How a Dutchman found himself knee-deep in Fraser River mud

Lots of kids in the Netherlands dream of working in environments like BC's coast.

Misty MacDuffee and Wiet van Bragt survey the Fraser River in the lower mainland.

Misty MacDuffee, Dave Scott and others doing surveys on the lower Fraser river. Photo by Michael O. Snyder.

I decided to just go for it. To reach out through social media, and just send emails. I didn’t have any contacts in BC, but I wanted to volunteer for a meaningful ecological field research project in this beautiful province. And so I found Dave and Misty, who lead Raincoast’s juvenile salmon work in the Fraser Estuary. They are just awesome and work on such important things. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

So what is a Dutchman looking for, almost 8000 kilometers from home? I’m a biologist from the Netherlands, teaching kids from ages 16 and up at a school for vocational education, sometimes known, (I learned) as a trade school. I train them to be field technicians in environmental research. This explains my interest in field work, but why would I travel so far from home?

The availability of Chinook is crucial to the survival of the local killer whales.  Tweet This!

Ten years ago I came to British Columbia on a holiday, and I was absolutely smitten by the natural beauty this province offers. The landscape, the history, the wildlife – it resonates with me on a level I can’t explain rationally. And although I understand it was resource exploitation that brought western society (and ultimately, me) to this part of the world, ever since that first visit I have felt a need to contribute personally to the conservation of the last pieces of wild places in British Columbia.

When my school offered a program called ‘Teacher’s Internship’ I jumped at the opportunity. I conveyed how fulfilling a personal goal of mine would also benefit my students and the classes I teach. My school’s board agreed! So I started to look for a Canadian organization willing to host me and found my way to Dave Scott and Misty MacDuffee. I offered my services which they happily accepted (“I’m not saying no to free labor” – Dave). And so I came to Canada to catch juvenile Chinook salmon as part of their ongoing study of migration patterns and habitat use in the Fraser Estuary. It’s important stuff in a broader ecological sense, since the availability of Chinook is crucial to the survival of the local killer whales.

Working the fyke net in the Fraser river delta as the tide falls.

We used several techniques to catch the tiny salmon. We purse seined for them on the flats of the estuary in Georgia Strait using the Bella Rose, we beach seined along the shoreline of the river delta in small boats, and we set up fyke nets in the side channels of the river mouth. It can be long days that are wet, or muddy or hot, or all three.

But it was never dull, and we usually caught (and measured, sampled and released), the beautiful little Chinook – intercepting them for a moment on their big journey into the North Eastern Pacific Ocean.

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Lots of kids in the Netherlands dream of working in environments like British Columbia’s coast. I tell them it’s not a holiday. Ecological field work really is work, in which the science matters above all.

Granted – the surroundings can be stellar. In the days I spent on the boat with Dave and Misty I experienced some very serene mornings on the Fraser River. Bald eagles flying above, a lonely seal sticking around to check us out. Mighty snowcapped mountains on the horizon. It almost felt like a holiday. And then we got to work in the mud. It was dirty, and heavy, and hot, and I still loved every minute of it.

I will do whatever I can at home to promote the work of scientists like Dave and Misty. We have our own environmental challenges in the Netherlands of course, but especially in our field it is important to keep a broad perspective. I hope my trip to Canada will inspire my students for years to come. It has certainly inspired me. Thanks for being awesome, Raincoasters!

Wiet van Bragt smiles with the mountains in the background

Wiet van Bragt

Teacher & programme coordinator for Environmental / Ecological Research & Inspection / Helicon Opleidingen MBO / Den Bosch, the Netherlands

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