Making A Lake Great Again: Erie Prospects for Un-fresh Waters

It was 1993 – the year I first really got intimate with Lake Erie. As an aspiring graduate student, our accommodations were meek tents on Pelee Island. Showers were hard to

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Lake Erie off the tip of Fish Point, Pelee Island. May 2017.

come by. The island’s sandy, limestone and broken boulder shorelines were excellent launching pads for some serious and not so serious bathing sessions. We’d float in the calm waters of small inlets to ease the frequent pain of poison ivy blisters.  Wading in the waters would soothe the lashes the brambles had repeatedly incised on our shins. After riding dozens of kilometres on our bikes each day, the water cut the dust and settled the saddle strain.  During days of great winds, we’d feebly body check the ‘big rollers’

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Cooling off my fieldwork legs in the clean waters just off Fish Point, Pelee Island, 1993. Thanks to Ilford Film for the black and white 35mm support. Photo by Bo Porchuk.

– massive waves – that thrashed us like rag dolls onto the soft sandy lake bottom. A video made in the latter half of 1993 indicated that water just off the shore of the Erie islands was ‘near drinking water quality.’ In short, Erie to us was a great lake, in spite of what many of us had heard to the contrary.

Brought back from the brink in the 1970s when a highly contaminated section of the Cuyahoga River caught on fire (1969) in Cleveland, the late 80s early 90s saw the alien Zebra Mussels ratcheting up the water quality through their combined efforts to filter millions of gallons of water per day. The word on the street was that these bivalves were in fact making the water too clean; local fisheries, especially in the shallow section of the lake, the western basin, were suffering from a lack of food particles and increased solar penetration. Wow. One extreme to the other.

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What’s a Porchuk post without a snake? Here, the gentle, yet sometimes curious Endangered Lake Erie Waternsnake awaits her fate based on our  human-induced contamination of her home (dah, dun, dahhhh). Enough learning. Time to clean up our waters for good.

As reptile researchers, we saw good signs for the endangered water snake populations and their prey. Their overall numbers were down from several decades earlier, but they were still abundant.  We had noted occasional evils resurfacing from the dark days past. Extreme winds, with ensuing mega-waves, would stir sediment from the shallow lake bottom, bringing up heavy metals laid down over several decades previous, from careless industrial pollution.

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It is photographs like this that keep us in denial that everything, at least on the surface, is ok. (for the record, this isn’t Lake Erie).

And of course recently, there was yet another rubber flip flop oscillation in the waves of water quality. Was it around 2015 or so? Toxic water returned yet again. You couldn’t even filter the water to drink (did you know, millions of people get their household water from L. Erie?). Thousands of cases of bottled water were handed out in lakeside communities mainly on the southern shores. Algal blooms bloomed big time. Beaches were littered with green. Fish died, washed up smelly. Get out the bell-bottoms. Fire up the Ford Fairlane. The 1970s have returned.

My kids outright refused to beach at Port Stanley, Long Point, and even beautiful Rondeau Provincial Park was struck off the list. Situated with luxurious choice in London, Ontario, selection power was indeed in our favour. Forty-five minutes to Lake Erie or 55 minutes to Lake Huron? The choice was easy and I really felt for the residents, the merchants, the communities, and the entrepreneurs using Erie as a drawing card.

The culprit? Agricultural runoff of nutrients (excess fertilizer); Phosphorus. Simply put, for better yields, farmers/farm corporations flood their fields with fertilizers. Added to this, was excess animal waste from pig, cow and chicken farms. More frequent and intense rain storms (hmmm…., climate change?) then wash it away through the tile drains, into the drainage ditches and canals, into streams, creeks, rivers, and thence into the big water bodies. These nutrients feed algal blooms. Algal blooms suck up the oxygen in the lake, causing huge death zones and deadly, in-consumable (inconceivable! too) waters. Before I go all big and angry against agro-business, I remember how much I

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Perfect pack of peppers; just the way we like ’em…always available, blemish free, bright and big. Changing expectations of ‘perfection’ will go a long way to helping us conserve our landscapes and save our Great Lakes.

appreciate inexpensive food. I have to remember the erroneous, blemish-free high quality produce I (often subconsciously) demand.  I am still a willing member of society that wants high quality, ever present stocks, and low price. Are you one of these people too? I am one tiny but important cog in the wheel that supports efficiency at all costs on our landscape.  An algal bloom in Lake Erie is one of the products of our choices.

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Snapping Turtles are harbingers of bio-accumulation; do you know what water-soluble contaminants may have concentrated within you?

What can be done? At the grassroots level, these are exciting times. Consumers and citizens have power on either side of the drainage basin. With more and more urban communities providing spaces for community-share gardens and food forests, the more our populations are getting reconnected to the wonderful process of growing food and caring for the land. Offering organic and locally grown foods facilitates education and more and more people are becoming aware of the problematic issues and impacts of some larger scale farms. This is one key shift that is happening and will continue to grow.

If you have a hand on the make up of any piece of land, from either a small front or backyard to a larger rural property* of few acres or more, your positive impact can be magnified hugely; put in some native plants. If you don’t have any land at your disposal, volunteer on some land that is looking for the help (www.inthezonegardens.ca). Native plants filter water and clean it. They prevent further erosion. They are glue in the resiliency of ecosystems. I recently learned that most of our southern Ontario streams carry hundreds of thousands of tons of farmland soil with them out to the Great Lakes. This is a new thing (like within the last couple hundred years, new); plants used to hold the soil on the landscape.

And to stop the large scale problem right now? To my knowledge both US and Ontario farmers in the watershed grow mainly cash crops; corn, soybeans, wheat, canola. Many large scale animal farm operations are spread out across the watershed. Not all pollute, but many do. To date, the only real tentative plan that may see Ohio and Ontario to agree to reduce the Phosphorus runoff by 40% by 2025. How does this sit with you? I find it a tough pill to swallow; ‘let’s plan to plan for less than a half reduction in 7 years.’

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The Thames River as it flows through London, Ontario. It not only will end up carrying much Phosphorus with it from the surrounding farmland, but it will carry some raw sewage from London to Lake Erie as after affects from many summer storm events. Gross, yes.

In the meantime, algal blooms will continue. It’s been largely cools so far for late spring and early summer 2017 but the consistent rains have likely carried much Phosphorus to the lake where it resides and waits for warmer water temperatures.

There’s more we can do. We can start or continue to be a voice with your local government. Many politicians are big fans of Simon and Garfunkel (The Sounds of Silence). One doesn’t have to be a radical to mention this story to a councillor, a mayor, an MP, an MPP or a senator. Start a conversation. Connect with them personally first. Then, if the opportunity presents, lay out the plain facts. The more sound bites that come from all different walks of life, the less the message sounds radical and the more it sounds reasonable.

I saw our mayor the other day sitting, having a beer by himself. He waved and said, “Hi there!” to which I replied a friendly greeting. I kicked myself later for not engaging him at least in an introductory conversation about how he’s doing personally and maybe even get to the wet weather we’ve been having lately…

Lastly, spread pieces of writing commentary like this. I’d love to infiltrate this voice in a number of small communities. Do you know anyone rural you couldn’t kindly annoy with this? Please share. We are on the precipice of destroying the world’s 13th largest freshwater lake, or choosing to make it Great again (for real).

* Rural property owners may qualify to get funds for habitat restoration here – https://caroliniancanada.ca/landowner-leaders

Making Southern Ontario Wild Again?

It was a journey a long time ago for me. Wilderness completely surrounded me for hundreds of miles. Sitting on a lichen-covered rock outcrop overlooking the flowing water of a creek, I was in heaven watching a pair of Otters play in the rapids. Ok, in actual fact, I was really enjoying watching these animals, while simultaneously trying to kill several Deer Flies that wouldn’t stop trying to suck my blood!

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Moose sleuthed all around me in the rugged landscape of Georgian Bay in the early 1990s. Not long ago, they used to freely strut their stuff in what is now Toronto. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

All of a sudden, nearby screaming in the opposite direction sent chills down the back of my neck. The Otters scattered. Snapshots of Ravens through the canopy of oaks and maples dappled the sunlight even further, a the shiny black birds scattered the scene.

The screeching stopped as the animal raced through over-sized ferns towards me. I could just see a tall, brown tail shredding the plants as it neared. At the last second before impact, the animal skidded abruptly to a stop. We were face to face for a seemingly long time. It was a Fisher. I was a Human (and still am). In that moment, the small but feisty carnivorous mammal and me stared wide-eyed into each other’s core as one being. It left me with a deep picture of all things. It felt like a miracle view into the connectedness of the rocks, the river, the trees, and animals sharing it all. It was a miracle that likely exists in every moment if only viewed with the proper lens. It was also the kind of experience that deep, widespread nature affords.

It was only a few days earlier that I sat quietly picking Wild Blueberries on the edge of a patch of Sphagnum moss when an Eastern Wolf trotted by with a bear’s paw clutched gently in her mouth.

Forest Creek after Rain

On the road to Georgian Bay, there are many stops in central Ontario that will take your breath away.  Southern Ontario still has a few gems in Carolinian Canada, but we’ve lost thousands of wild treasures that we don’t even know about.

This happened about 25 years ago, in central Ontario’s much celebrated eastern Georgian Bay region, a place that has always had a wild side to it, thanks to the rugged rocky and twisting wetland terrain. While there certainly are development pressures on this landscape, I’m so grateful that in my absence all these years, I know Georgian Bay and all its wildness is still there and likely will be for a long time. It is truly a landscape populated with signature animals that both keep you on your toes, and inspire you deeply at the same time.

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Face to face (face to zoom lense?) with a Black Bear. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

While Georgian Bay is a biologically diverse, vast, and blanketed by a high percentage of land with habitat (over 75%), it doesn’t hold a candle in comparison to the diversity found in Southern Ontario’s Ecoregion 7E. This is the region defined by a trapezoid shaped area covering the landscape from Windsor to Sarnia to London to Toronto and over to Niagara Falls; it is dubbed Carolinian Canada. It’s just about the size of Switzerland. Most of the Carolinian Life Zone’s natural cover has been removed – only 18% of habitat remains in comparison. Even with most of its habitat denuded, it is the richest place in the country for plant and animal diversity, and the dubious winner of the longest list of Species at Risk.

Fishers are few and far between in Carolinian Canada, as are many other larger species that need big tracks of habitat – like Moose, Bears, and Wolves (these three are all fully absent). Maybe 50,000 people live in eastern Georgian Bay, from Midland to Parry Sound. In staggering contrast, about a quarter of the country’s population, or 7 million people, live in Carolinian Life Zone. Similarly, roads are densely webbed in the south, vs. the north that affords much bigger tracts, largely without asphalt and automobiles.

While a few parks are found in The Carolinian Zone, 95% of the lands are privately owned. Georgian Bay and other more northerly areas have is large tracts of publicly owned lands either in Parks or government owned Crown lands.

All of this begs a few key questions; how can we recover nature so that Ontario’s diverse south can provide these types of ‘deep nature’ experiences that inspire, rejuvenate and offer a health-inducing natural landscape? How can we recover rare habitats and missing species in this critical zone when it is largely owned by urban residents in cities and towns, and large farm operations in the countryside? Further, with nature literacy at an all time low, how do we get people familiar with the language and raw experiences of nature? And so, in consideration of all of this, can we ever get back to a largely wild landscape in southern Ontario?

The road to get there won’t be simple, but my five second rule answer (from the guy, not the head) tells me ‘yes’ – we can – get a lot of it back. But as a society, do we really want bears, moose, and wolves in a mix of what may be 10 or 12 million people in the next few decades?

It’s possible, but likely not, at least in the next few decades. This may be sad to some, but a major shift of perception in land sharing mentality would have to have been established. Moose aren’t teddy bears. Bears aren’t always as friendly as Elliott Moose. Cougars don’t always respond without retaliation to intense human encroachment. Cities likely won’t get smaller. Very few roads will be closed, or diverted.

But – there is room for renewed hope. While ecological literacy is low, education on climate change is really increasing. Many people now about the benefits of conservation. And after being an advocate for native plants for some time, it’s plain to see how people are resonating with the message of rebuilding nature, one native plant at a time. Thus, it is more than possible to foresee a future in which the cover in Carolinian Canada moves form 18 to 25% in the next few decades.

Whether this means we get our large predators and keystone species like bears and moose or not, it does mean at least our grandchildren will relish in the return of many smaller species. In the context of Carolinian Canada, this is really encouraging and dramatically exciting. There are many small species that dazzle and inspire.

How will we get there? It actually feels like we are moving into a new renaissance of ecological recovery. In recent years, we’ve seen the resurgence of Badgers in and around Long Point and in Brant County. We all watched Southern Flying Squirrels repopulate a tiny national park just outside of Windsor. A pond I observed being hand-dug in the middle of a barren farm field by high school students in the year 2000 quickly turned into one of the top breeding sites for Smallmouth Salamanders (Ambystoma texanum) in all of Canada. The salamanders were not introduced; they found the site on their own.

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The Smallmouth Salamander; Endangered. They recently moved into a pond constructed by high school students in 2000.

And if you try out creating habitat in an urban centre, be prepared for the onslaught; not before long, you may have Screech Owls nesting in your backyard. Not before long, you may see a fox sipping from the water’s edge of your urban pond. Not before long, you will have dozens of warblers stopping in spring to bath and drink from the water trickle of your urban wetland system.

It might not be a bear or a cougar, but it certainly could soon be a Fisher spotted moving along the edge of a creek in a city’s Environmentally Significant Area. The experience of nature back in our midst is real and happening today, piece by piece in Southern Ontario. Yes, it won’t be as rugged and wild as Georgian Bay for quite some time if ever. But if you’re here, certainly feel free to join the tide, and watch the swell grow as we bring back more and more animals, one experience at a time. And for your own good, and that of the people around you, find a relatively quiet spot nearby and sit there regularly. You’ll be amazed at what you experience in solitude in nature and how you will start to wear this calmness and groundedness with you throughout each day.

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After adding about 200 species of native plants to our urban, land-locked yard, Screech Owls nested in an old tree. Returning most years, the diversity of wildlife attracted by native plants has meant a large increase in local wildlife.

*** Two key programs for gearing you up to contribute are In the Zone Gardens (www.inthezonegardens.ca) and the Landowner Leaders Program (see www.caroliniancanada.ca).

 

 

Boost Urban Ecology, Reduce Eco-Footprint, Juice Your Connection With Nature…One Event, One Day

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Seeds of change; Blue Cohosh ripening in the morning dew.

Boost, Reduce and Juice….Are you in Detroit, Toronto, or Buffalo (or anywhere in between)? Looking to find a way to transfer your yard from a carbon emitting source to a sequestering sink? Are you ready to invite fascinating wildlife back to your chunk of the urban landscape? Afraid to camp, or don’t know where to go on a Forest Therapy walk? One event is offering the complete inside scoop to these and many other worthwhile personal endeavours.

Smack dab in the middle of these worldly cities is London, Ontario – home of the universe-shaking, Go Wild Grow Wild Green Expo to be hosted this coming Sat. April 8th at Western Fair District’s Agriplex. That’s a lot of hype, I know. It might just be worth it.

Taking first steps in areas that aren’t one’s expertise are often troubling. Made easy for you, Carolinian Canada, an overachieving (for its small size), small non-profit has pooled together experts in gardening, outdoor adventure, ‘going green’ and for you under one roof. London’s Western Fair District is home to the convergence event of native landscape expertise, nature lovers, green designers and advisers, and recreation masters.

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Three Screech Owlets. 

Here’s a snippet of what I’m talking about:

  • Native Plant Gardening; access experts through talks, native plant nursery tables, expert landscape designers and installers, purchase native plants; join the awesome, soon to be launched, World Wildlife Fund-backed, “In the Zone” gardening program for your access to loads of free gardening advice, services and network support
  • Wildlife Access; live hawks, owls, vultures, eagles, snakes, turtles, frogs – learn to identify, conserve and learn how to help foster respect and help recover declining populations
  • Green Living; tips, demonstrations, leaders and access to new products and services – learn what it’s like to live off the grid and how to apply this to daily living to save money, environmental impacts and to add a little character to go against the grain in the age of mass consumption
  • Adventurers; discover hidden locations for hiking, cycling, camping and paddling…climb an indoor wall, learn about geocaching, get a Discovery Pass from Parks Canada and so much more
  • Families; loads of stations, crafts and events for kids including a creepy crawly, up close bug encounter, hands on snakes and turtle feature and woodworking for wildlife to build homes for birds, bats and more
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Male American Toad calling in a backyard pond. Photo courtesy Mathis Natvik. 

Alternatively, you could go on your computer and Google for a few weeks, read about some ideas, wondering if it’s all just ‘fake news.’ Make an optimal appointment to get glasses from all your eye strain. Then, make a bunch of calls to find that you can’t find the personal expert insight that is fully assessed at Go Wild Grow Wild. Yah, come join us in person!

Saturday April 8th, 10am – 4pm, at Western Fair District’s Metroland Media Agriplex. $5 for adults, kids 12 and under are free.

Washing Our Hands of Coral Conservation

It’s just a vacation. A deserved rest in the sun. What beautiful sites there are to take in, to consume.

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This sunset photograph was taken moments after a late afternoon dive on a reef. We were overwhelmed, and breathless as we breached the water’s surface in awe of diversity and beauty of marine life. And yet coral conservation weighed heavily on our conscience.

Five years earlier we visited this site for a solid day of snorkeling, and while we are now still treated to a living expo of colour, light, texture and drama, we are really just seeing shades of the reef’s former self. What happened? Climate change. Warmer water. More intense solar rays. Experts say it will destroy 90%+ of the reefs anyway. It’s really out of our control.

It’s still a little uncomfortable. Maybe there’s something we can do? I wonder. I hear a few others at the resort wonder. Something we’re doing wrong?

Many reef sections are now devoid of living coral. They are bleached coral skeletons. To see a fish or two is rare. That’s ok, we swim with dozens of others to the ‘better’ sections. Yes, with others. People. Lots of them, swimming. I can’t help to think of the definition of a zoo. A facility with usually outdoor settings where living, typically wild animals are kept especially for public exhibition. We witness and are a part of the ‘coral reef zoo.’ We can go right up to the ‘cage’, eye-ball the animals closely and then move on to see more. Unlike the zoo in the city, this one, we can actually impact the display. Thrashing, joyful human bodies miscalculating their zoo-going, crash against the exhibits. Learning, telling others, who in turn, learn their lessons by their own ‘minor’ mishaps.

As often the case, this place is loved so much it suffocates from the well-intention, but twisted intimacy we impart.

Wow! There are birds too! Wetland birds circle our resort several times a day. There’s no where to land. Herons, egrets, frigatebirds, pelicans. I research. I find that the resort used to be a wetland. Parts of an ancient mangrove swamp, that used to inextricably support this reef – maintain it – in a critical symbiosis now well understood. These former wetlands remain a part of these birds ancestral memories. Well….we didn’t know that part.

This Central American country is too poor. Too poor for conservation measures. Too poor for regulations. Too poor for nature protection. A few non-profits have stepped in. They face many pressures. They aim to protect remaining mangrove swamps. They can do virtually nothing about climate change. They can just make recommendations on how to use and avoid abusing these marine worlds of wonders. We watch as the recommendations do next to nothing for those of us seeing the sheer beauty in the water.

Are there other ways? Who is responsible? Can we let this slip away from our planet?

While we still revel in this tropical experience like an amazing dream we awake from, we almost don’t want return in five years time. It hurts too much. It says too much about what we know we must do, vs. what we chose not to do.

It’s just a vacation.

One Action To Save Millions

If I told you there was one kind of plant you could put in the ground that would save the world, would you do it?

Even if you live in a condo with a balcony, have house with a yard, own a farm or are a factory owner with some extra land, putting one of these plants could just tip the scale.

The scale isn’t only imbalanced, it has a Sumo on one side, and the mini, Koodo cartoon wrestler on the other. Newsflash: Ecosystems are failing. Pollinator insects are plummeting. Climate change won’t only cost you tons of money, it just may deeply, detrimentally impact your life fairly soon.

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Get in the driver’s seat. Avert disaster. Take action. Plant native. Plant often!

The choice, the action, the plant? It’s a native plant. Work with me business types; I’m getting to your millions in savings.

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Native plants are not only important, but they are attractive too! Large Yellow Lady Slippers.

Ecology 101: native plant; one that has grown in your area usually for thousands of years. Sounds simple. It’s not – it’s kinda like backwards day.

For some reason, not too many nurseries here sell them. I mean, if you want a plant native to South America, or Asia, you can find them in North American nurseries. Go to England, and you can buy lots of plants that are from North America. When we buy these they are called, non-native plants. Put one in the ground and it does squat for ecosystems, a pittance for pollinators, and next to nothing for climate change.

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Berries of a Blue Cohosh native plant.

Ecology 201: native plants know to feed our native insects, including the pollinators for which we are completely reliant upon for our food production. Yep, too few native plants, stressed out, hungry, sick and then dead pollinators. Sad. Hungry. Scrappy. Humans. LinkedIn lovers, get out your smartphones and start collaborating for a mission to Cryntauhn (soon to be discovered planet with loads’o native plants still in tact).

Avoid catastrophe. Duck the loss of millions of dollars. Employ native plants for food sake.

Ecology 301: ecosystems link well-established partners, like native plants. Feeding pollinators and other insects, native plants beat the drum to nature’s resiliency. This means many trees to produce oxygen, to take in CO2, roots to hold soil from eroding and simply complex systems to clean water and air.

Detour from devastation. Go native.

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Butterfly Milkweed. Behold the beauty of native plants in the summertime.

Ecology 401: native plants know how to grow with the flow of local weather. Happy plants live long. Happy plants suck and horde carbon. Happy plants spread joy. Joy binds ecosystems in a family like manner, providing many …are you ready for this…provisions for people …or the waffle like term, EGS – ecosystem goods and services (a real mouth full).

Bring climate change to its knees (firmly, but gently). Establish locally adapted, climate-tested, forest-friendly plants of the native persuasion. Ok, one native plant put in per person won’t fully cut it. But it’s a start. It’s a great start.

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Hepatica (Liverwort). An early spring native plant.

If I told you there was one kind of plant you could put in the ground that would save the world, would you do it?

Well…there really is and it’s really easy! Stay tuned on where to find these wonderful natives and their superhero allies.

The photos above are from my urban native plant garden (except for the car shot!).

Leadership for Life Saving Rural Lands

Without rest, regeneration, conservation and some preservation, systems tire, stop producing, and inevitably fail.

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Adding hundreds of seedling trees to a crippled under-story choked out by E. Buckthorn.

How much rest, regeneration, conservation and preservation are we giving our land? In southern Ontario, not enough. More often than not, the adage is, “How can we make our lands produce more? How can we capitalize on what our lands can do for us?”

Looking at land usage in the Carolinian Life Zone (from Windsor to Toronto) over the past hundred years or so we see tired, over-used lands, largely catered to agricultural production. Yes, farms and farmers are critical for our survival! And yet, there’s much room to allow nature. Less than 20% of southern Ontario is covered in its natural form. The rest (80%), is heavily taxed by overuse. This wasn’t always the case.

Before the 1950s and 60s, farms ranged in size from 50 to 100 acres. Thousands of families lived on these small farms, cultivating not only crops and livestock, but firmly cementing their connection to the land. Many woodlots were maintained for important family provisions, products and places for nature.

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Jack in the Pulpit

As we know, farming changed. It became bigger, more ‘efficient.’ Machines replaced people. Fertilizers and pesticides replaced any needed ‘hand’ labour. Farm sizes rose to several hundred acres or more. While most farmers of huge land plots certainly know their land, it’s difficult to know it on the fine scale anymore. Instead of needing the land for 25 functions, large farms only need it for a few; crops, possibly firewood, and maybe to go hunting.

What impact did ‘big farming’ have? Maximize the yields. Reduce or completely remove the hedgerow. Thin the bush (if any remains). Spray and spray again for better yields and less competition. These chemicals hampered what wildlife was left – especially amphibians, but birds, reptiles and mammals as well. The Carolinian Life Zone is the place of highest biodiversity in Canada. It’s by far where most of our endangered species are found.

With mighty large farms, city life became more prominent for those who had to move off the rural landscape. Even through today, the trend continues. Except for the important blips here and there.

Blip….organic farms….blip….hobby farms….blip…. people really interested in recovering nature on tired, worn out, overused landscapes. These are the life-saving lands.

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Marsh Marigold in the wet forest of a private property.

The natural areas in ecology are known as ‘refugia’ for rare plants and animals. Relatively small rural parcels (from an acre to maybe a hundred or more), some of which was too difficult to clear, have been bought up by a whole new breed. Most don’t farm but rent out any active crop land. Most of these people aren’t environmentalists per se. But they are people; people interested in a mix of rural living, with still quite a few ties to cities.

At Carolinian Canada, we call many of these people, “Landowner Leaders” (http://caroliniancanada.com/landowner-leaders).

While they come from many different walks of life, they all share a passion and pleasure for recovering nature, for getting away from squeezing production from the land, while relishing in the return of prairies, grasslands, flowers, trees, wetland, forests, frogs, butterflies and more.

Are you an owner of rural lands in the Carolinian Zone? If so, connect with Carolinian Canada Coalition (CC). CC assists you in mapping out a detailed conservation plan, link you to interesting and important networks, and in some cases, find funding to help recover nature on your landscape.

Some landowners have built extensive tallgrass prairies, established wetland complexes, planted thousands of trees or linked important habitat refugia with neighbouring lands. The sky is the limit with what we can do on many of the ‘blank slates’ that exist in our degredated rural landscapes.

We’ve heard some remarkable stories of wildlife loss, restoration, and recovery from our ever growing network of Landowner Leaders.

One family with 25 acres on the southeastern corner of L. St. Clair recently made plans to recover a choked out five acre wetland. In the area around this wetland, Long-nosed Gar, a pike-like fish with a long beak, spawn a few feet off shore in the hundreds. Instead of extensive non-native grasses covering their sandy shorelines, they now watch the endangered E. Spiny Softshell Turtles lay their eggs.

Another Landowner Leader (LL) near Long Point regularly gets Eastern Rat Snakes, Canada’s longest reptile, visiting her property seeking egg-laying sites.

Near Ridgetown an innovative couple have sought our help to create the largest privately-owned tallgrass prairie in Ontario, providing critical habitat for nesting birds, such as Bobolink, Meadowlarks and several species of grassland sparrows. Indeed, the passion is out there. We can match it to help create a partnership to recover habitats and wildlife.

Contact us if you are interested in joining this beneficial landowner network or if you know of someone who may be interested. stewardship@caroliniancanada.com

Five Habits for Eternal Happiness (Everything-ness)

There are so many top lists for this and that, I had to distill it for my own little brain and soul. After 30 seconds of breathing, this is what spilled out on my screen. Please feel free to add anymore in the comments section below.

  1. Be.
  2. Be kind.
  3. Be generous.
  4. Be considerate.
  5. Be intimate with everything.
  6. Be grateful for every moment you have on this planet.

Simple enough (I know, I just counted too and there are 6 – what fun it is to leave a mistake right in the open)? Yah, I’ve been kinda busy so this is what I could muster up. Likely more effective than a long drawn out piece…I’d love any feedback.

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Funky artwork Copyright Bernice Gordon.

 

 

Ten Life Lessons from Ten+ Years Living Off Grid

I lived without utility supplied electricity, water, or sanitation for over a decade. Was it all romance, extensive fanfare, and free living? Not a chance. It was time consuming, high maintenance work requiring constant presence. Living off grid means you are a chief maintenance person, head of parts, repairs and the main author and chief responder in the complaints department. Monitor and adjust you must, the deep-cycle batteries, the climate control for electronic inverter, the daily rodent entry attempts, and many, many more things.

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My Bergey 850W wind turbine and the first pair of solar panels on the battery and inverter shed. Together, with a backup generator (diesel) these formed the hybrid power system for the little cabin that was 300m away, in the edge of the woods. Pelee Island, ON, Canada.

I nevertheless had a golden experience, feeling almost like I was a part of a new renaissance. The metaphors for life in general wrought in the constant struggle were akin to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Ripe for the ages – climate change, species loss, bio-regionalism, permaculture – my noble and yet extremely humbling experience ‘off gridding’ thumped me in the nogggin more than a few times enough to impart some key insights.

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The little (13′ x 23′ or 4 x 7.5m x 2 floors) cabin powered by wind and sun, equipped with a composting toilet, a wood burning stove and apparatuses for water collection. The stone chimney took a pal and me just under two weeks to complete, rising at a rate of 1/2m(2′)/day.

  1. Divvy up. If you’re on your own, you have no choice of being your own hero 24-7. But if you’re with a family or in a group living setup, being a Jill (or Jack) of All Trades is by far the worst approach.  Our houses and the world needs fewer Die Hard Heros, and more collaborative, group-powered successes.
  2. Know when to plug in/consume power. Just because we can use power, or in our era, engaging in smart phones, or laptops, don’t do it. Off grid, when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, one does laundry, uses the computer, and/or has a few lights on. When it’s cloudy and calm, we power down. It becomes time to write in a journal, bask in silence, or chop some wood. In either life style, mindlessly switching into power usage mode not only costs electricity, but our inefficiency from either employing ‘nose to the grind stone’ or ‘distraction mode mentality’ costs us our own personal energy reserves, robbing us from our core brilliance.
  3. Positive charges vs. energy sinks.  Off the grid, things with motors or those that create heat, like toasters, are major energy hogs that can drain a daily electricity budget in a few minutes. What or whom empowers you? What drains you? When we’re present to the subtleties of energy in our bodies, we notice what tasks, or people drain us or give us energy.
  4. Lovingly adopt appropriate technology. If you can do it by hand, do it by hand. High tech items that may appear to save time, money and energy often have hidden costs to the individual, the family, and the environment. Many appliances used by Mennonites or the Amish include hand cranks, foot petals or other contraptions that don’t use electricity and rarely break down. Buying a gadget for every aspect of life enslaves us to driving, electrical consumption, landfills, and loss of free exercise!
  5. Know your daily life cycle. If a battery is used up early in the day, at best you are trickle charging until nightfall. This means the battery just becomes a conduit for energy transfer instead of a vessel for storage. This is sub-optimal at best. If you have to extend yourself when you feel empty, ensure there is a full recharge waiting for you in the form of rest or an energy gaining event.
  6. Make your trips count. Buy your life needs as though you are on a remote island; you can’t just hop in the car and go and buy another ‘one.’ Short, repetitive trips in a car hurt our bodies (excessive sitting), add stress, and are far more polluting to the atmosphere than longer, planned ones. The same is true for the small tasks in our work day. They eat away at us, leaving the big and important tasks incomplete or starving for more quality attention.
  7. Hold, plan and be your own system. When you live off the grid, it’s call an ‘independent home’ because it is self reliant. The minute you stop ‘feeling your system’ and knowing it intimately, and if it happens to break down you are problem solving in the dark. If you fail to hold, plan and be the ultimate you for your family members, irreplaceable missed opportunities amass, loved ones feel less connected to you and seek other friends or devices to meet their attachment needs.
  8. Managing human waste as a daily recipe for life. Off the grid, managing waste is put into our own hands. Composting toilets must be coddled with clear presence and awareness or decomposition is hampered and there’s a nasty mess to contend with, costing much time. What would we do with the extra billions of dollars saved if we all made the choice to stop sending toxins, excessive paper waste, and loads of lint (biggest problem of all) down our drains every day?  We would surely bask and play in a rejuvenated environment.
  9. Water wisdom cultivates more aqua for all. Living off the grid slams home the notion that water is to be treasured, conserved and kept pollution free. After collecting rainwater, I used to hang a 1 gal blag water bag in the sun and then use it for showers in two consecutive days. If you’ve slipped into complacency, remember how difficult water is to cleanse, desalinize and purify? Try going on a highly reduced water budget for a day or two to remember the gift of Earth’s life blood. Like a food fast helps us really value food, absence of anything reunites us with gratitude.
  10. Let conservation become second nature. Turn a light on, turn it off. Lather in between runs of showering water. Turn your heat down at night, draw shades at the appropriate times when it’s hot out. This isn’t to train you in thinking in lack mentality; the world is indeed abundant. However, conservation alone can meet our energy needs without drilling for any more oil, building any more nuclear plants, or erecting any more mega wind turbines, or fields of solar panels.

 

Remember Climbing Trees? People Are Taking to the Trees Again

The act is natural, refreshing and fun. Do you realize that tree climbing can help save your sanity, tone your muscles, quiet your mind, and create strong leadership sorely needed for this generation and those to follow? Climbing itself builds balance, confidence, wherewithal, and courage. It allows us to toy with our playful selves, stretching boundaries, and to lead as role models. To rise up in a tree, we must measure every step and hand hold with presence, use the tree as a gateway, a friend, and a playful obstacle to a healthy Earthly escape.

I climbed a lot as a kid and teen. And now? Entering my late 40s, I’m climbing more than ever. I’m seeing more unseen things than ever. I don’t care so much about how high I go, or getting too many photos up there. I climb in my Forest Bathing practice, often helping others up. I drag my kids out to climb. I’m thinking of ways to get seniors up there too. In short, I can’t get into trees enough.

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Getting into the canopy of a Manitoba Maple. At 10 years old, she took 15 minutes to decide to make the 7m (20′) climb. After that, she was up and down like a squirrel. The Coves, between German Canadian Club main soccer and practice fields, London, Ontario, Canada.

Every so often we recognize an idea, a program, or a publication of something that we have held strongly in our own hearts for years and years. For me it is a recently released book on tree climbing by Jack Cooke. What an ultimate gift it was to come across someone as crazy as me and diligent enough to write an amazing account of a life partly lived, rising up and down the trees of London.

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Someone has finally gone out on a limb and created an excellent read on tree climbing! I sincerely hope you buy this book and help inspire lots and lots of people to start climbing again. Cooke, Jack, 2016. Tree Climbers Guide. Harper Collins.

Cooke’s book, “The Tree Climbing Guide” is almost a lament of simpler eras gone by. Thanks to a lot of research, great drawings, and a wonderful perspective, this book is so much more. It’s a reminder of our youth. It’s somewhat of a how to. It’s a poetic, almost self-‘helpian’ statement; how we can rise above our lives to give our heads a shake, or in the very least, re-calibrate our beingness to a new perspective on the casual inaneness of fossorial living. For anyone remotely nostalgic or still into hoisting their physical (and spiritual) matter(s) above the Earth’s surface into the welcoming limbs of a tree, you simply must add this book to the treasured section of your library.

Cooke makes notice to the significance of our childhood’s first climb. For me, it was a quartet of Silver Maples growing between our farmhouse and the horse bard. Spaced out enough, they were daily multi-limbed climbing invitations. Planted a few years before I was born, these trees now in their 50s are massive, accessible to all ‘climbers.’

What was your first date with a tree climb (comment below). How old were you? Where was the tree and do you know what kind it might have been? Is it still there?

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A barefooted, fall climb on Grandmother Sycamore of the East Coves Oxbow Pond (you can’t miss this tree even from the small bridge at Coves Road and parking lot of German Canadian Club). The hollowed out base of this tree is my sit spot. Occasionally, I force her old and weathered bones to hold another 200 or so pounds above the water. London, Ontario, Canada. Photo courtesy of Cassie Dugsin-Porchuk.

Cooke describes and lists a bunch of great trees to climb in his London (England). In the absence of a publicly accessible book in which to promote my own familiar trees, I use the photos scattered through this post to highlight some arboreal buddies upon which great climbs can be had in Southern Ontario (and a bit beyond). Again, please send along any stories, photos and locations of great climbing trees you know of.

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Few trees can rival the ease, comfort and reassuring feeling imparted by an open grown Norway Spruce. Here in the Forest Therapy Invitation, “Introduce Yourself to a Tree”, a participant chooses to ascend to great heights. Look for the open grassy meadow lined by several giant conifers at Medway Creek Heritage Forest, London, Ontario, Canada (I call this special place, “The Council of Conifers.”)

I’ve never before encountered fellow humans in a tree. However, Cooke mentions a few memorable encounters, especially dismounting the lowest branches and crashing a group of unsuspecting picnic’ers….quite the riot ensued!

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When all is said and done, you still don’t have to climb a tree to enjoy it. However…inspiration just may present itself when you least expect it! Norway Spruce, Medway Creek Heritage Forest, London, Ontario, Canada.

Anyone spending time up in trees gets their share of unique encounters with wild animals. Recently, while only 2m up a Sugar Maple, I witnessed a bizarre exchange  as a Red-bellied Woodpecker attempted to peck a meal out of a dying Green Ash. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird moved in and appeared to have mistaken the red breast of the woodpecker for a flower. Seemingly seeking nectar, the hummingbird moved in. The woodpecker responded by comically hobbling 180′ around to the opposite side of the tree. Not letting up on a potential source of nutrition, the hummingbird responded accordingly by flying around after the woodpecker. Of course, the woodpecker repeat countered, as did the hummingbird. After a few rounds, having enough of it, the woodpecker bolted, deciding to fly the 10m or so over to the tree upon which I was now hugging extra tightly. I suppose that since I had been so silent and motionless that the woodpecker didn’t notice me until the last possible moment. The primary feathers of her left wing wisped my left cheek as she realized she couldn’t land on my face. Yes, it was exhilarating and due cherished.

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Looking downward at climbing companion, Paul, in a Norway Spruce. I think we could fit 50 or more people on this tree at once and ‘she’ wouldn’t sneeze at it! Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

Many other times I’ve looked up, as I suspect you likely may have, in awe of the straight trees rising branchless to the canopy. Serving as inspiration, many have considered the ascension to these natural cathedrals unattainable. While you can use ropes, harnesses and spend lots of money to get you there, I treat these more mature woods as places for other more naturally adept animals to scale these domains.

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Views like this have created a yearning in many to somehow get to the canopy without tools, external energy sources or anything but our one’s own will, hands, feet and full presence. American Beech, Meadowlily Woods, London, Ontario, Canada.

Professionally, as a wildlife biologist a few memorable arboreal experiences occurred that I’d never recommend to anyone. Rare, fast and extremely agitated, Blue Racer Snakes numbered as few as a couple of hundred in all of Canada. My colleague and I had startled a large male in the grass at the edge of a field. The dash was one. Thrashing through and across the big tufts of grass thatch like a slalom water skier flying across one wake of the boat to the other, the near two-metre long animal fled for the nearest escape; a Cockspur Hawthorn. We sprinted following behind to the small tree. At only 4.5m (18′) tall, many low branches and piercing 5cm (2 inch) thorns awaited our perseverance. With ease, the large reptile whipped from one side of the tree to the other. For every small branch we scaled, descended and then scaled again in pursuit of our moving target, a good half-dozen or so thorns etched our skin with consequence, slowly painting the surface with our own blood. Finally cornering the tiring serpent, he made one last getaway attempt. Using leverage, gravity and the flexibility of the branch, he flung his thick body in a coordinated pulse to jump from the tree to the grass, but we caught him, almost in mid air!

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A Blue Racer Snake. They take to the trees with ease! Some hawthorns may be possible to climb, but Cockspur is highly recommended to avoid. Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada.

Taking stalk afterwards we were thankful the snake wasn’t injured and that all four of our eyes were fully functional. We weighed, measured and tagged the snake, and then let him go, watching him slip into a nearby hole in the ground. “Why didn’t he go there in the first place?” we had thought, wondering if the snake had been looking to give us a run for his pure enjoyment. Looking back at the tree we remarked how it would be one of the last trees in the world that we’d ever consider climbing.

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A view in Autumn from 20m (65′) up a Norway Spruce looking at a 25m (85′) White Pine in the distance. Having climbed this day alone, I had to take a photo to share what I was bathing in. Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

Very few of us get the experience of being a wildlife biologist that sometimes brings such excitement. This is far from the point. Naturally kid-like, climbing trees is a really fun and healthful pastime. While being in nature is a great experience in itself, challenging yourself physically and encountering some edges are great ways to build balance, strength and confidence.

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Tree climbing gives us new vantage points, opens most hearts to joy and playfulness and reconnects us to the values of measuring every step in life as though it is our last. Black Maple at the first large group camp site, Albion Hills Conservation Area, Caledon, Ontario, Canada.

Being playful with friends and family in the branches creates lasting memories and tight bonds between people and the natural world. With more and more pulls to interesting electronics, grand gizmos, seductive fashions, and dazzling events, any reverse tug back to nature is something more than welcome in our era of high distraction and often unhealthy escapism.

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It is not necessary to get high up a tree to get a fresh perspective. Many trees, alive or passed on can facilitate peace, playful giddiness and unique perspectives. Eastern Hemlock, Sunnybrook Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Of course, all of the inventions in our era are for the most part great additions to our lives. Some features and designs, however, that intentionally lead us to obsessive use or extreme behaviours (e.g. social media, staying ‘connected’, fear of getting dirty, etc.) cross the line and rob us other great experiences that we truly need.

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Not too high up an entry level climbing tree is a great place for a little ‘zoned out’ meditative reflection. Norway Spruce, Elsie Perrin Williams Estate, London, Ontario, Canada.

Very few of us can get away with lecturing others to make change (thank God!). We need to live by example and show each other (especially our children) that we don’t need to be plugged in 24-7, and that we are not defined by our cell phones, our bank accounts, our popularity or anything else than our true personalities. And – we have to demonstrate that seemingly immature or ‘young things’ like tree climbing, are ‘cool’ for all ages.

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Tree climbing is far, far from a male or ‘boy thing’ or a young person thing. Sometimes getting up to the first (lowest limb) is the biggest hurdle for either of the sexes, for any age. Knowing this, those with more experience, confidence and physical strength can serve as humble, non-judgmental guides. London Plane Tree, Hebert Arboretum, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA.

If you have been sold on the idea, go out with a friend or two, or find an event in which others may be going (see this offering for example in the London (Canada) area). Pick up a copy of The Tree Climber’s Guide. While this book is somewhat specific to trees of the London, England area, there is much great advice within if you don’t have anyone experienced to accompany you.

Responsible Ways to Share Spiritual Experiences with Your Dog in Nature

There’s nothing like watching a dog let loose in open nature. They live for this experience. It supercharges their vitality. Leaping, chasing, sniffing, racing…the whole nine yards. I often find I live for these same freedoms and experiences after spending so much time inside.

I’ve also observed my dogs in poignant moments outside as well. One time my husky came nose to nose with a coyote and it looked like she was standing in front of a mirror. While it could have ended in an altercation, the coyote trotted off after a good sniff of my dog.

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Getting on in age (almost 15), my Siberian Husky, Faith, is recharged every time she gets to experience wild or semi-wild nature. Here she is photographed at the Adelaide Street Off-leash Dog Park.

Yes, a few times in my past as a dog owner, in letting my dogs off leash, I’ve walked the edge of (ir)responsibility. For me, it is the responsibility of the dog owner to get their dogs outside and moving, to make other people feel comfortable with a dog’s behaviour, and to ensure dogs impart as little impact on the Earth as possible.

But what of  carving out restorative experiences with our dogs? I do believe one could go so far as to say there’s a case to finding a ‘triangle of golden, connected experience’ out of doors; human, dog, nature.

I’m here to share the ‘how to’ of getting ‘two mangoes with one stone.’ The mangoes? A great, responsible off-leash dog experience, while getting bathed with all the medicines nature has to offer.

First, what are the impacts/awarenesses of dogs (medium to large sized) being off leash and how can we mitigate them?

If you are a new dog owner, or the common rules and courtesies have gone in one dog owner ear and out the other, here they are in a nutshell:

  • Mostly keep your dogs on-leash
  • If off leash…see below
  • Make other walkers no less comfortable on their walk because of your dog
  • Doo clean up after your dog

I say mostly because I find that walking a dog on leash feels like I’m both cheating my dogs out of so much joy, while being confined myself. But, as a guy with a fair bit of training in ecology, conservation, and dog-owning, I can honestly say it is really important to keep dogs on leash most of the time and in most natural areas.2736

Why so?

Dogs often spread seeds of plants, and many of these plants are invasive species. This is hugely detrimental to the ecosystem our few remaining natural areas.

More dramatically observed, is the killer instinct and ensuing action. Dogs end life to a whole range of furry, feathered and scaly friends in an instant. I’m sure you’ve heard of or witnessed squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, snakes and other unsuspecting animals eliminated by the quick and lethal action of a dog. While one might not like some of these species, their habitats have diminished; dogs are one more unnecessary pressure.

I once lived on a remote island in a cabin off the grid for over a decade. Having my dog off leash in nature was the norm. Once, when rounding the corner of a forest that opened into a meadow, a few Wild Turkey hens were escorting dozens of their chicken-sized poults (young). In an instant, my husky leaped high into the air, catching a young bird. By the time she came back to the ground, the bird was dead. It really showed me how quickly dogs can kill a wild animal.

Dogs can also shock dog-less walkers or walkers with dogs on leash. Even worse, some relatively agreeable dogs decide some stranger needs to be aggressively barked at right in their personal space.

Dogs can also defecate in areas we don’t see. Talk about damaging the natural experience of another person…stepping in somebody’s disregarded dog waste. When other humans see discarded bags of dog doo or piles along a trail, studies show that this is a good enough reason for someone else to do the same – it creates a chain reaction of littering.

Your dog can also get harmed by nature. Many owners have lost an unsuspecting dog through thin ice or have had ‘Charlie’ come whimpering home with a muzzle full of

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My husky was accidentally knocked to the icy edge of this fast flowing river by my other dog. She barely held on to the edge of the ice with her two front paws. A good friend calmed me, and coaxed me into shimmying out onto the ice with a long, wide branch that spread my weight across the surface. I reached her carefully and lifted her to safety.

porcupine quills. Further, and this isn’t to fear monger, a few isolated incidents with coyotes have resulted in injured or killed pets. This doesn’t need to be overplayed. Coyotes are natural. While they are moving closer towards and often into parts of cities, they still represent much less of a risk to your dog than other dogs, thorns, tics and many other potential hazards.

Most of the above can be abated by having a well trained dog. Of course, you don’t need to be a dog whisperer to achieve this. Consistency, becoming your dog’s alpha, and a little bit of knowledge on how dogs think and respond go a long way. One key thing that is so easy to do, is play. Dogs really respect and listen much better when you engage them in joyful, creative and repetitive play. How great is that?! And, if all you know how to do is play, then hire a trainer for a few sessions to set you and your dog on course to an obedient, loving and respectful relationship.

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My dogs’ only comment is that there is never enough time spent freely in nature.

Ready to experience low-impact nature experiences with your dog? Find an off leash park in your area, or a rural friend or owner of a rural dog retreat. Areas of semi-natural habitats exist in these places where dogs can rejoin some of their natural instincts (nature reserves are best left for wild animals).

Want to take the experience deeper? Practice deep breathing, presence and mindfulness with your dog in nature. There are many courses and recordings that you can do or purchase if this is new to you. It’s extremely refreshing and if you’re really connected to your dog, your animal will pick up on your heightened state/ relaxed mood. I like to do this at an off-leash, fenced in park not far from my house.

Some have taken it further with the discovery of Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing/Therapy in North America and beyond. Forest Therapy walks are usually between two and three hours long and cost anywhere between $30 and $60. These walks involve deliberate and slow invitations that encourage participants to breath deeply, connect to the earth, slow down their minds, and take in nature with their senses. These walks are mostly silent.

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Joan Robinson – Forest Therapy Guide in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. Joan permits participants to join walks with their dogs in tow.

Some guides, like for example, Joan Robinson in Thunder Bay, Ontario, lead Forest Therapy walks where bringing your dog along is an option. Joan has had good results. As a Forest Therapy Guide myself, I haven’t had anyone bring a dog along, but one time a woman and I discussed the pros and cons of her bringing along her young baby on the walk. We decided to go ahead with it. The baby added huge value to the experience in spite of a few outbursts of sound and cries. This experience, coupled with that of Joan’s, have lead me to plan a series of walks in my city for dog owners.

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Forest Therapy Guides from the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. A guide’s job is to open the door to the healing powers of nature. For almost 40 years, extensive research have shown the mental and physical health benefits of Forest Therapy. It really works.

Like children, dogs really do follow our lead. Since they are our dependents, it is much better to find ways to include them into the wide breadth of experience of our daily lives. Practices like mindfulness and Forest Therapy are ways to experience the healing powers of nature, get a little exercise and fresh air, while entering into ways of being that calm us by slowing down the pace of our lives.

To find a Forest Therapy Guide in your area (who may allow you to bring your dog along), check out this link showing the locations of guides across the globe. In addition to trying a new, fascinating and highly meaningful way to walk in the woods, becoming a Forest Therapy Guide might even be a possibility for you.