Two weeks after I returned from the Canadian History of the Environment Summer School (CHESS), I sat in a conference room on the top floor of a provincial government office. We were there to listen to one of the province’s Flood Safety Managers talk about her work. she’s part of a group of people thinking deeply about the cumulative impacts of work on British Columbia’s rivers in an era of climate change.
From a modern flood management perspective, rivers have two purposes. First, to drain water from the landscape. Second, to move sediment. There’s a drive to move toward a system-wide (or watershed-side) approach that considers the cumulative impact of changes (human and non-human) over time. In the conference room, the importance of this way of thinking was illustrated with a time lapse of a stream table. We were asked to imagine the Fraser River in miniature.
Having just returned from three days in a raft, this was surprisingly easy to do. The wide sandy plateaus of the Fraser Canyon and the flat expanses of the Fraser Valley were fresh in my mind, and bore remarkable similarity to the artificial sand environment of the stream table. But in the context of CHESS and its theme (“Gold Mountain River: Chinese Mining Landscapes in Indigenous Territories”) the “two purposes” of the flood management perspective don’t seem like enough.
CHESS challenged participants to think about the Fraser through a kaleidoscope of historical lenses. The river carries a complicated set of purposes and meanings for different people at different times. For salmon the river is a road and an incubator. For First Nations it is transportation corridor, a source of food, and irrigation for crops. For miners it was a source of power, ore, and hope. Government anxieties about sediment and drainage and floods sit on top of complicated foundations. It must manage the accumulation of these values just as it manages water drainage and sediment movement.
A grain of sand is an apt metaphor for the collection of meanings on the Fraser. On its own, each piece doesn’t amount to much. Collectively, though, sand renders the river opaque, creates giant bars that bend the current, erodes agricultural land, and gets absolutely everywhere – I’m still pulling grains of Fraser sand out of my CHESS notebooks. The thought of trying to trace each piece back to its origin is daunting.
As an environmental historian of mining, I came to CHESS most interested in the grains of sand that passed through sluices, pans, and mills. Mining historians would call most of the work conducted on the Fraser River “small scale.” But on the Fraser, where you pass a tell-tale pile of stacked cobble or the crescent or a hydraulic pit every few minutes, the label “small scale” doesn’t fit. Over time, tons of sediment has been rearranged, altering the river’s hydrology in unpredictable ways.
In British Columbia we have not come to terms with the enormity of this change. Californians banned hydraulic mining in 1884 when sediment displacement flooded the valleys below. Many hydraulic miners took their nozzles north, to the Fraser, where the practice remained legal.
The Fraser is a great reminder that large-scale change can come from “small scale” tools. I’ve seen this in Northern Ontario, too. In the early days of the 1909 Porcupine gold rush, one man with a shovel compromised the banks of Frederick House Lake so that they began to erode, draining the south end of the lake. But I also know this from personal experience. Where I grew up in the Cariboo, a walk almost anywhere in the local bush will see you crossing the carefully engineered grades of a sophisticated water management system. On the Fraser, the cumulative impact of hundreds of placer claims has altered the hydrology of the river in ways we still don’t fully understand.
CHESS 2019 knocked me out of my own embedded perceptions of the river and its purpose. From the raft looking up at the sandy cliffs of the canyon, I was able to critically examine the deep trenches of my inherited narratives and the impacts they’ve had on my writing, my thinking, and non-academic work. Like a miner sorting grains of sand in of the bottom of a pan, the history I’ve written has occasionally been selective.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this selectivity. In fact, if we want to tell good stories (or write good flood policy), its a necessary step in an otherwise overwhelmingly complicated context. The danger comes comes in forgetting that what we do on the river today is part of a much wider collection of environmental and human values built up through time. Luckily the river is there to remind us.
Special thanks to our guides, John Haugen, Michael Kennedy, and Sarah Ling. Thanks also to Matthew Evenden and Tina Loo who organized this year’s CHESS.
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