By Jacquie Lanthier —
Rivers have a way of calling us back to ourselves. The river cradles us, and in the carrying shows us who we are.
We have come from all across the Fraser Basin, travelling from the outskirts of the city, meeting for the very first time on the overnight Greyhound bus. We have left our homes in Port Coquitlam, New Westminster, and Burnaby. Taken off from towns like Gold Bridge and Horsefly. We have travelled from Lillooet, Quesnel, Williams Lake, Prince George, and beyond. And, at the beginning of August, as others have for the past ten summers, we arrive, from all across BC, to take part in the Rivershed Society of BC’s Sustainable Living Leadership Program.
At first we are strangers—to each other, to the river’s headwaters. We collect at the start of the Mighty Fraser like salmon brushing fins in a back eddy. Many of us have never been this far north. For the next 25 days we will live beside the gaping presence of the Fraser River. We swat mosquitoes from each other’s temples and make blueberry sauce from the fruits that line our trails. In the canyon, under sharp stars, we do away with our tents, fanning out in a slumber circle, heads pointing in toward the centre. We wake to birdsong, dappled shade dancing across our eyelids. We cook and eat under a ceiling of sky. For 25 days we tuck in close to the heart of the landscape and hear its beating.
It always takes a few days to settle in, though nature has a way of reclaiming us quickly. Our thoughts slow as we uncouple from our electronic devices. We converse with each other, and within days have exhausted the topics of small talk. Our discussions dig wells for our minds to drink from. Away from artificial light, we become re-attuned to the rhythms of daylight and darkness. We gather our food from local organic growers as we travel downriver, our compost packed inside a plastic olive jar amongst our camping gear. We are self-contained.
We travel the length of the Fraser’s 1,400-kilometer arc—paddling, rafting, walking, and driving the river’s undammed length. We work on project plans to implement in our home communities upon our return. We support each other and troubleshoot on the spot. While doing this, we see this province in a way few souls have.
A river smoothes every surface it touches, and group comfort is found soon in the outdoors. We laugh, we yell, a few of us cry. We tell jokes and sing the songs of our childhood. When we forget the words we make them up. We paddle in perfect rhythm for at least a few moments each day. Some of us have not laughed like this in years. We remember what it feels like to live in a tribe. We remember how to listen—to each other, to the river. In our listening we are reminded of our own inner strength, how to hear, most importantly, ourselves. We remember how to lead and be led. Our hearts fill with the hope that can be forgotten so easily living in the routine of our media-laden lives. We care about the Earth and we want to do something about it. Our projects are something we can do, one small thing. Ripples can grow large from a tiny pebble tossed into a lake.
If everyone could connect with a river in this way, what kinds of decisions would we make about our rivers, about our future? How important would they become?
We experience the meaning of “watershed” and “riparian zone,” learning the lexicon of the Earth from an encounter with it. We paddle, float, and walk towards our lessons. Discussion flows from animal tracks to organic agriculture with the same ease as a river emptying out to sea. We watch a herd of bighorn sheep kick a plume of dust to the wind as they race to the river’s edge for a drink.
Along the way we stop in places like Quesnel, Williams Lake, Lillooet, Coquitlam, and New Westminster. We meet people who are deeply connected to the Fraser. We learn about each other. They will become our supporters when we return home, helping us implement our projects. We learn how many good things people are doing. More hope flows in.
Day after day, the river reminds us of the beauty of the natural world. We watch the moon move through its monthly rhythm. We touch hair lichen on the branches of an old growth fir in the Goat River Valley and wonder how much longer these trees will remain standing. We discuss, we analyze, we question. We look from up close and from far away. At ourselves, at the province, at everything still living and everything taken away. At everything we would lose if we do not learn how to care for our watercourses. We get out our journals and our cameras. We document. We draw. We paddle. We sit in silence. We listen to stories about the land. We work on our project plans. We teach and learn from each other. We learn from the Earth.
Rivers have a way of calling us back to ourselves. The river cradles us, and in the carrying shows us who we are. After this trip, many of us will realize that rivers have been in our lives all along—invisibly watering the food we eat and churning the soil it grows in. Rivers have been feeding the animals and birds we see, seeding the forests with rain, clearing the air, aiding our commerce. A channel to each of our lives. Human beings have always been close to water.
After 25 days together we will disband, though you are never the same once you have travelled a river. When the trip ends and we step from the canoe onto the banks of Jericho Beach in Vancouver, some part of us will be put back in place, like a missing puzzle piece finally found. The artery of the river will run through our tissues. You cannot travel a river and remain unchanged.
If everyone could connect with a river in this way, what kinds of decisions would we make about our rivers, about our future? How important would they become? A world where everyone has travelled a river is a world I would like to live in.
When we return home from our journey, we will share the lessons we have learned. We will implement our projects—starting community gardens, teaching students about watershed health, giving talks and slideshows. The projects are as varied as we are. But they share one thing in common: a message of hope. We carry hope, the message of the river, to all who will listen.
For the past three years Jacquie Lanthier has travelled the length of the Fraser River with the Rivershed Society of BC’s Sustainable Living Leadership Program. The program runs once per year, taking up to 10 adult participants by voyageur canoe, by raft, by van, and on foot down the Fraser River. In September, 2015 she plans to swim its 1,400 kilometers with three other women to mark the 20th anniversary of Fin Donnelley’s first swim of the Mighty Fraser. Get involved! For more information, visit rivershed.com.