August 9, 2013

Back to beach in Quebec City

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — We’ve been to Toronto, Canada’s largest city, dozens of times, having family there.

It was not until a visit last week, however, that we explored for the first time a mythic area of the city. It’s called The Beaches (or The Beach, according to a feuding faction), and there one finds, on big old Lake Ontario, what the neighborhood’s name implies — a sandy shore where people can swim.

This is a remarkable and enviable thing to folks from Quebec, a city built on another notable water course, the St. Lawrence River. Here, though, one dangles a toe into the river’s waters at what officials say is one’s peril. Indeed, swimming is strictly forbidden at the only official beach in the city, created a few years ago to allow all the usual beach-side sunning and funning activities, except swimming.

(Your scribe notes that Plattsburgh, on the shores of Lake Champlain, is also blessed with a civic beach — one of the largest freshwater beaches in the United States,” according to the city’s website.)

For all its extraordinary attributes, from historic architecture to splendorous parks to vibrant cultural scene, Quebec City lacks a decent swimmable public beach. This is particularly cruel for a lad raised in a place where one was a brisk bike ride away from a dive into several lakes and a slightly longer car ride from dozens more.

The summer we moved here, we went on a quest for an accessible beach, and the best we could find was overcrowded, highly commercialized little strip on a lake about an hour away that would have cost us a pretty penny for the dubious pleasure of a dip.

The problem is that although the St. Lawrence is a mighty (and mighty resilient) river, for literally centuries it’s been a convenient repository for human waste, as in sewage, as in fecal coliform.

The most popular beach in Quebec City was closed to swimming in the 1970s due to the mounting presence of municipal waste in the river.

While there has been much progress since then in equipping the dozens of municipalities upstream from Quebec City with sewage-treatment facilities, there are still some gaps. Even places with modern facilities —like Quebec City — are helpless when faced with heavy rainfalls that overflow holding tanks and send raw sewage sluicing into the river.

Still, environment officials say swimming in the St. Lawrence in major cities like Quebec and Trois Rivieres is safe in extended dry spells amounting to about 70 percent of the summery months. Indeed, Trois Rivieres currently has a policy of safe swimming advisories for its highly popular municipal beach.

The good news for bathing buffs is that a brand new beach is in the works that may be ready to welcome splish-splashers by 2015. The beach is actually one of the many components of Phase 3 of the Promenade Champlain project, aimed at reclaiming the waterfront of Quebec City and transforming it into a multiple-use destination for citizens and visitors.

A classic example of “build it and they will come,” the first phase of the development — a $70 million gift to Quebec from the provincial government to celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2008 — has been a phenomenal success.

Phase 2 is already underway, creating a 3-kilometer bike and walking path extending west from the existing Promenade Champlain.

The projected $100 million Phase 3, though, is a major undertaking, requiring the rerouting of railroad tracks, the demolition of a rail tunnel and the building of a new one, the construction of a lengthy breakwater to protect beach sand and the installation of large new holding tanks to handle heavy rainfall.

Officials are being careful not to make any promises about a return of bathing in the river — the promotional video for Phase 3 only shows people striding through in a shallow beach-side mirror pool, not in the river itself.

Regardless, for people in Quebec City pining for the joys of riverside swimming, there’s at least a plan afoot to establish a beachhead.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at