Friday, February 1, 2013

COMBAT CANOEING. Bertrand Creek. Late January.

By Matt Schwartz

Question: Why float small recreational vessels down waterways in Whatcom and Skagit Counties?

Answer #1:  Using canoes and kayaks to navigate often never-before-paddled creeks and drainages is the most exciting and thorough off-road way to see our county and understand our watersheds.

Answer #2:  It is what Indiana Jones would do.

Question: Who would float small recreational vessels down such waterways?

Answer: The North Sound Baykeeper Team, of course!

A cold wet Saturday can take on a special meaning when you see our waterways from a new perspective - from water’s perspective. RE Sources Pollution Prevention Specialist Lee First and a group of dedicated volunteers have paddled local rivers, streams, creeks and ditches for over a year to see our watersheds from this unique viewpoint.   

Last week the mission was Bertrand Creek, one of the Nooksack River's largest lowland tributaries.  Bertrand provides habitat for Chinook, chum, Coho, steelhead, sea-run cutthroat and resident trout.  The headwaters, which start in British Colombia, are habitat for the Nooksack dace and the Salish sucker, both considered rare and endangered species in Canada.  Bertrand Creek is in trouble, however.  Concerns are widespread about low stream flow, high levels of fecal coliform, pesticides, turbidity, and low dissolved oxygen in the water.  Loss of streamside vegetation, lengthy areas of riprap, and physical barriers to fish passage also cause problems for the salmon trying to reach spawning grounds each autumn.  The primary land use in Bertrand Watershed is agricultural - the draining of the historic wetlands for irrigation, runoff from manure and pesticides, and the dumping of garbage and grass clippings has all added up.

Lee, veteran canoeist Morgan and myself drive up to H Street, as close as you can get to the Canadian border.  We unload the gear and pick the least worst launch spot under a bridge.  We slide the canoes over a guardrail, down a steep slope of blackberry bushes next to the bridge.  We launch into the fast moving brown water and let loose a few "yahooos!".   And so it begins.

What are we looking for?  Livestock with access to the water, manure near or draining into the water, trash jams, dump sites and silty water entering the creek through pipes or ditches. Trash jams are accumulations of garbage that convene by log jams - natural spots in the crooks and corners of the river where natural flotsam like logs and branches, as well as tires, plastic bottles, buckets, old barbies and styrofoam chunks get stuck.  We don't have the space to haul all this trash with us this time so I toss aside an old discarded quart of motor oil and head down stream.  I lean back in my kayak as far as possible to squeeze under a massive log stretched out across the creek. It's a close one and the bark literally tickles my nose as I inch underneath it. Lee and Morgan won't have the clearance in their canoe and so they exercise the well practiced 'get out and haul' their canoe over the log, around some brambles and back into the flow.  Sometimes there is enough clearance for the 'below decks!' operation, where the canoe duo will lie flat down in their vessel and shove the bow under a log and skate by with only millimeters to spare.  There is generally riotous laughter and appreciation at the ridiculousness of the situation when the creek throws us these obstacles.

We spot four recent dumpsites and pause to take photos and GPS coordinates. Landowners who have used the creek to dispose of garbage and concrete chunks won't get in trouble, but the county solid waste staff will provide them with an education opportunity, and instructions about cleaning up the garbage.  Large piles of leaves and grass clippings along the creek bank are a common sight here as well.  Although organic, they rob this already oxygen poor water of oxygen through the aerobic process involved in breaking down vegetative matter. In one area we observed a large pile of manure close to the water, which is a problem because heavy rains will flush it into the stream.

There are several confluences where ditches containing runoff from farm fields or roads join the Bertrand.  We observe the appearance of this water and note it's coordinates.  The day continues in typical rainy Pacific Northwest fashion and we end up hauling out right before dark on a sandy bank under a bridge.

Perhaps the question has not been properly answered - why combat canoe?

 "I think we're doing the right thing", concludes Lee.  Someone has to get dirty for this stream to get clean.

Matt Schwartz is an Intern with RE Sources and is pursing a masters degree in Environmental Science.

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