They play a huge role in our lives, and yet we often take them for granted. We drive over them on bridges, we use them to transport goods, we paddle in them, we fish in them, and we often drink the water out of them.

I’ve enjoyed numerous adventures paddling on rivers around the planet, in a canoe, kayak or raft. Every time I take out at the end of an adventure, whether it’s a multi-day canoe trip on the Yukon, a day-long kayak paddle on a Florida river or a quiet float down the Squamish River to spot eagles, I’m always left with the feeling that any day on a river is a good day.

But what if there were no more rivers? No place to paddle, fish, nothing to transport goods along, no rivers to drink from?

It’s a pretty unappealing thought. But that’s why it’s important we take action to protect our rivers, to improve their health and keep them healthy. They really are life for us.

Mark Angelo, long-time river conservationist set to go for a paddle. (John Geary photo)

Today is World Rivers Day. I’m canoeing around Deer Lake, BC, with Mark Angelo, a Burnaby, BC paddler and conservationist who has a big stake in rivers. The lake is fed by a couple of different streams— “baby rivers,” if you will—and Deer Lake Brook flows out of it, northeast to Burnaby Lake, eventually ending up in the Brunette River and finally, the Fraser.

As we dip our paddles into the calm water, we talk about the importance of not only protecting what we still have, but also the importance of restoring waterways we thought we’d lost.

Like many people involved in projects to protect rivers, he started out as a paddler and a traveller of waterways.

“I’ve had a love of rivers since I was young,” he says. “First as a whitewater kayaker when I was a teen, and then I started travelling by rivers. I developed this love of being on a river, exploring rivers.”

View from the bow, pointed toward Deer Lake Brook, which eventually leads to the Fraser River. (John Geary photo)

Angelo spent time with his father in BC as a young child, then later returned and in 1975, while making a full-length paddle trip down the Fraser River, its beauty awed him. He thought it would be a great idea for the province to have a day to celebrate BC’s rivers.

Through communication and collaboration with several different organizations, the first BC Rivers Day took place in 1980.

It was more than a celebration, though. Volunteers helped mark the day by cleaning up garbage along the Thompson River.

But it didn’t stop there. In 2003, the United Nations celebrated the first International Year of Freshwater. Angelo thought that as part of that, there could be a World Rivers Day.

“We approached a number of agencies, the UN thought it was very positive,” he says. “We contacted many different NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and countries, and in 2005, we held our first World Rivers Day.”

This year, more than 100 countries are participating in World Rivers Day, in a variety of ways.

“Anything from stream clean-ups to educational outings to habitat restoration efforts to riverside community celebrations,” he says. “Both physical and digital events.”

“The fact that the roots of it came from Canada, I think that’s pretty special.”

Volunteers with Mossom Creek Hatchery release young salmon. (Paul Steeves/Pacific Salmon Foundation photo)

There is also a Canadian Rivers Day, that takes place in early June during Canadian Environment Week. Because it’s part of that week-long celebration, organizers for both events felt it best to leave them as separate events.

With World Rivers Day set on the fourth Sunday in September, most places around the world are able to participate because it’s set at a time of year when it’s not really winter for anyone.

A Watersheds Canada ranger assesses water quality. (Photo courtesy of Watersheds Canada)

So, how can the average person make a difference to rivers in Canada?

  • Get involved with a national, regional or local conservation organization that protects rivers. Numerous organizations provide opportunities to participate in saving rivers, in a variety of ways: World Rivers Day, Watersheds Canada, Trout Unlimited Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Foundation for Conservation of Atlantic Salmon and the Pacific Salmon Foundation are just a few.
  • Spend time learning about a local river, exploring it by boat or on foot.
  • Practise “leave no trace” principles while enjoying a river and the natural area around it.
  • Reduce pollution by properly disposing of chemicals, paints and other pollutants.
  • Become an advocate: write letters to local, provincial and national politicians to protect watersheds; sign petitions.
  • Clean and dry your boat after use and before taking it to another waterway. This stops the spread of potentially harmful invasive species from one body of water to another.
  • If you’re part of a local paddling club, encourage the club to participate in clean-up and education events.
  • Volunteer with a stewardship organization. If you can’t donate time, donate money or gifts that will help.
  • Join a local or national stewardship organization. Sometimes just being a member can help.
  • Organize a community event for a local river.
  • Leave a gift in the form of an endowment.
  • Stay informed about issues concerning local rivers through membership newsletters, media that cover the topic, and following appropriate groups on social media.
  • Help create awareness by talking about river conservation with friends and family.

Participating in any one of these actions helps make a difference right now—and in the future, as they help create awareness. Whatever action you take, participating can make a difference.

Because the thought of not having clean rivers to paddle on, fish in or drink from is just unfathomable.


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