Book Review of "Heart Waters - Sources of the Bow River"

Shortlisted for the 2016 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival award for Mountain & Wilderness Literature.

Shrinking snowpack, receding glaciers, clear cut logging, fossil fuel extraction and off road vehicle use are all exerting enormous pressures on our precious water resources.  Van Tighems’ latest book, Heart Waters – Sources of the Bow River examines these pressures from both a historical and scientific perspective and explores the root causes of degraded fish habitat and the endangered status of two of Alberta’s signature trout species – the bull and cutthroat.  With stunning photographs of the alpine and montane landscapes as a backdrop for the author’s nostalgic reminiscences about fishing as a young boy with his father, Jack and older brother, Gordon, Heart Waters is an attractive coffee table book, replete with maps of the Bow River’s extensive tributary basins.  Fittingly, the author has collaborated with his photographer son, Brian – the fourth generation of Van Tighems to forge a close relationship with the Bow River’s headwaters.  One of the author’s fishing stories takes the reader back two generations to Kevin’s maternal grandfather, Alban McParland discovering the motherlode of fishing holes at Lower Kananaskis Lake.  In the early 1900’s cutthroat and bull trout were prolific but overfishing and the resulting crash in their numbers prompted the Alberta government to stock the streams with invasive brook, brown and rainbow trout species.

The introduction of foreign fish into the Bow’s tributaries is just one of many misguided government policy decisions that have threatened native fish stocks and their habitat.  The damming of the Cascade, Ghost and Kananaskis rivers to generate electricity has not only irreparably degraded fish habitat but also diminished the Bow watershed’s capacity to withstand flooding.  The flood of June, 2013 which inundated downtown Calgary and earned the distinction as the costliest weather related disaster in Canadian history, is frequently referencedin Heart Waters.  In Chapter 8, “Buck Toothed Volunteers,” Bateman Creek – an engaging narrative about beavers – Van Tighem relates how beaver dams act as flood barriers.  When the jet stream stalled over the eastern slopes, unleashing nearly 300 mm of rain over a two-day period, thanks to beavers, the deluge of waterthat spilledinto the Bow from creeks was significantly diminished.

The author affords the many tributaries of the Bow River, including Johnson, Quirk, Meadow, Pekisko creeks, their own individual chapters.  Their geologic formation is painstakingly chronicled and the surrounding terrain is pictorially captured – almost like one would record the ancestry of an extended family.  Indeed, in order to elicit empathy for the plight of the Bow and its tributaries, the author employs the literary technique of personification.  “And the water whispered past, dark and secret, unchanging from one moment to the next, yet continually in the process of arriving and departing.”  Elsewhere, the creeks and streams are personified as “chattering”, “singing” and “laughing”.  Like a proverbial fish on a line, the reader is hooked and drawn in by Van Tighem’s dramatic and nostalgic narrative. For First Nations, the Bow River basin was revered for its life giving waters and the native trout.  Descriptive first impressions of the landscape recorded by explorers, like David Thompson, are cited, but it is Van Tighem’s own recollections of these waterways, as a young boy – pristine, wild and magical - that really pull at our heart strings.

And while Heart Waters is in many respects an Alberta story, and particularly pertinent to Calgary, for its reliance on the Bow for drinking water, in Chapter 13, “Healing the Headwaters”, Van Tighem disabuses us of the notion that his narrative is strictly local in scope. “Water is running low in a part of the province that supports more than a third of its population and two-thirds of the agriculture in Canada…”  To effectively manage the forested Bow and Oldman headwaters draining east into Saskatchewan, the federal and Alberta government, in 1948, collaboratively established the Eastern Rockies Forest Conservation Board (ERFCB).  A progressive agency that conducted research into forest hydrology, the ERFCB folded after the twenty-year agreement expired and the Alberta government’s priorities shifted to fossil fuel development, which was ironically facilitated by the access roads built under the governance of the Board.  Half a century later, accessibility to the front ranges has not only fragmented the landscape and degraded wildlife habitat but has also intensified off-road vehicle use that Van Tighem decries because of the resulting erosion of stream beds and destruction of wetlands and bogs.

In alpine regions globally, precipitation is increasingly falling as rain rather than snow.  Van Tighem has joined a chorus of hydrologists and ecologists, like renowned ecologist, Dr. David Schindler, who’ve been sounding alarm bells about the urgency of adapting management of the front ranges of the Rockies to a changing climate.  In a telephone interview, Dr. Schindler cautioned that “…the shrinking snowpack in California is a harbinger of things to come for Alberta’s eastern slopes.” Heart Waters delivers the message that water security and ultimately food security are contingent upon sound land stewardship and that with the political will to adopt more sustainable environmental policies, disasters like the one currently confronting Californians might still be averted in Western Canada.

Reviewer Information

Barbara D. Janusz is a lawyer, educator and author of the novel Mirrored in the Caves. She has published environmentally themed book reviews, opinion and analysis columns, creative non-fiction stories, essays and poetry in journals, magazines, newspapers and anthologies across Canada. 

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