Fin Donnelly’s love affair with the Fraser River began more than two decades ago. As a young man, the Port Moody–Coquitlam NDP MP was a marathon swimmer, crossing the Strait of Georgia several times. But it was his journey down the length of the Fraser River in 1995 that changed his life.
Initially, he planned to go from New Westminster to the mouth of the Fraser to raise public awareness of the impact of industrial activities on marine life. But after hearing about environmental concerns farther upriver, he decided to expand his journey to the river’s glacier-fed headwaters on Mount Robson near the Alberta border.
It was a 1,400-kilometre swim, which he completed over 21 days.
“Mount Terry Fox is up near Mount Robson, so it was kind of cool for me to reflect on Terry Fox, because he was an inspiration when I was in high school,” Donnelly told the Georgia Straight by phone.
He said that during his trip, he was in the water for eight to 10 hours a day—and one day he kept swimming for 13.5 hours. Along the route, he observed a breathtaking diversity of plant and animal life over 10 of B.C.’s 14 biogeoclimatic zones.
“It’s certainly one of the world’s greatest salmon rivers,” Donnelly said. “It supports all five species of salmon and it’s got sturgeon, eagles, bears, and just an incredible array of animals and even plants.”
He cited the Fraser Canyon from Williams Lake to Yale as a “spectacular part of the province”, comparing it to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Donnelly pointed out that the one in B.C. is far more accessible to the public. “You can get on a raft anytime in the summer, whereas in the Grand Canyon, you would have to get on a waiting list,” he said.
Following his epic swim, Donnelly and others formed the nonprofit Rivershed Society of B.C. in 1996 to promote public education about the Fraser River Basin and enhance stewardship capacity and community projects.
Donnelly still chairs the society, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Its flagship outreach project, the sustainable-living leadership program, offers young people scholarships for an outdoor-education program that takes them on rafts and canoes from the Fraser River headwaters to the estuary.
“We’ve had just about 100 graduates over the past 13 years,” Donnelly noted.
He said that in the future, the society hopes to create regional programs offering canoe trips on the upper Fraser and rafting trips in the mid-Fraser. The goal is to encourage participants to learn about the river so they’ll be motivated to advance conservation, protection, and restoration programs—something Donnelly called “watershed CPR”.
In 2000, Donnelly made his second swim down the length of the Fraser River to build community support for habitat protection. “We found that the water quality in 2000 had slightly improved in the upper section, in places like Prince George, Quesnel, and Williams Lake,” he said. “It was about the same, if not worse, in the lower Fraser.”
FraserFest coming to False Creek
Next Sunday (August 28), the Rivershed Society of B.C. will host a free all-ages event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at False Creek Fishermen’s Wharf beside Granville Island. It’s part of FraserFest, which is a series of events that the society is putting on in seven B.C. communities this summer.
Before the festival begins, there’s another event starting at 9 a.m. at Vanier Park. Cyclists and canoeists will travel by land or water to West Vancouver’s Ambleside Park for lunch before travelling back to Vancouver to attend the celebration at False Creek Fishermen’s Wharf. Cyclists will ride over two bridges and roads to reach their destinations; paddlers will make their way across Burrard Inlet in 10-metre voyageur canoes.
“We’ll all travel back to the festival, which will already be in progress,” society chair Fin Donnelly told the Straight.
FraserFest at False Creek will feature musical performances by Buckman Coe, Reid Jamieson, J.P. Maurice, and Marin Patenaude. The Rivershed Society of B.C. and other environmental organizations will set up educational booths, and there will also be kids’ activities and several speakers highlighting the importance of preserving Fraser River salmon stocks.