Water Reflections

Lower Ottawa River - Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue to Arnprior
When I launched at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, I was shocked by the murkiness of the water. I was well aware that the Ottawa River was in full spring flood and has a high concentration of dissolved organic matter, but I had not expected to encounter water this brown until I reached the Saskatchewan River. The tip of my paddle blade vanished with every stroke. Although it was a challenge initially to reach in to gather water for cooking and drinking, I became accustomed to it within a few days. The water became less murky as I approached Ottawa, and became much clearer once I was past Brittania Bay.

Most of the River has been littered with plastic bags and bottles, Tim Hortons cups, and other forms of garbage, but less so than I had initially expected. I have put in an effort to clean up some of the areas I have camped in, but it would be impossible to pick up every piece of garbage that I see. I would end up with many canoe loads.

In calm bays of the river, I have found floating animal carcasses, one of which was the full corpse of a young deer. I have also encountered gaggles of geese defecating close to areas where I have gathered drinking water. These incidents have reinforced the importance of treating my drinking water to kill bacteria and parasites. It's a miracle that boiling, filtering, or chlorinating water can kill these biological nuisances; however, humans have not yet developed and implemented a system to remove all chemical contaminants from our water. I worry about these pollutants as many of their dangers are still unknown.

I made note of sources of pollution that I have encountered along the river. Three major ones come to mind. Farm runoff is a concern particularly on the Ontario side where some of the farms extend right up to the river bank. Close to Ottawa, I noticed storm sewage pipes outflowing into the river. The source of pollution that had the greatest sense of impact on me was the pulp mill at Thurso. I camped across the river from it. In the morning the wind had changed directions and I woke up to a foul stench and found the water in the area to have a similar taste.

The dams on the lower Ottawa have been mighty and powerful thus far. I am trying my best to avoid some of their sometimes unpredictable currents and stay clear of the floodgates. I wouldn't want to be stuck under one of those when they open unexpectedly.

The dam at Chats Falls is what was described to me as a gravity dam. There is a downwaard slope to the location where the water flows out to spin the turbines. Bottom dwelling fish, such as sturgeon and catfish, get sucked into the turbines and make their way out the other end either dead or badly injured. The residents of Quyon have found dead fish along their shoreline, and most of the living Sturgeon that have been caught have severely broken bones

As I walked the traditional Portage des Chats, which was used by the voyageurs and early explorers, I encountered a sign that warned me that I was forbidden to trespass on this property that was leased to Ontario Hydro. I was upset that an Ontario government entity such as this would attempt to restrict access to an area of such hitoric and cultural value. Apparently this was not the case before Quebec Hydro leased their portion of the dam to Ontario Hydro (now Ontario Power Generation). There are no dangers such as a potential for flooding along the portage, so the restriction seems to be not much more than a bureaucratic formality.

Although I have many concerns with regard to the Ottawa River, there are many positives which need to be emphasized.

When I met a fellow named Patrice close to Carillon, he was telling me that his local river, the Riviere du Nord, had undergone a significant cleanup since he was a child, restoring the river to a state of good health.

Almost the entire section I have paddled is home to an abundance of wildlife. The first beaver I saw was 17km outside of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, and I have been seeing them ever since. I had a close encounter with a beaver on a little island at the bottom of Rideau Falls right in the city of Ottawa. It is hard to believe that these creatures almost went extinct in many areas during the fur trade. Muskrats and waterfowl are also everywhere. I have seen falcons and herons fishing in the same way that they would on a remote river further north. There are a multitude of ecological reserves, conservation areas, and provincial parks protecting wetlands on the Ontario and the Quebec side. The Ottawa is still a river rich with life.


Muskrat River / Upper Ottawa River
As mentioned in my journal, I noticed excessive algal blooms in the Muskrat River, despite the fact that it was so early in the season. These are likely the result of farmers permitting their cattle to defecate close to or even right into the river. The greater quantity of nutrients in the water leads to the growth of algae, which creates an environment more hospitable to bacteria and less suitable for fish (due to lowered oxygen levels), and accelerates the process of eutrophication. It is positive that a pickerel sanctuary has been created further downstream on the Muskrat River to protect their spawning beds, but more work could be done to ensure that there is more suitable fish habitat to begin with. Farmers should be required to erect their cattle fencing at a determined safe distance from the river. I am not aware of guidelines or regulations regarding this practice, but it is something that I wish to look into further. I will also try to contact someone at the MNR regarding this problem.

As I passed the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited in Chalk River, I pondered what threats this research laboratory poses to the Ottawa River with regard to potential radionuclide contamination. I was afraid to ask too many questions when I was in Deep River, considering that AECL is probably their largest employer. This is one of my greatest regrets so far. This is an issue I need to spend more time looking into.

I was impressed by the lack of litter I encountered on the Upper Ottawa River. This is a result of less population density, but also the result of the residents of communities like Deep River taking action for our water resources. They practice commendable shoreline stewardship. Picnic benches and garbage cans have been placed at high use areas along the river to prevent littering, keeping the shoreline clean. Every summer, a high school student is paid to empty the garbage cans. What a great way to take action and create employment in the process.

Like further downstream, I encountered dams on the Upper Ottawa. These dams create lakes which change the paddling conditions above them. The current is weaker in these areas, making my upstream paddling easier than it must have been when the voyageurs were passing through here. When I arrived at areas with stronger, I could tell that I had passed the drowned sections that the dams have created.


Mattawa River / Lake Nipissing / French River
While I climbed the Mattawa River, I took water into my ruuber boots for the first time and was relieved to discover that it was much warmer than the water of the Ottawa River.

Upon My arrival in North Bay, Roy Summers led me through the LaVase Portage route that was once traveled by the voyageurs. Although it has changed since the time they passed through, the LaVase Creek is still a nagigable waterway for small canoes. The wetland habitat there provides a home to a variety of creatures. Roy is an interesting fellow who opposed a proposed quarry site in the area to protect these wetlands, which are provincially significant. Since that time, an initiative introduced by the McGuinty provincial government in Ontario has forbidden any development in wetland areas of the Canadian Shield. Roy's focus has now shifted toward improving the portage route and getting permission for canoeists to portage through the adjacent lands, much of which are privately owned. It was refreshing and energizing to meet a local resident who was dedicated to protecting the waterways for the benefit of the wildlife, recreation, and the preservation of a piece of our heritage.

I paddled part of the French River and Georgian Bay with my friend John Horkins. While we were passing through the French River Delta, we came across the carcass of a bear that had evidently been poached for its paws and gall bladder, which have significant value on the black market. The bear had a rope tied around its neck, which was frayed at the other end. I theorized that the poachers had maybe tried to sink it by tying the other end of the rope to a rock which eventually frayed and broke off. I have discovered first hand that waterways can be used to hide evidence of illicit activities, much like the typical scene from a movie in which a vehicle is rolled into a body of water with a corpse inside of it. I wonder how many of these secrets are yet to be discovered.

The flow of the French and Mattawa Rivers are currently controlled by dams. These dams are in place to control the water levels of the lakes upstream. The French River would still typically be in spring flood at this time of year, but Lake Nipissing water levels were low, so the Chaudiere Dams were closed to hold back water prior to my arrival. According to a lodge owner I spoke to, the water levels in his area of the river had dropped 6 feet since the previous week. Water levels can supposedly rise or drop that drastically within a period of about 12 hours. I understand the need for dams for electricity generation, but constructing dams to create "favourable" conditions for the residents upstream seems like a bad excuse to alter the natural flow of a waterway. And what about the residents of the French River? They get the short end of the stick because the river is less populated than Lake Nipissing. I wonder what effects these unnatural changes in water levels create for the aquatic organisms living there. Why can't our rivers just flow freely?


Lake Huron - Georgian Bay / North Channel
At the mouth of the French River, I encountered a familiar dilemma. The data for my maps was gathered many years ago when the water levels of Georgian Bay were much higher. This makes navigation complicated. Some channels through the islands of the French River Delta are no longer passable. The shorelines of some islands have been extended, many of the locations features as shoals on the maps have become islands, and new shoals have surfaced which have not been indicated on the maps.

The levels of Lake Huron have dropped considerably in the recent past. Most of the people that I asked suspected that they had dropped somewhere between 5 and 7 feet. One old timer thought that the water had dropped 20 feet during his lifetime, although I suspect that he was exaggerating.

What is the cause of this problem? It is likely a combination of different stresses on the water supplies in the great lakes.
The flow of the Chicago River was reversed in 1900 to drain raw sewage away from Lake Michigan and into the Mississippi River. Although proper sanitation exists today, water continues to flow out of Lake Michigan through the city of Chicago.
The St. Clair river has been dredged many times to accommodate larger ships through the shipping channel, which has lead to a greater volume of water flowing out of Lake Huron.
Many also point fingers at the bottled water industry which exports water out of the great lakes drainage basin.
Climate change and increased consumption are likely to be factors as well.
Unfortunately, I have not heard any indication that water levels are likely to rebound any time soon.

On my way to the North Channel, I stopped in Little Current on Manitoulin Island. Manitoulin is the home to many fish farms. It has been reported that hundreds of thousands of farmed rainbow trout escaped from their enclosures this past winter. Locals have been catching some of these fish which grow to a larger size than normal. They are triploids, which means that they carry an extra chromosome which makes them infertile. This means that these fish will not reproduce. Triploidity has been successful with rainbow trout, although it has caused some problems with deformities and reduced tolerance to chronic stress in other fish species. Locals are worried that they will end up competing with the naturalized rainbow trout and other fish species for sources of food. Who knows what the long term effects will be for the other fish in the lake. Aquaculture is risky business.


St. Mary's River

While I was still on Georgian Bay, I was contacted by a fellow named Paul Sabourin. He provided me with the contact information of a few environmental organizations in the area.

Clean North is an organization that is working to help their community to safely deal with hazardous waste. Since this is an issue that I have serious concerns about, it was refreshing to learn that someone was taking the initiative in Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma District. Their goal is to "promote environmental protection through reduction, reuse and recycling of residential and industrial waste!." You can learn more by visiting their website at http://www.cleannorth.org/

I spoke to Brian Christie, the executive director of the Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council. This is a new organization that is working on both sides of the border to make a positive impact on the Lake Superior watershed. They can be found on the worldwide web at http://www.lscwc.org/.

Brian mentioned that one of their goals is to encourage or participate in a cleanup of certain pollution hotspots on the St. Mary's River. One of the sources of pollution is a sewage discharge pipe. When a heavy rainfall occurs, the water from the storm sewers overwhelms the sewage treatment plant, and raw sewage is discharged into the river. He advised me to drink nothing but treated water until I reached Sault Ste. Marie.

For the next 2 days, I paddled in fear of having to dodge fecal matter floating on the surface of the water. I noticed the water had a higher content of silt and organic matter as I approached the river and began to climb it. I avoided swimming, except for once when it was necessary to prevent me from passing out in my canoe from the heat.

Much of the St. Mary's River is the border between the US and Canada. I accidentally ended up passing an island on the US side. I expected to have the Customs officials race toward me, but there was no sign of them anywhere.

On the third day, when I was just outside of the Sault, my fears of sewage eased and I became a bit too comfortable at precisely the wrong time. Brian had advised me to avoid the shallow shoreline on the Canadian side in specific areas because raw sewage had settled there and I could potentially stir it up. Ignoring his advice, I approached an area of shoreline to take a break. My canoe ended up beaching itself up on shore by the time I was ready to leave, so I pushed off of the shallow bottom with my paddle. A sticky brown substance adhered itself to my paddle. It took about 10 minutes of combined paddling and swishing my paddle around in the water to get it off. I probably should have smelled my paddle to determine what it was, but I was too afraid.

Shortly upstream of there, I began to dodge floating masses of brown organic matter that were coated in algae. I was tempted to investigate further, but I didn't want to get sick so I left them alone. I passed them less frequently until arrived at a sign that warned of a pipeline under water and danger due to thin ice during winter. I believe that this was the sewage pipe because the floating masses of organic matter were not present beyond it and the water became considerably clearer.

On my way out of Sault Ste. Marie, I passed Algoma Steel. This company has been producing Steel for over 100 years and is one of the city's major employers. They have reformed some of their practices in recent years to better our environment and our water. They have improved their energy efficiency, reduced their level of effluent, and now recycle the water that they use for steel production. Regardless, they are still a major polluter. Large piles of raw materials and coal lie on their shoreline, unprotected from the wind. A 30 km/hr northeast wind was passing directly over their facility and toward me. While I stopped downwind of Algoma Steel to snap some photos, a fine coal dust made its way into my eyes and lungs. They have previously been required to dredge the coal that has accumulated on the riverbed. I wondered why no containment system had been developed to prevent these raw materials from blowing into the water.


Winnipeg River

The Winnipeg River was once described by the voyageurs and early explorers as having spectacular scenery and fast moving water with many rapids and falls. Today, most of the rapids and falls have been drowned out by hydroelectric development in both Ontario and Manitoba. Eight dams obstruct the river's flow between Lake of the Woods and Lake Winnipeg. While they slow the current in some places, they also shorten or eliminate many of the portages. Lamprey Falls was once 15 or 20 feet high. Supposedly a fellow named Jacques tried to run the falls in 1846 and was never seen again. These falls are no longer present. I was able to cruise through the swift water with little concern. Much of the beautiful scenery remains on the upper river in Ontario and close to the border on the Manitoba side. The lower section is developed as cottage country, but pockets of nice scenery remain in places.

Before I left Lake of the Woods, I heard the locals' concerns about the abnormally low water levels. The water was even lower than it had been when I was on the lake last year. This is a bad sign. Usually the winter snowfall replenishes the water supply of the lake and the Winnipeg River for the warmer months of the year. Although there was some snowfall over the winter, much of it sublimated back into the air or was promptly soaked up by the already parched soil. I noticed that in several places along the river, the water was almost 2 metres below the high water mark visible on the granite rock along the shoreline. In Pointe Du Bois, I saw firefighters heading out in choppers a little earlier than normal. With a dry spring and summer in the forecast, there is little hope of the river being replenished any time soon.

I noticed some excessive silting above the Whitedog Dam. Silting can be avoided when engineers place dams in areas where the silt is not likely to settle.

I had a chance to stop in Whitedog. This community was poisoned by mercury that was being dumped into the nearby English River from a mill in Dryden. The mercury bioaccumulated in their fish, their staple food supply. Many residents show symptoms of mercury poisoning, an illness first discovered in Minimata, Japan, also referred to as Minimata disease.

I spoke to Ely, the community's 77 year old carpenter who has lived there most of his life. He had some symptoms of mercury poisoning; shaky hands and difficulties keeping his balance. He mentioned that Canada has no mercury poisoning experts. A group of doctors from Japan have visited the community twice. Some of the residents are compensated on a monthly basis, but only those that who have had their symptoms confirmed by a doctor. The money they receive varies, depending on the severity of their symptoms. Ely only gets about $100 per month, while others receive as much as $800. Scientists come to test the water once a month. I felt fortunate to meet someone who had lived and was still living through this tragedy.

While passing through Great Falls, I spoke to a local fellow named Brad Carriere. He informed me of the problems that this river has with invasive species. He has found sea lampreys on slower swimming fish like carp. I knew that sea lampreys are present around the Great Lakes, but had no idea that they were in this part of the country. Brad theorizes that they may have entered the river by hitching a ride on recreational fishing boats brought in from other waters for fishing derbies. There are also rainbow smelts and other species of minnow fish in the river that are not native. So far, the pike and other fish at the top of the food chain have kept their numbers in check.

Like Lake of the Woods, the Winnipeg River has problems with excessive algae growth. It is likely to be caused by the same problems; too much nutrient runoff, leaky septic tanks, and phosphates. With the water levels so low and the weather hotter than normal, the algae has already started to form a stringy mess. Next to the Powerview dam, I noticed a bag of CIL Golf Green that had washed up on the shoreline (see photo - May 2007). The algae problem might not be so bad if people were not so careless!


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