By Lisa Bland –
Riley Brennan has always felt connected to nature, and she has spent a lot of time recreational canoeing and fishing. She lives at the confluence of the Nechako and Fraser rivers in Prince George and is studying political science, environmental studies, and business at the University of Northern BC.
Riley sits on the youth advisory committee of the Fraser Basin Council (FBC) and was sponsored by that group to join the Rivershed Society of BC’s (RSBC) Sustainable Living Leadership Program (SLLP) with fellow FBC advisory council member, Brock Endean. Their SLLP project was to contribute to the development of a heritage storymap of the Fraser River. The storymap will be an online, visual storytelling tool looking at various locations and highlighting their cultural, natural, and recreational heritage values. The project is part of the national storymap project being developed by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System and Parks Canada.
One of the things that drew Riley to the RSBC’s work was the concept of Rivershed CPR—conservation, protection, and restoration. In the past, much of her work centered around conservation and education, and the opportunity to visit communities and talk to different organizations helped her see aspects of Rivershed CPR happening in communities along the Fraser River, such as the restoration of salmon spawning habitat in Lillooet.
Riley was also inspired by RSBC’s founder and chair, Fin Donnelly, and his 1,400 km swim down the length of the Fraser River. She heard Fin’s point of view as he shared stories about the journey, and she learned about Fin’s personal accomplishments since then and about his relationship with many different groups and people along the Fraser River that continue to work for the health of the rivershed. “I was amazed at what Fin accomplished and how he’s inspiring other people—including all of us—to do this trip,” she says. “Even though we’re not swimming, it’s still so important to be out on the river.”
The SLLP journey helped Riley and Brock formulate their plan for the heritage storymap of the Fraser River. “We wanted the human component of people’s actual experiences to be on the map,” says Riley. “The trip gave us the opportunity to connect and talk with people along the river, and after that we scheduled interviews and follow-ups to record people’s stories.”
“The photos we took along the river were geotagged, and select points of interest and descriptions will be filled in on the storymap and published online by Canadian Heritage Rivers systems in 2019.”
As they began collecting information for the storymap project, they also expanded into gathering footage and information for a climate change storymap. This FBC project will focus on BC youth’s personal stories on climate change and youth-led climate solutions.
Apart from collecting project information, Riley learned a lot on the SLLP journey. “I came on this trip with more of an academic point of view—in school we discuss biogeoclimatic zones and terms like ‘sustainability’ and what it means for the environment, communities, and businesses, but it’s very different than actually experiencing them,” she says. “I came in with a certain point of view, and I left feeling like I understood the concepts better.”
“Now I can name the six types of salmon!” she laughs. “Talking to the different Indigenous groups about how pivotal salmon is to their life and the people that rely on the Fraser River for their food, showed me its importance. People wouldn’t be so passionate if it wasn’t so important to them.”
She also learned a lot about the tributaries, such as the Nechako River and the Thompson River. “You can see [them] on a map but I didn’t understand how the water is interconnected until I saw little streams and bigger rivers coming in and the way the water intermingles and blends together and becomes part of the Fraser,” she says.“Feeling the power of the water moving you forward and realizing how much water it actually is was eye-opening. Rather than thinking about what is happening in ‘my community,’ I understand how the river systems are connected and important to all our communities.”
Riley’s biggest highlight on the trip was her solo hike in the Fraser Canyon at Cathedrals Campground. ”I hadn’t been in silence for that long—ever,” she explains. “I wouldn’t say it was necessarily spiritual but it allowed me to think about the Earth and the land and myself. I blocked out other thoughts I was scared about, and tried to be in the present and just listen to what was around me.”
The experience was uplifting and removed a great deal of Riley’s anxiety. “I’ve even tried to recreate it once again since returning home,” she says. “I sat with my dog by the river in the silence with no one around. It was so tranquil and peaceful—you’re just with yourself. I realized I don’t need the internet and all these distractions to enjoy myself. Being constantly reminded on this trip of the importance of nature will hopefully help me to not lose the connection.”
Another of Riley’s highlights was helping with trail clearing on the Goat River Trail in the Fraser River headwaters. “I take for granted when I’m on hikes the amount of effort that goes into maintaining trails and making sure it’s a good experience for people,” she says.“Seeing how much goes into maintaining the Goat River Trail was amazing and inspiring, and I was happy I could contribute a little bit. It is a beautiful place.”
The biggest challenge Riley overcame was learning to love the water and not be afraid of it, never having been that comfortable in the water. “It was cool to be on the water for that long and get over my nerves and know that I belong near water,” she says.“It was a challenge but fun!”
“I loved rafting on the Fraser and paddle rafting on the Thompson River!” she says. “It was fun but talk about life-changing—we hit a big rapid and three people fell out of the boat. It was probably the most stressful 15 seconds of my life as we tried to get them, plus a pair of shoes and three paddles, back in before we hit the next rapid. I was so tired after that day—we paddled so hard.”
Overall, Riley found the sense of community she developed along the way and building relationships with the SLLP participants to be the most impactful. “I really hope I can maintain the connections to the people I met on this trip,” she says.
“Some of my connections have potentially moved me in a direction I hadn’t thought of before,” she says. “In the future, I may help facilitate a river clinic with RSBC facilitators and SLLP participants. I would like to see the shorter rivershed journeys possible, not just on the Lower Fraser River in the Greater Vancouver area but also in the Nechako watershed and into the north.”
Riley also spent time clarifying her goals while on the journey, considering whether to pursue social justice or environmental law as a career. The trip gave her a good understanding of the laws concerning issues in BC and in our watersheds, and she’s leaning towards advocacy work to help create change. “I hope to eventually get into law school,” she says. “First, I plan to work in government for an internship in the Victoria legislature to experience policy changes firsthand.”
Riley would also like to see the youth engagement work she’s done integrated with perspectives and vision from the past. “There’s been an amazing environmental movement in BC, and we’ve had a strong voice for activism,” she says. “Part of engagement is to get youth involved and create a new perspective, and I would also like to see the intermingling of ideas and learning from what has already been done.”