Friday, August 05, 2011

Lessons from a swim in the Gorge

We went for a swim Monday, about two blocks from home, in the Gorge waterway. We swam in the salt water as the tidal currents swept under the Tillicum Bridge toward Portage Inlet.

It was just a swim. And it was more. Because even 15 years ago, I wouldn't have ventured into the questionable Gorge waters.

The swim was a reminder that even when things are truly wrecked, we can fix them.

All it takes is one person with the will to start.

The Gorge is an urban waterway that extends inland from Victoria's harbour until it widens into Portage Inlet.

There are a few creeks feeding into the inlet and the Gorge, but the big influence is tidal. Water surges in, and out. The rapids under the Tillicum bridge run one way, then the other.

In the last 120 years, the Gorge has gone full circle. Its heyday was the late 19th and early 20th century, although First Nations had fished for herring and salmon and used it as a gathering place for centuries.

Victorians travelled in boats and by wagon and streetcar to the Gorge narrows to picnic, enjoy the natural setting and listen to concerts.

In 1911, as Dennis Minaker noted in his book, The Gorge of Summers Gone, the British Columbia Railway Company built its own version of Coney Island at the narrows to encourage more people to use the streetcar line. There was a roller-coaster and an early version of Splash Mountain that sent terrified customers down a steep ramp in small boats that plunged into the Gorge.

The water was always central to the activities. People swam and boated and gathered clams. There were races and exhibitions and bathhouses. Promoters built towers and staged diving shows - until, in 1922, 19-year-old Billy Muir was paralysed in a 110-foot dive. He died three years later.

But a few decades into the 20th century, the Gorge waterway was too polluted for anyone but the foolhardy to go swimming.

Residential development all along its length and around Portage Inlet meant increasing runoff, often with storm water and sewage spilling into the waters. Industry along the harbour and Gorge had added its own toxic legacies over Victoria's early years. And the Gorge had become a dumping ground for unwanted items large and small.

It was fine for boaters, but its attractiveness for swimmers - and its once-rich environment - seemed to be lost forever.

But John Roe didn't think so. In 1994, he and his nine-year-old son started spending their days hauling stuff out of the water - shopping carts, rusted metal, car tires.

It seemed, frankly, nutty - a classicly quixotic exercise in the impossible. The Gorge seemed too far gone for any effort to succeed, let alone one driven by one man and a boy in their spare time.

But individual efforts can have a powerful effect.

Other people started helping haul stuff from the water or contributed money. Scuba divers volunteered to pull up the junk Roe couldn't reach.

Business and governments offered support.

Roe, who had covered all the initial expenses, led the formation of the Veins of Life Watershed Society.

Grants and donations paid for equipment and bigger workforces. The cleanup efforts moved beyond pulling junk from the water and started focusing on stopping the flow of pollutants.

And at some point, there was a transformation. It was no longer accepted as an inevitable that the Gorge would remain unusable.

Instead, its recovery was seen as the imperative.

By 2000, a symbolic milestone Roe had set was reached. The Gorge was the site, for the first time in 65 years, of a swimming race.

Today, the transformation is remarkable. Salmon have returned, cormorants and eagles perch in trees along the waterway and herons and kingfishers haunt the shoreline. Emerald green eelgrass beds wave in the tides and otters and seals fish in the water.

And all because one man and a boy took a look at the state of the Gorge and decided to do something about it.

It's worth remembering, in these days of problems that seem too large or complex to yield to our efforts.

And pondering - perhaps as you enjoy a swim in the Gorge on a sunny afternoon.


RossK said...

My gosh!

Once, when I was a much younger man....

Well, a boy, actually.... A friend of a friend who knew a guy who knew another guy who worked summers on the green chain in high school, and smoked camel plain's for breakfast, told us a story about how a kid's entire foot melted when he left it too long in the Gorge, on a dare.

Which, of course, was pure hokum but sure as heck reinforced the fact that we would never, ever go swimming in that then (i.e. early '70's) extremely stinky stinkhole (as we perceived it then).

So....Three Cheers For For The Roes!

(and all who helped them)


BC Mary said...

What a delightful surprise!

I hope the transformation of The Gorge inspires many others to clean up and enjoy the results.

Thanks for this story, Paul, and for noting the elements of success in such lovely detail.

Anonymous said...

Nice article Paul. Makes me hopeful about the future of some of our other waterways.

Dave said...

A similar story in Vancouver's False Creek, although I'm not sure that an identifiable John Roe was involved. When I first spent any time there, decades ago, it was a similar wasteland (or wastewater) but lo and behold, last year, a gray whale under the Cambie Bridge!

DPL said...

Anyone remember the Japanese Tea house?

Anonymous said...

That is a wonderful story.

Campbell thieved and sold our rivers. The damage done to the eco system, by the run of the rivers, is heart breaking. Salmon runs are destroyed. The bears and eagles, depend on the salmon. The First Nations people, rely on the salmon, to feed their people. All of those filthy, Norwegian fish farms, are killing our salmon and other marine creatures.

There is going to be, another assault on BC's beauty. Harper and Campbell worked hand in hand, to force the Enbridge pipeline and the dirty Chinese oil tankers, onto our province and the people.

Harper and Campbell have also worked on, drilling oil and gas wells off BC's coast. Harper also left the back door open, so the expansion of Prosperity Mine, can be re-applied for.

Harper did say, by the time I am finished with Canada, we won't recognize our country. Well, we already see his damage on Canada. Harper has totally destroyed Canada's good name and image. He has embarrassed Canadians on numerous occasions. We cringe every time Harper opens his mouth, afraid he will make a, bigger fool of himself.

Harper and Campbell will make BC a, polluted wasteland.

Anonymous said...

1. While the Veins of Life efforts to cleanup the Gorge waterway have been welcome, it isn't a coincidence that your article appears
at same time as John Roe announces the bankruptcy of the VOL organization. In fact, much of the cleanup of the Gorge Waterway
may be attributed to actions by others, such as the replacement of the industrial infrastructure by environmentally-benign residential
and commercial developments such as Jawl's Selkirk Water and Dockside Green. Efforts by many municipal and regional authorities to
reduce contamination at Cecelia Creek included many actors with greater roles than Veins of Life.

2. Please note that the VIHA sampling of Gorge Waterway area beaches only includes one area - Kosapsom/Craigflower Park, which
has not exceeded VIHA standards for bacteria levels in the latest sampling. However, it is only for bacteria levels, not other possible
issues such as heavy metals or industrial chemicals. With tidal currents, it is possible that the actual water area sampled at a beach
may not be the same body of water present in the area just a few hours later.

3. The issue of health and environmental problems from CRD storm drains - especially those in the Gorge Waterway and connecting Victoria
Harbour area is unavailable for public oversight at this time. The CRD's 2007 map of the many problem storm drains in the Gorge
Waterway/Victoria Harbour area appears to the latest one available, although testing of storm drains has continued. For example, the
Rock Bay contamination data suggests continuing problems with storm drain contamination that could be carried on currents throughout
the Gorge Waterway. Fecal contamination entering Victoria Harbour on a flood tidal current could remain viable by the time
it reaches Esquimalt Gorge Park, Tillicum Bridge, or Kosapsom Park beach areas.

John Newcomb