Episode 3: Mark Angelo in the Fraser

"We have to do all we can to protect the waterways we're so lucky to have in this country."

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This week, Danielle meets with Mark Angelo, river conservationist, writer, speaker, teacher, paddler and Order of British Columbia recipient. He is the founder and chair of B.C. Rivers Day and World Rivers Day, as well as the star of the upcoming film Last Paddle? 1000 Rivers, 1 Life

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Episode 4: Lauren Terbasket

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Danielle | 0:00

I'm Danielle Paydli, and this is the Freshwater Stream, a podcast about B.C.'s watersheds and the people who care about them.

Mark Angelo | 0:07

Canada's water resources, in many ways, is the envy of much of the world, but at the same time, our water resources are often wasted or degraded.

Danielle | 0:19

Today I'm joined by Mark Angelo from Burnaby, B.C. Mark is an internationally-celebrated river conservationist, writer, speaker, teacher and paddler. He's the founder and chair of both B.C. Rivers Day and World Rivers Day, an event now embraced by millions of people and up to a hundred countries.

We're going to discuss where his passion for rivers has stemmed from, get a sense of the amazing work he's been doing in his local watershed and beyond. But first, let's hear from some of the community members who share his waters and live on the amazing land that surrounds them.

Community Member 1 | 0:54

My watershed is the Brunette River where I took my son for many years and walks around to see salmon, birds and other things that you can't see in the other major urban parks, as well as when they got older, swimming in the pool is just off Burnett Creek, or an amazing thing to do right out of Huckleberry Finn.

Community Member 2 | 1:21

My watershed is a place where I can go and reset, no matter what is going on. I can go and get back to remembering what's really important to me, and sort of decompressing from everyday life.

Community Member 3 | 1:39

Living near Still Creek means my son and I have access to the forest any time, any day. And my little boy gets to learn about nature firsthand.

Community Member 4 | 1:54

Living for many years now in the Urban China Creek watershed, I have mixed feelings. I love this place I call home. While I know water needs protection, waterways are in need of stewardship and rehabilitation. As a people, we now see how much impact we've had and how much there is to do into the future to challenge colonization and pollution and to improve water conditions.

Danielle | 2:22

Thank you so much for joining us, Mark.

I just want to say you have quite a platform to speak from. And you really use that to amplify issues around recreation and the joy that we take in our waters and our watershed, as well as the responsibility that comes with that, which is conservation of our watersheds.

So can you take us through a little walk through your watershed and describe it for us?

Mark Angelo | 2:47

Oh, I'd be happy to.

I live in Burnaby. It's a city that's about 100 square miles. It has about a quarter of a million people. And I live within the Still Creek/Brunette River drainage that eventually flows into the Fraser.

And the watershed that I live in is a fascinating place, I think. The city of Burnaby, about 25% of it is parkland. That, in itself, I think is really special for any city. And it includes a mix of lakes and rivers and small streams, well-known lakes like Burnaby Lake and Deer Lake. There's actually 90 distinct waterways in the city, so rivers and streams and lakes are very much part of Burnaby's fabric.

The city too has also had an open water course policy since 1972. And, and I'm quite proud of that. And as a result, about 70% of the streams that existed 125 years ago, are still there. They weren't buried in concrete, as what happened next door in Vancouver, which lost most of its salmon streams. The fact that those streams are still there, though, it doesn't mean they're all pristine. The very fact that they're still open and free-flowing, that opens up the door to restore those, those rivers and streams. And that's something we've been very active in and I happen to live close to a number of streams where work like that has unfolded.

But in terms of a walk through my watershed, I spend a lot of time along those streams. And I must admit you spend time in the forest or by a stream and it does much to, to regenerate the soul. It's an incredibly relaxing and soothing experience. I'm a real believer in the concept of forest bathing, I think there's so much merit to it.

I canoe on Deer Lake regularly. In the summer, I take our grandkids fishing, you know on the lake, I paddle other rivers like the Brunette River, also the southern part of Burnaby abuts onto the Fraser River and I'm out on the Fraser River all the time.

So you can enjoy rivers and streams in many ways. I love to paddle them, but you can walk along them, you can simply admire their beauty.

Danielle | 5:00

You're obviously very passionate about the work you're doing. And you've done so much. Can you tell me a little bit like, can you tell me about a time? Or was there a moment that really turned you into the river advocate that you have become?

Mark Angelo | 5:15

Well, you know, I think back to when I was a kid. When I was a boy, I could spend hours along a local stream. You know, I was the kind of kid that could always turn over rocks looking for critters. I'd try and catch water striders as they slid across the surface, I'd look for fish. And I just loved exploring creeks and streams.

But you know, I also lived, I lived by a couple of beautiful small streams up in the hills, but I also lived not too far from a river that had been severely degraded. It was the Los Angeles River actually, because part of my childhood, I lived in Los Angeles, and it's a river that had been encased in concrete. And I used to bike along it, and I wasn't very old before I realized that's not how a river was meant to be.

Then I got into paddling in a big way, as a teenager. And once again, I had experiences on rivers that were incredibly damaged. So I developed this interest at a young age in restoring rivers, which wasn't, wasn't a big topic, you know, back in the 60s. But then I, I came to British Columbia, I ended up living not too far from a stream called Guichon Creek, a stream that had been heavily degraded.

And I happened to meet an elderly gentleman who told me, I was telling him how sad I was to see that this stream was so degraded and so polluted. It had been dredged and channelized. There were no fish. It was in really bad shape. And I told him how sad I was to see that. And he told me, Well, it wasn't always that way. And he told me that he had lived in that neighbourhood for eighty years. And he told me when he was a boy, how he used to fish on the creek and how beautiful it was, and, and then I thought, wow, wouldn't it be neat if we could bring that stream back to what it once was. So we set out to try and do that. And it took a lot of years. But in time, the creek came back, the fish came back, the wildlife came back, the community residents once again started to look at it as a really special place.

Yeah, so my interest in river restoration goes back a long way. But in terms of my interest in celebrating rivers, a real, I think, key experience in my life took place in 1975. I had an opportunity to paddle the full length of the Fraser River, 1375 kilometres. I was an avid whitewater kayaker in my youth, I still enjoy it. But, but you know, I've kind of grown old enough where I appreciate rivers from so many perspectives, you know, but in my youth, I had a nice focus on whitewater. But the idea of exploring the Fraser just appealed to me so much. I was on the river for pretty much most of the summer. And when I got off the river, I just remember being so impressed with the river's power, its beauty, its diversity. And that kind of inspired this, this idea that, you know, wouldn't it be neat if we had an event that celebrated our incredible river heritage in British Columbia. Not just the Fraser, but all the other beautiful rivers and streams that are out there. And that kind of led to the idea of pushing to start a provincial celebration of rivers, something that in 1980, would become known as B.C. Rivers Day.

And we had our first B.C. Rivers Day event on the Thompson River, a cleanup of the Thompson River. It was a great outing, small scale, maybe by today's standards, but we had 40 people, several rafts, we picked up tons of debris, we worked with local towing companies, we were meeting towing companies at certain points along the river and hauling old car racks out of the, off the rocks. It was a great, great outing.

We met that night in the Lillooet pub. And we talked about how much fun we had had. And we thought wouldn't it be neat if we did this again next year. So we planned a few more events the next year, and then a few more after that. And then B.C. Rivers Day literally took off, and then ultimately, in 2005 became World Rivers Day.

But anyway, I look back in my life and there were a number of events I think that had an influence on my, you know, my love, my passion for rivers.

Danielle | 9:36

I love how like, connected you are to your local waters. Yet I also know that you really see rivers around the world as also a part of your watershed.

You've intrigued me a little bit with your description of your, your local watersheds, I was wondering if you could first chat about that and just talking a little bit about like, those, those waters, those rivers, and those watersheds around you. What do you see as one of the most important issues right now for these watersheds?

Mark Angelo | 10:01

I think for any urban watershed, you know, waterways face an array of threats, an array of pressures. Things like urbanization, a loss of riparian habitat, pollution. Unfortunately, for any city stream, the, you know, the, the prospect of, the possibility of a spill event, you know, is very, very real.

Things like culverting or obstacles to fish passage, a lot of urban streams, too, are confronted by really volatile flows. And that's simply due to the fact that so much of an urban area is covered with concrete and asphalt. So when it rains, a lot of that precipitation no longer goes into the soil. It simply runs off into storm drains and right into creeks and streams.

Climate change is something that affects waterways everywhere. And once you move out of cities, you know, there's a lot more examples ranging from anything like the building of dams to the excessive extraction of water.

Danielle | 11:04

Yes, that's true. There are many issues we all share. But there are also specific challenges that folks in rural areas are facing. I think about the fact that Victoria and Vancouver's watersheds are protected. But this isn't true for the rest of the province. Many areas are dealing with logging and other activities in the very areas that are feeding into their drinking water sources. So can you speak a bit to the challenges that folks in rural areas are facing that others in the bigger cities may not necessarily have to deal with or even be aware of?

Mark Angelo | 11:33

Well, certainly things like the building of dams, you know, that's an issue that you tend to deal with a lot, but more so outside of big cities. But still, there's small-scale impoundments in cities and obstacles to fish passage in and around cities. You know, that's huge.

I look out at the Fraser Valley, and I see so many flood control structures that are not passable to fish that have to be upgraded. And, and local B.C. groups like the Watershed Watch Salmon Society are, they're doing great work in terms of trying to deal with that issue.

The excessive extraction of water, you know, I spend a lot of time in the interior of the province. And in an agricultural setting, that's something we deal with a lot. And trying to find that balance, you know, recognizing that, that farmers and ranchers need water, but promoting the need to use water more efficiently, and also to ensure that we retain adequate flows for fish. So trying to find that balance.

So rivers everywhere around the world face an incredible array of pressures. I've long believed and one of the key messages of an event like B.C. and World Rivers Day is, you know, promoting the need to do everything we can to protect those rivers that remain in good shape while trying to restore those that have been damaged in the past.

Danielle | 12:50

So true. And I actually would love to hear a little bit more about that. So can you describe more about the work that you and others on your team have done, or are doing toward watershed security, either on a local scale or bringing in some of the other work that you've mentioned?

Mark Angelo | 13:09

Well, the whole concept of watershed security's a very timely one. You know, I've long believed that Canada has perhaps the world's greatest river heritage. So I think we can do a lot more on a number of fronts.

We can look at better managing groundwater and properly licensing groundwater. Because it's important to know that the groundwater and rivers are interconnected, at different times of the year they recharge each other.

I think we have to ensure adequate flows for fish. There's lots of rivers and streams in the interior, where we've been working on that. And I think we have to ensure polluters are adequately dealt with.

And I think we also have to continue to advocate for improved water efficiency and conservation. So there's lots that can be done.

Danielle | 13:58

So what is the role of education and advocacy in securing our waters?

Mark Angelo | 14:03

Oh, I'm a real believer in advocacy and education. Part of what we do on the educational awareness front is to, to promote the fact that there's much that, that anybody can do at the individual level.

I think we can all give thought to our actions at home or at work. In terms of, can we do more to conserve water? Usually, the answer is yes. I think we can be more mindful about what goes down drains, either drains in the home or storm drains outside. I think we can learn more about our local waterways.

On that education and awareness front, we really do all we can to try and engage people to a greater degree with local waterways. To speak up for them when the occasion arises. People can join or support local stream keeper groups or other water-related NGOs, they could attend a Rivers Day event, but most of just encouraging people to get out and enjoy their local waterways. That too can pay huge dividends, because, for anybody in their community, you go spend time beside a river, you enjoy it, you admire it, you appreciate its beauty. I think that helps to encourage people to not only realize the importance of waterways but perhaps to do more to help protect them.

Danielle | 15:27

I love how you've turned what could be just sitting in the frustration or disappointment in where our watersheds and our rivers are right now into celebrating how far we've come and how much more we need to and can do together. But I'm certain that along the way, you've also had to deal with a lot of challenges.

Mark Angelo | 15:49

I think everybody who's involved in conservation, or river conservation, or stewardship or advocacy, you know, everybody involved in that kind of work has had frustrations, at times, things often don't happen as quickly as you'd like.

You know, I think of some of the things we've been advocating for, you know, the Heart of the Fraser is a really good example. When I did that full paddle, that paddle trip down the length of the Fraser. A part of it that really struck me was when I got to the town of Hope, and I turned west to head back to Vancouver. The next day 80 or 90 kilometres west from Hope, I was just taken aback by the beauty of the river, I could tell it was one of the most productive stretches of river I had ever seen.

It sustains about 30 species of fish, sustains our largest single run of spawning salmon, our best sturgeon habitat. It's an incredible stretch of river. And I've been drawn back to it ever since. But even going back to those early days, I felt, gosh, there's got to be a way to better protect this part of the river. It's right on the outskirts of Vancouver, it's subject to urbanization and industrial development and agricultural expansion. So we've been pushing for years for ways to try and better protect it, we've had some good fortune in terms of acquiring some key habitats through groups like the Nature Trust British Columbia, acquiring those habitats for conservation purposes. But by and large, this stretch of river remains under great pressure. And that only becomes more so as Vancouver continues to grow. There is no management plan for that corridor. And without a management plan, I worry that it's going to eventually suffer a death from a thousand cuts. So we're still working at trying to better protect that part of the river.

One thing that gives me some hope, though there is a new designation under the Fisheries Act, it's referred to as Environmentally Significant Areas. I'm hoping, it hasn't been used yet, but I'm hoping that the very first listing of an environmentally significant area under the Act will apply to the Heart of the Fraser. I could think of no better initial candidate in the country, I think it would be very beneficial in terms of encouraging the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to take a more precautionary approach to managing the area. And most importantly, I think it would help lead to a more in-depth conservation strategy for that corridor, which is, you know, definitely very much needed.

I think we've had some success in creating a much greater public awareness as to how special that part of the river is. But we haven't quite got to the point where we have to be in terms of ensuring that we're going to properly protect that area.

Our film, it's entitled Last Paddle? 1000 Rivers 1 Life, you can find it at lastpaddle.com. It's very much a global film. While it is biographical in nature to a degree, it also very much focuses on the importance of better caring for the world's great river environments and the Heart of the Fraser is one of those.

Danielle | 19:01

Can you tell me a little bit more, what exactly is the Heart of the Fraser?

Mark Angelo | 19:08

Well, if you were to go on a paddle trip with me through the Heart of the Fraser, it's an amazing piece of water, and it took me by surprise when I first saw it back in 1975, only because the public generally can't see it. So it's a beautiful stretch of river that a lot of people aren't, aren't fully aware of, even if they live right here in Vancouver. But when I first saw it, I was so impressed with its heavily forested banks, its immense gravel bars, it's many, many islands that are all un-diked, and just aesthetically, and visually, it's such a magical part of the river.

I took time to explore some of the lush back eddies and little pockets of water. I had a sturgeon jump out of the water by my kayak, he was almost as long as, you know, probably the length easily of my kayak, he jumped only about 50 feet from my boat. And I remember, I was young at the time, that's the first time I had seen a big sturgeon actually come all the way out of the water at such close range.

It's just a stunning piece of the river.

Danielle | 20:14

That was beautiful. What a wonderful story to hear about the surgeon jumping out. And it's like I was there for a moment, except at the same time, I've never seen anything like it. So just trying to use my imagination to think of what would that experience be like?

Mark Angelo | 20:40

It was pretty magical. I've seen lots of sturgeons since, and they're an amazing fish. They're like living dinosaurs, you know. They're, they can live up to 150 years, they get up to, you know, five or meters in length, if not more. They're, they're just an incredible, incredible fish. And as they said, they're one of close to 30 species of fish that live in that part of the Fraser.

You know, maybe one thing I can add, I think for anybody who works to protect rivers and streams or water resources, you know, I think they're driven by a realization that, you know, our waterways have immense values. They contribute so much to the quality of life we all enjoy, and, and that, I think that they recognize that, you know, we have to do all we can to protect those rivers and streams that remain in good shape while trying to restore those that have been damaged and passed.

I have grandkids, I spend lots of time outdoors with my grandkids along rivers and streams and, and my hope is that they'll be able to enjoy the natural environment, they'll be able to enjoy local waterways in the same way that, that I have. So once again, I think that highlights the fact that just for future generations, we have to do all we can to protect the waterways we're so lucky to have in this country.

Danielle | 22:01

Thank you to Mark Angelo, all the community members that contributed to this podcast, Watershed Watch Salmon Society, and everyone who makes this podcast possible. You can find more episodes at freshwaterstream.ca. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen. It really does make a difference.

We'll see you next time when we speak with Lauren Terbasket from the Lower Similkameen Indian Band. She's a mother of three, a grandmother of seven, an educator and water defender. You won't want to miss her insights.

Freshwater in B.C. needs your help. Please donate today to support our work and help protect your local watershed.

The Freshwater Stream is a collaborative effort between the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, CodeBlue BC and Watershed Watch Salmon Society.