The following article appeared in the Vancouver Sun, July 2012. Wendy Kotilla and the Youth and Ecological Restoration Program would like to extend their appreciation to Mr. Hume for his ongoing support and interest.


Healing power of troubled waters

An ecological program that links at-risk teens with damaged watersheds has breathed new life into both

It’s well over a decade since I trekked over four hair-raising hours of rain-sodden logging cuts and greasy switchbacks in search of Wendy Kotilla.

Wendy maintained the science camp at Carnation Creek on the rugged and remote west coast of Vancouver Island. She hiked from estuary to headwaters almost every day, rain or shine, drought or freshet, collecting data for one of the most exhaustive studies of the long-term effects of logging on a rainforest watershed.

In poncho and waders, Wendy diligently mapped the pools and how quickly they filled or emptied as the currents changed.

She tracked a slow torrent of gravel - a 25,000-cubic-metre river of logging debris within the river itself - as it moved slowly down clogged channels from heavily logged slopes above the stream.

And she counted fish, both resident and migratory, tabulating depressing declines in chum and coho salmon, runs once in the thousands dwindling to a few hundred - one year only a single female coho returned - charting the deformities that began to appear in cutthroat trout and performing biopsies on dead spawners, gathering what clues might be gleaned.

She was resourceful, tough, as handy with an axe as with whipping up a chicken dinner for unexpected company. I called her the Spirit of the Stream.

I decided the other day to update my file on Wendy and what happened to her after the Carnation Creek project was more or less shelved.

Wendy, as I reported the first time around, had a tough start in life. She was pregnant at 17, single mom on welfare shortly after, crewed halibut boats to make ends meet, then wound up in the lonely task of documenting a small river’s unfolding ruin by industry - well, by all of us, really, since it is we who permit the incremental degradation of our environment in a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

After Carnation Creek, Wendy applied and was accepted at university as a mature student, successfully studying ecology and land reclamation, presenting her own scientific papers. Then, eight years ago, she began putting her wisdom to work teaching the next generation to pay attention to the consequences of heedlessness, greed and ignorance about our dependence on the natural world.

Her innovative Youth and Ecological Restoration Program helps teenagers at risk. Some struggle with school and employment challenges. Some have had early brushes with the law. Some face communications barriers that hinder connection with families and communities.

Her program helps kids find inner strength, recognize their personal value and then to reconnect, first with each other and then with their com-munities, by undertaking the hard and often thankless work of restoring damaged and degraded local water-sheds to ecological health - to heal by healing.

Troubled kids are often referred to her program from government, organizations like the John Howard Society and first nations youth agencies.

The kids assess, plan and implement projects that monitor the health of watersheds, enhance and restore habitat for fish and animals, and provide environmental outreach education. Each teen concludes with an oral presentation to a community group about their experience.

It starts with a 20-hour program of one-on-one work training and sup-port. If they show motivation and commitment, they graduate to a more advanced ecological project. So far, Wendy’s kids have established a forest ecological plot for endangered Garry oak, provided radio tracking for a race of extraordinarily large chi-nook salmon in the Puntledge River, maintained a salmon hatchery on the Oyster River, restored riparian cover and calculated salmon population inventories in Millard Creek.

In the process of doing something important for their communities, these teens gain valuable employment experience. On completion of each phase, they get a $50 paycheque, a letter of reference, a certificate and either a crest or, in the advanced project, a jacket. They build self-esteem and personal confidence, improve their communication and life skills, and learn about the ecosystems in which they and their communities are embedded.

By teaching kids about the ecology of watersheds, you can teach them about their place and responsibilities in the human ecology of their communities - a goal, I’d argue, that has great significance in a world in which we see an increasing sense of alienation and disempowerment.

And if anybody is equipped to help kids overcome challenges, it’s some-body like Wendy, who’s been in their shoes every step of the way.

Originally funded by the Queen Alexandra Foundation for Children at its inception in 2004, Wendy’s program won the attention of the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development in 2006 and the Vancouver Foundation in 2007.

It’s been endorsed by police, social welfare agencies and teachers for its positive impact on youth.

To date, her program has worked with 117 different groups, kids have made oral presentations on their work to 77 community organizations, and have done habitat and watershed restoration work for 30 other organizations ranging from BC Hydro to the Comox Valley Regional District and the Courtenay Fish and Game Protective Association.

On Friday at 11: 30 a.m., a couple of kids from her Youth and Ecological Restoration Program will lead a public tour of Melda’s Marsh in Seal Bay Regional Park in the Comox Valley. Working with a professional biologist, they’ve been conducting a scientific ecological inventory of regional district parks and this is part of the educational outreach component.

The marsh takes its name from Melda Buchanan, a physicist and mathematics professor - she was Canada’s first female meteorological forecaster - who emerged after her retirement from UBC to become a legendary activist on behalf of the environment.

She died in 2004, just as Wendy’s program was getting underway. Melda would be as pleased as punch to see the results. Anybody interested in more information can find it here: © Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun