from Our Place/A Natural History of Home
(original version dated 1998)
“. . . On the river, when you are
finally on the river and you are alone with a friend,
you can finally
let it go, all the rancour and the displacement
it does not matter here. They say I am a newcomer
and I say to them
get down to the river and say that, watch
the ducks fly up in laughter. This friend
knows the songs of all the birds by heart,
they are part of his heart
they are the reason he has a fighter’s heart, he
stands up in the boat to see above the levees
and through the great black trees that
stand guard along the bank. We speak of
trees and mink and let it go.
“It goes by
and we drift through the world again like children,
after the first hour
we have settled in. An eagle hangs above us
like a man crucified to the sky.
There is a dead thing ahead, an elk
that crashed through the ice and turned instantly
to food for the ling, the suckered fish
following the canoe like shadows.
There is wind
there is the surface of the water rippled and stretched
by the wind. There is rot and the
smell of rot and there is finally a
blankness in the mind, it lets the eyes see again,
and the eyes look out from the dark heart itself
and they let in the timeless light of the wild.
“They see the banks of the river,
carved and broken and sometimes dropping down
like mud, pale faceless mud. They see
line of sand upon line of gravel and we wonder out loud
how long it took,
we want to know about
the writing between the lines. But we do not expect
an answer, that is not why we are here today.
We want to feel
small because then we will also feel
as large as the eagle and the white world of swans . . .”
*an excerpt from Dale (David) Zieroth’s much longer poem Columbia. Originally published in Mid-River, House of Anansi, 1976. Reprinted with permission.
On the river, as you drift around the first bend and the launch site vanishes behind cottonwoods, there is no point in worrying about time or things left undone. This is a different dimension now; the river will not be hurried. The brown water seems not so much to carry the canoe along as to hold it back, obliging paddlers to surrender to the timeless peace of the Columbia River wetlands.
Beyond the levees, screened from sight by tangles of alder, red-osier dogwood, willow and black cottonwood, the worried clamour of Canada geese and clucking of spotted frogs advertise unseen marshes and sloughs. Tracks of elk and deer pockmark muddy nicks in the river levees; sometimes bear or otter tracks appear too. Warbling vireos and ruby-crowned kinglets sing. Brown water hisses quietly in the branches of sweepers. Time slows nearly to a standstill.
My first float trip into the upper Columbia River’s riparian wilderness was in 1975. Recently-graduated, I had come to the edge of the Columbia valley to work as a summer park naturalist. The green mosaic seemed to sprawl on forever; framed by mountains, humid, fecund, chaotic with birdsong. Ospreys, beavers, startled wood ducks and watchful herons: for a biology graduate trying to imagine his future the long float among new friends was a heady experience.
At the centre of it all was my boss for the summer: a stocky man with a brush cut, jean jacket and an impish grin. Ian Jack wore the air of unassuming competence that came naturally to foresters of his generation. He told us about a writer named Aldo Leopold, recounted humorous stories about old-time outfitters and modern-day hippies, and quietly made room for each of us in the circle of warmth around him. There seemed nothing he didn’t know about birds, amphibians, bears and local history. In the evenings while we camped on old steamboat landings, his stories held us captive. As robins sang in the cottonwoods and cicadas trilled amid shadowed alders, Ian’s distinctive chuckle punctuated the quiet buzz of conversation again and again.
“Ian used to like to watch people’s behaviour on the Toad floats,” says Larry Halverson, a noted naturalist and environmental educator who lives at the southernmost edge of the wetlands in Invermere, BC. He smiles at the memory of his close friend. “He always got a kick out of how some would start in paddling like they really had to get somewhere. Usually by the third day they’d have slowed down and be just drifting. Ian’d say to me, ‘Looks like they finally found the toad.’”
The toad in question was a mythical beast Ian invented in the early 1970s. Spawned in the silty outwash of the Toby Glacier high in the Purcell Mountains west of Invermere, the great green toad was reputed to have migrated downstream to the marshes and backwaters of the upper Columbia River. The Columbia wetlands – sprawling across the bottom of the Rocky Mountain Trench from Athalmer 160 kilometres north to the town of Donald – are the longest undisturbed riparian mosaic in North America today. The toad might be anywhere in there. Those who found him, Ian insisted, were certain to obtain wisdom and great blessings.
Beginning in 1973, Ian Jack and Larry Halverson organized annual expeditions to search for the great green Columbia River toad. Naturalists travelled from all over western Canada to join local conservationists for a three day float down the river. In the middle of their motley flotilla, blinking like a mirror in the bright May sun, floated Ian Jack’s aluminum rowboat. Over the years, Ian became known to his friends and admirers as Toad, and Toad floats became less a quest for a mythical amphibian than a much-coveted opportunity to spend time with a man whose wisdom, humour and persistence will stand always as a model for those who want to make conservation work.
The river’s sleepy rhythms may seem to slow time, but they cannot stop it. On November 9, 1996, Ian Jack collapsed and died of a heart attack while chopping wood at his home at Edgewater, just a few hundred metres from the wetlands he loved. He was only sixty years old. Unlike other great conservationists who died too young, however, Ian lived to see success after spending half his lifetime fighting for the Columbia wetlands. On April 30, 1996 – barely six months before his death – the BC government had signed an order establishing the new Columbia Wetlands Wildlife Management Area.
Larry Halverson, who took over from Ian as Chief Park Naturalist in Kootenay National Park after Ian’s retirement, says that if there was any doubt about Ian’s remarkable ability to unite diverse people around a common cause, his memorial service should have erased those. “Helicopter jockeys, loggers, hippies, trappers, hunters, politicians, coal miners – people of every kind were there.” An overflow crowd of more than 250 people turned out to pay their last respects to the man who saved the Columbia River wetlands.
The odds seemed hopeless when Ian Jack first began the battle to save the wetlands. In the early 1970s, BC Hydro was determined to put those wetlands to work generating electric power. Prevailing public sentiment was that what was good for Hydro was good for BC. The few who felt differently were resigned to the view that there was little point trying to stop the energy giant from implementing the river diversion provisions of the Columbia River Treaty.
The Columbia River Treaty, signed in 1961 between Canada and the USA, set the stage for a series of dams that destroyed nearly 600 kilometres of Canada’s portion of the Columbia River. The Mica Dam, finished in 1973, backed the Columbia up into the Rocky Mountain Trench – a rift valley more than a thousand kilometres long. The reservoir flooded hundreds of square kilometres of the valley floor, adding to damage already caused by the massive WAC Bennett Dam that – farther north – had plugged the Peace River in 1968 and backed water up both the Finlay and Parsnip River valleys to flood more than 1600 square kilometres at the north end of the same Rocky Mountain Trench. At the south end of the Trench the US Army Corps of Engineer erected the Libby Dam on the Kootenay River, backing water into BC under Koocanusa Reservoir.
With most of the Rocky Mountain Trench already flooded, there was no practical way to dam the headwaters reach of the Columbia River upstream from the Mica Reservoir. But the treaty threatened it anyway.
Most of the Columbia River Treaty’s hydro power and irrigation benefits went to the United States; the big reservoirs that flooded 4/5 of Canada’s portion of the Columbia valley merely store water for American hydroelectric dams farther downstream. There was, however, one way that Canada could improve its returns: the Treaty allowed BC Hydro to tip most of the Kootenay River’s flow north into the Columbia at Canal Flats. There, instead of flowing south to turn turbines on the Libby Dam, it would flow through Canadian hydroelectric generating plants at the Mica and Revelstoke Dams.
Ian Jack knew the upper Columbia River well. He hunted ducks, geese and deer among its lush backwater marshes and riparian thickets of willow and cottonwood. He volunteered his time to build nesting platforms for geese and erect nest boxes for wood ducks and goldeneyes. In spring, when willow catkins were yellow, song sparrows and redwings shouted about the return of another breeding season, and winter-weary deer congregated on newly-green sidehills, Ian often floated down one of the Columbia’s many twisting channels with Larry, Dale Zieroth or some other friend, soaking up sunshine, counting migrants, and chuckling over his latest good story.
Most of his neighbours either didn’t know about the proposed Kootenay-Columbia Diversion, or considered it pointless to resist BC Hydro. Ian Jack, however, considered it a simple question of values. It would be a failure of ethics, he believed, were he not to do all he could to protect the wetlands from a man-made flood. And so in the early 1970s he began a campaign that culminated more than a quarter century later in establishment of the Columbia River Wildlife Management Area.
Ian’s strategy evolved as his network of contacts in the Columbia Basin grew. The Toad floats helped introduce park naturalists and representatives of the outdoors media to the place itself, building wider awareness of the ecological values at stake and deeper commitment to the cause of protection. Ian’s sincere interest in and respect for people played no less important a role, because it yielded an ever-widening coalition of concern among town councils, local fish and game clubs, environmental groups, and local businesses. Nobody, in Ian Jack’s world, was an outsider. Everybody, in his view, was an environmentalist. His knack was in helping them realize it.
The diversion seemed a simple engineering issue to BC Hydro’s planners. Ian’s understanding of biology and the intimate workings of the wetland ecosystem, however, helped him frame the issue in terms engineers weren’t comfortable with.
“Ian just kept on asking them hard questions,” says Larry Halverson, “and forcing them to go back and find answers rather than admit they hadn’t really thought about what the effects might be. For example, the Kootenay River is a lot colder than the Columbia, so Ian asked how pouring all that colder water into the Columbia River would affect warmer water fish like the pike-minnow, and the swimming and waterskiing on Lake Windermere.”
Ian’s questions echoed through the Columbia valley, awakening people to the many ways the diversion could undermine their well-being. Questions about cold water, for example, got the attention of Invermere’s Chamber of Commerce who rely on summer tourism centred on Lake Windermere. No less canny was Ian’s question about what would happen – with most of the Kootenay River’s flow diverted north – to the pollution from a large pulp mill on the Kootenay River at Skookumchuk. In the 1970s, dilution was still considered the solution to pollution – but with less dilution the pulp mill would be forced into costly technology upgrades to reduce their effluent levels. Ian’s simple question produced another influential diversion opponent.
As his coalition continued to grow, their questions became more sophisticated and insistent and the costs – both in dollars and public goodwill – continued to mount. BC Hydro began to change its tune. By the 1980s water development projects no longer enjoyed the support they had two decades earlier. Energy conservation technology was emerging as a new way for electric utilities to make money. After waffling for several years, BC Hydro announced in 1990 that there would be no Kootenay-Columbia Diversion.
But the battle was far from over. Ironically, the diversion threat had actually protected the wetlands from other dangers. As long as BC Hydro held a flood reserve on the valley bottom, nobody seriously considered draining marshes for crop land, filling sloughs to create golf courses, or developing recreational real estate. Now, with the threat of flooding gone, speculators began to look at the wildlife-rich wetlands and consider how to squeeze profits out of them.
The 1988 election of Mike Harcourt’s NDP government, fortunately, came just in time. The new government, hoping to put an end to divisive land use battles, announced a new planning initiative for every square centimetre of BC’s public land. Ian Jack retired from Parks Canada in 1992 and devoted himself full time to representing the interests of hunters, anglers and other conservationists when the Commission on Resources and Environment (CORE) turned its attention to the East Kootenay region.
Bob Jamieson, a biologist-rancher from Ta Ta Creek who coordinated the East Kootenay CORE process, says that Ian was in his element in the CORE process. “Ian was one of those rare people who crossed over the line between naturalist and hunter,” he says. “He could go out and shoot ducks in the morning, then spend the afternoon finding some rubber boas and making notes on them. He was the antithesis of the modern computer biologist. He learned from talking to the people, and he could talk with anyone.”
Ian’s sheer enjoyment of people and consistent ability to steer conversations into the realm of shared values served him well in a process that demanded long hours of negotiation among people representing a diversity of conflicting interests – from logging and mining companies, government agencies, tourism operators and chambers of commerce to off-road vehicle groups, environmentalists and hunting outfitters.
“Ian and I both worked hard to get the wetlands protected,” says Ellen Zimmerman, an eco-tourism operator from Golden, BC. She represented the East Kootenay Environmental Society during the CORE negotiations. “But we wanted a Class A Provincial Park and Ian wanted a Wildlife Management Area.”
Under BC protected areas legislation, a Wildlife Management Area protects habitat from development while still providing for recreational uses such as hunting, fishing, nature study and eco-tourism where they don’t conflict with wildlife needs. Ian preferred to keep the wetlands exactly as they were and not risk disenfranchising any of the traditional users who had, after all, played so important a role in the earlier battle against the diversion. He suspected a provincial park might result in new recreational development, more tourism, and less room for traditional users.
Ultimately, Ian’s vision won the day – and, as usual, his wisdom proved itself when a controversy over motorized vehicles erupted only six months after his death. Participants in the 1997 Toad Float – which Larry Halverson had organized in memory of Ian and in honour of his widow, Joyce – encountered several aggressive stunters on motorized jet-skis. The experience spurred several participants to start looking into the impacts of motorized boats and other vehicles on wildlife. A provincial park, with its recreational mandate, might not have supported their subsequent call for restrictions on motors. However, the Wildlife Management Area had to put wildlife needs first. The BC government quickly imposed a year-round ten horsepower restriction on motorized traffic in the wetlands.
“The order includes all motorized conveyances, including snowmobiles, quads, dirt bikes jet boats and so on,” says Dave Phelps, Regional Land Management Biologist responsible for the wetlands. “It was implemented to reduce disturbance and harassment of wintering wildlife, soil erosion and sedimentation on forage plants and invertebrates, harassment, predation on waterfowl broods that scatter after being surprised by high speed craft, egg breakage from rapid flight off nests etc. and general habitat destruction.”
It also restored the stillness.
One recent May evening, I picked my way down a narrow forest trail to Larry Halverson’s rustic cabin on the edge of the Columbia River near Brisco. A kestrel harassed a bald eagle above the cottonwoods as I unloaded my gear and strolled down to the water’s edge. A few hundred metres away, a massive stick nest dwarfed the poplar that held it. A white head showed above the rim; the eagle’s mate was incubating eggs. A pike-minnow splashed in a nearby eddy.
It had been years since I had been down to the Columbia wetlands, but as I lowered myself into the grass and looked across the marshes at mountains hazed by the smoke of distant fires, I felt the old familiar quiet seeping into me. In a world with too much change, this was a place where almost nothing had changed. Geese still clamoured beyond the alders. Warbling vireos and ruby-crowned kinglets sang just as they had every other May morning for centuries. The green world enfolded me, welcoming me back.
Last time I was here, I had visited with Ian. He was putting up goose nesting platforms. It occurred to me now that Ian had been here on all my previous visits to this place. Suddenly conscious of a deep sense of loss, I listened for the rattle of an oar against the side of an aluminum rowboat or the sound of mirthful laughter. All I heard, however, was birdsong and the timeless whisper of passing water; and after a while I realized that was enough.
The Toad was there. And he always will be.