Author Tags: Fishing, Outdoors
A Roman Catholic priest, an environmentalist and a modern day hermit with degrees in ornithology and wildlife conservation, Father Charles Brandt lived alone on Vancouver Island for more than thirty years. Meditations From The Wilderness (Harper Collins, 1997) is a collection of Brandt’s thoughts and essays of different cultures.
[BCBW 2003] "Fishing" "Outdoors"
FATHER CHARLES BRANDT: A PROFILE
by Bob Jones
When the Steelhead Society of B.C. presented the Cal Woods Conservation Award at their 1989 annual convention, the recipient was noticeably absent. It was not an intentional snub, simply a matter of priorities. Father Charles Brandt was extremely pleased to win the award, which honours the memory of his friend Calvin V. Woods, who died on January 28, 1986. However, several weeks earlier a massive oil spill had washed ashore on the west coast of Vancouver Island. As is typical of Brandt, he was right in the thick of things and still busy helping to clean up the beaches.
The prestigious award recognized Brandt's efforts in protecting Vancouver Island's often threatened environment. It is an ongoing battle for the hermit priest, for there is no shortage of user groups willing to plunder various resources in the name of corporate or personal gain.
A quiet, scholarly man, Brandt lives in a rustic hermitage overlooking the Oyster River. Much of the lower floor is devoted to a modern, state of the art book bindery and paper conservation laboratory. Considered one of North America's most skilled paper conservators, he is often called upon to travel throughout the world saving and preserving precious documents. However, he does not consider this his vocation. "I am interested in conservation on three levels: Restoring and preserving mans' contemplative spirit -- mine and other people; restoring what flows from mans' spirit -- what he creates from his ink or crafts; and restoring and preserving the earth. If we don't do this, we have nothing."
The story leading to Brandt's arrival on Vancouver Island in 1965 would fill this magazine -- and then some. Suffice to say that the long, tortuous journey from his birthplace in Kansas City, Missouri, took 42 years. A few highlights included a wartime stint as a navigator/bombardier in the United States Air Force, followed by his earning a Bachelor of Science (ornithology major), then a Bachelor of Divinity.
Although ordained as an Anglican priest in England, Brandt later converted to the Roman Catholic faith, then spent several years studying and working in various monasteries throughout the United States. It was during this time he learned the ancient craft of book binding.
While at a Trappist monastery in Iowa, Brandt heard of a small group of hermits living on Vancouver Island. He arranged to visit them at Headquarters, an abandoned logging camp on the Tsolum River, northwest of Courtenay. He arrived in March 1965, to find a small group of scholars and theologians who had left their respective monasteries to seek a simpler, more contemplative life as hermits.
After his acceptance by the hermits, Brandt constructed a small hermitage and filled it with old book binding equipment acquired from a Trappist monastery in Oregon.
Brandt credits Dave Muir, a federal fisheries employee, for introducing him to Vancouver Island cutthroat trout. They proved an exciting change from Missouri's Osage River catfish. He then tackled Tsolum River coho and discovered the challenge of landing fish weighing up to 13 pounds. It was good training for winter steelheading. His first came from the Tsolum on Christmas Day, 1966. It weighed 18 pounds, 6 ounces, and is still his largest steelhead.
Brandt's time at the Headquarters hermitage was devoted to prayer, meditation, studies, and earning his livelihood through binding new books and repairing old or damaged ones. He was elevated into the priesthood in 1966, the first time a hermit had been ordained in over 200 years.
In 1967, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans erected an experimental pink salmon hatchery on Headquarters Creek, a Tsolum tributary near the hermit community. Brandt helped construct the facility, then worked there as an assistant technician. When it closed after the 1968 season, he remained as caretaker.
As his business increased, Brandt realized he needed larger quarters. Earnings from working at the hatchery paid for 30 acres of heavily forested property on the Oyster River, and in 1969 his hermitage was trucked to its present location. It is now part of the present building.
Brandt first entered the environmental arena in 1970. A marina proposed for the Oyster River mouth was strongly opposed by the local chapter of the Steelhead Society of B.C. As secretary, Brandt's job was to gather facts, prepare briefs and write letters to government officials. However, in 1973, before the issue was settled, he left for the United States to further his training in book binding and paper conservation. (Author's note: The marina went ahead and is now known as Pacific Playgrounds. In retrospect, Brandt does not feel the environmental impact was too detrimental.)
After training in Oregon, California and Massachusetts, Brandt studied at several European centres. In 1975, while in Switzerland, he accepted a position as a paper conservator at Moncton, New Brunswick. When budget cuts closed that centre in 1980, he worked in Ottawa and Winnipeg before finally returning to his hermitage in 1984.
Brandt was shocked at what he found: Puntledge River cutthroat, steelhead and summer-run chinooks were in serious decline and fall-run chinooks had been wiped out; the Tsolum River was dead from mine pollution; the Oyster had suffered severe flood damage from clearcutting and its fish stocks were down dramatically.
He could not believe the toll exacted by corporate greed. "Look at the Puntledge: a wonderful run of chinook has been screwed up by BC Hydro. They used to go right into Comox Lake and spawn in the Cruickshank River. All that beautiful gravel and it's wasted now because it isn't utilized. They think in terms of power without looking at the whole earth in a balanced sense. They need energy, so they write off a fisheries resource to get it.
"The whole quality of the Oyster River was different. I remember nice pools and plenty of gravel bars. Now the pools are filled in and the gravel is gone. Clearcut logging created very uneven flows -- in the summertime very low, in the wintertime very high. Now a brown slime has formed on the river bottom -- a form of algae called a 'diatom.' It grows in rivers that are extremely low, like they have been this past summer. It's also in the Heber, the Stamp, parts of the Gold. It has decreased invertebrate life in the Heber, but doesn't seem to have affected the other rivers... yet."
Brandt's greatest shock was the Tsolum River. He knew that Mount Washington Copper Mine had operated upstream from Headquarters between 1964 and 1966, but hadn't related it to damaging the river. However, when the mine went into receivership in 1967, there was no legislation in effect that required them to reclaim or cover the open pit. Water and oxygen mixing with exposed waste rock created a copper leachate that is lethal to fish. This deadly mixture drained from the mine site into Pyrrhotite Creek, which joins Murex Creek then the Tsolum. Soon, salmonid stocks in this entire system were annihilated.
When the Comox Valley chapter of the SSBC was reformed in 1985, Brandt attended their first meeting. "There were so many environmental problems we hardly knew where to begin, but we were in total agreement that reclamation of the Tsolum would be our top priority."
The Tsolum River Enhancement Committee was formed, with Brandt appointed chairman. He started gathering the necessary facts and data, then initiated a letter-writing campaign to various levels of provincial and federal governments. Responses were slow and often non-commital or ambiguous, but he persevered with dogged determination. His address list soon included well-known television personalities, radio talk show hosts, newspaper environmental reporters and journalists. Before long, the Tsolum River became known across Canada as a classic example of resource mismanagement.
In 1987, frustrated with continued government foot-dragging in making a commitment, the SSBC Comox Valley chapter announced it would start a fund-raising campaign to clean up the mine site with private contractors. It was then that the
provincial government finally announced a $600,000 reclamation project (later adjusted to $1 million).
Work started in 1988 and was completed the following year. Limestone was used to neutralize the exposed waste rock, which was then covered with a metre-thick layer of glacial till (a mixture of clay, sand and gravel). Despite hopes that blocking water and oxygen from the rock would prevent further leaching, copper levels have remained as high as ever, so the work continues.
Presently, his greatest concern is right at his doorstep: the Oyster River. "Last summer it was the lowest I can remember. The water table is dropping and a possible new subdivision will add to the problem as more people will need water. About 60 people recently signed a petition for additional wells, and I'm concerned about the effect that will have on the river. Perhaps the alternative might be deep, deep wells that won't interfere with the water table, which affects the river. But I don't know enough about that because I'm not a hydrologist."
At Brandt's urging, the Campbell River and Comox Valley SSBC chapters are presently sponsoring a study of the Oyster River watershed. A consultant is reviewing the impact of past, present and future logging: how it affects peak flows; movement of gravel; erosion effects on the soil, and water quality. "There's no question that the clearcut logging they have done in the headwaters area has had really deleterious effects on the river," Brandt stated. "Both in the way of flood damage and the movement and loss of gravel. The records show that it wasn't until after they started clearcutting in earnest that we've had such bad flooding."
Brandt said fisheries reports back up his claim that gravel loss has reduced much of the river bottom down to bedrock. "I have recent photos of the estuary taken from a helicopter. You can see quite clearly where the gravel has gone -- it's all right there, fanning out from the river mouth."
In 1983, the Oyster River Enhancement Society was formed as a non-profit, volunteer organization. Their stated purpose is to "promote, upgrade, enhance and undertake works in the Oyster River watershed." Brandt is proud of the society's environmental record, but as a member of the fisheries committee he disagrees with their emphasis on chinook enhancement. "We are now feeding something like 98,000, which is very popular with commercial and sports fishermen -- and DFO -- because chinook have been scarce. Back in 1955 there were something like 200 chinook counted in the river, but ordinarily it was about 25. Records show the Oyster is not a very good chinook river. It's not deep enough and it doesn't have the right type of gravel.
"Traditionally, there were over 100,000 pinks, 35,000 to 40,000 coho, 15,000 chums, and there were always good numbers of steelhead and cutthroat. I feel our long range plan should be to return the Oyster to its 'original capacity' for the four species of salmon, plus cutthroat and steelhead."
Brandt's involvement with organizations like the SSBC, Friends of Strathcona Park, the Oyster River Enhancement Society, and the Vancouver Island Resources Society requires frequent attendance at meetings. He is usually involved as a director, secretary or committee member, so it seems there are always reports to prepare and a seemingly self-propagating mound of correspondence to be dealt with.
Although Brandt will probably never lack for environmental projects to champion, he is optimistic that positive changes are forthcoming. He feels strongly that these changes should also include the settlement of aboriginal rights and land claims. "You know, museums like to preserve Indian artifacts -- their weaving and sculptures -- but what's really important is to preserve their spirit, the very culture from which these artifacts flow. To do this, we must preserve their environment -- their rivers, streams and mountains. We must start looking at the whole earth, not just save artifacts one by one and place them in artificial environments. Many Indians still have what I call 'perennial philosophy' -- the unity of all beings, living and non-living. I don't say the young bucks have it, but the elders do.
"'We are part of the earth, and it is part of us.' That's from Chief Seattle's prayer." Father Charles Brandt smiled. "They believe that... and we should, too.
[Bob Jones / BC Outdoors]