Edmonton residents have embraced the unexpected delight of the “Accidental Beach” on the North Saskatchewan’s banks.
The morning after I visited Edmonton’s accidental beach, I happened to catch a snippet of a CBC Radio interview with game designer Ian Bogost. He’s a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and author of Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, The Uses of Boredom and the Secret of Game.
I was deeply struck by something Bogost said.
“It’s not exactly right to think of fun as pleasure. It’s something slightly different. It’s rather the experience of finding something new, of novelty, and in particular of finding something new in something familiar, in which it doesn’t seem like anything new can be found,” he told interviewer Anna-Maria Tremonti.
“That’s one of the things that tends to make games or any kind of experience fun, is the capacity that the thing offers for the player, the user, to do something different with it than they’ve thought of or done before.”
And that’s the secret of Edmonton’s accidental beach, and the fun and joy it has brought the city, in the twilight of summer. It appeared on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River, something new in the midst of something familiar. And it makes people see and think about the river in a new way.
The accidental beach, or as some wags have dubbed it, Sand District, wasn’t planned.
It wasn’t a municipal megaproject. The big sandbar formed unintentionally as a side-effect of the construction of the new Tawatina LRT bridge. A construction berm slowed the water and created a one-kilometre long beach, roughly 25 metres wide, on the south side of the river near Cloverdale.
The beach was something of a neighbourhood secret — until my colleague David Staples outed it on our front page three weeks ago.
Since then, Edmontonians have been flocking to the shore, determined to get in some fun in the sand, and what’s left of the sun, before it’s too late — at times overwhelming the patience and hospitality of Cloverdale residents, who’ve suddenly found themselves inundated with cars and garbage and urban tourists.
I went down Tuesday after supper with my dog and my daughter. There was a strange and delightful atmosphere, even as we approached the gravel path that leads down, down, down to the water.
People we passed, whether coming or going, all seemed to be giggling with suppressed delight, happy and proud to be in on the “secret,” trading tips on the best ways and places to get down the steep bank to the sand.
There was a surprising sense of camaraderie, spurred, perhaps, by the sense that we were all doing something slightly illicit. That we were trespassers, or explorers who had found the secret route into Narnia or Oz or Wonderland.
And then, there it was. A clean white sandy beach, with scarcely any litter, and none of the green pond scum that bedevils so many of our regional lakes. The water wasn’t exactly warm, but it wasn’t frigid either, certainly not cold enough to discourage the children and canines frolicking in the knee-deep current.
All along the water’s edge were sandcastles, in various states of glory or decay. Never had I seen our Edmonton, or our river, look like this.
I grew up in Edmonton. And I grew up with the sense that the river was something to be feared. We learned early on that it was dirty and deep and dangerous, something to admire, perhaps, from a safe distance, but not a place to play. But that night, as I waded into the clear water with my puppy, I saw and felt the river in an entirely new way.
We’re not yet ready to say goodbye to summer, or to the beach. I understand the people who want the city to figure out a way to keep the beach in situ, when the bridge construction ends.
But I wonder if the accidental beach would feel quite as magical if it came with garbage cans and porta-potties and staircases and picnic tables, the appurtenances of a permanent public “attraction.”
Part of the so-called Sand District’s appeal is its ephemeral nature, its sense of found joy. Like Brigadoon, it popped up unexpectedly out of the mist, and we fell in love. Now that the city is adding parking restrictions and one-way traffic rules, now that the Riverkeepers have noted a higher than ideal E. coli count, some of that initial innocence already seems lost.
Small wonder that in our landlocked winter city, one pop-up summer beach stole our hearts. Who could blame us, if we spent the dark cold months of the calendar, dreaming of its return?