Behind the Greens - Ali Howard, River Activist

By Erich Volkstorf

In August 2009, a young chef named Ali Howard, concerned about the dangers facing the Skeena River in northwestern British Columbia, Canada, swam the river’s entire 380-mile length. The headwaters of the Skeena lie within a few miles of the headwaters of two other great rivers, the Stikine and the Nass. This area, known as the Sacred Headwaters, is in danger from industrial development.

Shortly after she completed her swim, Howard was awarded clothing giant Patagonia’s first ever Activist Award. She currently speaks in the U.S. and Canada about the dangers facing the Skeena River watershed.

1. E Magazine: What are the issues facing the Sacred Headwaters?
Ali Howard: One of the main threats is Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to drill for coal bed methane right at the source of those three rivers. Putting a project like that right at the headwaters doesn’t make any sense because it could compromise the integrity of all three river systems. Another project is Enbridge Inc.’s pipeline to carry oil from tar sands in Alberta out to the coast at Kitimat. That would compromise not just the watershed but super tankers on the coast would affect the marine ecosystem.

2. E: Why should people living outside British Columbia be concerned?
A.H.: The Skeena watershed represents one of the few remaining ecologically intact systems in the world. It’s one of the largest undammed watersheds in the world. That alone is notable. It’s a clean water system. Those factors I think make it something that everybody can be concerned about. We have a chance right now to build a model for watershed stewardship and management that could be a worldwide model.

3. E: What inspired you to swim?
A.H.: I had read an article about a Slovenian man named Martin Strel who swam the Amazon River from source to sea. I mentioned it to my friend Shannon at the the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition. I said that she should get a hold of him to see if he would do something with her about the Skeena because he swims for clean water systems. And Shannon looked at me and said, “Well, you live here and you swim, so you do it”.

4. E: Were you an experienced swimmer? A.H.: I played water polo at an elite level. But I haven’t played in 10 years.

5. E: Has that swim changed your perception of the Skeena River?
A.H.: I had a great amount of respect for the river going into the project. It was never about conquering the river. During the swim I really just felt like a vessel being used to carry people’s thoughts and ideas. It became a very personal relationship for me with the river. I really felt like I was being embraced by her and carried along safely.