Relay makes splash in raising awareness, funds for the health of Lake Erie

- Harrow UofW biology professor breaks

personal long-distance swimming record for the cause -

by Sylene Argent

On Saturday, the Canadian Freshwater Alliance set the aquatic stage to allow seven athletes to test their personal best as part of a relay event along the shoreline of Lake Erie. The relay was designed to raise funds and awareness for the health of the local Great Lake.

  As part of the Lake Erie Challenge, the seven athletes either swam, kayaked, or stand-up paddle-boarded for a portion of the around 50km stretch, which began at the mouth of the Detroit River and continued on to Point Pelee.

  The swimmers for the event included Dr. Dennis Higgs and Jennifer Agnew, both from Harrow, and Mairi MacGregor from Oakville. They travelled 14 km, from Colchester to Kingsville. Team Kayak included Don Barrie and Rose Sirois from London, and they paddled 17 km, from Kingsville to Leamington. In addition, Frank Torres from Komoka and Rachelle Cardinal from London paddle-boarded the 20km from Amherstburg to Colchester.

  Dr. Higgs was one of seven athletes who swam in the Lake Erie Challenge. He is a biology professor at the University of Windsor, and moved to Harrow with his wife in 2003 from the USA.

  He said he has been a swimmer his whole life, and has used Lake Erie to swim on occasion. He utilized the lake more this year, due to local pool closures during the COVID-19 health risks. Since he has lived in the area, he has noticed a level of awareness regarding algal blooms, which he believes is good.

  As a biology professor, he spends a lot of time on the lake, and said it is important awareness is continued.   

  Dr. Higgs was set to swim a 14 km leg of the event, in an attempt to best his current longest open-water swim distance of 10 km. He noted that, his route ended up being around 16km as the shoreline is not a straight line.

  “The first four hours were fun,” he joked of taking on the swimming challenge. He was really glad he pushed himself to meet that distance. People see Lake Erie for splashing around, and he wanted to show it can be used for long distance swimming, too.

  Higgs’s wife supported him along the route, and she noticed there were several individuals along the shoreline cheering them on and noted they donated to the cause.

  As a researcher, he spends a lot of time studying native fish, fish behaviour, and effects of pollutants. He was happy the event showcase what a beautiful resource Lake Erie is in the region.   

Raj Gill, the Great Lakes Program Director with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, said this was the third time the organization hosted this event; however, they have been hosted in different regions of Lake Erie. The first was hosted in 2018, and was called “Swim for Erie.”

The athletes of the event were selected based on their abilities, and comfortability in pushing themselves to go the distance.  

  Originally, it was hoped to include Pelee Island in this year’s event, but COVID-19 made that difficult, with organizers unsure if they would be able to manage ferry scheduling. She was happy everything came together, including the opening of local beaches.

  Organizers had a couple of different goals in hosting the event, Gill said, including raising awareness of issues like algal blooms and microplastics pollution. “But, we also wanted to show why we are doing this, what’s worth protecting. And, who better than to have swimmers, and kayakers, and paddlers – folks who are spending long times in the water – actually talk about that.”

  She added it was also a great opportunity to show off the beauty of the lake.

  As part of the event, the athletes collected donations for the Canadian Freshwater Alliance. Gill said the proceeds will support the Lake Erie Guardians program, which includes citizens and business along the watershed wanting to speak up and advocate for the lake and ensure action is taken on issues, such as algal blooms.

  Gill was thankful the algal blooms were minimal this year for the event, but she explained part of that reason was because there was a drier spring.

  The group is also conducting citizen water sampling, which was started in the Thames River this year, which helps determine habitat quality. Gill added it is hoped this program can be expanded to include Lake Erie.

  The Canadian Freshwater Alliance was founded around ten-years ago, and focuses on BC and Ontario. The main goal is to combine the voices of citizens and other smaller organizations for the betterment of freshwater ways, raise awareness of issues, and advocate for lakes.

  For more information, or to make a charitable donation, visit

© 2020 The Essex Free Press ltd.

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