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Grin and bare it

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Grin and bare it

Edmonton has a dedicated naturist community, but it’s still misunderstood

Just west of Devon, there’s a section of the North Saskatchewan River known as CottonTail Corner. In addition to some lovely views of the water and river valley, one might also see more of fellow beach-goers than usual — CottonTail Corner happens to be clothing-optional and is a beloved spot for many Albertan nudists and naturists. 

The beach was founded in 2013. “I was working a high-stress job as an RCMP dispatcher and I tend to relax more once I’m out in nature,” says John, who preferred to go only by first name, the man who started CottonTail Corner and the Edmonton naturist organization of the same name. “I was hiking through the bush along the river’s edge and I came to the corner — it was a beautiful day, I was hot from hiking, and I decided to just lay on the rocks there. The feeling of the cold breeze and the sound of the birds singing and the water going past, I just thought to myself, I could really make something here that could help someone.”

Following this realization, John put in many hours clearing a trail through “over a kilometre of thick bush.” He then started up a Facebook page and began sending invites to those he thought might be receptive to the idea of a clothing-optional beach. He admits it was slow-going at first, but thanks to word of mouth, “gradually more and more people found (out).” As it turns out, John isn’t the first to have seen the potential in this particular stretch of river. 

“I’ve done some internet research and I’ve found that the Corner has been used for previous naturist and nudist gathering sites, way back like in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” John says, adding that, “I just renamed it CottonTail Corner because ‘cottontails’ are what we call new naturists or nudists because their bottoms are white like a cottontail rabbit.”

As much as the beach is meant to be a place of relaxation, for John, there are some serious aspects of it as well. Being a naturist, according to John’s definition, is about “respect for ourselves, respect for others, and respect for the environment.” This includes maintaining a welcoming and safe environment for all visitors to CottonTail Corner, in every sense of the word.

“We take care of our beach. We have that kilometre path, but we make sure that everything is cleaned up. If you go to the regular Devon beach, it’s cigarette butts and beer bottle lids and all that kind of stuff, but you go to our beach, it’s clean, it’s pristine, you don’t have to worry about broken glass in the rocks,” John says. The beach is advertised as open and welcoming to all, something that John echoes: “We developed CottonTail Corner so that absolutely everyone is included. We don’t care if you’re male, female, in between, genderfluid, what colour your skin is, what size you are, none of that matters. Cottontails are absolutely everyone.” 

But as welcoming as the beachgoers themselves may be, not everyone is as keen on the all-ages part of CottonTail Corner’s mandate.“Among certain people of the public, it’s a sensitive topic. They go ‘oh, think of the children!’, but the thing is, we have thought about the children. We raise our kids to be accepting of their bodies and accepting of other peoples’ bodies, and to respect each other.”

John notes that Edmonton “seems to be a lot more relaxed than Calgary,” but even still, public opposition to a 2018 nude swim in Calgary spread north. “We had people threatening to come to Edmonton and take down license plates and smash our windows,” John says, though thankfully, no one ever actually showed up. Since then, nude swims in Calgary have continued, without protest. 

While most of the events associated with CottonTail Corner revolve around swimming, it isn’t for lack of trying. The problem, John says, is getting other businesses on board. “We did have a plan for bowling and (mini)-golf, but the owner — not the owner of the businesses, but the owner of the building — heard they were renting to a naturist group and said ‘no, you can’t do that in my building,’ and the event was cancelled.”

During the commotion with Calgary, John says that the Edmonton-area naturists had hoped to go down en-masse and show their support, but were unable to because no bus company would rent to them. “Naturist protocol is that everyone has a towel beneath them at all times, that’s just a no-brainer,” John explains, pointing to the lack of understanding as a reason behind some of the lack of service. 

“It’s a very underserved community.”

Despite this, John and the other naturists have been dedicated supporters of local charities from the beginning. Each of their nude swim events come with an entry fee, which helps to pay for the rental of the pool, and then the rest goes to donation. 

“Our biggest contribution is to the George Spady Society,” John says, “(it) doesn’t receive a whole lot of government funding, they kind of tend to fly just under the radar. The George Spady will take people into the shelter even if they are inebriated, and a lot of the shelters in the city will not. They’re really small but they’re a really good group.”

Though John is proud of the contributions being made to the George Spady Society, it wasn’t their first charity of choice. “We tried giving money to women’s shelters that a police officer in our group recommended, (because) they needed funding. Unfortunately, a fair amount of the women’s shelters are run by Catholic Social Services, and they wouldn’t accept our money. They refused to take it — I dunno, they thought it was dirty money or something. That’s when we decided to start focusing more on George Spady.” 

While these incidences of prejudice are hurtful and frustrating, John acknowledges that the naturist and nudist communities in Edmonton are strong and supportive. “There seems to be a fairly healthy following in the city here, and we pull in people from the Medicine Hat and Calgary area,” he notes, though the distinction between nudists and naturists is still something that causes confusion. 

“Right away people think (being a) naturist is like (being) a naturalist, and then you explain to them and they say ‘oh, so you’re a nudist’ and it’s like, sort of, but we’re a little different. We protect the environment and make sure that we teach others and ourselves about respect. And we tend to do it just in social situations. I tend to view it as nudists are nude because they want to be, in any situation.”  

For Sandy, John’s wife, being a naturist has involved a journey of self-acceptance and body positivity. “It’s given me a little more comfort in my body,” she says, adding that, “I think if my first event would have been a swim, I probably would have been a little more uncomfortable, but my first event — my first attempt at naturism —  was out at the beach, where it was kind of quiet and there weren’t very many people around. It was a bit of an easing in, it took a bit to get used to it.” 

After her experience at the beach, Sandy agreed to go to one of the nude swims in the city. At first, she felt like she might be more comfortable keeping her bottoms on, but after arriving and realizing that she would be the only person who wasn’t completely naked, she decided to ditch both her top and her bottoms: “I figured I might as well go totally nude, so I did, and it was comfortable!”

According to Sandy, part of the appeal of naturism is that nudity is a great equalizer. “Being naked around other people, you got to rely on your personality,” she says. “You can’t hide behind anything, you are who you are. That’s what really matters, who you are as a person, not what kind of clothes you wear.”

John agrees, noting that: “When the clothes come off, you don’t see anyone (on) a social tier — you don’t know who’s a doctor or who’s a police officer or a mechanic. Everyone is absolutely equal.” 

Katt, John and Sandy’s 14-year-old, says not everyone has been so understanding of their parents’ involvement in naturism. 

“There have been people who are like ‘Oh, your dad runs that? That’s disgusting, that’s perverted’ but then there’s been people like my close friends who just go, ‘eh, whatever, we’ve known you for 10 years, it’s fine’.”

Though Katt does not yet consider themself to be a naturist, they do “go to the swims and try to go to the beach as much as possible.” They admit that they aren’t “super comfortable” with their body yet, “so it’s something of an in-between,” but that combating ignorance and upholding the dignity of the naturists is important.     

“If (someone is) saying something wrong about it, I’ll jump in and say ‘hey.’ Sometimes things have happened after that, sometimes I just let it go. But if they’re saying rude things about the people that go there, then I get defensive about it.” 

As with many things, the best way to fully understand and appreciate naturism is to actively participate. Even if others have been closed-minded, the naturists themselves are very welcoming to new members, and they continually offered reassurances. “It’s nude, not lewd, so John puts it,” Sandy says, “We’re not running around staring at each other’s business — far from it! If someone feels uncomfortable we try to deal with that right away.”

For anyone interested in giving CottonTail Corner or one of their nude swims a try, John has this advice to offer: “The first five minutes of being naked socially, within a group, you may feel awkward, but after that, it’ll be the most relaxing thing you’ve ever tried. It’ll feel (like) the most natural (thing) to you, and it feels like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. And your body shape doesn’t matter, extra weight doesn’t matter, amputations, scars, stretch marks, none of that matters to naturists. It’s just something you have to experience to understand.” 

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