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Turning the Fraser into a classroom

Members of the Sustainable Living Leadership Program expedition, a brainchild of New Westminster-Coquitlam and Port Moody MP Fin Donnelly and sponsored by the Rivershed Society of B.C., pushes off from the New Westminster Quay on Friday as they wrapped up the final portions of the 25-day journey. - Photo contributed
Members of the Sustainable Living Leadership Program expedition, a brainchild of New Westminster-Coquitlam and Port Moody MP Fin Donnelly and sponsored by the Rivershed Society of B.C., pushes off from the New Westminster Quay on Friday as they wrapped up the final portions of the 25-day journey.
— image credit: Photo contributed

The prospect of a 25-day trip canoe trip down the Fraser River from one end to the other didn’t faze Brittany Coulter. She wasn’t even afraid of the infamous Hell’s Gate, which scared the heck out of Simon Fraser on his original journey.

“That was my favourite part. It was exciting to see the power of the river,” said Coulter, 21, on Friday as the Sustainable Living Leadership (SLLP) program put on by the Rivershed Society of BC made a lunch stop at the Fraser River Discovery Centre at the Westminster Quay.

“I love camping. We were digging pits for campfires, and sleeping under the stars. It was amazing. There were full blankets of stars where there was no city pollution. It was gorgeous. It was reconnecting with the land, feeling that connection and feeling a part of it and not being a bystander. We’d drink water from the tributaries and we were picking and eating berries.”

The genesis for the expedition came in 2000 when Fin Donnelly, who is now the MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam and Port Moody, swam the length of the Fraser River for the second time.

He said to the man who accompanied him in a kayak, Sharman Learie, “wouldn’t it be amazing to get a program to have an experience that I just had.”

“Yes, it would,” came the reply. But they decided it might be a better idea canoeing down the river instead of swimming it like Donnelly, who swam competitively for Simon Fraser University. The first expedition was in 2002, and this year’s was the ninth journey (it was stopped for two years). This year’s group of seven will make it 74 graduates that will be looking to make change in their communities, said Donnelly.

“It’s one of the greatest salmon rivers in the world. It’s got significance to the province environmentally, historically, transportation-wise, culturally and of course economically. The river plays a huge role in B.C.,” said Donnelly, who accompanied the group on the trip that wrapped up Sunday in Vancouver. “It’s a floating classroom. It’s a great classroom, and it’s a great way to gauge progress [on sustainability].”

Coulter has learned about sustainability working with international not-for-profit organizations in Nepal, India, Kenya, Uganda and New Mexico, even starting her own sustainable kindergarten project in Kenya.

“The biggest thing that attracted me (to SLLP) was getting local,” said Coulter, who has completed Capilano University’s wilderness leadership program. “In all of them (her overseas work), it’s the local people who are making a difference.”

She pointed out nearly a third of British Columbia is served by the Fraser River basin.

“When you protect your watershed, you’re protecting everything around it. You’re protecting the salmon, so you’re protecting the fisheries. The bears eat the salmon, so you’re protecting them, and the bears go up into the mountains. It translates into the greater whole, the community, the whole Fraser region is really important,” said Coulter.

The trip started at the Fraser’s headway near McBride on Aug. 2 where the river is fed by glacier sediment. At that point it took Coulter only a couple of strokes to swim across although “it’s still powerful,” she says.

The headwaters are a “gorgeous” blue-green color, said Coulter, but the hue began to change around Prince George. That’s where sediment combined with industrial pollution start the transformation to a shade a lot less translucent than the one up north.

She said the scariest experience came about a week into the trip when a menacing thunderstorm rolled in. They could see the wall of rain and the accompanying lightning strikes coming at them forcing them to paddle faster and faster to get to their destination.

They made many side trips along the route including visiting Cariboo Pulp and Paper in Quesnel, and an organic farm in Langley.

“There’s a unique perspective from the water,” said Donnelly, who is the NDP’s co-critic of fisheries.

Donnelly pointed out a lot of the history of the province’s First Nations history can be seen on rocks along the river, while the original Cariboo gold rush road provided the province’s pioneer perspective.

While paddling down the river, Coulter found herself connecting much more with the Indians from centuries ago more than explorers and pioneers such as Simon Fraser.

“We had so many communities with bands along the river. There gave us meals, we explored their culture and we were recognizing how much knowledge they had and did before ‘contact’ as they call it with the Europeans. Before then they thrived,” said Coulter, who will be returning to Capilano University to do a global stewardship program.

• The river travelers were joined in New Westminster by high school students taking part in Metro Vancouver’s Sustainability Toolbox, a program that allows students to earn a Grade 11 credit for developing and carrying out a sustainability project in their school or community.

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