Saturday, July 4, 2009

Day 7 - Lake Erie, a Wannabe Sea

For the first time on our journey, we stayed put for two nights in the same place.  We figured that today, being the Fourth of July, would be a lousy day to travel in the nearby United States.  Based on the traffic we saw the next day, this turned out to be prudent thinking idea. This also allowed us to experience Linda's breakfast twice. 

Before leaving, I  met a lovely old gentleman named Pete who helped keep the place in repair.  He doesn’t like the taste and feel of the water here, which is treated with a water softener because the customers like this kind better.  He prefers the taste and feel of Woodstock hard water, the same fluid being delivered to the Water Depot before it’s treated.  Of course, if you want really hard water, I suggest you try ice.

Our upcoming day trip was through the farms, glacial lake plains, and the watershed draining into the north shore of Lake Erie.  We would skip the other main group of tourist attractions around here that involve the Underground Railroad, on which slaves from the United States escaped to freedom before emancipation. Canadians are proud of this heritage. Ontario reaches as far south as Cape Cod and northern California. During the Civil War era, it became a peninsula of freedom extending south of Detroit. That this part of Ontario is not one of the U.S. states is an accident of history, both during the glacial phase and the era of exploration.

Georgia Bay, to the east of Lake Huron, is large enough and isolated enough to be considered a Great Lake in its own right.  It extends southeasterly to an isthmus northwest of Lake Ontario that likes below much of upstate New York and is less than a hundred miles wide well below the latitude of Ottawa. This neck of land contains the enormous Lake Simcoe and dozens of other glacially gashed bedrock lakes, now connected by the Trent Canal system.  Had the ice sheet dug down just a little harder, these lakes would have coalesced to join Lake Ontario with Georgia Bay, forming a single Great Lake. This would have connected the prong of southern Ontario to Michigan and New York by narrow land bridges across which the Detroit and Niagara Rivers now flow.  

A Not So Green Revolution

The trend these days to "go green." While thinking environmentally is the certainly the right way to go, using this color to signify correct thinking is a blatant example of color chauvinism. A green polar bear would be a dead polar bear, and the Grand Canyon wouldn't be grand had it been continuously covered with foliage.

This is Mennonite country. This Anabaptist sect eschews modern amenities such as the gasoline-fired equipment used for the mechanical baling of hay. We found this out while driving south to Lake Erie, passing by a field being hayed by hand.   Two horse-drawn teams were the involved, both of which were driven by pre-teenage boys.  The first pulled a mechanical rake that swept the hay into rows.  The second was a conveyor belt that brought hay up to a wagon where it could be forked into a stack. That hay will feed the cattle, which will give milk and meat to keep the sect going.


Haying the old fashioned way, Oxford County, Ontario.

One small boy, who couldn’t have been more than about ten years old, was driving the horse-drawn cutter ahead.  Another was driving the team pulling the hay wagon.  Loading the hay, however, was man’s work.  His job was to take the hay being brought up by a conveyor at the back of the wagon, stab it with a pitch fork, and lift it over his head and toward the front of the wagon. I him do this a least a hundred times, which constitutes quite a workout. It made me wonder how many Americans his age were pumping iron in the gym for no net gain as their children were stuck in front of their video games.


The traditional farm was surrounded on all sides by commercial export farms, growing mostly corn, wheat, and soybeans.  I love this country, probably because it resembles some of my earliest memories on our family farm in North Dakota, where we grew wheat, barley and flax, in that order, at least in the late 1960s when I worked there as a farmhand, pitching hay with a fork by hand, but doing so with bales, rather than loose hay.  Each farm both here and in my youth, had a silo, various outbuildings, and a farmhouse.   

The country is slightly rolling and ideal for farming because it occupies a till plain.  Till is the stuff that was pasted, lodged, and smeared at the base of the ice sheet as it glided over the land.  When, as in this case, the ice sheet passed over fairly soft sedimentary rocks of the platform, the till is a mixture of sand, loam and clay that holds water well, and easily yields to plants the minerals they need.  Where there's too much water, however, it does contribute to runoff because it was so compacted by the weight of the ice. 


Field of corn on slightly rolling topography of the till plain between London, Ontario and Lake Erie.  

Yesterday, when groundwater was the focus, the main issue was contamination.  Here, on less permeable soils, the main water issue is nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff, though not once was this mentioned during my frequent open-ended inquiries about water joys and concerns.  The streams here have serious problems.  Below is a tributary, the name of which I don't know because my good maps cover only the U.S.  It was typical of three or four we saw from the car window. 


 The color is not pea green, which has a milky background, but a slightly iridescent dark green diminished in intensity by dilution with otherwise clear water.  The green is the color of algae, growing happily in the surface water because they have everything they need to thrive.  What normally checks the growth of algae is a shortage of nutrient, more specifically water soluble nitrogen and phosphorus.  These are exactly the elements applied to farm fields as fertilizer to make the crops grow.  Basically, any nutrient that runs off the farm is freely available to algae, which, in flowing streams, grown in proportion to the amount that's available.  

Larger, visible aquatic plants (called macrophytes) follow the same rule as the algae.  Their growth is stunted by limited nutrient. They flourish when it is widely available.  Quite obviously, both the algae and macrophytes are thriving in the stream below, immune to whatever other invisible pollutants are there as well.   


Stream polluted with excess nutrient from agricultural runoff, Oxford County, Ontario.  

The flow is from bottom to top, the photo taken from a typical roadside bridge, and the true color of water is brownish green.  This kind of pollution is called eutrophication. Some nutrient is necessary for stream and lake life.  But too much can be deadly, leading to the darkening of water with excess algal growth, the choking of water ways by excess growth, and, in the worst cases, the growth of blue green algae that foster bacterial toxins, a classic case of having too much of a good thing.   

No fly fisherman, kayaker, or canoeist would go anywhere near such a stream.  And where is it heading?  Lake Erie, the "poster child" for air-stinking, fish-killing, lake-fly snowing eutrophication that I recall from the late 1960s and early 1970s when the U.S. government was negotiating the Clean Water Act.  One of Richard Nixon's first acts as president was to sign NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act on January 1, 1970.

Lake Whittaker

Linda suggested that I visit Lake Whittaker on my way to the Erie shore.


Lake Whittaker in Alymer, Ontario.

Initially, I couldn't figure out what a lake was doing here in country so conspicuously absent of lakes.  Nor could I figure out why the sign out front said “Kettle Creek Conservation Area.”   It turns out that this was originally a small pond or marsh near the headwaters of Kettle Creek before the water level was raised with a dam to create a recreational lake. Dozens of kids were happily swimming and canoeing.  The creek enlarges below the dam to become a fairly large stream flowing to Lake Erie, which enters at Port Stanley.  

A pond practically anywhere else in this agricultural watershed area would be seriously eutrophic, due to farm fertilizer runoff.  As it turned out, Lake Whittaker was only moderately green and only half-choked with aquatic weeds because it lay at the highest point of the headwaters.  Only by tucking the place in the headwaters would it stay fresh enough to attract those who pay for year-round camping spots or a daily entry fee of seven dollars.  This is a captive market for those who want to swim outdoors, but not in Lake Erie to the south.


Unusual green flower (upside down soda bottle) on lily pads in Lake Whittaker, Ontario.

Pool Table Flat

At Aylmer, there was a slight downward dip on the landscape to perfectly level ground.  Even the slight undulations of the till plain were gone.  Surely, I thought, we had entered the domain of the "lesser than" lakes.  This is my teaser to folks that think the Great Lakes are great, which they surely are.  From my point of view as a geologist, however, they far less great than they used to be.  When the ice sheet was retreating northward, the outlet for all of the Great Lakes, the Saint Lawrence River, was blocked by the great mound of ice.  The basins now occupied by the Great Lakes were then occupied by even larger lakes, the shorelines of which were controlled by the elevation of outlets draining southward into the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio River watersheds.  

Meanwhile, the glaciers were grinding away on the Canadian Shield, producing gigatons of grit (clay and silt-sized particles) per year, and were being drained by meltwater streams, which washed that grit out into the lakes.  These "Greater" Great Lakes never clarified completely because the meltwater flow continued all year at the base of the mile-thick glacier, due to geothermal heat.   But most of the sediment did reach the bottom, draping the landscape beneath a thick sheet of winter ice with silt and clay in staggering quantities.  That's what Kristine and I were driving over, the former bottom of a muddy glacial lake, which is pool table flat at the scale of miles.  


Flat landscape of a former lake bottom between Port Bruce and Port Stanley, Ontario.

The edge of this flat landscape was eroded back by Lake Erie, to produce a series of brown bluffs that can be seen from the beaches and piers, and especially from boats.  Why are they brown instead of gray?  

When the lakes drained, their former muddy bottoms were exposed to the air.  Infiltrating water rich in oxygen trickled through the soil, rusting its iron-rich minerals to that beautiful light-brown color.   That rusted soil washes off the farms and enters every stream draining into Lake Erie from the north, turning them a beautiful shade of brown like that of coffee or tea into which milk was poured.  They are "latte" streams. 

Catfish Creek near its confluence with Lake Erie at Port Bruce, Ontario. 

This is the normal color of the stream, due to the suspension of tiny clay- and silt-sized mineral stained by "goethite," a.k.a. limonite, a.k.a. rust.  An unnaturally high concentration of sediment is considered a form of sediment pollution, though the presence of sediment itself is not.  The same is true with nutrient. It’s a pollutant only when in excess. 


Fishing Lake Erie

The door was open, so I walked right in to Ron’s Bait and Tackle Shop in Port Bruce, Ontario.


Ron Shelley standing in front of his bait and tackle shop, Port Bruce, Ontario.   

His place was adorned with a lifetime of memories of fishing and hunting trips, preserved in perpetuity by taxidermy. I refer to a thicket of antlers mounted on wall plaques and a few dead fish trapped forever in real-life poses.   What caught my eye was a plastic lobster, no doubt placed there for a joke. No crayfish ever got that big, or that red.  Of course, everyone from New England, where they are caught, knows that lobsters become red only after you cook them.



Inside of Ron's bait shop with plastic "Lake Erie" lobster.  

Nobody came, so I took the time to photograph and transcribe the text for a bait product being sold right in front of cash counter, as if it were candy in the aisle of a grocery store. Made by Berkley, the text on the cover reads:



Looks Alive, Feels Alive, Tastes Alive.

Il semble vivant. Il sentle poisson vivant. Il goute le poisson vivant.

3" 8 cm Leech



with Gulp Alive

Next to Gulp Alive on the counter was a tank of live leeches. If I recall correctly, they were about $5 per dozen.  Why, on earth, I wondered would he sell both?  Surely, the presence of live leeches would indicate that the fake one's aren't a good for bait.  Ron’s bestselling bait is minnows, Emerald Shiners.

On the other hand, there might be people who would touch a fake leech but not a real one. Perhaps people like these children, who were proud to show me the yellow perch they've caught so far from the Port Bruce pier.


Girls fishing for perch, Port Bruce, Ontario. 

Perch like these, according to Ron, are the main reason people come here.   The legal limit is 50 per day.  They're mighty good tasting too, and totally safe, based on testing for chemical contaminants. Ron had just finished cleaning a dozen or so and put them on ice before I arrived. There he was, with a cold beer in his hand being kept cool by an insulated sleeve as tight as a wet suit on a scuba diver.  Recreational fishermen also go after pickerel, stocked rainbows, and in the muddy creek, catfish.  It was the presence of rainbows that surprised me. Typically, they are present only in very clean, low-nutrient water.   

Indeed, Lake Erie has "cleaned itself up," least according to Ron, who believes the Zebra mussels are responsible. He's happy they are here. Practically everyone else I know is, or at least was, concerned about his invasive species, which has greatly changed the aquatic ecology of many water bodies.  I'll leave this debate for later. 

Freshwater Seascapes

The sandy north shore of Lake Erie has everything that a seascape has.  You can sense the immensity of the water because it's impossible -- even if you try very hard -- to see across the water.  You can see and hear the waves, the adolescents playing Frisbee, and the children building sand castles, and the over-fifty crowd walking and talking.  But everything else is scaled down.


Lake Erie Shoreline at Port Bruce, Ontario.  

Milky aqua-blue water is visible beyond the zone of shore-hugging, latte-colored water brought here by Catfish Creek,  Beyond that is aqua blue, and even further out is dark blue. It has only a trace of suspended clay and algae.


Relative to the ocean, the piers and lighthouses are scaled down.  In size and shape the one at the pier in Port Bruce resembled in many galvanized steel road culverts I've seen, but stood on end.  


Family fishing from pier in Port Bruce, Ontario.  

Roderick, the father with a T-shirt, is fishing with his wife and two girls, who are seated in chairs. They came from nearby Tilsonbury.  He confirmed that the best thing about freshwater was family fun on the shores of Lake Erie.  His main concern is the GTA, short for Greater Toronto Area, which be believes will soon overrun this rural landscape, and compromise its water resources.

The housing is scaled down too, at least here in Port Bruce.  It's a good thing that this area hooked up to sewers (or at least some other form of wastewater treatment facility).  Within a hundred yards of the beach is the most amazing concentration of "cheek-to-jowl" campers I've ever seen. Most look like they haven't moved in years.  The white one the left has two frame buildings attached to it, in contrast to the other campers who have only one apiece.  I wonder what kind of zoning regulations create this sort of coastal ghetto.  


Dense lakeside living at trailer campground, Port Bruce, Lake Erie, Ontario.

Kristine asked me what the round things were?  I almost remarked that they were Viking shields of the sort that decorated the edges of long boats.  Actually, they were plywood, probably the ends of spools of wire or rope or something like that.  

Drinking Lake Erie

On the drive between Port Bruce and Port Stanley we drove by an industrial-looking building with a sign out front, crumbling entry steps, and, for some reason, an exotic slab of imported stone placed at the entrance for architectural decoration.  Perhaps the stone was there because this was otherwise a land of mud and sand.   This was the facility of the American Water Canada Corporation, which sounds like an oxymoron to me.


Sign in front of Elgin Water Supply Complex, Port Stanley, Ontario. 

When I was in college, Lake Erie was the poster lake for environmental contamination.  Today, and notwithstanding its silty and nutrient-laden inflows, Lake Erie is now clean enough to drink, after treatment, of course.

Visitors to the Elgin Water Supply Complex had to sign in, and phone either the lunch room or the control room.   A young woman picked up my call in the control room.  Quickly, she transferred me to a young man because she said her shift was over. However, I wonder if she was concerned over what I might write about what she said.

The tentative approach of the young man confirmed my suspicion that they were not used to being interviewed by walk-ins.   In fact, company rules explicitly forbade my entry beyond the glassed –in entry room and his exit from the main building during his shift. His compromise was to bisect his body with the doorway, the anterior half in the entry room with me, and the posterior half in the main building.  I never learned his name.  He preferred not to give it to a complete stranger with a black book in one hand, a business card in the other, and a camera around his neck.

Here's what I found out.  One mile to the south is a water intake. Fifty thousand cubic meters per day are sucked into the building with enormous pumps, which filter, clarify, chlorinate, fluorinate, and test the water. Clarification is done with alum, the common name for aluminum sulfate, a harmless coagulant, because people want to drink clear, not milky water, regardless of its invisible chemistry.   That volume is pumped uphill to approximately 100,ooo people, meaning that each gets an amount more than one square yard in area and about twenty inches high.  Most of that is used for flushing and washing.  

What I found ironic and amusing was that this very helpful guy knew only about the anterior end of the water business, meaning the supply side. The posterior side, meaning the wastewater effluent side (that's doubly ironic), is taken care of by someone else. I know this because when I asked him about wastewater he didn't know.    The other thing I found amusing was his stories about the kinds of water the employees prefer.   One brings his own bottled water into the facility, apparently avoiding what 100,000 people get each day.   My informant has a choice to drink tap water before or after flouride is added. He goes for the one without flouride, the opposite of what most dentists and politicians recommend.

Just before leaving, I asked him what the general public thinks about what they do.  His answer was wonderfully informative.   "It's like any utility," he said.  “Nobody notices until it shuts down."  Indeed, I take notice when my Internet shuts down, my water stops flowing, and my electricity goes dead.  This happens to me during hurricanes and ice storms, the only water threats that impact me on my hilltop in southern New England.

That's why water towers are so cool. They're a form of insurance for when things go wrong.  If the power goes down, and backup generators go down, at least we have a supply of water available, one that gravity alone can operate.  


Water tower for Port Stanley, Ontario.


Hidden Connections

The mouth of Kettle Creek in Port Stanley is latte brown, the same color as Catfish Creek.  

Drawbridge on Kettle Creek, Port Stanley, Ontario.

There I met Jay and Lorie, who were about to get married, and Lori's parents, Mike and Sandra. Their wedding reception will be held, in the restaurant across the Creek, after the actual ceremony on the family farm, in a nearby town where Mike is the patriarch farmer and Sanda runs the house.

Perhaps Guy Lombardo started the tradition.  He and his band played at the Stork Club, whenever they were in town, which apparently was quite often.  Now it's gone. We must have heard this local claim to fame at least a dozen times.

Moored at the pier were what looked like fishing trawlers capable of storing and pulling large nets.  I wondered if this was still going on in the lake?  When I asked Mike if he knew what they were, for, his reply was “fishing boats.”  That was obviously not in his line of work.  But it was one more reminder that the Great Lakes are freshwater oceans. 

Large ocean-going ships used to come right up to the dock in Port Stanley to pick up grain from the now-defunct granaries, and to offload oil for heating to the now-defunct oil tanks.  Mike told me that they couldn’t do this now, owing to heavy sedimentation in the ship canal, where the latte-colored muddy water flows slowly enough to deposit the sediment.  This makes me wonder if the rapid sedimentation is a historic phenomenon, perhaps post-dating the forest clearing for agriculture, one industry adversely impacting the other.


Wedding preparations in Port Stanley. Jay (the groom) standing with his fiancé Lorie and her parents, Mike and Sandra, Port Stanley, Ontario.

When prompted, Jay and Lorie said the best thing about freshwater was Lake Erie, which was very clean when compared with Lake Ontario. They were especially concerned about the Golden Horseshoe, the rim of heavily industrialized adjacent cities between Owasha (east of Toronto) and Saint Catherine’s, near Niagara.  There, the western edge of Lake Ontario is terribly polluted by all kinds of metals and synthetic organics, and no one swims in the beaches owing to E-coli outbreaks. 

From there, we headed out to the Port Stanley beach, which contains many informal beach restaurants and is home of the allegedly world famous French fries at MacKay’s.  Perhaps the population of sea gulls has something to do with this fame.  Anyone who feeds gulls, intentionally or otherwise, is contributing to water pollution.


Girl is chasing pizza-eating   gulls away from a blanket that was left unattended.

Finally, we left for Ingersoll. Following the signs to the 401, we passed through Sheaden, which bills itself as the rhubarb capital of Ontario. Rhubarb, of course,  is mostly water, as are most living things.