On a sunny, spring day in May, I found myself wandering along the Foreshore trail, making my way towards Christmas Island. Far from being the leisurely, quiet stroll I expected, the shoreline was alive with a flurry of bird activity. In the first half hour alone, I noted a pair of Great Blue Herons swooping in for a landing in the marsh, a mallard drake on the trail feigning injury to protect his family who were busy scrambling to get to safety, an eagle gliding majestically through the air, and several chickadees flying in for a closer look at me to see what kind of food source I might provide. All wonderful to behold, but my attention was suddenly diverted to a noisy commotion happening at the edge of Christmas Island. Could it be what I was hoping it might be? Indeed, it was! On the horizon, I witnessed several Western Grebes performing their courtship display and seemingly scurrying across the water. What a moment! My first thought was how amazing it was that after all this time, I could still be surprised by the natural world and constantly discover new things about my surroundings. I made a mental note to try and learn more about these birds and their story.

Grebe photo courtesy Pat Huchins

The power of discovery is an amazing feeling. As a newcomer to the area, I am drawn to these natural areas and always curious to learn more about their inhabitants. Truth be told, I knew very little about the Western Grebe until I moved to Salmon Arm. As a retired archivist, I enjoy volunteering in another location that facilitates discovery and encourages curiosity, the archives at the Salmon Museum and Heritage Association. As luck would have it, I was given the opportunity to process a collection of records that detailed the inaugural Salmon Arm Grebe Festival held in 1997. You might be inclined to think “what archival value do these records have?” or “who cares about a festival that happened over twenty-five years ago?” But, in fact, it is just these types of collections that make the archives a special and meaningful place. The value of archives lies in its ability to preserve and make accessible the records that encompass the memories of the people, places and society we live in. I like to think that archival records help fill the gaps between the lines of what is written in history books, the so called larger narratives. To be sure, the records held in the archives commonly document the lives of ordinary people and organizations and capture the everyday fabric of life in a particular place and time. The Salmon Arm Grebe Festival is a perfect example of this.

Unless you were living in the Salmon Arm area in 1997, you might not be aware that a festival of this sort was held, with the aim of drawing attention to, and celebrating the Western Grebe. And by all accounts, it was a successful event that got many people excited about learning more about this fascinating bird and its unique habitat on the shores of Shuswap Lake. The Salmon Arm Grebe Festival functioned under the umbrella of the Salmon Arm Bay Nature Enhancement Society  (SABNES) which was formed in 1988 to lead the effort to protect the local marshlands and enhance the nesting areas of Grebes and other species in the area, tireless work that continues today. Celebrating the Grebe was reason enough to hold a festival, but perhaps an additional benefit was that it helped people discover and learn more about this special bird that co-existed with them in their community. After all, it’s been shown that when we can put a name to something and make an effort to know it, well then, we are more likely to care for and protect it. It has meaning for us.

Examining the records of this collection, I was made aware of not only many interesting facts about the Western Grebe and other shore birds in the area, but was also provided insight on how a community came together for a common purpose. Indeed, it is very inspiring to learn about the number of individuals and level of commitment required to hold a festival this size. The collection holds many of the organizational records of the festival that highlight the amount of effort that was required in coordinating numerous events in several different locations over the course of three days. And if you think twenty-six years is not that long ago, remember that the internet and email were still essentially in their infancy, which makes it all the more impressive! The collection also contains a selection of planning documents, fundraising and sponsorship activities, as well as public relations materials used to promote the festival. Copies of newspaper clippings and a selection of photographs round out the collection and provide a sense of how the community supported, and was involved in the overall success of the festival.

While the festival may no longer be around, the opportunity to explore the waterfront and experience the variety of birds that reside there still exists. And of course, if your curious to know more about Western Grebes in particular and how they became the stars of their own festival, you are welcome to come to the archives and immerse yourself in this fascinating collection. Remember, though, archival research is much like bird watching, a slow, but rewarding, process where things ultimately reveal themselves in a timely manner. And like the panoply of birdsong that greets you on the lakeshore, there are stories being told and histories revealed when you take the time to listen and observe in the archives. History is not for the birds…except when it is.

Bryan Bance


Grebe photo courtesy Pat Hutchins