By Lisa Bland –
Sasha Makhneva is an environmental science student at Simon Fraser University with many creative talents and interests such as singing, art, drawing, and music. She also loves to explore and go on epic adventures. Originally from Russia and now living in Burnaby, BC, Sasha was inspired by Fin Donnelly, founder and executive director of the Rivershed Society of BC (RSBC), when he completed his 1,400-km swim down the Fraser River to advocate for sustainability and conservation of the Fraser watershed. She applied and was accepted as a participant in the Rivershed Society’s 2018 Sustainable Living Leadership Program (SLLP).
At 22 years of age, in addition to academic pursuits in environmental science and applied biology, Sasha has a passion for taking on personal and physical challenges—especially in the past year. Prior to participating on the 28-day rivershed journey she completed an eight-day, 135-kilometre solo hike on the Sunshine Coast Trail carrying a 40-pound backpack. By 2018 she had also hiked 70 mountain peaks around Vancouver and encouraged many others to participate in her adventures.
“Like others that have gone on great journeys, like Terry Fox and Fin Donnelly, I’d like to be the kind of person who does these kinds of big adventures,” says Sasha. “A cause usually comes out of these journeys because you get so inspired,” she adds.
Living sustainably is also one of Sasha’s passions and she is concerned about the issues facing modern society in terms of waste and utilization of resources. She has participated in waste awareness events in Vancouver, volunteered as a Zero Waste Sustainability Educator at Simon Fraser University, and participated in a Food Rescue Program to help divert food waste from the landfill. Sasha’s goal is to live as simply and with as little footprint as possible.
“I like the fact that the RSBC cares about sustainability—conservation is something I care about a lot and that I’ve done a lot of volunteering in,” Sasha explains. “The RSCB is doing important work in terms of the environment and sustainability.”
Sasha felt fortunate to spend time with 14 other people passionate about sustainability on the SLLP journey.“On this trip it was normal to be an environmental steward and to recycle and compost,” she explains. “We were seeing our garbage daily and it didn’t disappear like in the city. We actually got to see our impact.”
Sasha’s enthusiasm about experiencing the moment-to-moment adventure of flowing on the river by canoe and by raft, away from a traditional classroom setting, was also deeply transforming and suited her style of learning.
“Although I do well at it, I’ve often disliked school and have felt trapped,” she says. “I prefer not to sit still. I feel that part of my purpose is to create an alternative way of learning for people who need to move around to learn—to touch and feel things and not be tied to a textbook. My greatest purpose in life is to explore, express, and inspire,” she explains.
Sasha says creative people sometimes need space to fully enjoy the moment and become inspired—something that was in abundance on the SLLP journey. “The river journey re-awoke my passion for outdoor, hands on, and place-based education and showed me that all my dreams are possible,” she explains. “The mentorship from our trip facilitators showed me it was possible to be brave and to learn how to co-ordinate and take responsibility for people, and not just do art by myself. They inspired me to look for opportunities to take on more responsibility and be a part of a community as opposed to working on my own all the time.”
With a background in science and environmental studies, Sasha had basic knowledge about the Fraser River, but learned so much more experiencing it first hand.
“What I learned by going through it–like how big it really is when you go every single step through it… and the animals that live in it, the communities that depend on it, the issues facing it, and to physically feel its strength and power –was life changing,” she says.
Sasha also enjoyed meeting interesting new people such as photographers, journalists, videographers, newspaper writers, and filmmakers along the journey. “We met so many people working at things that I want to do, and after meeting them, I feel like I can do it as well,” she says. “On the river I talked to as many people as possible. I loved hearing their different perspectives.”
Other highlights for Sasha included singing harmonies with the other participants and being far away from phones. She enjoyed the feeling of connection and comfort, and a sense of community. “I loved feeling accepted and like I fit in with the group,” she says. “The conversations and laughter before falling asleep in our sleeping bags while lying outside on the ground was one of many highlights.”
Big trips like this also teach you patience, she adds, and this carries over into every day life. “If you have to paddle for eight hours, you learn how to be patient—like with your feelings or any pain you’re feeling,” says Sasha. “The willingness to stay consistent brings strength when working towards anything. Keeping a positive mindset also helps with challenges such as being cold.”
For her community awareness project requirement for the SLLP, Sasha originally planned to create a website, but decided that instead of a two-dimensional project, she would rather tell a story to bring people into the experience, as if they were there. Her project continues to take shape as she creatively explores the most effective way to inspire others. Her overall goals are clear, and the product may include a multimedia approach to storytelling and videography, such as cinematic shots with a mix of natural raw footage and personal narratives about the natural regions and sustainability-based topics she explores.
“I want to create films that inspire the people of Burnaby and beyond to enjoy the outdoors,” says Sasha.“The facilitators didn’t tell me about the Fraser; they showed me. My overall goal with my project is to increase people’s awareness of nature and to show them how amazing it is to be out there. I would also like to inspire people to get outside and to be more sustainable and to think about how many resources they use.”
Sasha explains that as a creative person, focus and follow through can be challenging at times and often projects fade away if you don’t sustain the need to commit to making them happen. “A great thing about the program is being accountable for my project,” she explains. “Feeling the leadership skills, competence, energy, and support of the collective has helped me to aspire to the challenge of taking responsibility.”
“Experiencing nature is the best way to be inspired to protect it,” says Sasha. “I hope that I will be able to inspire others to be mindful about the resources they use, and for youth to pursue experiences in the natural world.”
Sasha has already begun inspiring others since completing her 28-day journey. Shortly after returning, she published an opinion piece in Burnaby Now about her solo hiking adventures and rivershed journey and received a lot of feedback from people who were inspired by her story. Read more here: https://www.burnabynow.com/opinion/how-52-days-in-the-wilderness-changed-me-forever-1.23432557.
See Sasha’s sample video about her adventures: “Conquering the Unknown—Hiking motivational video. Young woman ventures into the unknown” at www.youtube.com/watch?v=5z6KwOqYNJc and for more of her stories follow her on Instagram at www.instagram.com/sashtheslash123/