.

If anyone had a car, or if we were hanging out with our parents, we would go to the beach at the bottom of the main street in Osoyoos. Osoyoos Lake was bigger than any Oliver lakes. The U.S. border ran right across it, and I don’t think we ever went swimming south of the border. We were always interested in impressing Osoyoos girls, but the rumour was that they were mostly “Yankee bait.” The nice thing about the beach in Osoyoos was that you had a choice of grass or sand when you were out of the water, having a cigarette or Mission Orange or something.

I never knew anyone who went swimming in Vaseaux Lake, a few miles north of Gallagher. I once went canoeing on Vaseaux Lake, and promised myself that I would do that again, but that was a promise I never kept. The next lake up was Dog Lake, at Okanagan Falls, but I don’t remember swimming there. Late on Graduation Night I came to to discover that I was sitting on the back of a horse for the first time in my life, and almost falling off frontward because the horse was drinking out of Dog Lake.

At the other end of Dog Lake was the less used of Penticton’s two long and sandy beaches. We went there a few times, but we were much more likely to use the beach that was next to downtown, the north beach, at the bottom of Lake Okanagan. This was my favourite beach. When you sat in the sand and looked north you could see that the lake was bordered by clay cliffs on either side. You could see but not grasp the melted glacier’s immense age. Looking more closely, you could see that the grains of sand were of many colours, some red, some black, some white, and so on. About three hundred feet off shore were big moored rafts, to which you swam and from which you dived. At the east end of the beach was a giant peach, inside which teenaged girls were stationed to sell you ice cream cones.

The temperature was somewhere in the nineties. There were hotrods parked at the curb. Almost all the girls were blonde. Is it any wonder that we grew up feeling more like California than Ontario?

They built a swimming pool in Oliver when I was a kid. It was always opened officially for the May 24th weekend, but for some reason there would be water in it well before that. So we would climb over the fence and get an unsupervised swim, the kind any kid likes best. I think a lot of us peed while we were in the pool. What are the odds? We managed to feel up the girls or at least press our bodies against them. There was green sludge in the water, as there was in any swimming water around town. Once a week the pool would be drained, and a kid was hired to clean it out, with big brushes on handles. Ronnie Carter had the job until he quit for some reason, and my parents suggested that I would be ideal for the job. I got to keep the things I found in the green sludge, coins and bracelets and so on. It took hours to clean that pool in the 95-degree sun. I got sunstroke and wound up in the hospital for a while. Now, sixty years later I like the sunshine but I can’t be out in it with no hat.

I think they built the pool partly to keep us kids away from the swimming hole in the river just down the hill from the Oliver Theatre. My parents told me I was never to go swimming in the river, and I think that a lot of parents felt that way. But there was no grass near the river at the swimming hole, so there must have been a lot of foot traffic around there. Sometimes in the movies shown at the Oliver Theatre there would be a bucolic scene of American boys cavorting at the ol’ swimming hole, with a rope for swinging out over the water and letting go.

But the Okanagan River was fast and as they say treacherous. There was a kid who was supposed to be the best swimmer in town, and he drowned there, or rather downstream. Seems he was sitting on a chair in the water for some reason, and he just disappeared. I used to go down to the swimming hole sometimes, but I don’t remember trying to swim there.

But once in some evening sunshine I was down at the swimming hole. I don’t remember whether any other kids were there. I was probably watching myself having an imagined adventure involving spies or secret interstellar visitors. Then I saw a man and woman, he in a suit and she in a dress with a belt around her waist, with their arms around one another, walking toward the quick-moving green river, walking then into the river, never pausing, walking until they were deep into the river and gone, downstream.

I looked around, but saw that I was the only witness to this scene. Since that time I have had numerous ideas about what might have been going on. But that night while I was waiting for sleep I had the edges of a familiar feeling, that I was going to have to be something like a poet when I grew up.





  • George Bowering

    George Bowering lives in Vancouver, and dreams of Trieste. Poet laureate of Canada (emeritus), and twice winner of the Governor-General's Award for literature, he's the author of many books, including, recently, "Pinboy" (Cormorant, 2012).

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