Friday, August 21, 2009

Podunk Below the Masthead, Monday, August 17, 2009

Ali Howard completes her journey, Port Edward expresses concerns about the Highway of Tears sign and North Pacific Cannery Museum receives some welcome news, a few of the items of interest on the news file for Monday.

DAILY NEWS Headline story, Monday, August 17, 2009
HISTORIC SWIM MAKES A HUGE SPLASH AT THE CANNERY-- Ali Howards swim to create awareness of the fragility of the Skeena watershed came to an end over the weekend at the North Pacific Cannery Museum, the Daily News outlined the challenges and success of her journey (see story here) The article is also provided at the end of this post.

The proposed sign to alert hitchikers to the dangers along the Highway of Tears is the subject of debate at Port Edward council, as councillors there express their concern over the message that may be sent by it (see story here)

The conservative member of Parliament for Prince George-Peace River, Jay Hill brought glad tidings and bit of cash with him in recognition of the work and efforts of the North Pacific Cannery Museum (see story here)

Monday's sports section featured no items of local interest other than the regular calendar of events section.

Front page, headline story:

Historic swim makes a huge splash at the Cannery
By George T. Baker
The Prince Rupert Daily News
Monday, August 17, 2009
Pages one and five

Ali Howard's swim was more than just about Howard.

It was about the Sacred Headwaters, the Skeena River, and the people who depend on them - and the people Howard depended on.

"I don't feel that this is a personal achievement," reflected Howard. "I know it sounds contradictory, but the whole time we prepared for the swim and during the swim, I felt like a vessel for a greater cause."

Ali Howard is not religious, but as she pulled herself out of the water for the final time on her historic 610 km swim down the Skeena River she would be forgiven for thinking that there was some heavenly hierarchy watching over her.

Actually, they were in the water with her the whole time, which is partially why Howard won't take the full credit for her swim.

For every stroke on the way there were eight enchanted believers paddling beside her and making sure she kept it together.

Their names matter, too - Brian Huntington, Kim Ward Roberts, Aaron James, Matt Lewis, Andrew Eddy, Shannon MacPhail, the absent Jim Allen, and the man responsible for Howard's safety, Chris Gee.

"This is about protection," said Gee concerning the swim's message about the Skeena -though he could have easily been talking about Howard. As he stripped his gear off for the final time, he remained on topic.

"This river is vital to the well being of all the people in the province."
No person has ever swum the entire Skeena River. No one. There are whirlpools the size of living rooms, rapids that bite like mad dogs and currents that can sweep people away in a blink of an eye. It is unlikely that Howard would ever have made it without her team.

Looking back on it, Gee was amazed that they had even taken it up.

"I can't think of a time in my life that I held that much responsibility," said an emotional Gee. "Now that I am here, it is all I can do to keep myself from crying."
That Howard had completed the swim is history in the making. But there was a greater point to the journey.

According to Gerald Amos of the Headwaters Initiative, an environmental organization that has fought against drilling and for the protection of the river, the current voluntary moratorium on the coalbed methane drilling in the Sacred Headwaters could be lifted as soon as next year.

It is hoped that Howard's swim marks another shot across the bow towards oil giant Shell's hope for a coalbed methane production future for the Sacred Headwaters - so named because it is the headwaters for three important rivers in the province, the Stikine, the Nass and, of course, the Skeena.

The swim has also become a rallying point for a large percentage of the Northwestern members of this province who are against what they believe to be the continued degradation and over consumption of vital salmon stocks in one of B.C.'s largest salmon reservoirs.

Given that this year' salmon season was dismal, with many Skeena salmon that were expected to return never showing up, Team Howard believes this is another reason, amongst a variety of them, that Shell's plan is unsuitable for the region.

Howard has become the celebrity vessel in the vain of another British Columbian, Terry Fox. Much in the manner that Fox galvanized Canadians by trotting down the highway almost 30 years ago to raise awareness about cancer, Howard has done the same by swimming the Skeena.

What was amazing to most who witnessed Howard during her experience was how calm she was given the circumstances.

And how level and determined she remained while well-wishers wondered if it was really possible for a human to swim that distance - when even her own team thought it was best to pull in from the Skeena. The test was immense.

Had they seen Howard in some more private moments they may have felt vindicated.

According to McPhail, what well-wishers almost never saw were the times after a leg of the swim when Howard would come to shore and collapse on the riverbed, waiting for her team to rescue her as she curled up into a fetal position absolutely exhausted by a river that never relents.

What distant supporters never saw were the times when emotions ran low and a laugh was needed and it would be McPhail - the very woman responsible for Howard jumping in the river in the first place - who would provide a chuckle either in the canoe beside Howard or during camp at night.

They weren't witness to the comedy when a black dog fell into the river. Howard - who had been trained to do this if one her teammates fell in the river - instinctively tossed a throw bag at the bewildered mutt (yes the dog survived).

They weren't there for the evening of terror near the Shames stretch when most of the team hid in fear from a howling wolf that never approached, but made its presence known until morning.

Throughout it all there was Team Howard, which was not limited to the offshore crew. There was also an onshore team making sure that Howard's swim was received well at the different stops on the journey - and Saturday in Port Edward was no different.

Organizers such as Ingrid Granlin, spoke briefly to the Daily News - in between running from one spot of the Cannery grounds with a flat of Diet Coke to another spot of the Cannery grounds to make sure parking did not get out of hand - about how the communities have received the swim.

"We are realizing just how important the Skeena is to people in the Northwest," said Granlin.

Granlin then ran away because two tourists in a behemoth Winnebago with a sedan hauled behind were taking up too much parking space.

Salmon were jumping all over the passage as Howard approached North Pacific's landing dock. Many observers noted their behaviour and remarked that this was what it was all about. Amongst them were Howard's parents, Alex and Jim from Ottawa, there at the end just as they had been during the other large moments of Howard's life.

"As we have said often," said father Jim before Howard made it to shore, "we've always been proud of all of our kids. But now we are in awe of Ali."

Asked what he made of it all, now that his daughter had made it to shore, Jim's voice wavered and his eyes moistened as he walked gingerly down the cannery's boardwalk.

"I'm a bit weepy right now. I'm not a religious man by any means. But I have been on rivers all my life and have been lucky, so to see her come out of the river was a relief. There is a spirit out there for sure. I'm a believer today."

Asked about her father's comments, Howard could not have agreed more.

"This was an enchanted trip. There absolutely was a spirit with us," said Howard. "The conditions could not have been better and everything that was needed was provided for."

After lunch, Howard and her team were treated to a collection of signing, speeches and gift presentations from dignitaries and honoured guests… and several standing ovations.

And when it was time for Howard to speak, the swimmer who was visibly spent from her journey approached the microphone. Before she spoke, she stared at her 10-member team as if she was unable to summon words without their energy.

Something was happening, though no one in the crowd could say just what it was until a jumble of words came out of Howard's mouth. But her team knew full well.

"I'm just a normal person who did something neat," understated Howard, perhaps yet unable to fully grasp her monumental achievement.

It all seemed peculiar to her - not unwelcome, but strange. She had become a celebrity and symbol for a cause she believed in. Kids with Ali Howard training cards asked her to sign their cards. A man asked her to sign a T-shirt for him. An interview was almost impossible because so many people wanted to meet her and greet her or just shake her hand. She had become something different and something more.

She had left a 33-year old water polo player and resort chef. Now she was Michael Phelps and David Suzuki rolled into one. The swim had changed her life forever. There was no going back now.

"I hope to remain part of the discussion about the watershed's future. I would be privileged and honoured to be part of that."

How could a discussion begin without her?

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