Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Above the Falls at Wabigishik (oil on canvas 12 x 16 in.) Sold

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 its
beauty 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.   



  1. Wow, Aleta, this one is a beauty! I loved the above post and have quoted my favourite paragraph on Facebook. It so well describes how I have felt while kneeling alongside wild rivers from Nova Scotia to the Pacific Northwest. I have often heard those thousand voices - those and the deep groaning rumbles of rocks tipping and vibrating beneath the surge. Makes my heart leap!

  2. So nice to hear your response to waterfalls so similar to mine, Bev! The more rapids and falls we were taken to on our month-long trip, the more I felt like I was falling in love - and I still feel that way, as I put the finishing touches on paintings begun en plein air. It's a feeling of inspiration second to none, and I plan to visit more rapids and waterfalls to paint, and gather groups of artists in conservation paint-outs.

  3. Aleta, you have succeeded in capturing the power and beauty of Wabagishik Rapids. Thank you for taking the time to visit this river at risk, and to record its wonderful uniqueness with your art.

    There are 4 modified run-of-river hydroelectric dams proposed for the Vermilion River by Xeneca Power Development Inc. The upper 3 dams are on the slow track and will not move forward until 2013; however, Wabagishik Rapids is moving through the Environmental Assessment process now, and the Environmental Report should be out shortly. Once the Report is out the public will only have 30 days to comment before MOE makes a decision on how the proposal will become a project, and this beautiful set of rapids would disappear under a headpond.

    Xeneca is proposing a 3.4 MW Installed Capacity modified run-of-river hydroelectric dam for Wabagishik - which, because of seasonal flows, will only produce about 1.6 MW of power, enough to feed approximately 1,600 households. This peaking dam will hold water flow back in a holding pond until peak demand hours, when water will be released through the turbines to generate power - and it will be cycled or peaked more often when flows permit, creating a pulsing action on the river.

    Peaking dams result in numerous negative impacts on water quality, water quantity, fish populations and habitat, and the extreme and frequent release of water creates a safety risk to boaters, fishermen and swimmers.

    The zone of influence for this proposal will involve several kilometers, including all of Wabagishik Lake, Wabagishik Rapids, and downstream the Vermilion River right out to its confluence with the Spanish River. All this destruction to service only 1,600 households with power that we don't need.

    With climate change upon us, and increased water shortages predicted, what happens when the dams are no longer environmentally, socially or economically sustainable - there are no decommissioning provisions provided by the developer, so taxpayers will have to pay the bill to remove these dams.

    According to George Vegh, Chair of the Electricity Market Forum, we have a surplus of power, and peak demand does not increase by 1000 MW prior to the end of the Plan term (2030). This surplus is being sold at a huge loss to the US, or whoever will buy it, and the cost will be born by taxpayers, their children and grandchildren.

    This particular set of rapids on the Vermilion River has a long history of use by First Nations, Voyageurs, the Hudson's Bay Company, and logging. What archaeological treasures will be lost when this area is destroyed by concrete, chain link fence, and inundation?

    I thought the purpose of the Green Energy Act was to protect our environment - not destroy it - how can this possibly be considered "green energy"? What is our government thinking?

  4. From where Aleta was painting, Linda Heron and I went 220 m WSW. to a stake inscribed "BH-06-01 211.377 ELEV" among several other stakes that presumably mark the location of the planned dam. Back down along the river there was a single Lampsilis radiata siliquoidea (Fat Mucket) shell on the boulder bottom. I thought I was being fastidious to waypoint it and dredge it up, but it proved to be the only one of its species found below the rapids. An Orconectes virilis (Northern Crayfish) carapace a bit downstream one of the few signs of crayfish seen today, except for copiously crayfishy Procyon lotor (Raccoon) scats on the shores.

    We met up with Larry & Rosalyn Becks, and they took us in their boat on a muddy/sandy Spartina pectinata shore of a bay of the river. I, with Marigold the Dog walked the shore for shells, while the others sought archeological ruins up the slope.

    The striking thing in the Vermilion River, both here and above Wabagishik Lake, was the abundance of Campeloma decisum (Brown Mystery Snail) shells in patches on the bottom – many of them with some sort of orange coating on the outside. There were also scattered Pyganodon grandis (Common Floater) shells in situ and in feeding piles, those from feeding piles broken and those in situ intact. I went along the shore to a big Bur Oak fallen into the bay, but there were no shells accumulated in the shelter of its twisted branches. This was a heavily beaver-affected shore, and the disposition of the shells suggests that, if it's Beavers that are eating the Pyganodon, they don't seek the shelter of overhanging branches as Muskrats do, and that they break the shells of Pyganodon to open them. There were a few juvenile Leopard & Green Frogs along the shore.

    From here we headed down river past gravelly islands & shoals & lots of deadheads, and a stretch of clay shores where we didn't stop to get out and look for shells. When I was dropped off, with Marigold the Dog, to work downstream looking for shells, there were none, only a few very old Campeloma shells. Larry and Rosalyn took Linda downstream past their place to the "Graveyard Rapids" where a son and father had drowned trying to save a Dog, which had survived.

    Marigold also survived, taking her first boat rides with aplomb, and rolling in various innocent materials, and then finally, evidently, in a fish (which got her violently bathed when we returned to camp).

    We then motored 1.9 km east, to a bay on the south shore of the river, where we landed at a big flat bank lodge being draped in mud by its Beavers. A sketchy new lodge, 2 m higher on the bank, was said to have been built this spring when high water submerged the existing lodge. The draping on the old lodge was of mixed mud and Vallisneria Water-celery, and I would have gotten a better sample if I'd just picked the fresher shells off the lodge, instead of trying to find them on the bottom or in drift where they were pretty old & beaten up.

    By this time it was getting late, and we motored back foot of the rapids, and were met, just in time to pull the boat up into shore, by Ron Basso, who'd brought us across the upper lake, and had come early in order to walk down to this end of the rapids. He showed us the old portage trail over the gorge, so we didn't have to take the squirrel-on-bark route we'd used going downstream. When we got back to the artist, she had packed up, preparatory to worrying about which of us might have broken a leg.


What do you think of this painting, and what do you know about the subject that I have painted?