STEWARDSHIP | The Mighty Fraser: A River to Experience

By Lisa Bland —

The Fraser River, designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1998, is the largest river in BC and has the most productive salmon fishery in the world. Its headwaters begin at Mount Robson in the Rocky Mountains and it empties some 1400 km later into the Strait of Georgia in Vancouver. BC’s history is intimately bound to the Fraser River; it was an essential route between the Interior and the lower Coast, a significant area for food, settlement, and travel for First Nations people for thousands of years, a fertile agricultural region, the main route of the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, and a transport route in early commerce and industry in BC.

“We survived Hell’s Gate!” The SLLP group reaches their journeys’ end. Photo: Marin Patenaude

Today, the Fraser is heavily exploited by human activities, especially in the lower river where its banks are flanked with urban development, industry, and agriculture. The elimination of natural habitat, pollution, and water diversion have significantly affected the health of the water, salmon populations, and other life forms dependent on the river.

Sometimes we are granted the opportunity to visit and re-imagine the landscapes that First Nations and early settlers would have seen and experienced on a daily basis. One such opportunity has been created by the Rivershed Society of BC’s (RSBC) Sustainable Living Leadership Program (SLLP), in which young leaders embark on an experiential journey with an educational focus down the Fraser River. This journey becomes a living classroom where concepts of sustainability, history, ecology, culture, scientific inquiry, mentorship, collaboration, leadership, and physical activity are woven together with the personal goals of each person and cultivated into a cohesive plan of action by the time they reach the river’s mouth.

The eight participants in the SLLP Program come from all walks of life within and beyond the Fraser River Basin, and bring with them a sense of adventure, an interest in sustainable living, and the desire to make a difference in their communities. They started the 1400 km journey on August 1 in the Fraser River headwaters at Mt. Robson, and ended their 25-day trip at Jericho Beach in Vancouver, August 25.

On August 11, the participants and their facilitators converged at the Xatśūll Heritage Village site at Soda Creek, north of Williams Lake. At this stunning location overlooking the Fraser River, the Heritage Village hosted its second cultural event of the 2013 season in partnership with the Rivershed Society of BC. The day’s events included meeting with the SLLP participants and learning about their journey, tours of the Heritage Village site, craft demonstrations by local First Nations, local foods, and a traditional pit cooking demonstration.

“The transformative nature of the river becomes a powerful backdrop for each of the participants in getting to know one another and the landscape,” says Jacquie Lanthier, facilitator in training and a participant in the 2012 SLLP. In their floating outdoor classroom, the team learns about watersheds, the Fraser River Basin, bio-geoclimatic zones, leadership skills, the camaraderie of working and living together, preparing meals, and adjusting to camp life. “Each participant brings with them a vision of something they want to give back to their communities when they return, and they spend much of their time clarifying and honing their concepts into something manageable and tangible that furthers the values of sustainability,” says Lanthier. “In short, they each fall in love with the river and no one returns home the same.”

On their journey, the participants try to live as close to a model of sustainability as possible and compost and eat local and organic food when available. With days packed with travel and community events, it is at times challenging to maintain a balance between reflection and connection to the landscape.

Lanthier says by travelling down the river corridor, participants feel more linked with the communities. “Hearing people’s stories and connecting directly with issues such as salmon health, mine effluent, pollution, and rising water temperatures, and seeing how they tie together with very real effects, gives participants the strength to go back into their communities, often swimming upstream against the current to bring their vision back. Participants learn that everyone has a diverse role to play on the team, and that creating a lifestyle that protects the river in the future is imminently important.”

Lanthier has been actively involved with the RSBC ever since her experience on the SLLP program in 2012, and was so inspired in learning about RSBC’s founder, Fin Donnelly’s 1995 swim down the Fraser River that she and another SLLP co-facilitator, along with two more female river enthusiasts, have created the Fraser River Relay Swim to raise awareness about the river. In September 2015, on the 20-yr anniversary of Fin Donnelly’s initial swim, they will take turns swimming each day on a journey from the headwaters to the mouth of the Fraser River.

When asked about the highlights of the journey and final projects in their communities each participant shared a different perspective on what both inspires and motivates them.

Noelani Dubeta, from West Vancouver says, “My highlight was entering the wilderness of the Goat River Valley. Sleeping out under the stars and watching shooting stars. It’s our watershed. It’s very emotional; it’s incredible.”

Noelani, a UBC researcher, will be writing an in-depth op-ed article highlighting her experience on the Rivershed Society of BC website.

“My highlight was berry picking along the river, eating huckleberries, blueberries, thimbleberries, raspberries, soapberries, and Saskatoon berries,” says Candice Jack, Lillooet, Nxwisten Reserve.

“Normally I would be out at this time of year harvesting and preserving the berries, but this year I’m enjoying them. Also drinking clean pure water in the headwaters, going swimming—cleansing the mind, body, and spirit.”

Jack aims to work with the 3 Stones Alliance, a collective of St’at’imc, Tsilhqotin, and Secwepmewc to build a Natural Resources Gathering Cabin as a way to further protect the back country as well as focusing on educational programming offered there.

Vancouver’s Megan Miller says, “My highlight was meeting all the people along the river. It’s one body of water that connects so many people that care about the river and communities. The river was once essential to everyone.”

Miller teaches high school and plans to put together a mini-SLLP program geared toward youth that takes them out on an excursion to connect with the Lower Fraser River.

Colin O’Neil, New Westminster says his highlights were the people in the group and the rich learning environment. “We were constantly able to discuss important issues such as forestry, watersheds, and ecology and gained valuable insights and support through the knowledge and experience of diverse of perspectives,” says O’Neil, who will be giving a public presentation in New Westminster about realizing and redefining urban space in terms of sustainability and Rivershed health.

“My highlight was at Tête Jaune Cache—it was so beautiful and serene,” says Marin Patenaude, from Horsefly. “My heart felt like it was going to explode. The headwaters of the Fraser are so pure and fresh and vibrant. I felt really, really lucky. I didn’t realize how passionate I am about stewardship and how many people there are that need help and assistance in protecting these areas. “

Patenaude’s project will be producing a compilation album of songs by different artists inspired by the Fraser River.

“My highlight was experiencing the diversity of ecosystems within BC and seeing the stars outside of the city,” says Marie Pudlas from Burnaby.

Pudlas’ project is establishing a community garden at Cariboo Hill Secondary School in Burnaby where students can interact in classes and involve the local community. The garden will have a native plant and bug garden, plots, composting, berry patch, beehives, compost bins, a greenhouse, and an outdoor classroom.

Eating lamb sausage and ham brought to the participants by visitors was the highlight for Christian Krushel of Coquitlam. “We were eating a lot of vegetables and I was a bit meat deprived,” he says. “No, actually my highlight was exploring the outback of BC where not a lot of people go. I’ve only driven through places, never stayed. It was amazing seeing eagles calling in real life—I only ever saw it on TV. Out there animal encounters happen by chance, not like you would see in a zoo. It’s very special when you are able to witness it.”

Krushel’s community project revolves around implementing a state of the art food composting program at his church to lower its footprint and spreading the idea to other churches and organizations that host events involving food.

Logan Armstrong of Toronto says, “My highlight was getting the experience to travel the river with Founder, Fin Donnelly and Facilitator, Doug Radies. They have so much to offer education-wise and experience-wise. I learned a lot about wildlife and how much human activities affect it.”

Armstrong plans to produce a short film promoting the Sustainable Living Leadership Program and to inspire people about the environment and post it on the RSBC website and YouTube page.

For more info on the Rivershed Society of BC and the Sustainable Living Leadership Program, visit www.rivershed.com.

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