The Dream 1994
In 1994, a group of three Calgary teachers sensed the irony of using a text book to learn about aquatic ecosystems at schools located only kilometres from real rivers. As science teachers and avid paddlers, they dreamed of a real-world river study in which students experienced their rivers in an exciting way.
The founding teachers and first Board of Directors – Cal Kullman, John Dupuis and Guy Pollard – imagined students traveling their local river aboard large inflatable rafts equipped with water quality testing equipment, and later in the classroom, analyzing data to construct a picture of river health.
Pilot Project 1995
A pre-pilot survey of teachers around the province echoed dissatisfaction with a teaching unit often left to the end of the year, covered quickly because time ran out and requiring water-testing equipment that was generally not available in junior high schools.
To assist with an already busy science year, the founding teachers set out to design a fun, hands-on field study that would dovetail closely with the existing science curriculum and textbook. Advice was sought on routes and testing procedures from local fish hatchery staff. All the necessary water-testing and rafting equipment for a demonstration project could be borrowed or rented at a reasonable cost from sources such as a city waterworks lab, university outdoor program centre or local canoe clubs.
Once equipped with a river route on Calgary’s Bow River along with rafts and testing kits, the project was first piloted with ninety students from Cal’s three Science 9 classes at Louis Riel School in the spring of 1995. Cal was the first Executive Director 1995 onward and one of the first river guides, using a video camera in one hand and a paddle in the other during the pilot program.
The first season of programs ran in the fall of 1995 with twenty-two teachers and nearly 600 students spending a day on their river with the first season of RiverWatch comprised of Clayton Roth, Wendy Aupers and Brad Davis.
Two Decades of Building
Following the first year’s successes, the river study was made readily accessible to any interested Calgary school through a not-for-profit company originally named Beyond Books Institute of Alberta. The company secured funding, obtained liability insurance, purchased equipment and hired staff.
Programs were offered in Edmonton beginning in 1997 with two guides – Jason O'Donnell and Neil Hosler –and soon afterwards, programs were offered in thirteen towns and cities across Alberta. Stephanie Allen was a river guide and the first Edmonton Program Coordinator during the seven years 2002-2008.
River Guides were hired on the basis of their paddling and first-aid certification; university training in science or environmental studies; and enthusiasm and experience for working with young people. Simon Ham was the first Calgary Senior Guide and Seasonal Program Coordinator for eleven years 1997-2007.
Corporate legal counsel was provided on a pro bono basis 1995 onward through Chris Brown who believed RiverWatch was a great idea. (Decades later, Chris’s son participated in the student program.)
Grants from corporations and all levels of government enabled the purchase equipment and fulltime staffing. Municipal wastewater treatment plants provided a secure home for equipment and an important facility tour mid-way. By implementing a blend of user fees, corporate sponsorship and grants, the program became sustainable for decades.
During the eight years 2006-2013, a strong Board of Directors came together under the chairmanship of Howard Heffler.
RiverWatch became a registered Canadian charity in 2010 and the company name was changed to RiverWatch Institute of Alberta. In 2012, the program tagline became “Science. Education. Adventure.”
The Big Picture
Over the two decades following inception, the original teaching dream became a reality in a very big way. What began as a pilot trip for three classes went on to become non-profit organization and award-winning river monitoring program in which 10,000 students across Alberta participate annually.
RiverWatch has transformed what was once a “left-to-the-end” reading unit with few lab activities into an award-winning environmental monitoring experience that combines physical challenge and adventure with hands-on, real-world science.
The day spent floating on the river is, for some students, the first view they have ever had of this vitally important resource flowing through their communities. More significantly, it is likely the first time they have considered their own impact on the river and on the lives of all other inhabitants downstream. It is the hope that these young people will go on to become successful students, good stewards of our rivers and ultimately contribute to a better quality of life for all.