Keynote speaker lives for rivers, waterways

There are those who talk the talk and those who walk the walk. And then there’s Max Finkelstein.
Author, adventurer, poet, lecturer, and, most of all, paddler, Finkelstein was the keynote speaker at the fourth-annual ManOMin Watershed Conference at La Place Rendez-Vous here last week.
Finkelstein, who hails from Ottawa, has been involved in the Canadian Heritage River Rivers System for more than a decade and when he’s not talking about rivers (as he was here) chances are he’s paddling them.
In fact, he has paddled more than 20,000 km in North America, Europe, and Australia. He also has published two books—one of which retraced the steps (or strokes) of Alexander MacKenzie’s journey across North America.
In 1997, Finkelstein began his own version of MacKenzie’s trip, starting in Ottawa and ending in Cumberland House, Sask. Along the way, he also paddled the Rainy River and so is intimately familiar with both its beauty and history.
“The Rainy River really stands out in my journals,” Finkelstein told those on hand at the Townshend Theatre last Wednesday night, where he kicked off the watershed conference with a presentation open to the general public.
“Fort Frances was a major crossroads and trading post,” he noted.
Finkelstein related his trip down the river and how he found himself transported in time as he encountered an Amish woman and her daughter along the riverbank, surrounded by a field of summer flowers.
It is images like these that compel him to strike out across often remote country to find what lies beyond the next bend in the river.
Finkelstein takes great care in preparing for these journeys. First, he studies whatever maps he can get his hands on (and nowadays the Internet) so he has as much information as possible.
After all, he sometimes finds himself days away from civilization and completely out of touch (he said he doesn’t even take a cell phone because it doesn’t work in the remote areas he goes to anyway).
Finkelstein prepares all his food ahead of time. He has a food dryer, in which he dehydrates all supplies, and plans each day’s meals in advance. Because he works so hard, he consumes 7,000-8,000 calories per day—which can be a challenge since he’s practically a vegetarian.
However, he won’t turn his nose up at the occasional piece of caribou jerky or smoked fish if offered.
Finkelstein said he has no special training in canoeing, apart from some racing when he was younger. It all just seemed to fall into place for him.
“I’ve been paddling so long, I think my body just falls into it,” he remarked.
He also plays a little hockey, which was part of his keynote address the following morning at the Rendez-Vous, where the three-day watershed conference began for real.
“Being Canadian comes down to water—and hockey,” he explained to a packed room in the upstairs banquet room. “Rivers connect us to our past and our identity.
“They are the guardians of our heritage,” he stressed.
In fact, Canada contains a significant percentage of the world’s fresh water and if you include all the Great Lakes (including the portions within the United States), we have the most.
We send about as much water to the oceans as does China, he noted. Only Brazil, with the mighty Amazon River, sends more.
But what Finkelstein really came to speak about here was the Canadian Heritage River System—Canada’s national program for river conservation. He says there currently are 34 designated heritage rivers, with five more nominated.
What may be surprising is that the Rainy River is not on that list.
“It certainly should be,” Finkelstein said, noting it is conferences such as this that begin the process. He said it can take five-seven years for a river to be designated a heritage one from the initial process.
“The process begins with conferences like this,” he remarked.
Of course, it is not always that simple. Many rivers flow through private land—some of which is owned by logging companies.
As well, different stakeholders, such as anglers and canoeists, sometimes will find themselves competing for the same resource instead of working together for the benefit of all.
“The whole program is based on community support and consensus,” he stressed.
Finkelstein noted being designated a heritage river is no guarantee of protection since the label carries little legal weight and the title can be revoked.
But at least it raises the river’s profile to the point where people become aware of the place of rivers to our environment and history.
He cited the example of the MacKenzie River—the longest in Canada. It was designated a heritage river long ago, but now faces the threat of an oil and gas pipeline running through the ancient valley it created.
“The purpose of the program goes beyond the designated river,” Finkelstein explained. “It recognizes all of Canada’s rivers.”
And it is that general awareness, he said, that ultimately will determine what the Rainy River and others like it will look like in 20 years or so—with or without official designation.
“Heritage rivers I see more as a stepping stone to something else than an end in itself,” he concluded.