Having paddled more than 1,000 rivers, Mark Angelo has truly spent a lifetime’s work conserving and celebrating rivers. He reels off the names of rivers like he’s reciting the alphabet: Cowichan, Chilcotin, St. Croix, Bonaventure, Humber, Hillsborough, Nahanni, Mackenzie, Shelburne. In 1980, Angelo founded BC Rivers Day (celebrated annually on the fourth Sunday of September), which eventually evolved into World Rivers Day — a celebration of streams, creeks and rivers around the world — in 2005. In recognition of his work as a world-renowned waterway conservationist, Angelo received the Order of British Columbia in 1998, and two years later was awarded the Order of Canada. He became an RCGS fellow in 2013. His 2016 film RiverBlue documented a three-year river odyssey in which Angelo uncovered the polluting impacts of the global fashion industry. As B.C. Rivers Day turns 40 and World Rivers Day celebrates its 15th year, Angelo talks about his love of rivers and his new film that explores how to protect them.
On the origin of his love for rivers
I’ve had a passion for rivers since I was a little boy. There was always something about moving water that captivated me. As a boy, I could explore a stream or a creek for hours, turning over rocks, looking for insects and other critters. I went on to become an avid paddler, a fly fisher and river enthusiast. And while I always enjoyed rivers from a recreational and adventure perspective, I soon came to realize that being on a river was a great way to rejuvenate the spirit. Ultimately, I came to view rivers as literally the arteries of the planet. They are lifelines in the truest sense. Anybody who spends time on a river cannot help but appreciate that.
On how BC Rivers Day started
I moved to Vancouver in the early ’70s to work in the fish and wildlife program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. In the summer of 1975, I did a summer-long paddling trip down the length of the Fraser River. After that, I marveled at the incredible beauty, power and diversity of the Fraser. But I also began to think: wouldn’t it be neat if we had a river-related celebration, an event that recognized the magnificence of our rivers? So, I started talking about it and a lot of people expressed an interest. And while it took a while to make it happen, finally, in 1980, we kicked off with our very first event.
On the genesis of World Rivers Day
We set off with a flotilla of rafts on that first Rivers Day down the Thompson River, and we cleaned up literally tons of debris and litter. It was a small-scale event by today’s standards — we only had 40 volunteers. We met that night and decided to plan a few more events the next year and then a few more the year after that. And then it took on a life of its own to the point where virtually every community in the province had an event. By 2005, the events had grown so much in British Columbia that we approached the United Nations, which had just launched their “Water for Life” decade. We thought the idea of a World Rivers Day would be such a wonderful fit with the UN focus. They agreed and the event took off from there.
On the importance of celebrating rivers
Rivers Day is about striving to increase awareness of the incredible values of our rivers and the pressures that confront them — pollution, urbanization, industrial development, the excessive extraction of water, dams, climate change, or the loss of riparian habitat. Just as importantly, it tries to engage people with local waterways. Whether one walks along them, or paddles them, or fishes along them, or draws water from them or simply admires their beauty, they make our communities better. And to know that the roots of this international celebration come back to Canada is special. Rivers are such a big part of Canada’s history and identity. Rivers were our country’s very first highways. Also, historic settlement patterns for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people usually took place beside rivers. Consequently, rivers have had a major influence on who we are as Canadians and how we think about things like water, wilderness and the environment.
On his forthcoming film
The purpose of Last Paddle: One Life, 1,000 Rivers [slated to show at film festivals this fall] is to make a plea to cherish and better care for our life-giving waterways. It also encourages others to become environmentalists and river champions in their own right, and offers some insights into how we might attain a more sustainable future. While it is biographical in nature, it also delves into some really important river issues people around the world can relate to. The film looks at things like the impact of climate change on rivers. A key message we promote is the need to be more proactive in protecting rivers. I’ve been involved in so many river restoration initiatives: rivers that were severely damaged where we worked to restore them and clean them up. But it took decades to do that. If we can proactively protect a river before it gets damaged, that’s such a better way to go.
On celebrating rivers during a pandemic
Today, anywhere from 70 to 100 countries participate in World Rivers Day. There’s an incredible array of events that are going to unfold this year. There’ll be the traditional events that are more physical in nature: stream cleanups, habitat enhancement projects, educational outings, community riverside celebrations. A lot of those can still incorporate physical distancing — it all depends on what’s happening with the pandemic in different locales. But there’s also an incredible number of digital and virtual events that will unfold. We’re going to see school projects, ranging from essays to art projects, things like art festivals, the launching of new campaigns and initiatives, the celebration of milestones, online essays and poems, digital photo galleries, new research projects, online river trivia events. There’ll be livestream panels and virtual film initiatives. So, there’s this incredible array of events that are really only limited by one’s imagination. That provides some reason for hope because there are so many advocates, both individuals and groups, looking out for local rivers, keeping an eye on them, advocating for them, striving for greater protection.