Tuesday October 03, 2017

As a B.C. fishing village is slowly submerged, meet the people who refuse to leave

Gus Jacobson, driving his boat in Finn Slough.

Gus Jacobson, driving his boat in Finn Slough. (Gordon Katic)

Listen 24:47

By Gordon Katic

Finn Slough is on the front lines of climate change. Nestled on the banks of the Fraser River, this community will eventually be overcome by flooding as sea levels rise. But the people of Finn Slough are doing what they can to stay put, despite the writing on the wall. 

Only a 30-minute drive from the glass and concrete towers of downtown Vancouver sits a tiny homesteader community called Finn Slough. Finn Slough was once a Finnish fishing community, but today it feels like a relic from another time. Small bunk houses and net sheds, built by fisherman over 100 years ago, stand on stilts just above the water.

"It's a tiny little chunk that's kind of unspoiled," says Gus Jacobson, a community elder and unofficial caretaker of Finn Slough. Jacobson's son, Rus Jacobson, compares his upbringing to that of childhood stories. "I was probably like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn," says Rus. "You know, thirteen, rowing boats around here — all my friends were amazed!" When the weather is right, dozens of tourists flock to see the community. The quirky homes and idyllic natural landscapes make for beautiful pictures.

Old fishing boat, Finn Slough BC

An old fishing boat in Finn Slough. (Gordon Katic)

"Living here gives us a just a little taste of what life might have been like a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago," says Glenn Anderson, a long-time resident. "People who come here see it as a sort of exotic wonderland, but it's actually not always that easy to live here," he adds. 

Anderson is referring to the daunting environmental challenges of living directly on the Fraser River, including the rising waters that threaten to overwhelm the picture-perfect community. Climate change is intensifying, increasing the frequency and severity of flooding and coastal storms. The provincial government is instructing B.C. municipalities to prepare for the sea level to rise by half a meter by the year 2050 and one meter by 2100. That leaves Finn Slough residents with a difficult decision: retreat from the rising seas or find a way to defy nature and stay put?

"I want to do everything in my power to preserve what's left."   -  Gus Jacobson

In the past year, several Finn Slough homes have flooded during seasonal high tides. On one occasion, the boardwalks connecting the homes completely flooded, meaning residents could not reach their homes for several hours. Additionally, waves from tanker traffic in the Fraser River have accelerated coastal erosion on nearby marshland. This marshland protects Finn Slough by limiting the force of waves, which already damage their boardwalks and boat pilings. As the marshland erodes, the waves become stronger. "It flows heavy and that surge comes here and it hits just like a square wall. Something's got to give," says Gus Jacobson.

Sign in Finn Slough

Finn Slough sits on Crown land. (Gordon Katic)

The nearby municipality of Richmond, B.C. heavily invested in protective dikes that keep the rising waters at bay. However, Finn Slough is a homesteader community that sits just outside those dikes. Therefore, no governmental body is currently providing support for Finn Slough's mounting environmental challenges. Although the municipality boasts of Finn Slough as one of its heritage areas, they say Finn Slough is technically Crown land, and ultimately the Ministry of Forest, Lands, and Natural Resources is responsible for the area.

When asked about Finn Slough, the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said in an e-mail, "The Province is aware of unauthorized occupation and it is one of a number of trespass issues that we will be working towards addressing. Ministry staff recognizes the historic value of this land and will be working with occupants to resolve this uncertainty.  Currently, there are no Land Act tenures or applications for this area." and, "[The Ministry ] will be working with the current occupants to find a solution."   

For now, Finn Slough is facing the rising seas on its own — and Gus Jacobson insists the community will not retreat. "You'll take it kind of day by day, not look at it like a black cloud, like 'Oh yeah. better sell, get out of here. the world is falling apart,'" says Jacobson, "I don't think any of us feel that way."

"It's not a good news story. Probably 60-70 years from now, this entire piece of land is going to be underwater every single day" - Engineer Tamsin Lyle

Tamsin Lyle is the principal engineer at Ebbwater Consulting, a firm that has consulted many B.C. municipalities on their sea level rise and flood management plans. Lyle predicts that within 50 years, Finn Slough will likely be submerged by water each day at high tide. She suggests they seriously begin considering relocation plans. "At some point, it's probably going to be too hard to live here," says Lyle. "When that's going to happen I don't know, but I suspect that Finn Slough is going to be our canary in the region." 

Stephen Sheppard, a professor of landscape planning at the University of British Columbia, has extensively studied policy options for the region. He says Finn Slough is not unique; as climate change intensifies, many areas along the Fraser River Delta may face the prospect of relocation. "Essentially you've got these low lying lands that are at sea level or close to sea level, and those are going to basically want to become sea again," says Sheppard. Landscape planners like Sheppard call this "managed retreat." Shepard says, "Managed retreat refers to a strategy where over time the community or infrastructure that is at risk to sea level rise would get pulled back — literally removed — or in essence, relocated, or they might relocate themselves."  

Gus Jacobson, in Finn Slough BC

Gus Jacobson in Finn Slough.

Over his lifetime, Jacobson says the water has risen at least 18 inches. He has developed a do-it-yourself strategy for raising the houses to meet the rising tides. Jacobson uses a small hydraulic jack to raise homes incrementally off their stilts, slipping small pieces of wood underneath to prop them up, then replacing the existing stilts with taller stilts. Each house-raising is a complicated and laborious process that can take several days, even weeks or months depending on the home. 

Although Finn Slough currently has no governmental to face rising seas, engineer Tamsin Lyle suggests that this may afford them the flexibility to create community-led solutions. "They don't have to go through 100-month hurdles and referendums," says Lyle, "so I think they are probably both at higher risk, just because of where they are situated, but they're also potentially much more adaptable because of how their community works."

Finn Slough's motto is "sisu," a Finnish world that roughly translates into "stubborn perseverance."

However, Lyle has doubts about the long-term viability of the house-raising strategy. Residents will have to spend more time raising and repairing community infrastructure, including the homes, docks, boardwalks, and the bridge. "There's some amazing characters here who are going to stick it out", says Lyle, "but at some point you're going to get some wimpy teenager who says I'm not doing this anymore. I don't like rowing my boat to school every day. And it's not going to be become a viable option anymore." 

Homes hover over to the Fraser River in Finn Slough BC

Finn Slough homes are hovering over the Fraser River. (Gordon Katic)

Sheppard says many small rural and First Nations communities should pay attention to Finn Slough as it adapts. Remote or sparsely populated areas may not receive the necessary government investment to defend themselves against rising waters, forcing them into the same dilemma as Finn Slough — retreat, or stay put? "I think there is a need for these kinds of examples," says Sheppard, "to work out what is possible and what people can do themselves."

Sitting on a log and gazing into the Fraser River, Gus Jacobson reflects on the community's resilience. He says Finn Slough's motto is "sisu," a Finnish world that roughly translates into "stubborn perseverance."

"When I quit, I will lay down my hands and I guess I won't be able to lift my hands," says Jacobson, "but until that day, I'll keep plugging away. Day by day." 

About the producers:

Cited guys

Sam Fenn (left) and Gordon Katic are co-hosts of the Cited podcast, a documentary radio program about research and higher education.

Gordon Katic and Sam Fenn are the hosts and executive producers of the Cited podcast, an award-winning program that explores the way academic ideas affect our world. Cited is produced from the University of British Columbia and  receives support from UBC's Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions in order to tell climate change stories. Gordon and Sam, are based in Vancouver, B.C., and have made documentaries on a variety of topics, from criminal justice policy to sea level rise and drug treatment.