Recreation and Conservation: Creating a Watershed-Wide Community

Adjective: Watershed-wide — Extending or reaching throughout the watershed

By: Katia Bannister

The air was warm but the wind held a chill as I drove down Highway 18 on my way to Lake Cowichan. The weather forecast had projected thunder and stormy skies later on that day, but I had taken the forecast with a grain of salt, the weather had been nice recently.

Soon enough, I entered the historic logging town, aptly named for its proximity to Cowichan Lake, and for its vitality to the Cowichan Valley watershed, located on the unceded territories of the Quw'utsun' people on Vancouver Island.

On this fair day in June, I had made the drive to Lake Cowichan to spend the first of two long days out on the water with summer staff members from the Cowichan Watershed Board, Chloe Mitchell and Nora Livingstone, seasoned whitewater canoer and canoe instructor, Rick Bryan, and my CFA colleague Danielle Paydli.

After energy-filled introductions — despite the possibility of the impending storm — our small party of newbie whitewater canoe paddlers suited up with the works. Black wetsuits contrasted by brightly coloured and less-than-flattering life jackets, and stand-out yellow helmets; an ensemble that would gardner lingering glances from passers-by.

A man on a mission: Rick seemingly effortlessly hoists his canoe onto his shoulders for a portage - Photo by Katia Bannister

Then, with our safety gear on, and after being deemed water-ready by Rick, we tediously removed the five solo canoes from their transport trailer. Rick immediately hoisted his canoe, the largest he had brought that day, upon his shoulders for a portage. Impressed, but knowing our own attempts at a portage would result in a different kind of impression, the rest of our paddle party laughed and proceeded to pair up to transport our own canoes down to the water’s edge. Noting along the way that despite the way canoes gracefully glide through water, on land they prove unwieldy sources of frustration.

Once all our canoes were finally at the launch point, a public dock just below the Lake Cowichan weir, our cheerful crew of canoeists undertook the awakened task of wiggling and wobbling their way into their vessels and before quickly being snatched up by the slow-moving but purposeful current. Not yet skilled, and still uncertain of how to move anywhere but the direction of the water, our group twirled, turning circles in the current for a few minutes until Rick showed us a few paddling strokes to give us some of our own purposeful direction. After a lot of practice, and gaining a little more confidence. We set out on our Cowichan River adventure.

The Cowichan ebbs and flows, weaving its way purposefully through lush forests of cedar and fir. Despite the storm warning, hot sun broke the cloud cover and beat down on our party of paddlers, painting our well-sunscreened cheeks pink as we followed the bends and curves of the Cowichan. Taking cues on the speed at which to paddle from the river, and whether it rushed onwards, creating small rapids in its wake, or whether it flowed idly downstream, sometimes almost not moving at all. High in the sky, the sun struck the river below with beams of light, illuminating banks of the Warmland.

We watched the landscape change. From the industrial and residential hustle and bustle as the river cut its way through the town of Lake Cowichan, to the river’s edge lined with homes many attached to dingy little docks behind which eddies formed as a result of the disrupted river flow. And then the landscape changed once again. To a different kind of hustle and bustle. As we drifted by, our paddle strokes churned the water, creating small waves that startled clusters of Northern Red-legged frogs, leading them to jump from their riverside hiding places into the moving water. At our passing, Northern River otters burst from the brush to scramble up the embankment. Songbirds chorused overhead as insects from the family Gerridae — known commonly as a medley of water striders, water skeeters, water bugs, or pond skaters — dispersed in the water surrounding.

But traversing the Cowichan by whitewater canoe wasn't just about using our paddles to break the surface of water, relying on strength stemming from our cores to reach and draw with each stroke, pushing water behind our boats and propelling us forward. No. As we paddled, we observed, we talked, and we reflected. Internal and external conversations that guided us on our way down the river.

Our instructor Rick, despite a great many trips down this particular stretch of river, was perhaps the most keen of all of us to chat about his observations and reflections. And in talking with such enthusiastic canoe and river advocate, a wealth of knowledge, not just about paddling, but stewardship and how the influence of recreational water sports reaches far beyond what one might expect, becomes immediately clear.

It would come as a surprise to anyone who has the chance to chat with him, but Rick self-admittedly isn't someone who would have always thought of himself as a future paddler and whitewater canoe instructor. “I was a city boy!” He exclaimed. “Got a summer job coming out of grade 12 working at a boys camp. A camp where there just happened to be canoeing. So I paddled my first boat. Was I instantly passionate? No. But I was interested enough to stick with it. And I kept doing it, and I did more of it and one day a buddy and I said “Hey look at the river... What if we were to try paddling down that river.” And we did. And woah!”

Since falling in love with, and gaining a lifetime of experience in paddling, Rick says he has made it his mission to “help cultivate passion” in watersport and water stewardship. He believes that the best thing anyone could say after spending time out on the water with him is that he enabled something to happen for them, or gave them the chance to experience something that they might not have experienced otherwise. “I mean really that's my intent.” He says. “I like to think I do something, just in terms of enabling people; giving people permission to see the natural environment — but rivers in particular.”

Rick supervising our launch into Cowichan Lake - Photo by Katia Bannister

Rick believes that recreation is an amazingly moving and effective tool for getting people to care about their watersheds. Citing his own interest and investment in watershed health and conservation as an example, and saying that recreation and conservation are complementary facets of the love that people have for our watershed. And not only that, but two tools that come together seamlessly to create “watershed-wide” communities.

However, through his enthusiasm for paddling, Rick, the keen observer that he is, has repeatedly noticed a disconnect and sometimes even competition between conservation and recreation. Particularly when it comes to how some river stewards and conservationists understand the power and potential of recreation. Rick said to me, “One of the things that I've always maintained is that the vast majority of river stewards stand on the bank and look out at the river. What we do as paddlers is sit in boats in the middle of the river and view the shore, and the river itself. And the view from the shore of the river is not the same as the view from the river to the shore.”

For that reason, Rick wants to get more people out on the river — looking at our watershed in ways they might not have if not for being in a canoe. He knows that the hands-on, tangible, and action-packed experiences that he can facilitate for newbie paddlers can change the way they understand and interact with their watershed. Chuckling, he said to me, “I'm an old guy — I would almost rather instruct then I would just go for a trip on my own, or with my friends! No, not totally, but I enjoy the challenge of taking a bunch of people out on the river and having them smiling and laughing at the end of the day.”

And that is something that really shines through for the people Rick teaches and takes out on the water. “He’s so vivacious about the river and canoeing,” reflected my fellow whitewater first-timer Nora Livingstone. “And he loves talking about it, which makes him such an amazing advocate.”

Working as a roving watershed reporter for the Cowichan Watershed board, Nora gets to talk to a lot of different people in the Cowichan Valley about what their watershed and waterways mean to them. And she thinks that those relationships could be vastly different if more people spent more time together in the watershed. “It's easier to see that we share all this water when we're on the water,” she remarked to me. “Water isn't just for drinking. But if we have never been on the Cowichan and we only really interact with water from our taps, then it is hard to know and contextually understand that water is a limited resource.”

But being on the river is different.

The Cowichan River at Stoltz Bluffs - Photo by Katia Bannister

“When you are on the river and you see garbage, or you see someone pouring gas into their boat and leaking a little bit into the water — you suddenly are seeing how everyone's actions are affecting you, but also everything else,” exclaimed Nora. “Being able to paddle the Cowichan is being able to see its physical connections to everything else, and being able to understand that water is not just connected in some sort of weird, arbitrary way. It’s knowing that damaging our watershed hurts all of us.”

That knowledge is something that can bring our community together. And it already is.

The Cowichan Valley is a hub for watersports and river-based recreational activities. Fishing. Paddling. Water skiing. Tubing. Swimming. Hiking. All taking place in and around the watershed. All bringing people together. All immersing in our watershed. And not only that, but the Cowichan Valley is home to a passionate and productive water stewardship community. The Canadian Freshwater Alliance, Cowichan Watershed Board, Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society, Cowichan Estuary Nature Centre — and those are only a small sampling of names, the list goes on and on. These organizations work independently and collaboratively to mobilize community members to take action to secure their watersheds through the likes of ecological restoration work, fish monitoring, water quality testing, river and riparian zone clean ups and much much more. Seeing this work take place, and being a part of it, most often perched in a canoe, is something that Rick is appreciative and proud of. “When I look at the whole business of stewardship in the Cowichan Valley, I think of how extremely fortunate we are,” he said to me. “We have probably more stewards per square meter of fish than anyplace else in the whole planet.”

Volunteers from the Cowichan Lake and Stewardship Society and the Cowichan Lake Salmonid Enhancement Society release rescued Coho fry into Cowichan Lake - Photo by Katia Bannister

In the Cowichan Valley, a vast network of river stewards of all kinds flourishes, creating a watershed-wide community — a far-reaching web of passionate people who care deeply about their watershed. The growth and impact of which, according to Nora, reflect the health of our watershed. “A healthy community very much is like a healthy watershed,” she says. “It supports life.” Life in the form of a healthy ecosystem. An enthusiastic paddling community. An abundance of discussion around watershed stewardship and governance.

And while there is still work to be done to mesh recreational interests with ecological ones, the continuation of this work has never been a problem.

Just as Rick will keep taking students out for paddles on the Cowichan, giving them an opportunity to fall in love with the river, the sport, or both, community members in the Cowichan Valley united — despite, or rather, because of a variety of perspectives and needs — by a shared goal of a healthy watershed, will keep doing their best to knit together recreation and conservation in order to steward our watershed in ways that support a diversity of needs and draws. Including ecological and human health, watershed security, watery-fun, and an opportunity to connect for both people who have yet to experience the wonders of Cowichan, and those who return time and time again because they can’t get enough.

“All of us have a place in this bigger mosaic of the watershed,” Nora told me. And I think she’s right.

On my journey through the watershed — swimming in Cowichan Lake, paddling down the powerful river and hiking along its edge, live-staking willow in riparian areas, and planting young Snowberry plants in the estuary — I’ve seen pieces of the mosaic coming together. People, places, and passions, combining to paint a picture of a community watershed-wide.

The paddling community in the Cowichan Valley is flourishing thanks to an ever-growing number of canoers and kayakers — and you can join them! Even if you don’t live on Vancouver Island, there are paddling and other recreation-based communities all across Canada — look for one in your community and take action to defend watersheds across our country by taking action with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance.