A Contributing Cycle

Restoring one of Vancouver’s last salmon streams

In his short blog Pancreatic Times, Kevin Watson documented his struggles with cancer—his dance, he called it. On March 15th, he shared his distaste for chalky tinctures, syrups, sticky energy gels. “I’ve been pretty clear that I don’t want people feeling sorry for me,” he wrote, but given these remedies, “I am asking you now.”

The blog, however, soon became difficult to write. On May 5th, he apologized for his “lack of energy and creativity.” On May 10th, 2012, the father of two died at home at the age of 43, while holding the hand of his wife Christi. Days before, he typed to his friends, “Au revoir but not goodbye.”

Pedal magazine ran a posthumous image of him racing at the previous year’s Toronto Cross competition. Kevin’s life had, after all, many directions, including a competitive streak that also ran creative, considering his Creative Director position at Shaw Media for which he determined the “look and feel” of History Canada and other specialty TV channels. Kevin, his father Colin says, “was self-admittedly a happy, fulfilled guy in every way.”

Kevin Watson, the son of UBC donor Barbara and Colin Watson, passed away in 2012 after a protracted battle with cancer. A lifelong cyclist, he is pictured here lining up for a Cyclocross race near Toronto, Ontario. Photo: Colin Watson.

While Kevin grew up in the city of Toronto, Vancouver figured early in his foreshortened life. It’s easy to imagine him, then, lacing his racing bike through the thick-necked Cedar and Douglas Fir around UBC, where, in the 1990s, he attended school with his brother Matthew. It’s easy to imagine Kevin repeatedly passing the creek that would figure in his posthumous life; that is, the donations his family would make in his name.

Of the over 100 streams in Vancouver that once bore salmon, only three are left: Musqueam, Spanish and Stanley Park’s Beaver Creek. Actually four streams if you count the one alternately called Salish by the Musqueam First Nation, Acadia or Hillary Creek by Google—and Unnamed Creek by Metro Vancouver. And while a city report designated Salish or “Unnamed” Creek as “one of the last, seemingly healthy streams in the area,” that bill of health began to be compromised in 1947 with the introduction of a culvert.

Few biologists assumed Coho salmon could ever wriggle through the barrier, let alone spawn upstream. In 2011, however, Stream-keepers, a creek restoration group, captured some revealing video.

An adult Coho, silver as stainless steel, was attempting to flip into the colossal culvert. Although the fish presumably gave up without spawning, the video was shared among fisheries folks associated with Streamkeepers and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

“That raised awareness,” says Robyn Worcester, biologist with Metro Vancouver. “Wild Coho salmon were actually using the stream.”

Once a healthy salmon-bearing stream on the Burrard Peninsula, Salish Creek underwent significant urban development in the late 1940s. The culvert pictured here is thought to have long prevented spawning Coho salmon from accessing the upper stream.

At the time of Kevin’s passing, Colin and Barbara Watson had made donations to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital and various art charities in their home city. While the Watsons had a donor “portfolio” with UBC, Colin says, the couple decided “UBC needed some attention from us.”

The Burrard peninsula had, after all, captured Kevin’s attention. In the way the passions of children can often be sourced back to their parents, Colin Watson, a UBC alumni and former CEO of Rogers Cable Systems, and subsequently Spar Aerospace, had come of age in Vancouver. His childhood was spent at the gossamer end of a fishing reel, cast into Capilano River and the high-rising Lynn Canyon. To this day Colin flies to New Brunswick to catch-and-release Atlantic salmon on the renowned Restigouche River.

Like an artifact of an outdoorsy past, Colin’s cousin Ron Watson still owns a house in Whistler, which he generously shares with his extended family. Though good students at UBC, Kevin and Matthew had become enamored of the West Coast and soon extended their academic studies to skiing the powder of Whistler, cycling and scuba diving. A few post-UBC summers saw their father fly West to spend weeks with them at Langara Island, the northernmost island in Haida Gwaii.

“They saw an unsettled Haida village across the bay,” recalls Colin. “Longhouses, totem poles. It was a great way to experience Northwest rainforest culture.”

Although other options for their UBC donation emerged, it was Kevin’s connection to landscape that prompted his parents to fund the Salish Creek restoration. “If he were alive today,” Colin says, “Kevin would have thought it a dandy way to spend $250,000 of family money.”

So many partners and government jurisdictions would be involved in the six-year project it could be said to emulate the layering, if not the complexities of nature itself. How complex? The federal government, for one, oversees the tidal waters and creek itself, while the province protects the streambanks and land surrounding it. The drainage, meanwhile, winds through UBC Endowment Lands and Metro Vancouver manages Pacific Spirit Park, through which the lower creek becomes Burrard Inlet. And the Musqueam history runs under it all, having the longest stake in their unceded land. Just one century ago the peninsula was a diverse, thriving ecosystem.

“The reestablishing of this creek has not only significance to Musqueam people and for the long-term benefits to our wild salmon,” says Morgan Guerin, Fisheries Officer with the Musqueam First Nation, “but also the identity of the area involved. With the cooperation of UBC and Metro Vancouver and the respect they have endeavored to show Musqueam, this project is breathing life into this place that is well within our historical memory. Rather than ‘Here is something we used to own,’ we can say instead, ‘Here is something we belong to.’"

Morgan Guerin, a fisheries officer with the Musqueam First Nation, spoke at the ceremony. The Musqueam was one of the many partners of the Salish Creek restoration project. Photo: Kellan Higgins.

Yet the restoration would involve much preparation and slow methodical work—government permits, meetings among stakeholders, environmental monitoring and summer student hiring, the cycles of provincial, federal and municipal sign-off. Only time and effort would reverse the flow of some 20th century development. In fact, if you follow Salish Creek up to the headwaters, you’ll notice how the ecosystem has been redrawn to create not only the nearby golf course but the UBC campus itself. Rerouted, Unnamed Creek was diverted decades ago under a bevy of boulevards (University, Chancellor) where it eventually falls into a gulley visible from the high, sweeping serpentine of NW Marine Drive.

As the project partners all understand, however, when human attempts are made to revise nature, nature often reconfigures these efforts in unexpected ways. Beavers, for instance, have reclaimed an upper section of Salish, broadening creek into pond and creating habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Colin Watson’s grandchildren, daughter-in-law and a Metro Vancouver employee stand on the sills that offer protection to salmon. Project members hope restoring the stream to its original state will encourage the return of Coho salmon. Photo: Kellan Higgins.

In September, 2017, though, the project leaders found something perhaps more—although not entirely—unexpected. As an Archaeological Impact assessment was being conducted to ensure the reestablishment of Salish Creek wouldn’t disrupt the cultural heritage of the Musqueam, the digging, almost immediately unearthed on either side of the creek what looked like human bones. The RCMP were immediately called.

After the Streamkeepers video was captured back in 2011, engineers added “baffles” to the culvert—little ledges designed to interrupt and slow the current. With luck, with human patience, spawning Coho could amble and lever themselves upstream—but these previously built baffles, the project leaders discovered, weren’t enough.

“The fish couldn’t access the culvert,” says Barry Chilibeck, principal engineer at Northwest Hydraulic Consultants (NHC), the company contracted by UBC to carry out the engineering portion of the project in partnership with Ken Ashley, Director of the Rivers Institute at BCIT. “The drop was too great, with the pool water too low.”

A healthy stream runs in a classic pool/riffle sequence, but Unnamed Creek had few riffles or pools. “This was impacted habitat,” Barry says, “so we connected the creek to the ocean, restructuring the channel to make it more natural and complex.” NHC strategically arranged rocks to create riffles—adding oxygen as water bumbles over them—and log sills to fashion sandy pools in which salmon could spawn and hide from the hungry peer of predators. Yet the area was still scribbled with English Ivy, an invasive species which shoulders out indigenous plant species, many of which provide habitat for salmon and other animal and plant species. Soon ivy was rooted out in favour of reintroduced salmonberry and red elderberry.

A healthy stream is an alternating sequence of pools and riffles. The former offers protection and spawning grounds for adult salmon, while the latter “oxygenates” the stream, rendering it viable habitat for young and adult salmon. Photo: Clare Kiernan.

As for those two sets of human bones found streamside found in September? The first, the team learned, was deemed “human and archaeological in origin,” as Greg Morrissey, the project manager of Kleanza Consulting, wrote in an email thread to other project members. “These remains will be handled, stored and reburied following protocols by the Musqueam,” he wrote. “I know I can count on everyone in the field for the same level of professionalism and respect for any new human remains we encounter.” At the end of the project, the remains were “repatriated,” says Morgan, “within our cultural protocols.”

The other remains, however, wasn’t a human bone at all but rather a plastic replica of one—more specifically, a “Bone Clone,” one of the “most realistic brands on the market,” wrote Morrissey. The common teaching aid, he adds, likely originated in a UBC medical classroom.

Another complication arose when, last spring, a flood flashed the drainage; immediately the team grew concerned about displaced sills and rocks. The spring flood, DFO quickly ascertained, had fortunately spared their riffles and pools. Once again, the project was on, though it was four years along now, in part because the timing of this multi-partnered, collective effort had to follow the increasingly unexpected rhythms of the seasons.

“I admit I tried to talk Colin into moving to other projects,” says Don Mavinic, the UBC professor who acted as Principal Investigator of the restoration. “But he had perseverance. He said, ‘I would rather have it happen here, because this is where my son went to school.’”

Two months may be a long time to spend in the Ontario backcountry, but presumably not for Colin Owen Watson, Kevin’s 16-year-old son who recently completed one such trip. While Francis Cathleen Waton, 10, likes horseback riding, gymnastics and singing, it is Colin’s namesake grandson whose interests most resemble the father’s. Colin Owen has even become a competitive cyclist and horseback rider and, though a horse recently bucked him from the saddle, injuring his arm, the son has since mended.

“Kevin was married to Christi, someone we see frequently,” says Colin, “and his legacy endures through his offspring.” Not surprisingly, the grandson even looks like the son: “If I blink,” Colin says, “I can see Kevin, my son. There’s a nice continuum.”

In June, a ceremony was held to celebrate the restoration of Salish Creek. An attendee points at a map of the restored stream. Photo: Kellan Higgins.

One summer day last year, Mavinic, wearing shorts, checked on the restoration site. As bulldozers groaned about replanting shrubs and trees, a Musqueam elder and Metro Vancouver employee stood chatting creek-side. Not long after Don introduced himself, a family of otters glided up the creek.

As Don recalls, “The elder said, ‘Our friends have come to welcome us.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible. An out-of-body experience.’”

Since then, DFO has detected the occasional scurrying of salmon fry. While the fish, Robyn says, may not have originated from a “spawner,” it’s too early to determine whether salmon are actually returning to Salish; only time can reestablish the population. “Improvements to the creek,” Robyn adds, “have made it a more functional ecosystem. We are seeing contributions to other species as a result of the habitat restoration. All are contributions.”

On a recent visit to Salish Creek at high tide, Professor Mavinic, now retired, was looking again for those otters. Instead, a school of Cutthroat trout, which are plentiful there, winnowed across the creek mouth.   

“And I didn’t have my fly rod,” he joked.

Three small salmon appeared, too, inscribed with the tell-tale markings of a Coho. “I would recognize their spots anywhere.” The fish were meandering upstream past boulders, logs, and “to this day I don’t know if they spawned or not. I’ll never know because I had to return to class.”

Metro Vancouver Biologist Robyn Worcester holds up a picture of various stages of the Salish Creek restoration. UBC donor Colin Watson (right) and UBC Applied Science Dean James Olson (centre) look on. Photo: Kellan Higgins.

View more photos from the Salish Creek Project recognition event.