Friday, June 5: Ali visits Skeena schools, kids get pumped about swim

BRIAN: Ali has been on the road over the last month, visiting schools up and down the Skeena and throughout the watershed from Prince Rupert to Houston. Her presentation provides an educational piece on what a “watershed” is and why the Skeena watershed has become such a globally significant place. 

She also does a logistical breakdown of the Swim that includes dressing up students and teachers in her swim outfit; including a rubber cap, goggles, neoprene booties and life jacket.

Ali has invited every school in the Skeena to create a representative banner that the Swim Team will carry down the full length of the river and fly from their camps all along the swim route.

The response from these visits has been inspiring to say the least. One of the goals of the Swim is to create something outrageous that gives people a reason to come out to the river this summer and perhaps think of the river and the whole watershed in a new way.

Every spring, billions of skeena salmon fry (approx. 220 million from the Babine alone!) make the impossible journey down the river to the ocean, and every fall millions of the adults swim all the way back upstream. Yet most of us don’t think about this very much when we look at the river. By following the longest wild salmon migration in the Skeena, Ali is providing each of us with an opportunity to look at the river in a new way when we watch her swim by.


Skeena Swim 2009 YouTube videos

Clips from the 28 day journey on the Skeena

Monday, July 6: Only 11 days left

ALI: I cannot believe we depart for the Headwaters in 11 days. Eeep! There is still so much left to do & I often wonder if I am ready for this endeavour. Yesterday’s swim with the YOW! gang helped quell some of my anxiety. We floated the Bulkley from Chicken Creek in Smithers to Trout Creek, about 27 km. They rafted & shouted encouragement to me the entire way: it was a great morale boost and the sunny day was great for everyone’s spirit. 

For the first half of the trip I was practicing handling the riverboard I will be using for some of the shallower sections of the Skeena, as well as some of the bigger rapids. It is great because it allows me to keep moving (without racking myself!) in water only 20 cm deep, something that will prove invaluable at the start of the Skeena as we will be traveling through some serious boulder gardens. It also allows me to get up higher on the water so I can better follow Chris through bigger rapids. I had a lot of fun riding wave trains yesterday. From their wild eyes, satisfied grins, so did the YOW gang. I am really impressed at the skills they have already acquired and the quiet confidence they all displayed. 

Tuesday we are training on a stretch of the Bulkley that includes the Bulkley Canyon and its infamous “Featherbed” rapid. I think I will be sitting in the raft for that one…

Thursday, July 9: Ali the “Slacker”

SHANNON: “I can help you prepare food or stack gear – just let me know what needs to be done, the only thing I’m doing is training, I feel so useless…it’s not like I’m doing any of the hard work!” was Ali’s comment to me today on the phone. She and Chris Gee have been training hard, hitting the rivers daily, testing and improving Ali’s skills in different types of situations on the rivers.

We recently completed our Swiftwater Rescue training with Walter Bucher of Raven Rescue and I was humbled by Ali’s strength in the water. Let me put it into perspective, I am almost 6’ tall and when Ali gets sassy, I throw her over my shoulders and toss her (somewhere soft) so that she knows I’m the tough one! In the water is a different story…one of the skills Walter put to the test was our ability to get to “safe zones” in the river.

Our goal was to swim across into an eddy utilizing all the things we’ve learned about river hydraulics, currents, eddy lines, ferry angles, etc. I wasn’t the least bit worried as this was the 5th time I had taken this course. When I finally made it to the “safe zone” on the opposite side of the river, I felt as if my lungs were going to explode and that I couldn’t possibly swim another stroke. I was absolutely exhausted.

The WORST part was that I missed the first “safe zone” and the river carried me downstream a lot farther than I had hoped to go. Most the team followed suit and then it was Ali’s turn. Watching her swim was like watching a jet boat. She swam without faltering to hit 3 “safe zones” in the time it took the rest of us to hit 1! To add insult to injury, I don’t even think it increased her heart rate!

Monday, July 13: En Francais

ALI – Yikes! I just completed what may just be the hardest preparation I have yet had to do for the swim: a radio interview in french! It was for a Radio-Canada program called “À perte de vue” with Dominique Arnoldi. It will air closer to our departure date & will be posted on their web-site. Let’s just say my french is uh, calcified, so it was a challenging few minutes. In other news, it has been a pretty relaxed week. Gee & I decided it would be best to rest & repair in advance of the swim, so I have been enjoying time off (and lots of ice cream).

Thursday, July 16: A Big THANK YOU from Ali

We are four short days away from getting wet. To say I have butterflies would be putting it mildly; I think there is a crow flapping around in my gut. I am honored to be trusted with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and feel so privileged to be part of this project. It has taken an enormous co-operative effort to bring the swim to fruition and I would be remiss in neglecting to thank everyone who shared their talents, offered assistance, volunteered time, loaned gear, and donated funds. From a lodge in the Kootenays sending us a case of Cliff bars to strangers stopping me on the street to voice their encouragement, the response to the swim has already been amazing. THANK YOU; I am awed.

What follows is a list of people who have specifically helped me. They greatly contributed to the project, whether they realize it or not (and if I’ve overlooked anyone I apologize: I have water on my brain).


Dorothy Giesbrecht for spending time teaching me somatics, Jocelyn Mio for helping me brush up on my French, and Lisa Perry for covering my ass(ets).

All of you who came out to help me train, especially Erin Hall, Travis Chalmers, and Jane Hollenberg. I was so grateful for the company.

Dwayne Felewich, for providing a 6 mm wet suit so I could train in Merton Lake just after it thawed; and Laurie Burleigh, for fending off beavers & paddling alongside me once I finally worked up the nerve to get in.

Wayne Gregory, for letting me attend Sunday night indoor soccer, arguably the most fun I had cross-training and certainly the most entertaining. Irene Howard for running grueling early-bird workouts. My shoulders thank you for all of the push-ups.

The Bulkley Valley Otters “Silver” group, for never letting me lose sight of how much fun swimming is. And to Coach Brad Thurlow: thanks for finally arriving & resurrecting Masters’. It was worth the wait.

Lila Fraser, Adam Raymakers, and Scott Tiltman for their on-line support. Everyone who took the time to learn about the project and write me a note; the well of encouragement I can draw from is very deep indeed.

Jane Stevenson, for pledging her support way back this winter. Jane and her father, Stewart Young, will host the team in Doreen.

Caroline Marko, of Salt Boutique. In addition to being wonderfully supportive, Caroline hopes to lend me some semblance of style after four weeks spent in a dry suit by generously providing something a little more refined for the big celebration in Rupert.

Breeann Semeschuk & Trevor Doerksen, for coping with the tornadoes that repeatedly tore through their home. You won’t miss the chaos, but maybe the company?

Josette Weir, Ingrid Granlin & Jeremy Roscoe, and Hélène Fleury & Dean Allen for providing “accomodations” during my training. “House-sitter” sounds so much better than “homeless”.

The gang at Bearclaw Lodge for helping out so I could train, and for being super co-workers. Thank you to Heather Muir and James Mould for holding down the fort, and Gene & Joy Allen for being really, really understanding bosses.

All my friends at e.l.f. Silviculture for a great season and for contributing thousands of trees to the cause. Wes Martin deserves a special shout-out for going WAY above & beyond, and for hosting us while we were on our school presentation road trip.

Christine Birnie, for sound & timely advice, and for generously demonstrating her faith in me. I am humbled.

Lindsay & Patti Eberts, for their belief in the project and for sharing Lynn Cox’s story with me. It was a great complement to my own training.

Greg Brown for offering thoughtful advice, coaching me to speak with the media, suffering through sprint workouts, and for agreeing to be (part of) the contingency plan.

All of the people who have worked, and continue to work, to make the trip happen by coordinating community events, media relations, answering odd questions, and doing various other thankless tasks. Thank you Todd & Kathy Stockner, Cassidy Helps, Frances Birdsell, Taylor Bachrach, Michael Clarke, Julia Hill, and Ingrid Granlin; all of the grunt work and none of the fun!

The spouses & children of the swim team members, for proudly supporting their loved ones’ participation in this project. They are: Yvonne, Lauren, & Darren Eddy; Chris Robberts; Steve, Grant, and Sarah MacPhail; and Alana Wadley & her newborn, Aurora Allen. Alana, thank you for understanding how much Jim’s participation will mean to the success of the swim. Carol MacPhail, thank you for helping make Shannon’s first-time participation in an SWCC expedition possible.

My Mum & Dad, Alex & Jim Howard, for their love & support, frequent phone calls as to my well-being, and for hustling the neighbours for pledges (way to go, Avocado St., et al!). Mum, thanks for imbuing me with your work ethic; Dad, thanks for sharing your passion for the rivers. I cannot wait to see you.

My siblings, Greg, Chris, and Moni, for being my biggest boosters and for championing the project. They fed me, housed me, employed me, worked out with me, and generally overwhelmed me with their kindness & support.

Niomi Mio, for keeping me grounded, sane, housed & fed, and for being honest, realistic, hilarious, and the best of listeners. Corasone!

Finally, to the swim team: Thank you for taking this leap of faith with me.

Let’s do this.

Monday, July 20: The night before departure

It’s the eve of the start of our journey, and I wonder how I will be able to sleep tonight. So many people have worked so hard to get us here. Some of us for years. Now it’s my turn to shoulder — literally — the burden.

The drive into the headwaters was one of wonder and excitement. Lunch at the top of Mount Klappan where we spotted caribou and scouled at Shell’s test wells.



We passed a small lake with two outlets: one that flows into the Stikine and one into the skeena. A short hike up the hill from the lake leads to Nass Lake, the source of the Nass, the third river born from the Sacred Headwaters.

After too long being cooped up in the trucks, we arrived at Spencer’s flats. It is more beautiful than any picture could capture, and the air is filled with the heady smell of thousands of wildflowers.

Today we hiked up one of the surrounding mountains. Everyone was happy to move after two days of driving. The view was truly spectacular and I had chills following the snaking path of the nascent Skeena below.

After a satisfying dinner, the team has dispersed to get ready for tomorrow. We’re stoked for Jimmy’s arrival by helicopter in the morning and even more excited to get on the river.