Community on The Water: Swim-2-Surf with BGOW

Community on The Water: Swim-2-Surf with BGOW

Joy. That is the word that kept popping up as I scrolled through photos and comments on Brown Girl Outdoor World’s popular Instagram account. There were photos of women grinning as they hiked through snow, paddled out on surfboards, cast their fishing lines, and climbed walls of ice. It was undeniable. Joy, joy, joy!

For those unfamiliar with Brown Girl Outdoor World (BGOW), let me introduce you. Headed by founder and director Demiesha Dennis, BGOW is, in their own words, “committed to changing the narratives assigned to the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPoC) community and our place in outdoor adventure and recreation.” Dennis’ tenacity and dedication has led BGOW to grow and prosper since its inception in 2019. She has been hosting nature-based recreational events that appeal to the community, posting footage of their numerous outings, inviting and inspiring more folks to join in at each turn. She looks for the best opportunities, seeking ones that are safe, inclusive, and that stem from genuine partnerships. 

Since 2020, Brown Girl Outdoor World and Surf the Greats have been teaming up to offer surf lessons to BGOW’s community of outdoor adventurers. “We are now going into year three of an awesome, well timed, well needed relationship of learning and community building with STG'' says Dennis. What started as a one time workshop has evolved into a series of yearly summertime events, with the popular BGOW edition of Flat Water Intro to Surf being offered multiple times this July and August, and the Swim to Surf series making its debut. Both are held at Cherry Beach, a popular downtown Toronto waterfront park that is accessible by transit.

The Flat Water Intro to Surf is run with small groups of eight, allowing each participant to receive support from the instructors and connect with the group. The workshop is geared towards beginners; they learn the fundamentals of surfing in a safe environment, from the paddle to the pop up. Practicing on calm water preps them for the waves in the upcoming Great Lakes surf season. 

The Swim to Surf series is an opportunity for adults to learn to swim in open water. Swimming is an essential safety skill for any surfer and opens the door for participation in other water sports like stand up paddleboarding and kayaking. This course is close to Dennis’ heart: “When [Surf the Greats’ staff] Maddi and Tobi called to talk about the Swim to Surf clinic, I cried while talking to them and then again as I sat and reflected in the car and then cried a bit more. The conversation around swimming for the communities of colour, especially the Black community, is a long and nuanced one. Being able to have this as an offering for the BGOW community, especially being the first group to participate in the Swim to Surf program, is key in the conversation of an invitation to a space being created with us in mind and not as afterthought.”

Dennis has been present at all the Intro to Surf workshops, witnessing the participation and evolution of the program each summer: “The growth is beautiful to see. To me this simply means that it's time to get the message to more people that there is room in the Toronto surf scene to welcome more folks who represent the diversity of Toronto's ever growing population.”

Words by Jordan-na Belle-Isle. Photographs by Demiesha Dennis, courtesy of Brown Girl Outdoor World.

Jordan-na Belle-Isle

Jordan-na Belle-Isle is a Montreal-born, Toronto-based expert in all things related to stand up paddleboarding (SUP). She is an instructor, writer, and community builder who SUPs and surfs the Great Lakes year-round. A recognizable face in the local scene since 2012, she obtained her first instructor certification in 2017, and has collaborated with organizations and brands such as ROXY, Surf the Greats, Patagonia, Toronto Island SUP, A Greener Future, and Explore Magazine. Her image has been used in a national campaign for Tourism Canada and she has been interviewed by several media outlets such as PBS, Breakfast Television, and the Toronto Star. Jordan-na is a proud team member of Taiga Board and a co-organizer for Lake Surfistas. Learn more at and find her on Instagram.