Cowichan River steward Gerald Thom spent final day on lake conservation

It may have been his last work for the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society but Gerald Thom was enthusiastically working lakeside Saturday, July 26, only hours before his death in a tragic plane crash near Nanaimo.

"Gerald’s last day was typical of his constant involvement with the stewardship of our watershed," Society communications director Parker Jefferson said July 29.

"He woke early, packed his barbecue, food, tools and tent into his truck and drove to the current Shoreline Stewardship Project site, on the lands of the Lake Cowichan First Nation. There he led a large group of community, First Nations and CLRSS volunteers in planting over 800 native plants in an area the group had earlier cleaned up, removing blackberries and garbage.

"He worked tirelessly in the hot sun with everyone else until the job was done. His wife Caroline helped grill the hamburgers we all enjoyed at lunch break: just another day in the quest to restore our lakefront riparian areas."

As a tireless champion of the watershed and community, Thom "inspired children with his talks at the local school about how important a healthy watershed is for their futures," Jefferson said.

"His efforts helped to create the Shoreline Stewardship Project, working with all levels of government and many volunteer groups to raise the necessary funding to restore riparian areas and create public awareness of the importance of riparian areas."

Georgina Livingstone of the Lake Cowichan First Nation was delighted to see the work being done on the site.

"Gerald is such a great guy. He loves the lake," she said July 26.

"We removed I don’t know how much garbage from here on Earth Day and now we’re really starting to get this cleaned up and replanted," said Aaron Hamilton, operations officer for the band. "It’s a really great first phase for the redevelopment of the site. We look forward to seeing what we can do to becoming major players in the local economy."

Thom himself took a moment out from working by the lake to talk about the riparian repair effort, which was continuing at several sites around Cowichan Lake.

"This is one of nine we’re doing as part of our lakeshore stewardship thing. We’ve got the Cowichan Valley Naturalists here today, we’ve got the Retread Hiking Group and, of course, our own volunteers and our First Nations, too.

"This is a beautiful place; it’s a unique opportunity. It was really overgrown with blackberries and invasive plants so replacing them with all native plants, we can restore the habitat and make something that’s nice to look at as well.

"And we’ve still planned it so there will be beach access as well for swimming. I know there are also plans for a cultural interpretive site here in the future. This is the first step, clean it out and replant."

The group has already done a about 150 metres of shoreline at Honeymoon Bay’s Paradise Village RV park. Next up are sites on private property.

"The idea is that we’ve got a three year plan to visit most of the residents around the lake to explain the importance of the riparian zone for habitat, filtration and water purification and try to encourage them to use native plants and leave as much of the riparian zone intact as possible. That’s going to keep our water quality in place forever, and our fish stocks.

"We don’t want to become Shawnigan Lake. Cowichan is a beautiful clear, clean lake and this is a number one priority for our group," Thom said.

He then pointed out that there are about 25 backers funding the project.

The main ones are the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Environment Canada Eco Action, the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund and the federal Recreational Fisheries Conservation Partnership Program, he said.

Judy Brayden of the Stewardship Society said that Thom was devoted to maintaining the lake in good shape.

He enjoyed Cowichan Lake, particularly the Shaw Creek estuary, she said. "I remember when he went there, when we did field trips there, he was like a little kid leaping up and down. He was so excited about the ecosystem. The other people were thinking it wasn’t very special but he was so excited. It was great to see," she said.

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