Sunday, September 29, 2013
Jon walks us through this scrub pine landscape padded by moss, the smell of jet fuel ever present. Sometimes elusive now, but Jon’s been sensitized. His nose picks up the slightest trace. This is someone who is intimate with his land. Who walks it often. He tells me about watching a family of eagles teaching fledglings to fly this summer. The way they seemed disoriented after the spill, diving and diving repeatedly and never coming up with anything. Hunger will do that to you. Desperation will do that to you.
Jon is in a role I’ve never seen him before. All the years I’ve known him have been as friend yes, but in his role as one half of Holly and Jon, father and daughter blues duo extraordinaire. The cool guy’s cool guy when it comes to music. We share the same tastes in rock and blues guitar. We enjoy trading rock ’n roll anecdotes, comparing notes on blues history. But what has happened to Jon and to all the other residents living along Lemon Creek is no such trivia. I’ve just come from Passmore Hall, where retired federal fisheries biologist Otto Langer spoke to a poker-faced audience of valley residents. Langer said he was shocked to find evidence of jet fuel still 65 days after the event, judging by media reports. Jon isn’t. He lives here.
And he walks this creek. His home is just a stone’s throw from it. He and Jane have two cats who seem bonded to this land too. Ominously, the water they use to cultivate their garden is pumped from the creek in the spill zone. Early in September Jon and Jane’s water smelled of jet fuel, weeks after the Interior Health water use ban had been lifted.
Today the feeling is grim. We drive down to the trailhead of the Slocan Valley Rail Trail and park. When we get out, Jon’s eyes are already on the horizon, scanning. “Do you smell anything?” he asks me earnestly. “I mean, forest smells, that kind of thing? Because I can’t. It’s just dead in the air.” And he’s right. I sniff energetically, but find the place oddly devoid of odour. It’s as if a blanket had been thrown over life, smothering the scent of pine and grasses.
We follow the muddy serpentine road that roughly follows the course of Lemon Creek to the confluence with Slocan River. I slip several times on the exposed tan-coloured clay. Roots are everywhere, poking through the thick carpet of moss pocked by stones. We follow a well-trodden trail winding toward the creek, where there’s a good sightline for the booms. Jon stands on a gnarled stump of a tree fallen into Lemon Creek, looking into a pool created by its leeward side.
“See,” he says, pointing at a rainbow sheen on the water. “It’s leaching out of the bank.” He takes a handful of moist deep green moss and thrusts it at me. “Smell that.” The powerful stench of jet fuel cause me to recoil.
Jon points at the boom strung diagonally across the creek. The water is moving so fast it has whitecaps. The creek’s washboard increases the velocity here in this shallow channel. “By far the majority of water is moving over top of those booms,” he points out. “How much can they really be catching? Most of the stuff is being washed further down the creek.”
We backtrack a little toward the muddy road and have to ford a runnel on our way to the confluence. “That wasn’t there two days ago,” he says. That was about when it started raining. The Ministry of Environment has been fond of citing to the public the mantra that with the fall rains and spring freshet, all will come clean. No harm done, no foul. Wash it all away—poof! Gone.
“This is a bigger problem than you’ve been led to believe,” Langer said to the group huddled in Passmore Hall on a dreary Sunday afternoon. As I’ve said before, for most of the Slocan Valley, the danger is over. But for some, it’s anything but. For some, this will go on for years. And that’s only talking the damage to the human population here. Jon recalls seeing a beaver in distress shortly after the spill. “I somehow doubt he made it,” says Jon. “Probably suffered a slow, terrible death.”
When we get to the Slocan River we see more booms, one marked ‘Burrard Clean.’ Guess they’re expecting a lot more spills down there too. Cost of doing business in the busy strip-mined 21st century world. At his presentation, Otto Langer spoke of soul. He called the sockeye salmon of the Fraser River the “soul of the river.” According to Langer, retired CBC filmmaker Richard Bocking, who produced a documentary of the Fraser River salmon, credits the federal Fisheries Act for saving the Fraser. If not for that industry would have ruined it years ago. With the recent gutting of the federal Fisheries Act, industry will now have practically a free hand to do just that all over this country.
“The soul you people have here is the river, flowing through your communities,” said Langer. It made me think of that day back in late July when over a hundred people came together near Winlaw bridge to sing, weep and pray for the soul of this river. A moment that made it abundantly clear what the land here means to people. I couldn’t help but wonder: But would they fight for it? We’ll see.
Certainly Jon looks in a fighting mood. I’ve never seen him look so black in the eight years or so I’ve known him. By nature he’s a serious guy yet at the same time curiously light-hearted. On a day like today you’d never know it’s the same person. True, the skies over us are a leaded grey slung with rain. And most of the birds are headed for warmer climes. The season is slumping into somnolence. The dark weather adds to the heavy feeling.
While we’re standing looking across at the soaring rock wall of the pool at the confluence our eyes are drawn upward to the tilting flight of an eagle. It’s then he tells me about the family of eagles he followed with warm interest this summer. “How are they supposed to know?” he asks. “They have to eat. They’re probably not going to know they’re eating contaminated fish ‘til it’s too late.” It’s as if Jon were speaking about another member of his family.
And so he is. Many in this valley have experienced that still, inner grief at seeing a bird or an animal die in the wake of jet fuel. The most poignant for me was seeing the female rufous hummingbird in a ziplock bag, all properly labelled by Jon’s neighbour, date and everything. Anne and I have had a special relationship with the hummingbirds that return to our little oasis over the years. The hummingbird died still clutching its branch, riding it into eternity.
Another woman told me of having an otter wash up dead on her riverfront property near Passmore. She was told not to bother bagging it. Even weeks after the event her voice raises in anger. As much for the departed being as for the twisted political games being played. The otter is now not even a former being. The mentality of the spill has meant having to see it as either another specimen or a potential threat to liability. And if residents are being told to toss specimens of dead fish or animals back into the creek, then that’s destroying evidence.
Jon squats down in his big green rubber boots, reaching for a handful of fir needles caught in an eddy. He holds it up and sure enough, the jet fuel smell is shockingly strong. When he throws it back into the gravelly pool, streamers of rainbow fuel jet out across the water surface. We track the river further south a ways. He’s looking for evidence of the white foam that seems to also collect. Valley residents have been given some jive about ‘bio-sheen’ that is supposed to look something like fuel sheen. But this is neither. Jon thinks it’s a product of the early stages of breakdown of the fuel. It’s true that there does seem to be a lot of it in the pools and eddies we’ve inspected all along the creek. My camera catches a good shot of a foamy residue caught against one of the booms.
But clear, honest communication has not been one of the government’s strengths in this situation. Managing the situation, yes. To whose benefit is openly questionable. We still do not have all the environmental samples that have been taken. Streamkeepers is working on it, and thank God for them. An independent set of eyes and test tubes along our river. Nothing like a second opinion, especially one with no vested interest. With the valley’s mushroom season just passing, the jokes about a certain natural fertilizer were thick in the room at the Passmore Hall during Langer’s talk. Many here certainly feel they’re being kept in the dark and fed bullshit.
On the way back toward the trailhead, we meet Henry Hutter. “Henry the Hutterite!” I joke. He laughs. This is another man who knows this landscape intimately. He’s practically one with his kayak. Of medium, slightly stocky build, with clear grey eyes behind discreet glasses, thin gray hair kept close to the head, Henry looks distinctly Germanic. He’s a dedicated environmentalist with a sharp wit and a ready laugh. And he knows this watershed like Jon knows Lemon Creek.
I observe acidly that if the corporate takeover of North America continues, we may all have to move back to Europe. He laughs bitterly. “Are you kidding? After I spent 47 years becoming part of this place? Never.” I talk about Europe’s infinitely superior environmental laws. Again with the bitter laugh. “Yeah, because they were up to HERE,” he says, making a slashing motion across his neck. “The rivers were gone, the lakes were gone, Christ, even some of the mountains were gone. They had to do something. They had no choice. You know how much original forest is left in Europe? ZERO. Zero percent. Do we have to get to that point here? Why don’t we over here learn from their mistakes? Or do we ever learn?”
A helluva good question, Henry.