Turning the tide: Citizen John Roe leads Victoria waterway cleanup

June 21, 1998

JOHN ROE TAKES IN HIS ROWBOAT’S OARS as another man cuts the motor on a barge piled high with rusted metal and rotted logs. A yellow Lab pants happily at the barge’s bow while its master turns to wave. “How’s it going, Darryl?” Roe says jovially. A few friendly words, and we move on our way, Roe explaining that Darryl Youlden has the contract to pick junk out of Victoria’s Gorge Waterway, two hours a day, seven days a week.

Youlden’s work is a testament to Roe’s three-year effort to clean up the Gorge. “You hardly see any surface garbage at all anymore,” he says proudly. This stands in stark contrast to the Gorge’s condition when Roe and his 10-year-old son pulled their first shopping cart out of the waterway. And then tires, engine blocks, and entire ships’ keels.

John Roe — a stocky man with greying curly hair and arms thick from rowing — knows every clump of underwater eelgrass, every cormorant and otter haunt in the 40-kilometre waterway, which meanders inland from downtown Victoria’s oil-slicked Inner Harbour, rushes into the reversing rapids of the Gorge narrows and spreads into its terminus at tranquil Portage Inlet. The water cuts through seven municipalities — and seven separate headaches on Roe’s quest to clean up the Gorge — whose warm waters used to be Victoria’s premier urban swimming hole until industry, development, and neglect left them choked with heavy metals, sewage, and silt.

Roe organized his first volunteer shore cleanup in 1995, netting a solid 70-person turnout. Soon, he marshalled military divers to scoop up underwater garbage. Next, he finagled the donation of a commercial barge with a crane to haul out the heaviest relics. Roe’s commitment — full time for the last year and a half — came as a surprise even to him. “It just happened,” he admits. “I’d never spoken in public before, or shaken a politician’s hand,” but now he’s meeting with volunteers and politicians every day.

“I come from Hamilton, so I know all about pollution. I just couldn’t see myself working in one of those factories for life,” he continues. He moved around Northern and Southern Ontario, doing construction and mechanic work, before heading West. At Calgary’s Bow River, he rolled up his sleeves for his first cleanup. Then in 1994, he moved to Victoria, where his daily rowboat commute on the Gorge ignited his environmentalism. “When you see how beautiful it is, you just have to do something.”

Roe had no real model for the work he set up for himself and his Veins of Life Watershed Society, whose 10-member board of directors and 700 volunteers operate on provincial funding and donations of money and services from Gorge industry. As he started reading studies of waterway restoration and data on the Gorge dating back to the 1960s, he realized: “We don’t need more information. Millions of studies have been done. We just have to act on them.”

Several local groups have responded to Roe’s call to action. Provincially funded summer Youth E-Teams survey landowners whose properties back onto the Gorge, and the Gorge Waterway Society is digitally mapping the shoreline, to catch bank razing and other shore alterations. Kate Forster, president of the Gorge Burnside Community Association, called Roe for advice when she started a group to clean up Cecelia Creek’s shores. Mostly underground, the creek — polluted with lead, mercury, and fecal coliform — passes through a ravine park before emptying into the Gorge. At Burnside Elementary School, a teacher now takes her students to Cecelia Creek to pick up garbage in the ravine. Since the fall, they’ve been keeping a diary of what they see and smell — and if anything seems amiss, they call a provincial hotline. To remind people not to pollute, the students paint fish on neighborhood storm drains that lead into the Gorge.

Fish are a potent symbol in this whole endeavour: When the fish flourish again, the Gorge will truly be revived. As a seal cuts noiselessly past the rowboat, Roe says, “Poor seals. People say there are 30 of them and they eat all the fish. In reality there are only about 6. If we fixed the habitat, there’d be plenty of fish to go around.” He wants to see people feeding their families off the Gorge’s bounty. It happened not so long ago. Roe tells a story about an old, wood-sided white house overlooking the dock we launched from. “The first cleanup started here, at the end of Arcadia Street,” he says. Since public boat access is limited along the Gorge, he knocked on the door to ask to use the homeowner’s dock. A kindly 73-year-old lady granted his request. He learned that her family immigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1956, and until the 1960s, she fed her family of six off the water’s bounty: crab, shellfish, salmon, and trout.

Such abundance is only a dim memory now, and Roe advocates extreme measures to bring it back. “We’d like to see all fishing on the Gorge banned for five years. That’ll be controversial,” he says. Afterward, he envisions the community controlling the fishery with a licensing system to pay for management and improvements, as is done in England.

Roe’s philosophy is simple. Now that the Gorge is relatively junk-free, he says, all you have to do is keep more pollution from entering the water. So polluters, beware: Roe takes his job personally. “We had a big problem with carpet cleaners dumping down the storm drains. If I saw them doing it, I’d have to say something — and I’m not that polite! After a few visits from the feds, we don’t have a problem with that now.” Through Roe’s efforts, Victoria’s Capital Regional District now labels outfalls with a 1-800 number for spill alerts; vigilant citizens have made 155 calls in the last year to the provincial emergency program, which then contacts the proper government agency.

Above all, Roe sees the Gorge as a people place. Photos from 70 years ago show it as Victoria’s favorite playground. Boathouses, public change rooms, diving towers, vaudeville stages and promenades lined its shores, and citizens flocked to watch swimming competitions and boat races through the rapids. But as the Gorge’s condition deteriorated, summer revellers abandoned it. A typhoid breakout in 1938 closed beaches to public swimming, and vandals torched the derelict public bathing pavilion in 1945.

Roe wants to see children swimming in the Gorge again by the year 2000, a goal he just might make, now that outfall contamination has been considerably reduced. “These days, I swim in it myself,” he says. “It’s only public perception that keeps people away.”

From the rowboat, Roe points out an old yellow house on the shore. “In that old house there, the front door faces the water. But look at the newer houses — their front doors are on the street,” he says. “As time went on, people turned their back on the Gorge.”

Roe wants the community to re-embrace the Gorge Waterway as the heart of Victoria. Now that the water is clearing up, he sets his sights on his next big vision: improving public access. Presently, the Gorge is closed off by private property for much of its length.

As he pulls his little boat into the lee of a rock near the Gorge rapids, he motions to a dense condominium development that replaced a seedy hotel and tavern a couple of years ago. Many criticized it for altering the shoreline and taking out too many trees. But what rankles most, says Roe, is that an expected public dock never materialized. There’s a dock there, all right — but strictly for private use. A lone German shepherd barks angrily at us from the shore as if to underscore the point.

“Half of the neighborhood still won’t talk to the other half because of it,” he says. “But we’re trying to bring them together.” Roe has plans for a new wooden walkway and dock to be built on nearby neutral ground where anglers cast for herring; as well, he sees stairs, a dock, and a revamped beach at the little bay near Bamfield Park, an area already popular with local children. To untangle the web of seven municipalities’ bylaws, he recently organized a waterway board to bring together councillors, civil servants, provincial and federal government representatives, and members of the public.

Though Roe is busy with various committee meetings most weekdays, his greatest power lies in his ability to inspire others. “We had an ex-alcoholic who said he could dive and wanted to do some clean-up work with us. We lent him a mask and some flippers, and he spent the whole summer skin diving. He piled bottles under the dock there for us to pick up,” he says. “There were 4,000 bottles in the end.”

After three years of hauling junk, raking up debris from the shoreline, transplanting eelgrass, rowing and dreaming, Roe takes special pride in people no longer automatically turning their backs on the Gorge. He never will. Most days of the week, after patrolling the shores, he bumps his little boat against the wooden dock at the foot of Dingley Dell and walks up the stairs to his apartment — where all windows overlook the Gorge Waterway.

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