(Originally printed July 24, 2013)
Along with flowers in our gardens, RVs and campers begin to sprout along the banks of the Kitimat River in the summer months, the tell-tale sign of the arrival of tourists here to enjoy our great outdoors.
Yet for those who believe their arrival do nothing for the local economy, they need to speak to Mark O’Brian.
For four years O’Brian has been, in effect, the groundskeeper for the riverbank near the Giant Spruce, spending his mornings from June 1 to September 30 making sure the grounds are clean and safe. That includes making sure there’s a clear lane in case emergency vehicles have to come down that way.
Year after year he sees generally the same people set up camp on the river, people from the Northwest — Smithers, Quesnel, etc. — to people from the United States, like Arizona.
He knows most by name, and is not shy to tell people to clean up after themselves.
But there’s an interesting fact about life on the river: the out-of-towners, typically, take far better care of the river than Kitimatians do.
It was a bright Tuesday morning when O’Brian walked with the Sentinel along the riverbank, rows of campers buffering the river from the treeline. Most of those with the prime spots right along the water showed great care in their immediate surroundings. The ground was clear of litter, the campers themselves in great shape.
“The worst ones that I find are the locals,” he said.
He pointed to a nearby area with various objects of litter, even including a rolled up diaper. It was trash belonging to a local, he said.
“Look what I got to pick up now,” he said.
The economy also doesn’t suffer having people camping for free.
“A lot of people are screwed up, they think in town ‘oh these guys are coming down and using our beach.’ They put a lot of God damn money in,” he said.
Part of O’Brian’s job is an ‘ambassador’, so he directs people to local services or shops, so people know where to spend their money.
“I tell everybody where to go, and I send everybody to all the stores in town.”
He said the people camping can spend thousands upon thousands of dollars while in Kitimat, whether it’s on fuel, transportation, or food.
“How can you bring enough food for a month or two?” he asked, countering the claim that the people on the river never come into Kitimat’s stores. “These guys spend a lot of money.”
O’Brian first took on this role several years ago, when he took up residence along the river.
“I was coming off of hard drug years,” he said, saying he quit cold turkey after 25 years. “I come down here living on the beach in a little trailer.”
When his dog at the time, Kia, came back to him after rolling in a pile of excrement, he went to the Chamber of Commerce to say something had to be done. He was directed to the mayor, and then to the Leisure Services department, where then-director Joe Iannarelli offered O’Brian the work.
“It’s the same money that I was getting on welfare, but I was here every day,” he said. “I’ve been getting life together, and that’s how it started.”
It’s not an expensive endeavour to pay O’Brian for his work. It’s about $330 a week, or $5,610 for the whole season.
He provides daily reports to Leisure Services Director Martin Gould on how many people are on the river, and whether there were any parties and how many people were involved.
He keeps the port-a-potties clean as well, but the emptying duty goes to contractor Norco, who does the Giant Spruce riverbank ones and the one at the fishing spot for people with disabilities.
The efforts of O’Brian pays off, and he said comments frequently reach Gould about how nice the river bank is.
“Martin gets lots of recommendations for his beach being clean.”
You may be interested in reading the latest on Kitimat’s riverbank camping in this article.