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

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.