What we think of as normal was at one time unusual. In a recent edition of the Waterbucket, Dr. Daniel Pauly, Global Fisheries Scientist at UBC is quoted: “We transform the world, but we don’t remember it. We adjust our baseline to the new level, and we don’t recall what was there.”
But some of us do remember what was there. Ken Keenan has lived in Fanny Bay his whole life, all 94 years of it. He worked the land as a logger, starting at age 14, and after forty years, as a farmer. His grandfather traded the mineral rights of his Denman Island land to Lord Dunsmuir. In exchange, the Keenans got a parcel of land that includes the Tsable River delta and much of the land on either side of the river, past the E&N Railroad trestle. It includes the river bottom itself, a rare form of riparian ownership.
There is a well- worn trail along the Tsable starting at the old highway (19A). When we decided to start sampling the Tsable, it might have been tempting to just waltz in and get our readings, but BWS is careful to always get permission from property owners first. Mr. Keenan sees the value in our work; he cares about this river. He graciously allowed us access. And as a bonus, he
offered to guide us to the best site and tell us about the river along the way.
He showed us where the best swimming hole had been, where he would occasionally ice skate during the coldest winters, where the many different species of fish were caught. He recalled encounters with bears and hunting for deer. He described watching the railway trestle being rebuilt, stick by stick, with the coal powered steam crane perched at the edge of the artificial precipice. He described standing below and taunting his friend who had gotten a job stoking the boiler. His friend responded, in typical teenage fashion, by pegging chunks of coal at his tormentor. Mr. Keenan calmly gathered up the missiles and carried them home. Coal was a valuable commodity for every home in those days.
Of the many stories he told us, one stands out. A man named Fred Gilbert owned a small fishing boat. He wanted to clean the barnacles off the hull. With the permission of Ken’s father, he sunk some poles into the mud along the edge of the river and tied his trawler to them when he wasn’t fishing. The fresh water killed the barnacles on his hull which saved Gilbert the labour of scraping them off. This worked well for a few years.
But one night, after Gilbert had crawled into his bunk in the tiny cabin below decks, a heavy rain pelted the Fanny Bay area. Later that night, he was thrown from his bunk and tossed about, as the river swept his trawler into the bay. The boat eventually snagged on a small sandbar, awash and on its side. The Tsable did not usually respond so dramatically to a rainstorm. This was not normal.
Gilbert spent days righting his vessel, bailing it out, and getting the engine running after its sudden bath. Eventually things returned to normal, and he was able to tie up to his freshwater moorings every night. But then there was another deluge and the Tsable flooded and roared all over again. Gilbert was once more washed away. This happened three times over the course of three years. After the third time, Gilbert gave up. He had to accept that normal had changed.
What had turned the gentle Tsable into this raging monster? Mr. Keenan ascribes it to increased logging in the watershed. Victoria Lumber and Manufacturing, an American company, had been cruising the island looking for prime timber near the E&N railway. The Tsable watershed fit the bill. Victoria Lumber had no connection to the land. Their mandate was to haul out as many logs as possible and make money for their foreign owners. The broad lower bowl of the Tsable watershed was soon opened and the soil exposed to heavy rains. The hydrology was changed forever. A peaceful river now had the potential to be a monster, rising faster and further than ever before.
This is the Tsable we now know: a river quick to respond to rainfall, as are all our local creeks. This is what we now count as normal. There is no turning back the dial to a previous setting.