The Streams-that-used-to-be

by Zbigniew

Vancouver’s Old Streams


More than 120 kilometres of streams once flowed across Vancouver. Something like 50 mouths emptied into the sea or the Fraser, supporting runs of coho, chum and pink salmon, and rainbow, cutthroat and steelhead trout. “Even after European settlement, two or three dozens salmon could often be seen in a pool at Third and Burrard, working their way up [the] creek … when that branch became a ditch beside Third Avenue, salmon still congregated under the electric street lamps.”

In the 1920s stream beds were used as garbage dumps until they were culverted and incorporated into the growing sewer system. Swampy headwaters disappeared under parks and golf courses, streets and homes, their contemporary locations reflected in off-kilter fences, lumpy roadways and the Parks Board budget line items dedicated to filling slumps in soccer fields.

A few post-colonial creek names survive: Brewery, China, Macdonald; fewer still can be heard under select manhole covers or glimpsed in Renfrew Ravine or Tatlow Park.

Almost lost amongst the golf courses, residential developments and roadways is the last salmon stream, Musqueam Creek. Once 300 coho were thought to return here annually; as the city grew these dwindled to less than ten.

Four thousand years of Musqueam stewardship lives on via the Musqueam Ecosystem Conservation Society. Now the salmon count reaches up to 50, depending on the distinctly urban challenges posed in any one year: garbage, broken water main induced mud slides, and lifestyle.

In late September a contractor drained a Southlands swimming pool into a storm drain that in turn empties into the Creek. The chlorinated water killed -bleached- more than 1,000 fish, including a precious three spawning coho.


Of an early morning with the forest of concrete and glass shrouded in fog, I was drawn by the sound of rushing water.

Nature had given way to “nature”, a sanctioned amenity, one of the ubiquitous artifacts of congealed sand and stone aggregate shaped to evoke impressions of stream, ravine and estuary. But even as a simulacrum it lacks. Grievously misaligned, oblivious of the stream that once flowed nearby, through what is now David Lam Park, to empty into False Creek.

I close my eyes to shut out the distorted geography, but it’s still all wrong. It sounds too fast -far too smooth and efficient- like a sewer.

And then there’s the smell. Not the stink of waste but its inverse, the mask, the hallmark of urban hydrological sterility -chlorine.