Most people in British Columbia have learned by now of the big commotion happening at the Fairy Creek Watershed on Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew.
Blockades have been erected to block the logging of old growth trees in one of the last remaining forested areas that is home to trees as old as 800-years. There’s more to them than their impressive size. They are strong allies in our fight against climate change, and they provide essential habitat to many species that have called these old growth forests home for thousands of years.
Last week, during a drive from Vancouver, we took a short break in Hope. It was almost 10 o’clock at night and the fire near Agassiz was raging, mountain aglow and the plume above it a threatening dark grey. As we got out of the car, the air was thick with heavy, grey smoke. Though far enough from the fire, the smell was overwhelming. I could not imagine what it would be like to be right there, gear on, tools and everything, fighting this hot monster up close. Or the rest of the almost 600 fires across the province.
It happened during the eclipse that more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon escaped from a U.S. fish farm in the San Juan Islands. They are now found in the coastal waters of southern British Columbia, and no, they are not just another fish happily swimming alongside native species.
Fish farming is a sore topic in our province, especially on the coast; it has been for a long time. As with most controversial topics, opinions vary, and though science is available to back up findings, it is often pushed out of sight because of conflicting interests.
A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatics revealed something that should have us all worried. Fisheries and Oceans Canada cannot verify the status, whether healthy or threatened, of more than half of the province’s wild salmon populations.
This is worrying because it comes at a time when the wild salmon are facing serious threats: warm waters due to climate change, which allows for different predators and a shifting in the type of zooplankton they feed on, two types of deadly viruses that are found in farmed Atlantic salmon along the coast, as well as lots of sea lice. That’s on top of a whole lot of waste and antibiotic residue, which trickle into the coastal waters on a regular basis. In the interior, they are facing warm rivers and depleted watersheds. That ought to affect the native salmon. It does.
Alexandra Morton is a biologist and tireless activist who has been fighting hard for the last 40 years to document the state of fish farms along the BC coast, and relate to the public and press the effects these farms had on the wild salmon populations. These effects are many, and they are affecting more than just wild salmon, due to their interconnectedness to other marine and coastal wildlife, and the local Indigenous populations whose lives have been deeply intertwined with the iconic fish for thousands of years.
Before the loosened nets let out the hundreds of thousands of U.S.-farmed Atlantic salmon, Ms. Morton was already making public shocking footage of salmon farmed off the northern coast of BC, near Broughton Island. If you close your eyes for a second and picture the image of healthy salmon, what the video revealed was the farthest from that. The salmon were emaciated, many swimming around with hideous deformities, including tumours, open sores; they were covered in sea lice, all submersed not in beautiful pristine ocean waters, but murky and feces-laden, all resembling a swamp. Which not all could see, as some were blind.
That is food. Let that sink in for a few moments (no pun intended.) That is what grocery stores offer in their seafood department, and what people buy to cook for their families. Because eating fish is a better alternative to other types of meat, right?
Escapee farmed fish were found to spawn in the waters of BC rivers even back in 2000 (they have yet to label as ‘invasive’.) That’s one type of threat. As of recently, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Captain Paul Watson have joined Ms. Morton and the First Nations in the area, to help in their fight against the big aquaculture corporations, expose the truth and call for better governmental standards that will better protect the wild salmon and the unique ecosystem along the beautiful BC coast.
Not long ago, another insult became evident: some of the empty nets (or so deemed by the farm employees) held captive wild fish, such as wild salmon and herring. Lured inside the nets by the presence of organic matter, they stay trapped there until the nets are cleaned. Past that point, they are either dumped as useless catch or used as food for farmed salmon. Neither of these is good.
There are many wrong things about the way these farms operate. Yes, they offer employment to people in the coastal communities, and yes, they bring fish to the market, but the price is too high for what the fish is worth. Like in many other situations where natural resources are poorly managed, there is nothing but destruction in the future that these communities will face, once the respective corporations leave the area, but even now, while they are still there doing business.
The way I see it, if one is to profit from the resources that exist in a community, a corporation is morally (if not legally) obligated to do it in a way that proves respectful to people and the environment.
When it comes to wild salmon, we are walking on very thin ice at the moment. Many of the wild fisheries along the coast are once again at their lowest and have been closed for the second year in a row. Climate change is an ongoing threat and if the farms are allowed to operate the same way they have so far, it will not be long until we will see wild salmon on the endangered species list.
Again, some of it (a lot, to be honest) lies with the consumer. That’s us. We make choices with what we buy, and what we buy further shapes the offer. With no human interference, wild salmon would thrive to reach numbers that would ensure there is enough food for all that exist in the circle of life, long sustained by the humble yet powerful fish.
What can we do? For starters, boycott products that impact precious natural resources and the environment, and support those who are willing to go and fight for saving the wild salmon so much depends on. And speak up about it, whenever you can, all the way to when casting a vote for the next set of leaders.
It goes in waves. That’s the best way to describe it. One day the smoke is so thick it drowns every bit of hope and positivity you can muster. The next day, a breeze start sweeping away at the smoke until the blue sky swallows your gaze yet again and the feeling of ‘we’ll get through this and we’ll be fine’ surfaces.
A day trip to Sun Peaks on Saturday infused enough positive thinking to help me get back on that track. Hope? Check. Gratefulness and finding ways to cope? Ditto. There is something about blue skies and sunny mornings that revives your heart in a way that nothing else can.
The best part was being away from technology, save for the occasional use of my phone to take photos. No news, no feeling of helplessness upon hearing of more wildfires breaking out somewhere or the ones close by growing to gargantuan proportions.
Getting out of the fray for a day or even less, just enough to reposition your hope bearings in the right direction is a way to cope. I urge to do so if you can. We came home to a smoky Kamloops, but the good feelings lingered enough to make it through the night on a high note. Sunday morning was a different matter. It is now midday and white all over. I no longer wonder about when it will end. Realistically speaking, not soon. Still, we must have hope.
As they say, it often gets worse before it gets better. For the most part, this unprecedented crisis truly brings out the best in people. Appreciation for a good word or a laughter shared in the face of desperation, hugs, or a shoulder to cry on when needed, an invitation to dinner at a friend’s house that is out of the thick smoke. Increments of hope indeed, but they matter.
I’ve heard many people say how much they appreciate blue sky and clean air and how often we take them for granted. It’s not just a tree-hugger’s speech. It’s what enables life. One day this will all be behind us, morning sun will break through our curtains shining bold, and by then, we will have all become wiser in how we manage the world we live in and how we build the future. One can hope.
On a particularly smoky day last week, we went to McConnell Lake for the afternoon. It was clearer there. We walked around the lake, listened to beautifully haunting loon calls, and dipped our feet in water, thoughts and worries abounding.
I was contemplating evacuating with my sons to a place that will help my youngest’s breathing, as he suffers from asthma. That the coast is now invaded by smoke brought forth a particularly hopeless thought: there aren’t too many places where we can hide from smoke. You can run but you can’t hide… Talk about hopelessness redefined.
But giving up is not an option either. I found my hope resuscitated by gazing around. Yes, it was smoky and eerie looking. But there were flowers still in bloom, bushes full of berries and dragonflies dancing their colours over the still water.
The next day turned clear for a bit, and so did people’s smiles. It will be like that for a while. We will feel lost and hopeless, then we’ll smile and see past the smoky troubles. But beyond that, there are the people who fight the fires in various capacities. My husband is among them. When the smoke here is thick and ugly, I think of them all, knowing that where they are, the smoke is at its worst; I realize once more that giving up on hope is not an option. They are there proving it with all that hard work, extreme heat and smoke notwithstanding, every single day.
Incremental or not, hope is in us, though painfully low at times. Yes, some lost souls still light campfires (some newly put out were discovered near Kamloops at Pemberton Lake just the other day,) and others steal truckloads of pet supplies and food from the Sandman’s emergency centre. Fragile as hope and positivity are these days, incidents like that can really make one’s optimistic thoughts turn to ashes temporarily.
But then hope rises again. There are more hands willing to help than steal and there is still a whole lot of blue sky behind that thick smoke.
We will hopefully emerge wiser about how we build our tomorrows, so that we can wake up to blue skies and stubbornly sunny summer mornings yet again. It’s the twelfth hour many say in terms of climate change affecting our world, and it may well be, but really, what other option do we have but to hope, and rebuild, having understood that we cannot employ the same means we have employed so far. Here’s to hope once again, and to wiser and kinder ways of treating our world and each other.
Five years ago when my family and I relocated to Kamloops someone told me that unless you’ve been here a couple of decades or longer, you’re just not ‘Kamloopsian’ enough. It made me feel a bit uneasy and it made me look twice at the people I met, wondering who is Kamloopsian enough and who isn’t.
Fortunately, that did not last too long. It was the end of summer and the farmer’s market was in full swing. As soon as we made our way to the market and said the first hello things started unfolding. I started talking to people and sharing stories only to realize that many of us take the same route when immersed in a place: we reach out and share life bits, regardless of whether there is a family history tying us to one place or another.
Fall brought a newspaper column to write, more people to meet and, often times someone I just met turned out to be a friend of a friend. A small world indeed is what I said every time and still do.
Then again, Kamloops is not exactly a small lost town either. There are over 80,000 people living here and almost 100,000 if you count the areas surrounding the city. Funny enough, there’s rarely a day when I don’t bump into someone I know. That is not where it ends though.
Over the last few months I have been involved, as a volunteer, with a project that culminated in an exhibition that opened on Saturday night at the Kamloops Art Gallery (the BMO open gallery near the library). The topic is sustainability and the people featured in it are local people who go the extra mile when it comes to leaving a smaller energy and consumption footprint. If you have the time, please consider yourself invited.
During the months of bringing this project to fruition (and prior to it during my many engagements with other projects or get togethers), I got to meet many people and I cannot help but be amazed at how much that changed my perspective from those first couple of weeks after arriving to what appeared to be a dusty, hot city where you had to be born and raised here to count. If that ever was Kamloops back in the day, that’s a reality that no longer stands.
In the five years spent here, I’ve met people from all walks of life and though backgrounds are varied and colourful when it comes to professions and personal opinions about the world around and more, the wealth I’ve accumulated by swapping stories and working together with some of them has greatly endeared the very place to my heart.
I am aware that I am not everyone’s cup of tea. Nobody is really. But life is like that; uniqueness is what keeps us curious and able to complement each other, if willing. If working from home and homeschooling also may seem confining (neither has to be), bringing up uncomfortable topics can push one in the untouchables corner.
Yet what I came to realize is that every place, whether big or small, has groups of people that have at least one common denominator, whatever that might be. Yet no one, unless you’re part of a Hollywood happy story, will likely come to your door and present you with an agreeable crowd to hang out and feel comfortable with. Truth is, it takes a bit of reaching out.
It also takes some learning to listen, to speak up and yes, sometimes it takes learning to doubt less and trust that things will turn out OK simply because there is at least another person that cares and shares a common goal. Another thing I’ve learned is that you become more of a place and the place becomes more of you when you lend yourself to it through various actions.
Whether meeting people and working on projects that culminate in highlighting some of the local sparkling spirit, or taking myself out to the hills for a hike and an opportunity to ponder, I’ve come to realize that caring about a place is done through connecting. To the place itself and to the people.
Each of us carries ideas and frustrations and we’re each hardened by life’s small or big mischiefs. There is no perfect person to be with and there is no perfect place to be. Yes, there might be a better place out there. For the time being, and during the time I will spend here, I simply refuse to think that there is any rejection mechanism that keeps people away for not being part of a multigenerational Kamloops dynasty.
While not all circles are opened to everyone and each of us is more accepting of a group over another, that is what keeps things thriving in all directions. But here’s something I’ve learned in the last five years spent here. That if you put your hand out someone will shake it and things will unroll in a good way from there. One mention though: good is never perfect.
My family and I went to Victoria for a few days. It was quite a treat. The breath of early spring was present in purple crocus patches, red tulips and yellow daffodils spread along sidewalks, even a cherry tree shyly showing its tiny pink blossoms much to the delight of passersby in the heart of the harbour.
It was warm enough, sunny enough and the bit of rain was a good reminder that we were on the Coast after all. Our province really does have one charming capital.
As the boys are now homeschooled, we took our learning with us. And, as a friend aptly pointed out, one good thing about them learning at home is that there is no tuning in and out of the process.
No boundaries to separate learning hours from the rest of the day, and that learning comes with is simply the unavoidable reality that life and its lessons happen every step of the way. Deductions are our own, they come with lots of reading, and they complement the process.
You never know enough, I tell the boys. That’s the measure of humbleness that adds quality to your learning; realizing that what you learn adds pieces to a puzzle that keeps on growing, providing you with the bird’s eye view that we need to understand our path and the purpose of being here.
In the four days we had in Victoria we visited the Royal BC Museum, the Miniature Museum and the Bug Zoo. We visited the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan and we were lucky to have a family friend take us to a forest research facility nearby where we learned about the pine beetle and other troubles that our majestic woods encounter, as well as the hard work involved in finding sustainable solutions to them thriving.
And just like that, as we headed to the BC Legislature two days later, we happened upon a peaceful protest. The Wilderness Committee volunteers were on the front steps holding unrolled banners with big letters: ‘Save Walbran Valley’. Media was there and there were people carrying small tree cardboard cut-outs. The Walbran Valley has magnificent old-growth trees, Sitka spruce and red cedar groves. It makes sense that it should be saved.
Who would want to cut those and why? Surely not someone who knows about the amazing old trees and their presence among us and in our forests. Being aware and willing to fight for them matters. Speaking up and standing up matters, but you have to know your reasons. Learning why forests are needed, and how to stand up for the tallest old giants among us and more, that is what learning helps with.
We were impressed to discover that we happened to be at the BC Legislature on the same day when the very buildings opened 118 years ago on February 10.
And we were also impressed to realize that Steve Thomson, the BC Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, who would have the power to reverse the controversial (detrimental to our province) logging permits, was likely just a few steps away at the time we visited.
Learning helps us all gather facts and understanding why we need to preserve rather than consume or downright destroy, reuse rather than make new, and recycle rather than add to the waste pile. The plethora of facts, past and present, may seem daunting but what’s the future going to look like if we don’t, and if we do not encourage our children to open their eyes and minds to see and learn?
We saw biking lanes lining the side of each road downtown and many people cycling every which way. A good thing to strive for in every city. Sure, temperature in Kamloops drops lower than theirs, but we have enough warm weather to make the most of it, cycling-wise. Or walking. All we need is to ask (and ask again) for lanes that make cycling safe.
Then we have to be diligent enough to help our children learn (by example ideally), that exercise is the best way to deal with stress, chronic health problems and to make a community tighter and healthier in all aspects. It takes learning but that is what carries us forth and makes us mind the miracle of being alive and keeping the world alive too.
We befriended two harbour seals who were so immensely curious and cute, willing to play and hang out with us humans. They danced gracefully underwater, they surfaced and dove again, they peeked at us from underwater and they almost spoke, or at least that is what it felt like. Then they left to return to their watery abode, wherever that might be. Theirs to choose and rightfully so.
All of that prompted a conversation about animals living in freedom, as opposed to those we imprison so that we can be entertained as we see them up-close. We know better by now. Conservation and rehabilitation aside, there should be no zoos but instead shelters and sanctuaries for animals and birds who cannot return to the wild.
It truly never stops: Learning and then learning some more. It’s a gift to ourselves, our children and to those with whom we share our world. Which is all of us.
(Originally published as a column in the AM News on Friday May 23, 2014)
We left Kamloops on a rainy morning, set for a long trip to a place we’ve never been before: Bella Coola. The best kind of road trip; heading into a territory you don’t know, you cannot find enough information about and knowing there’s nothing like seeing it all up close.
Rain trailed alongside to Little Fort and then to Williams Lake. Everything was dressed in emerald green and cloudy fog.
We drove on a perfect ribbon of a road, left the rain behind and got to see grass so green it sparkled, and a horizon so inviting that you could not stop driving just so you can see what’s beyond it while the eyes were stubbornly glued to the surrounding beauty.
The evening sky turned light blue and that’s when we saw the first of many beautiful painted horses, young colts hiding behind their mothers. Running free, most of them skittish yet curious, because when we stayed long enough by the side of the road to look at them, they came closer so they could look at us too.
We passed communities so small they make you wonder how can they sustain themselves and why would people choose to live so far into the wilderness.
Countless birds studded the glittery surface of marshes, taking off suddenly to calls only they could hear. The sunset glazed gold and burgundy on long lazy clouds as we drove by burned forests, trees sticking up like ghosts… Among them, new forests were growing; tiny evergreens ready to write new stories of a land that could never grow too old.
We passed Alexis Creek, Tatla Lake, and decided to stay the night on the shores of a lake that is as calm as it is big, one of the gentle water giants of our province. Anahim Lake.
We talked to locals and found out about the suspended ferry service that hit the communities of Anahim Lake and Bella Coola hard. Tourists from all over the world would take the ferry up, they said, but few do now. Struggles the rest of us know little about.
We hit the road again, traversed Tweedsmuir Park and wondered at its pristine beauty. We spotted a fox with a fur coat that matched the surroundings.
More road, more burned forests, more exploding green seedlings. Hope.
Awed by the picture-perfect snow-clad coastal mountains, we descended on the serpentines affectionately called ‘The Hill’ by the locals, keeping a careful eye on the dirt road that is the result of much persuasion of the government by the locals, back in the ‘50s.
A distinctive feature of small isolated communities; determination.
Hagensborg and Bella Coola opened up in green lush forests and thick grass every which way. The coastal mountains with their perpetually snowy tops guard the fertile valley.
We hiked, saw petroglyphs hidden deep into the rainforest, sloshed our way through a flooded estuary that held life and death in perfect balance, and sat down with one of the elders by the side of the river one windy evening.
The old man was anticipating the arrival of a few fishermen down the fast river. Invited to join him, we sat down. Half an hour later the river brought a couple of dinghies with it. Sure hands casted nets into the murky waters. Fishing for spring salmon, but this is not the big run yet, the elder said.
More people came to watch, a seasonal ritual we were now part of. Someone mentioned the long-gone e
ulachon, the fish that were the reason for the old Grease Trail trading route.
They’re mostly gone now, but the Nuxalk people still hope for their return, the elder said. Shrimp boats caught tonnes of them as by-catch over the years and now the abundant runs ran dry…
A new totem by the river, a young boy holding his hands as a prayer to bring back the eulachon, was recently put up by two young carvers. Hope.
The fishermen were long gone but we stayed to chat. We found out about the industrial projects the community fought hard to stop just so they can have their salmon and their land the way they’ve always had them.
It’s more important than any money industry brings, the elder said. You can’t bring nature back so easily after they damage it with who-knows-what resource exploitation.
A car stops and the lady driver tells of a deer that just sprinted on the other side of the river. The old man squints to see it. He missed it, but happy to know it’s there.
You’ve seen so many during your lifetime, I told him. He smiled, looking far into the thick forest that cradles the invisible deer. It’s not about one deer, but every animal, bird and patch of land.
They are reminders that the old place they call home is renewed every year with new life. Hope. You have to respect all animals and the land that feeds them; the same land feeds you too, he said.
It’s about choices and compromises, he says, just as long as you can address the needs of a community without hurting the very land they live on and off of.
Tomorrow we’ll be heading back home, realizing yet again, that we are blessed with a land so rich it transcends imagination; rich not in resources to be gouged out, but to protect and help be, hopefully forever.
Hit the road, see the beauty and say it isn’t so… I dare you.