North of Long Tail

A documentary photo series celebrating Lake Erie
For the month of June, see the exhibit live at Wychwood Barns Artscape.

Julia – Stratford

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In 1994, Julia’s mother Mirjam, at age 16, came from the Netherlands to Canada as an exchange student with Rotary International. Mirjam’s host families were in Mildmay, Ont. a small town of a little more than 1,000 people. Mirjam left the Netherlands a shy girl. When she returned home from Canada, she was a confident young woman who knew what she wanted to do in her life.

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(top & bottom right) Rotary International students take pride in their pin-covered jackets. Mirjam still cherishes hers from 1994. (bottom left) Mirjam stands with the Toronto Blue Jay while on exchange.

After returning to the Netherlands, Mirjam stayed close to her Canadian host families. This international experience had such a profound effect on Mirjam that, in 2010, she convinced her husband Bert that they should move with their two girls to Canada.

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Packed and ready to move to Canada, Mirjam and Bert stand with their daughters, Julia, four, and Eva, five.

Shortly after the family immigrated to Stratford, Mirjam put her daughters in swimming lessons. Swimming is an essential skill in the Netherlands (there are a lot of waterways there).

“Learning how to swim really wasn’t a choice for both of our girls. They had to be in swimming.”

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(left) Julia holds a photo of her first year on the swim team, age six. (right) Julia by the pool her father Bert built six years ago. As Mirjam explains, “We promised our daughters that they would get a pool and a trip to Disney World for moving to Canada and leaving everything they knew.”

After a year at the local pool, Julia joined the Wilmot Aquatic Aces Swim Club, her current swim team.

“Julia never really loved swimming. She liked it. Julia started to love it when she got to go into the open water.”

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Julia says that open water swimming is different — it calms her.

Julia’s first-ever open water swim was in 2017 at the Turkey Point North Shore Challenge. At only 10 years of age, Julia swam one kilometre to fundraise for Camp Trillium. Julia remembers feeling like she was on a rollercoaster as she swam through Lake Erie’s choppy waves.

“In an indoor pool, you know the conditions, but when trying to swim in a lake, especially a Great Lake, you never know what Mother Nature will throw at you.”

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Julia stands in the water at Turkey Point, one of the busiest beaches on Lake Erie, where she attempted her first ever open water swim at 10 years of age.

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Julia wanted to accomplish more —something unprecedented. She wanted to become the youngest person ever to swim across Lake Erie. With the help of her family, Julia started planning for this record-setting swim. The longest open water swim Julia had ever completed previously was 12.8 kilometres at a Swim for the Cure in the Severn River. To cross Lake Erie entirely is 20 kilometres. Julia knew how challenging and weather-dependent crossing the lake would be. In 2019, Julia had attempted a 10-kilometre swim at the North Shore Challenge.  Due to a storm the night before, the lake's conditions “flipped.” Halfway through her swim, Julia decided together with her kayaker that it was safer to end the swim due to the water’s cold temperature.

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(left) In 2019, the North Shore Challenge awarded Julia with this gold flutterboard for fundraising the most money for Camp Trillium. (right) Julia and her father, Bert collected lost golf balls from a country club’s river, cleaned them up, and turned them into animal magnets to sell as a fundraiser.

Julia not only dreamed of setting a world record by crossing the lake. She also wanted to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation to grant a wish to a child with a life-threatening medical condition.

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(left) Part of Julia’s fundraising efforts was a bottle drive. (right) Julia’s father, Bert, built a machine to crush the cans they collected.

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On the day of the swim, Julia was followed by two kayakers, one large lead ship with GPS to keep them going in a straight line, another motorboat with the crew, and two Zodiacs with her coach and food. During the swim, Julia ate chocolate bars, bananas, watermelon, Nutella sandwiches, and pepperettes. “When you are swimming, you get hungry!”

On August 30, 2020, Julia’s 14th birthday, despite windy conditions, she swam 20 kilometres from Sturgeon Point, New York, to Crystal Beach, Ont., in a time of six hours and 26 minutes. In doing so, Julia became the youngest person ever to swim across Lake Erie or any of the Great Lakes for that matter.

“I’m proud of myself for persevering.”

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On August 30, 2020, Julia became the second-fastest woman and third-fastest person ever to swim across Lake Erie.

Julia was astounded by the support she received from her community, friends, and family. She still can’t believe how many people cared about her dream. The support of so many local individuals and businesses led to Julia raising a total of $27,021 for charity.

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Bert watching his daughter swim. “I’m super proud of everything she has accomplished. She raised so much money for a good cause, gained confidence, and I think she learned so many things that will help her later in life like public speaking and fundraising.”

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Julia, her sister Eva, and their dog, Lily, jump on the trampoline.

Aside from simply being a teenager, Julia plans to keep swimming and hopes to go on an exchange for a year like her mother did. Mirjam would love for Julia to have that experience.

“Going on exchange is life-changing. You learn so much about different cultures and how other people live. It’s not a year in your life, but it’s a life in a year. That’s how a lot of exchange students describe it. If everyone could go on exchange, I think the world would be a better place.”

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Julia wears her mother Mirjam’s Rotary International jacket from when Mirjam came to Canada as an exchange student in 1994.

Julia and Lake Erie now have a lifelong bond, so she wants to see it protected.

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“Sometimes when I’m swimming, there will be trash on the bottom of the lake. Lake Erie is so beautiful, and I would hate to see it ruined.”

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Lake Erie will forever be part of Julia’s story, and she will forever be a part of its story.

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STORIES FROM THE LAKE

Patricia – Pelee Island

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Heidi – Pigeon Bay

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Take Action

Lake Erie and the millions of people who rely on it for their drinking water, local jobs, and so much more need your help.

The health of Lake Erie continues to decline. Action is needed more than ever to restore its health for current and future generations.

You can make a difference. Here’s how you can help protect the lake and support the people who are closely connected to it.

EXHIBITION BY: documentary photographer COLIN BOYD SHAFER in collaboration with ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE

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