Ottawa's "City Stream Watch" links the eyes and energy of ordinary citizens with the expertise and resources of different conservation groups. Stream Watch volunteers - and those with similar interests - were invited to a recent Saturday workshop. It combined studying aquatic life with an introduction to fly fishing.
Lucy Martin joined over two dozen participants where the Jock River flows into the Rideau, not far from intensive new construction, south of suburban Barrhaven.
"It doesn't show much from here, beside a pretty shoreline, but Ottawa just keeps growing and growing."
Along the way, fly fisherman Allen McHugh says he's seen the good, the bad and the ugly:
“When I was young, the Ottawa River was actually an open sewer. Cottages used to dump their septic tanks right into the water. It was not uncommon to see feces going down the river. Now we don't see that anymore, they've done a good job cleaning that up.”
McHugh was one of several volunteers from the Ottawa Flyfishers Society offering casting lessons in the afternoon. But the morning was devoted to learning more about benthic invertebrates: basically, critters and bugs that live underwater.
The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority ran the hands-on event, which was lead by Justin Robert and Adrienne Lewis.
“So, I'll just show you how we collect them,” Lewis says to the audience, “and then we have a big pile of waders right there, if you guys want to get in them, and get in the water. But we can't guarantee that they don't leak. So just be forewarned. And that is why we got you to sign the waivers!”
Robert and Lewis launched into a standardized kick-shuffle-and-scoop routine, using long-handled collection nets. They came back to shore with about what you'd expect:
“So, there's lots of algae. Oooh, we got a crayfish, you want to put that in a jar, or a...? Oh my gosh, we found a dragonfly larva! (others exclaim, while Lewis gently picks it up) There we go!”
Kevin MacPherson helped Lewis sort her catch. MacPherson works in high tech, but he's married to a biologist and wanted to learn a bit more natural science himself.
Everyone peered at the various creatures, as they swam or hid in the shallow specimen trays.
“The hydras? They're really indicators of really good quality, Lewis says.” Turbellaria, the flat worms. Nematodas. Oligochaetes are aquatic earthworms, they usually have segments and hairs. I think everyone knows what a leech is...”
And what did it all indicate about this river? Well, nothing especially bad. But Robert and Lewis were reluctant to give a definitive answer. They say accurately assessing stream health is pretty complex.
Bruce Clarke also belongs to the Ottawa Flyfisher Society and serves on the collaborative board that runs Stream Watch. Making benthic invertebrates sound like fun was partially his idea.
“Fly fishers, by the same token, realize the same bugs are fish food. And so maybe we have a bridge there,” Clark said.
What emerged four years ago was an event designed to educate and reward existing volunteers and hopefully recruit new ones:
“The more awareness you have, the more care you have, for the environment. And so it becomes a self-replicating thing, as you go on.”
The rest of the year, Stream Watch participates in detailed surveys of stream health, along with adopt-a-stream initiatives throughout the Ottawa area.
When asked how Ottawa’s streams and rivers are doing, Clarke responded, “They're doing quite well, thank you. When we did a clean up, back in 2005, of one in particular, Green's Creek, we had something like an entire bulk lift full of garbage and tires and car parts that we pulled out. Now we get four garbage bags.”
Most participants came with an interest in nature - and a certain feeling of responsibility.
Anna Derks lives near the Jock. She has a background in chemistry and curiosity about 'her' river.
“This is my turf,” she says. “I've been fortunate enough always to have access to it, and to be able to walk along it in different seasons. And I knew there was much more life there than I was aware of.”
Learning to fly-fish is next on the agenda and it is Derks’ first time. “We’ll see how it goes”, she says.
Casting turns out to be plenty fun, but not so easy. Anna Derks catches a dandelion.
This morning might not have produced any experts on benthic invertebrates or fly-fishing, but thanks to the clinic, there is less trash in the river and people got the opportunity to see a whole new, tiny essential world down among the fish, the ripples and the muck.