Leslie Cochran runs a small stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) school on the Grand River near Caledonia. For over a year, she’s been leading small groups of students through the placid waters of the Grand River, guiding them through lessons that combine culture, health, and history.
Leslie’s focus is as much to teach students how to SUP as it is to foster a connection to water. Through her students’ knowledge (who are mostly from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory), she’s been able to tune them into aspects of culture, history, and the environment. Exploring each of these topics, in turn, eventually led her to the Swim Guide.
How do you know when the water at a beach is clean?
A few months ago, Leslie contacted me to talk about the water quality on the Grand River. We spoke at length about her SUP school and agreed: her community and SUP group should know how to protect their health on the water.
When we got to talking about the water quality on the river, however, the knowledge was limited. Although we did have a few sites in Swim Guide somewhat close to the Chiefswood, there was a gap at the Reserve. No sampling was being done there. I didn’t know if the water was clean or not.
Leslie and I wrapped up our phone call with a promise to look into some information around the Grand River water quality. But with the lack of recreational water quality monitoring, I was unable to give her any more than hypotheses about the state of the water.
A month later, I heard from Leslie again. She was excited; she had secured a new job as the cultural coordinator at Chiefswood National Historic Site and was able to build in water quality education into the work she was doing. At its core, she felt her work was to combine traditional knowledge, culture, and understanding of local water quality.
“People here have a tremendous amount of respect for water because of their traditional knowledge of it, though very few people actually trust the water,” she said. Knowing that all good relationships are built on respect and trust, Leslie knew that if she couldn’t bridge the trust between her community and their watershed, they would never realize the fullest extent of the relationship they had with it. She saw a water sampling program as a first step towards creating a waterfront culture at Chiefswood.
I was quiet for a moment when she brought up the idea of a water sampling program. Her excitement was tangible and I immediately wanted to help her, but I had never helped an affiliate set up their own program – everyone we work with either relies on regional data collected by the local health authority or already has their own sampling program in place.
This was a dilemma, one that I hardly had the heart to share with Leslie. In Canada, it isn’t clear how you get a monitoring location added anywhere – this is true for all provinces, cities, and towns. But it’s equally unclear how one person in one location can set up their own system affordably. Setting up a lab can set an organization back several thousand dollars, a price tag that isn’t realistic for the majority of small organizations or community groups.
I brought the problem to Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s (LOW) Vice-President Krystyn Tully, not sure what I could expect. I mean, it wasn’t realistic to help one woman set up a sampling program for one site…right?
I was pleasantly surprised when Krystyn asked me to organize a site visit to Chiefswood. When I told Leslie, she was ecstatic. (I’m not sure I entirely hid my abject surprise and excitement, either).
Our first samples at Chiefswood
We arrived at Chiefswood in the late morning on a spectacular day in May. We pulled up the gravel driveway, and watched a young woman walk towards us from the historic house of E. Pauline Johnson, who had also been an avid paddler and advocate of outdoor pursuits for young women.
We exchanged hellos and Leslie led us on a tour through the historic site, painting the history with such vivid detail I could almost see the dinner parties, the children playing, and people from both the Six Nations and emerging neighbouring settlements walking through one of the two front doors.
After a walk and visit to a local restaurant for lunch, we returned to the river to collect a few samples. The riverside was dotted with oak and hemlock trees, many of which were just beginning to bloom. A group of young people from the community sat, fishing and basking in the sunshine on the opposite bank, their music drifting over the river to where we strolled.
We wandered onto the boat launch dock and mapped out where we’d take samples. Each of us took a few samples while Krystyn spoke through standard data collection protocol. We smiled in the sunshine and put our eyes up to the sampling containers to look at the mosquito larvae trapped inside. Eventually, we wandered back up the road to the car.
As we drove away, my mind was filled with thoughts and questions. Our team talked about the difficulty of setting up water sampling programs in Canada, a challenge faced by individuals and community groups everywhere.
Leslie’s spot is just one such example, one opportunity we had to help someone learn, connect with, and eventually teach others about their watershed. For now, I’ll keep thinking about how we can bring these kinds of projects to people like Leslie everywhere.
We got our samples from Chiefswood, and the samples we took that sunny day in May were all positive: the water was clean, and bacterial presence was low. We’re working on getting Leslie’s spot on Swim Guide. In the meantime, anyone can take their boat out there and spend an afternoon on the quiet, peaceful waters of the Grand.
And if the photos don’t capture it – it’s awesome.