A short distance from anywhere in this city is our best natural asset – our rivers and adjoining lands. Right now you can go and see snapping turtles hauling themselves out to lay eggs, the fish-eating merganser guiding her ducklings in search of food, and the iconic beaver ferrying a branch upstream. Four decades ago these experiences with nature were rare. There has been some healing.
The Eramosa and Speed rivers are the reason we are here. John Galt located the future city where flowing waters would provide the new residents power for mills. But from the time he felled that first giant sugar maple tree along the Speed’s banks and shattered nature’s dominance until the early 1980s, we worked to beat nature back. As a result, most of the other living creatures were pushed out, the wetlands topped with landfill, the meandering river itself channelled into a straight ditch with grass cut to its edge. That is what the river system was when I first experienced it in the mid 1970s.
Coinciding with the first Speed River Cleanup 35 years ago, a different vision started to take hold. Decades of trash were hauled out and trucked away, trees were planted along banks, formal restoration and management plans were commissioned by local government, and our riverside trail system took shape. As a result we have a much richer river system used by more people to walk, bike, paddle and experience the increasing diversity of wildlife.
However, after the early and easiest gains, momentum seems to have stalled. Plans that were paid for and adopted 20 years ago are largely unrealized. Old concrete structures still mar the rivers’ flow, invasive plant species dominate long sections and riverside restoration through tree planting occurs haphazardly.
We can look to hopeful initiatives. The Yorklands/Innovation District offers an opportunity to restore wetlands, streams and ponds so that we might have a richer diversity of living things within our midst and a place to swim and fly-fish within the city. We can hope that the downtown bargain of more condos in exchange for removal of unsightly riverside strip malls is fulfilled.
We are the people of two rivers. On many levels, the health of our community is reflected in the health of the river system itself. When our rivers are healed, we will have healed ourselves and we will be a much better community for it.
So let’s look ahead to what might and can be: the return of the call of the bullfrog, a heritage that includes the beating of First Nation drums in the valley, the sound of flowing waters unhindered by remnant dams, the splash of river otters. A time when instead of a channelled ditch, the river is a string of little gems, each a special feature of this place. We won’t have the need for a long trip to escape the urban rat race. Nature with its calming waters and a vibrant ecological community will be the lifeline of our own urban space.
This is what the 2Rivers Festival is all about: awareness of what we have now and the realization of what can be. Many community groups are behind the 15 events during the festival that will connect you to the power, beauty and adventure of our resilient natural core, and they are all free. It’s nine days of exciting programming, but the adventure and enjoyment are here all year long.
Stan Kozak is a member of the 2Rivers Festival Steering Committee
For the full program visit www.2riversfestival.org