26 November finds me painting the view across a snow-patched meadow that used to be the north half of Silver Lake in Port Dover, Ontario. The Misner Dam was lowered for safety reasons two years ago and since then the river has returned to its old channel along the east side of this exuberant meadow of Goldenrod, Asters, Purple Loosestrife, Nettles, and Vervain, with thickets of Willows and Honey Locust. I can only see the river channel as a dark shadow between the tall herbs on its banks from where I stand on a picnic table to start my painting.
A Cattail marsh with patches of invasive Phragmites is beyond this scene to my left, and in the foreground you can see dishevelled, autumn-redded bunches of Nodding Smartweed (Persicaria lapathifolia). When I turn to my right and look downstream across the paths and park benches behind me I can see the open water of the existing millpond and the bridge at its southeast end with the Misner dam below it. This river used to be called Patterson Creek all the way to Lake Erie, butits name has been changed to Lynn River downstream of the decommissioned Sutton Dam in Simcoe.
These recently exposed flats are so obviously in rapid succession! What will grow here next year will be very different from what is here now, and from what grew here last year. Behind my picnic table is a small fenced-off bed of winter-browned wildflowers and grasses, with a sign announcing "Tallgrass Prairie" beside it. We are pleased that there is a plan to make the river flats into a tallgrass prairie. With a few introductions of native prairie plants and a program of controlled burning every few years it would be well on its way. Of course the European Reed Phragmites and Black Alder bushes would need to be taken out.
Downstream from the Meisner Dam the the river runs into the Port Dover harbour on Lake Erie, where Stan Rogers went out on one of the "turtlebacks" of the commercial fishing fleet to research his song Tiny Fish For Japan about the persistent pollutants and smelt fishery in Lake Erie...
"In the Norfolk Hotel, over far too much beer,
The old guys remember when the waters ran clear
No poisons with names that we can't understand,
And no tiny fish for Japan."
...and this stream is now the site of another toxin-based controversy over the pesticide residues under the buried site of the Ivey greenhouses, and the question of whether its water will run clear past the sites of two old, unused milldams.
We heard about this situation at the Ontario Rivers Alliance meeting in North Bay, and we've come to look into the consequences of these events for molluscs – were there Zebra Mussels or native Unionid mussels in the Silver Lake millpond? What's the status of the native mussels in the Lynn River generally? Will allowing free movement of the fish that carry the larvae of the native mussels lead to an expansion of their populations?
As I paint, Fred pushes out through the frost-browned exuberant herbs to the edge of the water. He finds Whitetail Deer and Muskrat tracks along the muddy edge of the water – but no molluscs at all, neither mussels nor snails. Scattered nuts of Black Walnut seem to take the place of clams. As he heads upstream he passes large plants of Lambsquarters, Blue Vervain, Asters, Nettles, Goldenrod, Horseweed, and Cocklebur, all hearly head-height, some taller than any he's ever seen. There he comes upon three Meadow Voles scampering but not fleeing, and the ground cover seems to be shredded by Voles (the probable prey of the Harrier that I see beating low over the flats and have added to my painting). Fred notes saplings that have been peeled and cut by Beaver as he continues upstream, and there the Deer and muskrat tracks are joined by those of Great Blue Heron and Raccoon. The stream is narrow and fairly deep, and he still sees no snails or clams at all until he comes to an eroding gravel riffle where a few old shells of native mussels are washing out of the gravel.
Our general concern with Lake Erie tributaries is that they be refuges for the native mussel species that have been wiped out by Zebra and Quagga mussels in the lake – but if this is to be the case natural flow must be restored for the free movement of the host fish up and down the streams. It's pretty clear that if Silver Lake is to be saved for native biodiversity, a number of things must be done: the water level must be maintained at the current or lower levels. Both the Misner Dam below here, and the Ivey Dam upstream of here, must be circumvented by fishways, so fish can get up and down the stream to restore its natural continuity. The alien plants on the banks, and invading the formerly flooded area, must be suppressed, and the native tallgrass prairie plants must be encouraged down the slopes and into the formerly flooded area.
As we leave, we hear a distant gutteral yodelling and I grab my binoculars and count 71 Sandhill Crane in a long thread very high overhead, flying west and fading into the dusk. Below them, 40 Canada Geese head quietly north along the stream. Both of these species have come back in Ontario as the result of conservation action after centuries of abusive shooting – maybe the same will be possible for the streams that were interrupted by milldams a couple of centuries ago.
Dear patrons and supporters,
This painting, in my current series, "Lake Erie" is available for $275 to support our work on the 30 Years Later project, as we revisit places we studied over the past three decades. If you would like to purchase it, please contact me