Storybook Relives Fin’s Epic Swim

By Mario Bartel - New Westminster News Leader Published: April 23, 2013 9:00 AM

Fin Donnelly almost didn’t get into the water on the second day of his first swim down the Fraser River in 1995.

He was frozen and exhausted; how could he do it all again tomorrow, he thought.

But after getting some sleep he pulled his wetsuit on the next morning and slipped back into the river to continue the daily swimming marathon that would take him to the river’s mouth three weeks later.

“I had to recalibrate quickly,” says Donnelly from his office in Ottawa, where he serves as the Member of Parliament for New Westminster-Coquitlam and Port Moody. “It came down to having the determination and drive to keep going.”

Donnelly’s effort to swim the length of the Fraser to raise awareness of the environmental perils it faced is now being retold in a storybook for young adults, Fin’s Swim, by Gulf Islands’ author Helen O’Brian and illustrated by Debbie Bowles.

The book began as a project to tell the story of the Fraser. But as O’Brian traveled with Donnelly on a raft one summer with his Rivershed Society’s sustainable living leadership program for young people, they both realized the best way to convey the history and majesty of the waterway was through his epic struggle to conquer it, one stroke at a time.

“Fin became the vehicle, like the little carved canoe from Paddle to the Sea, for the story of the Fraser River that I wanted to write,” says O’Brian.

Donnelly’s swim started with modest intentions. An accomplished long distance swimmer who had traversed the Georgia Strait numerous times, Donnelly originally set out to swim from New Westminster to the ocean to bring attention to the environmental pressures along the Fraser’s most industrialized section. Those pressures had put the Fraser on a list of the world’s most endangered rivers.

But as he started doing research and talking to groups that shared his concern for the Fraser’s health, he realized the problems, and the river’s importance, went much further than the Lower Mainland. He expanded the scope of his quest, from Hope down, then from Prince George down, then the entire length, all 1,400 kilometres from its head at Tete Jaune Cache.

“That motivated me,” says Donnelly. “I’m a swimmer, I’ll swim it. I’ll draw attention to say we’re all part of the problem and we all have to be part of the solution.”

As part of his training for the swim, Donnelly immersed himself in cold water, did laps in unheated pools. But nothing could prepare him for the glacial cold of the headwaters fed by snow runoff high in the mountains.

“You couldn’t really prepare for it, until you experience how cold the water was,” says Donnelly.

Swimming about 100 metres behind his support team, guiding the way from a raft piloted by Darwin Baerg, Donnelly coped with the cold and ever-changing conditions by breaking the swim into manageable segments: swim to the next break, tread water to recover; swim until lunch, eat on the raft; repeat.

“We had the physical preparation, but when you get there it’s the mental ability to get over obstacles,” says Donnelly. “We had to figure it out as we went.”

Fittingly, that approach became his mantra for tackling the environmental challenges of the Fraser; deal with the problems a bit at a time and eventually the river will regain its health.

Five years later Donnelly repeated his swim to see what changes had occurred since his first effort.

“We need to focus on monitoring the health of our environment,” says Donnelly, who was encouraged by some of the improvements he saw in the upper Fraser, but discouraged by some of the backward steps in the river’s lower reaches.

Speaking to schools and community groups about his swims eventually led to overtures to get involved with local politics. After seven years as a city councillor in Coquitlam he was elected as a federal member of parliament where he’s the fisheries critic for the New Democratic Party. And likely the only fisheries critic who’s ever swam with the fish he’s working to protect.

Donnelly says having his swim retold in a storybook will bring his message to a new generation of young people who weren’t even alive when his first dipped his toe into the upper Fraser.

“It’s a bit of a legacy of my trip, and it will live on,” says Donnelly.

For more information about Fin’s Swim go to www.finsswim.ca