A river runs through them:
Two members of a well-known family in the Alberta Rockies are shedding new light on one of the most important—and threatened—watersheds in the country.
This fall, author, naturalist and conservationist, Kevin Van Tighem, along with his son, landscape photographer and Jasper resident, Brian Van Tighem, will launch Heart Waters: Sources of the Bow River. The hardcover volume, published by Rocky Mountain Books, introduces readers to the glacier-capped highlands, remote canyons and meandering rivers of the continental divide, a narrow strip of land from which virtually all of the water which sustains the communities, economies and ecosystems downstream, is drawn.
“We need to know the landscape better,” Kevin Van Tighem said. “We would treat the headwaters a lot better if we could incorporate them more into a sense of who we are.”
The Van Tighems themselves have very much been shaped by the Bow River watershed. Kevin Van Tighem grew up in Calgary, helped get to know the Bow River’s diverse ecology as superintendent of Banff National Park and has long retreated to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, where he owns a cabin, for RnR. As well as Jasper, Brian grew up in Waterton National Park and has spent much of his adult life in Canmore. Through the two-year process of creating the images for the book, the freelance photographer was inclined to view the sources of the Bow through a new lens: that which his dad looks through.
“The way he sees it is different than how I would see it,” Brian said. “A gravel bar to me was just a part of the creek. He would explain how a flood would hit the corner, or how the water was being soaked up by the forest and caught by the willows.”
Likewise, the father got a new perspective from the son.
“Here’s these places I’ve known for 30 or 40 years,” Kevin said. “And Brian was coming to them on his own, with his unique way of seeing the world, and as far as creating the images, just nailing it.”
More than a new visual understanding, however, producing the book has been a reminder for both Van Tighems of the intrinsic relationship between water and land.
“We think of water as something in streams or lakes and think of the rest as land. We don’t really connect them,” Kevin said. “[But] everything we do on the land ultimately affects what’s going on in streams and lakes.”
That holds true for the Bow River watershed (and has particular resonance in the wake of the devastating 2013 floods there), but the same applies to other rivers, be it the North Saskatchewan, the Old Man, or the Athabasca, Van Tighem said. Wherever clear-cutting happens, for example, there is a decrease in the land’s ability to retain water, which leads to a higher risk of floods. Or take illegal off-roading: overlay 4x4ing with a history of logging roads, seismic lines and cattle trails and you end up with thousands of cuts in the ground which funnel the watershed away from the streams and rivers which would normally sustain ecosystems.
“If you think of the headwaters as a living, green reservoir, we’ve filled it full of leaks,” he said. Exacerbating poor forestry management and wanton disrespect for the land is the fact that the Bow River’s natural flows have declined significantly while Alberta’s population has exploded.
“The availability and demand are two diverging lands. We don’t need to wait for a future crisis, the crisis is now,” Kevin said.
Rather than doom and gloom, however, Heart Waters is a book of discovery. During the research process, the Van Tighems revisited streams of Kevin’s childhood, including Quirk Creek, a place he had given up on after a gas company put a road nearby, exotic brook trout were out-competing the native west-slope cutthroats and the provincial government green-lighted off-roading. However, thanks to an innovative stream recovery program, when he and Brian returned to the area, they found Quirk Creek’s ecology was thriving.
“We were catching 16-inch cutthroats. It was so neat that it was still this beautiful, green, peaceful meadow stream, in spite of the mistakes,” he said. “It was an example of what we can look forward to if we’re determined to solve our mistakes.”
The Van Tighems, for certain, are determined. By building awareness of the sensitivity of Alberta’s watersheds and by motivating readers to start experiencing these places on their own, they believe there’s still an opportunity to capture Albertans’ hearts, and their heart waters.
“I hope people will look at these places with conscious eyes and an open heart,” Kevin said.
Heart Waters: Sources of the Bow River will be available through Rocky Mountain Books in September.
/// BRIAN VAN TIGHEM