By Lisa Bland –
Sammy Penner’s love for the natural world began at an early age. She grew up in an outdoorsy family and has been surrounded by nature all her life. She’s always felt connected to the water. Sammy’s father was a fisherman, their family lived on the Fraser River delta, and later along the Cowichan River on Vancouver Island.
Sammy currently lives in Ladner, BC, in the lower Fraser River delta — an area known for rich wetlands with many resident bird species and up to five million migratory birds that stop along this part of the Pacific Flyway. She followed her passion and became an avid bird and wildlife lover, and found work outdoors.
After completing the Fish, Wildlife, and Recreation Program at the BC Institute of Technology, Sammy began working for The Nature Trust of BC, British Columbia’s largest provincial land trust dedicated to conserving plant and animal diversity by securing and managing ecologically significant lands. She started on the Conservation Youth Crew managing 25 properties in the Lower Mainland and is now the group’s Field Operations Technician, supervising the Conservation Youth Crew. Sammy conducts yearly field assessments of Nature Trust properties in the Lower Mainland and throughout BC in the fall and coordinates volunteer activities on Nature Trust lands.
Sammy learned about the Rivershed Society of BC’s (RSBC) Sustainable Living Leadership Program (SLLP) through its website, and although she didn’t know much about the program, she thought it would be exciting to take part in a 27-day journey on the Fraser River from the headwaters to the sea.
“My passion is nature and conservation,” says Sammy. “I live on the lower Fraser River, and I feel very connected to the water. I signed up for this trip because it fit with my vision and beliefs.”
She recognizes many bird species by sight and gained her knowledge about birds and wildlife through self-study and volunteering for organizations including The Raptors, Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society, George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Bird Studies Canada, Wild Research, and the Northern Spotted Owl Breeding Program. Her enthusiasm for identifying bird species and wildlife signs during the rivershed journey was a great addition to the other participants’ learning experience.
Reflecting on what she learned on the journey, she remarks, “This trip reinforced my passion for conservation and sustainability. I loved learning more about rivershed health and collaborating with like-minded people and communities along the way.”
“I learned about the environment, the Fraser River watershed, leadership skills, and how to work as a team,” she says. “Some of the learning—like leadership skills—came through difficulty. Many of us have these skills but we don’t always use them. Knowing when to step up and when to step down is important along with figuring out how to work with one another.”
Another major area where Sammy gained knowledge throughout the journey was the Indigenous history on the Fraser River.
“This journey gave me a huge respect for First Nations people and their culture. We were informed about their history on the land and how they use the Fraser River as their main resource—it’s very important to understand about BC’s heritage. I think this needs to be taught in the school system.”
Sammy’s project for the SLLP will be to engage and educate community groups and youth in the restoration of salmon-bearing habitat. Her project will help foster stewardship and awareness, while addressing watershed conservation, protection, and restoration by enhancing the ecological integrity of critical habitat on Nature Trust of BC properties on Vancouver Island. She will build relationships with volunteers and community groups, and lead them to plant native vegetation. Restoration events will take place January through March 2019 at Sandersons Royd in Cobble Hill, along the Englishman River in Parksville, and along the Salmon River near Sayward, BC. The project is funded by TD Friends of the Environment Foundation.
“On the journey we met many community groups and individuals who informed us about salmon, water quality, First Nations’ use, industrial effects on the water, and the changes occurring in the river from the headwaters to the ocean,” says Sammy. “We learned about the importance of watershed health and that we need to be more sustainable. Back home, we turn on the tap and don’t even think about where the water comes from. It made me appreciate resources like our food and water.”
Along with highlights of sleeping under the stars, camping every night, encountering a huge diversity of wildlife, hiking in the Goat Valley in the Fraser headwaters, and forming friendships with the other participants, Sammy also faced and overcame fears and challenges.
One of her challenges was learning to be patient. “I always want to go!” she says. “I wasn’t aware that I was so structured. I like having a schedule, being on time, and constantly being busy. If not, I feel like I am wasting time. It made me realize that I need to slow down, breathe, relax, and enjoy the present.”
The journey also made Sammy reflect on her gratitude for everything she has at home, like a comfortable bed. “My mattress popped at the end,” she laughs. “Being surrounded by the smoke from forest fires made me grateful for clean air,” she adds. “We were very exposed being outside; we couldn’t get away from the smoke. The animals and other living creatures can’t get away from the smoke, either. The trip made me realize a lot of things I took for granted.”
“I also didn’t grasp the strength of the water. Down in the delta, the Fraser River is very different, much slower. To watch it and see the energy and power of the water, and to know one false move could take your life was at times alarming.”
Sammy’s friendships with the SLLP participants were a highlight. “It’s amazing how everyone was there to support one another. Even in our down moments when we didn’t want to talk, everyone was there for one other, through thick and thin,” she explains. “We laughed and sometimes cried together, and it was really astonishing to feel such warmth and connectedness.”
“Looking back now, it’s all sunk in. Even though there were moments I was thinking, ‘Get me out of here!’ sometimes you’ve just got to keep going,” she says.
When asked about whether the SLLP has changed her path for the future, Sammy is optimistic. “It’s definitely reinforced how much I love being in nature, and that I’m in the right field of work. I hope to continue to volunteer, work, and participate in sustainable practices and conservation throughout my career, using all the skills the SLLP journey taught me. I’m very grateful to have been a part of this wonderful program.”
“I will also look for other expeditions to go on because I know I can do it now,” she laughs.