Paddling the Lower Fraser River

Fraser River journey teaches young leaders ecological sustainability, social equity and stewardship.

Credit: Rivershed Society of BC

Fin Donnelly standing at the

mouth of the Harrison River,

where it joins the Fraser.


Fraser River journey teaches ecological sustainability and social equity, and inspires students to become the needed stewards of tomorrow

Last week, we took 16 students from across Canada on a five-day paddle of the Lower Fraser, part of the Red Fish School of Change, a non-profit program designed for people who want to lead the way in creating ecological sustainability and social equity in their communities.

Our journey began near the mouth of the Harrison River, where it joins the Fraser. There, we met Tyrone McNeil of the Sto’lo Tribal Council who told us the legend of the transformer sturgeon to illustrate how his people relied on the river for thousands of years. (Transformer stories are common in First Nations cultures and focus on the challenges around feeding their people.) He told us that, at one time, the valley was so flooded, waters reached near the top of Sumas Mountain. It was hard for me to comprehend how different things would have been back then with that much water in the valley.

Fin Donnelly talks to Red Fish School of Change students at Kilby campsite near Harrison Mills.

    Fin talks to Red Fish School of Change

    students at Kilby campsite near Harrison Mills.

As we paddled through some of the most diverse fish habitat in the world, we saw eagles, herons, seals and sturgeon, and we met up with scientists, experts and stewards, like Marvin Rosenau and Tom Cadieux, who shared their knowledge of the land and water.

In Mission, Jim Taylor of the Stave Valley Salmonid Enhancement Society took us on a wetlands restoration tour. Paddling by Langley, we stopped in at the Glen Valley Organic Farm for a tour with resident farmer Jeremy Pitchford. In New Westminster, we paddled up to the Fraser River Discovery Centre, where Kathleen Betrand took us on a tour of the facility and documentary filmmaker Damien Gillis gave us an inspiring presentation on independent power projects.

After an early morning presentation by Metro Vancouver parks interpreter Vanessa Lee, we finished our trip paddling through the Fraser estuary, out into the ocean. Our final stop was at the Museum of Anthropology, where Maurice Nahanee of the Squamish Nation shared the transformer salmon story* and spoke of the importance of respect for the environment.

View Redfish School of Change – MAP in a larger map

The week long paddle focused on the past, present and future: giving the students a hint of what it was like in the area thousands of years ago, what the current issues and conditions are today, and inspiring them to become the needed stewards of tomorrow.

I also found myself looking ahead with anticipation to the three-week trip down the full length of the Fraser River that I will be helping to guide with a group of 10 young leaders this August. It was a good test run!

Fin Donnelly is executive director of the Rivershed Society of BC (RSBC), a non-profit that endeavours to keep salmon and people flourishing in our communities. Before starting the society, Fin swam the full length of the Fraser twice to draw attention to the plight of the mighty salmon river.

The RSBC coordinates a variety of educational programs, one of which is the Sustainable Living Leadership Program (SLLP). The SLLP is an annual three-week trip for a group of ten, lucky young candidates, ranging in age from 19 to 35—lucky because the trip is unforgettable, exhausting, breathtaking and challenging, but also because the majority of it is covered by scholarships. The goal of the program is to educate, inspire and motivate young leaders from around BC to help their own communities become more sustainable. This year’s trip is from August 6–30.

Coming in August: Follow along on Granville Online as this hearty troupe of young people blogs about a once-in-a-lifetime experience!