Why the Fraser River is the ‘soul of BC’
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Tuesday, October 5, 2021
Good Morning Reader!
Fall and spring are my favourite seasons. I’m probably not unique in that regard. It comes down to the sun. When you’re in summer, you may either take the sun for granted or—if you’re like me with skin that demands an SPF of roughly 4,000—regard it with a modicum of fear. But in the spring and fall, every ray of sun is glorious (and less scary), given the winter that is either yet to come, or in the recent past. The weather today is shaping up to be pretty gross. Ditto for Wednesday. But Thursday and Friday? Peak fall. Enjoy it. Every fall day is precious. —Tyler Olsen, managing editor

Today’s weather: 🌧 11 C
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Every year, the Fraser River and its tributaries, like the Adams River (above), showcase the cross-generational curiosity of salmon.   📸 Timothy Yue/Shutterstock
The soul of BC, and its greatest explorers

Europeans first mapped the Fraser River a couple hundred years ago. BC’s Indigenous people explored the great river for many millennia. But arguably the Fraser’s greatest travellers used neither feet nor paddles, but fins.

Eric Taylor, a zoology professor at UBC, has published a new book arguing the Fraser is "the soul" of the province. The river has played a pivotal role in the settlement of BC, nearly two-thirds of British Columbians live in its basin, and its shape reflects its early and continued importance: "It’s not a fluke that the southern border with the United States is just below the Fraser River delta," Taylor told The Current.

But it has taken many British Columbians a long time to start to treat the Fraser as something more than a tool for humans. The river is inseparable from the landscapes through which it passes, Taylor said. And while the Fraser is home to many more animals than just fish, its most famous swimmers are a good place to start an analysis of the forces at play. Because salmon are themselves infinitely complex.

Some migrate in the spring. Others spawn in the fall. Some swim just a short distance upriver, laying their eggs in places like Cultus Lake or the Chilliwack or Chehalis rivers. Others navigate for hundreds of kilometres, through rapids and a variety of other hazards, into the shadows of the Rocky Mountains.

While people tend to focus on the Fraser’s five species of Pacific salmon, along with steelhead and cutthroat trout, "What a lot of people don’t appreciate is how complex all the different populations within those species are," Taylor said. "There are probably over 100 distinct populations of all these salmon species combined in the Fraser River."

Which might prompt the question: what has caused that diversity, and why do some salmon swim so far? The answer: an instinct for exploration—and natural selection.

"Salmon are really, really great explorers," Taylor said. "We have to remember that the entire Fraser River Basin was covered in a two- to three-kilometre thick sheet of ice up until around 10,000 years ago. There were no salmon in the Fraser River; the ice left, and now they’ve colonized all the way up to around Valemount, well upstream of Prince George.

"They’re sticking their noses all the time in places and trying to go to different areas. And those different areas have different water temperatures, they have different elevations, they have different relationships between the streams that they spawn in."

When a fish’s exploration instinct leads it to a particularly good place to spawn, its fry end up trying to return to that area (though, clearly, they may explore beyond it). When a fish finds a less-suitable place to lay eggs (or takes a wrong turn into the mouth of a bear), there are fewer fry to inherit its lessons and genes. These two mutually complementary characteristics—a knack for returning to one’s birthplace combined with an explorer’s curiosity—have allowed salmon to make the bulk of the Fraser their home.

In evolutionary terms, salmon spread through the Fraser with remarkable speed. But 10,000 years is still 10,000 years. It’s not a single human lifetime. In recent decades, salmon have been forced to adjust to unprecedented changes because of climate change and human settlement.

"We know that the river has warmed by about two degrees," Taylor said. It’s not just the temperature of the water. More wildfires can increase erosion, sending more silt and sand into the Fraser or one of its tributaries. And the millions of humans living in close proximity to it in the Lower Mainland all have an effect, particularly with run-off from urban and agricultural areas.

"All these rivers are encased, as I like to say, within a landscape. So whatever happens in the landscape is going to end up in the river at some point," he said. When development takes place, "even with the best of all possible intentions—the environment will almost always pay some cost because you have to put the people somewhere. I live in a house on a part of land in Vancouver that used to not have a house on it. That’s the way it goes."

Taylor hopes his new book, called Rivers Run Through Us: A Natural and Human History of Great Rivers of North America, might lead some people to reconsider their own relationship to the Fraser. Many people tend to think of rivers as parts of the world that can be tamed to serve humans. There are lessons, he said, to be learned from the way many Indigenous cultures conceptualize the landscapes in which they live.

"I hate to say that Indigenous people act this way and non-Indigenous people act this way because there’s so much variation, but one thing I deeply respect about many Indigenous cultures is their degree of connection to the land and water.

"We non-Indigenous people often tend to think of it as something separate somehow, where we can do things to rivers and lands and somehow it’s not going to impact us. They think because we’re separate, we can control everything; there’s always a technological fix. I think that’s the root of a lot of our problems with environmental degradation: we don’t realize the actual biological connection between human persistence and environmental persistence."

Read another Q&A with Taylor

—By Tyler Olsen
Need to Know
⚖ Three Chilliwack pastors fined for breaching public health orders are headed to trial [Chilliwack Progress]

👉🏻 Two men have been charged with illegally buying handguns after a police raid of a Langley home in January [Langley Advance Times]

🚓 Chilliwack Mounties say they searched seven properties and two storage lockers last week in a drug trafficking investigation; four people have been arrested [Chilliwack RCMP]

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Harrison residents want a park where dogs can roam off-leash. 📸 Chandler Walter
The Agenda
The results of the survey are clear: people in Harrison Hot Springs want an off-leash dog park. A survey put out by the village saw 179 people say that they wanted a park for their dogs, and the majority of those preferred the park behind the Harrison Fire Hall. That park option was the largest, something many respondents commented on, and is also central to many of the village’s residential areas. Respondents were also given the opportunity to select how much money they felt the village should spend in creating a dog park: nearly 37%, by far the largest portion, said between $50,000 and $75,000. Around 34% also said they would support maintenance costs between $5,000 and $10,000. Although the residents have had their say, it will be up to council to decide where an off-leash dog park should go, and how much they are willing to spend on it.

Enrolment numbers from the Langley School District show half as many parents are choosing to homeschool their children this year, compared to last school year. In September of 2020, the Langley School District had 140 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 being homeschooled. This year, that number is down to 71. Most of the students being homeschooled this year are in Kindergarten through Grade 7; there are only five high school students being homeschooled in Langley. Enrolment in the school district as a whole has gone up substantially compared to the expected number of students for 2021-22. There are approximately 21,300 students attending brick-and-mortar schools in Langley, and 300 in "other programs"—around a 700 student increase from what was expected. These numbers are preliminary, and more accurate enrolment figures are expected after Sept. 30.
COVID latest
Monday’s COVID numbers were relatively good. After a worrying increase in new case numbers last week, the 782 cases diagnosed over the weekend could suggest that people are starting to alter their behaviour. Since the pandemic began, more than 17,000 people in the Fraser East region have contracted COVID. While that brings some level of immunity, the amount of immunity you gain after beating the virus is highly variable, scientists say, so those people should still get vaccinated.

Fraser Health
  • New cases: 782 (3 days) / 264 daily average (down 4% from previous week)
  • No active outbreaks at hospitals / 6 active outbreaks in long-term care
  • School exposures: Abbotsford: 11 / Chilliwack: 10 / Langley: 14 / Mission: 4 / Fraser Cascade: 0
  • New cases: 1,986 (3 days) /  702 daily average (down 4% from last week)
  • 326 hospitalizations (up 8% from previous week)
  • 10 new deaths / 1,983 total
Around Town
🐜 Learn more about the insects that love our local berries in a free guided walk through the Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve on Oct. 14. Register online.

🔎 The Metzger Collection at Columbia Bible College is hosting an exhibition of a 2,000-year-old stamped coin from the time of Pontiuis Pilate. Viewing is free, by appointment.

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