Blog Post

Balloon mapping False Creek

Author flying a weather balloon camera rig in downtown Vancouver. Photo Credit: Stephen Jackson

False Creek, a narrow inlet bordering downtown Vancouver, is a site of multiple histories and fluctuating shorelines. Today, the banks of the creek are lined with public art, residential neighborhoods, a science museum, re-zoned sites for real estate development and a network of parks lined with walkways and bike paths. Less than a century ago, the shores were teeming with industrial activity, initially spurred on by the logging industry. Before that, for thousands of years, First Nations people hunted and fished along its shores. The ebb and flow of human activity has determined the geography of this shoreline though most significantly in the last couple hundred years.

Historically, False Creek was much wider and longer than how it appears today. Below is an image that local Vancouver historian John Atkin shared with me that overlays the original size of the creek onto a map of downtown Vancouver.

Former extent of False Creek over a map of Vancouver from 1995. Credit: creator unknown

Unfortunately, we were unable to identify the original creator. If someone reading this post has a lead, please leave a comment and I will make the proper attributions.

Below is a map I made of False Creek from images collected using a point and shoot camera strapped inside a plastic juice container, clipped to a kite string that was tethered to a five and half foot red weather balloon.

Aerial images stitched together into a map of False Creek overlaid on Google Maps. Made with MapKnitter. Click on photo to see the entire map. Photo credit: Author

Map of Central Station in downtown Vancouver. This used to all be water. Made in MapKnitter ( Photo credit: Author

This setup, an open-source DIY mapping kit created by Public Lab is one of the tools I am using to document the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline route. I am also organizing training workshops wherever I go, working with community members to collectively map areas they want to document themselves.

In these workshops, participants learn how to make their own aerial images using the same, simple tools that I am using. The Vancouver workshop was organized in collaboration with Ecotrust, a Canadian non-profit where I was unofficially in-residence while in Vancouver.

Kite and Balloon Mapping

Over the course of several overcast days, we attempted once unsuccessfully with a kite and twice successfully with the balloon to map areas of False Creek from behind the train station and along the shores from the Science World to the casino on the north shore.

Flying a kite on a windless day in downtown Vancouver. Photo credit: Author

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Author demonstrating how to attach a camera to the kite string during the Vancouver DIY Mapping workshop. Photo credit: Stephen Jackson

Vancouver is far from the particular oil trail I am following but when I began digging into the history of False Creek, I found many themes--although on a much different scale--that broadly mirrored the ones facing the Northern Gateway Project. Abundant natural resources, desirable sites for industry and transport, First Nations' struggles to hold onto diminishing territories, environmental changes brought about by industrial development. Making an aerial map of the outlines of the creek today reveals how drastically the shoreline has changed over time.

UBC Masters candidate and workshop participant Kathryn Lennon helping fill the weather balloon. Photo credit: Author

Photo credit: Stephen Jackson

Overhead shot from camera attached to the balloon as it's being let up. The kite reel can fly up to 1000 ft. Photo credit: author

Author pulling the weather balloon down. The camera is attached a few feet down the kite line. Photo credit: Stephen Jackson

Photo credit: Stephen Jackson

Chas Fritz, the GIS Coordinator at Ecotrust was enthusiastic when I proposed the mapping workshop and we set up a date to co-host it in late January. I invited John Atkin, who in addition to being a historian and writer also leads historic walking tours in Vancouver, to give us an abridged history lesson on False Creek. He generously joined us on a beautiful Saturday morning. Much of the information I write here is derived from his tour. You can listen to an edited audio clip here of that tour here.

False Creek

"Industries that once lined the banks of False Creek: Sawmill, asphalt plant, shingle plant, shipyards, bridge building components, barge operation, sawdust plant, concrete plant"

False Creek, as we see it today, is at least fifteen times smaller than its original size as a result of landfill for industrial development. Continued development in the post-industrial era further diminished its size although only in appearance. Let me explain. Many of the buildings around False Creek today, Science World for example, are built on pilings. This arrangement is a result of legislation passed during the city’s preparation for the World’s Fair in 1986, to prevent the creek from shrinking any further. Even the running and walking path that winds its way towards Olympic Village on the south side of False Creek sits on pilings. Visually the creek is smaller than it once was but the water is still there, collecting underneath the pilings.

I asked John about First Nations presence along the creek and he replied in an email:

"There are indications that First Nations set up fish weirs on the creeks that fed into False Creek and Granville Island is built on sand bars which was the location for a large weir to capture fish. The Creek had sturgeon, salmon, seals, shellfish, oolichan, and rockfish. In the eastern basin, now filled and used by the railways and industry there is oral history about a freshwater plume that was believed to connect the Creek with Burnaby and Deer Lake further east."

I spent the last couple of weeks in Bella Bella, an island town on the mid-coast of British Columbia and home of the Heiltsuk First Nation. The waters around the island are a freeway for seals, salmon, orcas, humpback whales, sea lions, rockfish, bald eagles and more. It’s incredible to consider that the shores of False Creek had the same abundance as Bella Bella, only 98 nautical miles (181 km) north of the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

John directed me to a book by Canadian-First Nations writer Pauline Johnson, Legends of Vancouver that was published in the early 20th century. The language is dramatic at times, but it was enthralling to read about the giant seals that once roamed False Creek. What I liked is how she connects locations within the story to present day landmarks. Here is an example:

"Up the stretch of False Creek the man and monster drove their course, where a century hence great city bridges were to over-arch the waters. They strove and struggled each for the mastery; neither of them weakened, neither of them faltered–the one dragging, the other driving. In the end it was to be a matching of brute and human wits, not forces. As they neared the point where now Main Street bridge flings its shadow across the waters, the brute leaped high into the air, then plunged headlong into the depths. The impact ripped the rope from Capilano's hands. It rattled across the gunwale. He stood staring at the spot where it had disappeared–the brute had been victorious. At low tide the Indian made search. No trace of his game, of his precious elk-bone spear, of his cedar-fibre rope, could be found. With the loss of the latter he firmly believed his luck as a hunter would be gone. So he patrolled the mouth of False Creek for many moons. His graceful, high-bowed canoe rarely touched other waters, but the seal king had disappeared."

I'll end this post with this final description:

"Far into the night dashes of flaming scarlet pulsed far beyond the head of False Creek. The colour rose and fell like a beckoning hand, and, Indian-like, he immediately attached some portentous meaning to the unusual sight. That it was some omen he never doubted, so he paddled inland, beached his canoe, and took the trail towards the little group of lakes that crowd themselves into the area that lies between the present cities of Vancouver and New Westminster."

A huge thank you to Ecotrust for hosting me for a month and John Atkin for agreeing to talk during the mapping workshop.

Ann Chen is a photographer, multimedia artist and researcher from New York City. She is currently in Western Canada tracing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline through collective storytelling, community mapping and citizen science. Read her earlier posts here or follow her project on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

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