On Sunday, my wife and I went canoeing. Admittedly not usually an event considered newsworthy, this trip was significant for two reasons. First, it was for the thirtieth anniversary of B.C. Rivers Day. Second, it was our first trip together on a B.C. river, and only my wife’s second time in a canoe.

B.C. Rivers Day is a province-wide event, or rather series of events, held every year on the last Sunday in September. Proclaimed by communities across B.C., local organizers host dozens of events across the province to raise public awareness about rivers and the benefits they provide to communities. Over 75,000 people participate in more than 100 events each year, celebrating the role of rivers in our lives as sources of water and salmon, as paddling areas and historic highways, and as geographic features that both astonish us with their breathtaking beauty and quietly remind us that we are home.

But as Rivers Day highlights all there is to celebrate, it also profiles the threats to our waterways. Created in 1980 by Mark Angelo, the initial Rivers Day consisted of forty people spread among five rafts floating down the Thompson River to raise awareness about the need to protect our rivers. Along their trip they cleared junk from the river, including a couple cars Angelo convinced local towing companies to remove. Reflecting on the collection of garbage they assembled by the day’s end, Angelo decided that the event should be annual.

Angelo got the provincial government to officially recognize the day to protect and celebrate rivers, and over the years, dozens of communities have participated. Angelo argues that “B.C. Rivers Day has done much to increase public awareness while encouraging people to get involved in river stewardship.”

B.C. Rivers Day’s success led to the establishment of first Canadian Rivers Day in 2002 and then World Rivers Day in 2005 as part of the United Nations Water For Life Decade. While Canadian Rivers Day is hosted on the second Sunday in June, World Rivers Day is celebrated alongside B.C. Rivers Day at the end of September.

Along the Bulkley River in the northwest interior, folks decided to celebrate Rivers Day in 2010 with series of events, involving first a paddle, then a barbeque, then another paddle, and finally more food and drinks. Gladys Atrill and the folks at Northern Sun Tours organized the flotilla of paddle craft heading down the Bulkley River from the Walcott Bridge.

Due to the heavy rains in the preceding days the river had risen significantly and turned a chocolaty brown. Barbara, my better half, was clearly seeing the worst in the situation. Watching the river speed by from the sand bar, she was less than confident in either her or my abilities. (It probably didn’t help that in our only other canoeing adventure we dumped the canoe over some small rapids).

Fortunately, the support of a community of paddlers helped calm her anxiety. Francois Depey quietly provided some last minute instructions that provided additional confidence on the water. Away from shore, the river seemed far gentler as we floated along, part of the fleet of sixty-five people paddling down the waterway.

Around noon, we arrived at the opening of the Bulkley River Recreation Centre. After bringing the canoe to shore, we found Skeena Wild Conservation Trust and Glacier Toyota provided barbequed salmon and potato salad and hot cider, while the Round Lake Community Association organized speakers, music, and prizes. Dina Hanson of Round Lake Community Association welcomed attendees on behalf of the organizers.

The celebration began with an opening by hereditary chief Legibu (Neil Bazil) from the Laksamshu (Fireweed) clan of the Wet’suwet’en, who was responsible for the territory. Ali Howard, a woman who swam the length of the Skeena River to raise awareness about development issues on the river, gave a brief speech noting the importance of rivers. Then local musicians provided the backdrop for a community celebration. The barbeques steadily cooked fish, and people slowly ate, mingled and chatted, while children ran and played.

Eventually the paddlers returned to their boats, and completed the final leg of the journey, a fifteen minute float to the Quick Bridge. There the Friends of the Morice and Bulkley hosted an informal gathering with drinks and snacks, and group photo alongside a mounted sign saying no to Enbridge’s proposed tar sands oil pipeline.

Grasping upon the political origins of B.C. Rivers Day, the Friends of the Morice and Bulkley united their celebration of the river with opposition to the development activities that threaten it. The group had issued a call for community members to organize myriad events along the waterway, celebrating clean rivers and demonstrating resistance to Enbridge. Recognizing that an oil pipeline spill would endanger the river and everything that depends upon it — salmon, wildlife, water quality, recreation, jobs, and a way of life — Friends of the Morice and Bulkley collected photos from these different events to support their campaign to protect these rivers.

While we are happy to support such a campaign, the pictures from B.C. Rivers Day also represent something else for Barbara and I. They represent a canoe excursion that did not involve an involuntary swim, and the beginning of a discussion about the possibility, indeed necessity, of getting our own canoe.

Tyler Shandro during a June 25 news briefing. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Tyler McCreary

Tyler McCreary is an Indigenous solidarity activist based in northern British Columbia. He is also currently working towards his PhD in geography at York University.