28 September finds me looking down at the Vermilion River churning over the steepest drop in a series of several rapids out of Wabagishik Lake, south of Nairn, Ontario. I sit on an Aspen log at the edge of a rocky overhang above the falls. The forest rises steeply behind me and an ancient portage trail traces the brink of the gorge along the rapids from my perch. Fred tears the bark from rotting logs for land snails and slugs, also finding wild native Wood Roaches, and Linda Heron has gone back along river, lake, and highway, to fetch my painting kit from her house. Both Fred and I had thought that my burden was a little light on the trail here from where our boat landed, and it became evident when I selected my spot to paint, that it was light because I'd forgotten my paints! For now I sketch on the back of a business card from Fred's wallet. This is the most threatened of the potential dam sites along the Vermilion River, a narrow gorge between two lake-like stretches of the Vermilion, hugely valued locally for itsbeauty and fish. We were brought 6 kilometres across the upper lake by Ron Basso on his pontoon boat, and then hiked down along the river's pools and riffles to the gorge.
After Linda returns, I perch my easel precariously above the rushing water between the cliff edge and my Aspen log. The water parts over the forehead of a large rounded boulder below me, caressing the rock in wavering folds, ripples, and sparkles which vary in their positions but keep returning, so I echo this pulsing rhythm with my brush strokes. To step back for a more distant view of my painting I must carefully extricate myself from between the log and the easel, careful not to tip it down into the rapids. Taking a drink and a bite to eat I relax on moss and fallen leaves and try to find words for the excitement that I find in wild rapids and waterfalls.
The nearness of the water's tumultuous rush along the base of the cliff is exhilarating. It shouts with a thousand voices and this is all I can hear. Smooth glossy surfaces, and erupting bubbles and spray, the rushing water is constantly moving like a live thing. Constantly moving, but constrained in its patterns by rock, both seen and unseen. Running freely between and over rocks the river boils and splashes, spraying ions into the air above it, and singing loudly with many watery voices. It energizes me! I imagine the river taking big breaths of oxygen into itself where its water leaps and churns. The faster the water flows, the more it nourishes and energizes all the living things within it.
I painted late into the afternoon as Fred and Linda went downstream to meet Larry and Rosalyn Beck, and about 100 metres from my perch, they found the surveyor's stakes marking where the hydroelectric dam is proposed for the Wabagishik Rapids. Fred collected Campeloma decisum, the native, live-bearing "Brown Mystery Snail" on the river's clay bottom, and made GPS waypoints at the corners of the 55 x 65 ft. earth-mound foundation of an old building, perhaps a longhouse used by First Nations people.
Having been so close to the wild energy of the rapids all the while I painted, I was shocked to be reminded that they plan to build a dam and harness this biological energy to make "green energy" - hydroelectricity. The place I painted would be submerged in the "head pond". The high energy ecosystem of the rapids would be gone, and downstream, the gradual seasonal rise and fall of water levels that is natural to the river and its biodiversity, would be replaced by erosive daily pulsing of water from behind the dam.
Dear patrons and supporters,
This painting, in my current series, "Waterfalls Rapids and Dams" is for sale by auction to support our work with the Ontario Rivers Alliance as we visit and study more rivers at risk. If you would like to purchase it, please send your bid to me Bidding is open for one week from posting date, ending on 16 October at 4:00 pm eastern daylight time. The starting price is $450.