O’Reilly’s Bridge Should Stay Put

When I find myself lacking adequate time to undertake a northern canoe trip in the wilderness of the Canadian Shield, I turn my attention to local waterways.

Over the years I have made a few canoe trips upstream and downstream from E.C. Brown Memorial Park on the Welland River, which forms Pelham’s southern boundary.

The Welland River cannot compare with the more northern and pristine rivers that I have canoed, but it does have its own unique charm.

For example, if one travels downriver (to the east) from E.C. Brown Memorial Park they will encounter an historic and picturesque landmark spanning the river: O’Reilly’s Bridge.

At 106 years old, O’Reilly’s is the oldest bridge over the Welland River and one of the oldest of its kind in Southern Ontario. It was built in 1901, the same year Queen Victoria died.
It is a single-lane Parker truss bridge, quite unlike any other structure one can find spanning the Welland River.

When I recently learned that the Region of Niagara is considering removing O’Reilly’s Bridge in favour of constructing a larger, modern structure in its place, I decided to pay a visit to this local landmark.

Wild grapes vines creep along the concrete embankment adjacent to the iron bridge. Sprouting up from the shallow water were cattails, and dotting the surface were numerous lily pads. Arrowheads and other reeds grew in abundance along the shoreline.

At either end of this short bridge grow clusters of trees, and in the sheltered branches of a Manitoba Maple I noticed a bird’s nest. Its tenants, of course, had long since spread their wings and flown away.

In time past I have fished with friends underneath the bridge; something I am certain locals like myself have been doing for over a century under this bridge. Sunfish, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and the occasional northern pike constitute the main catch.

Even though it is October, I still see plenty of wild flowers growing along the edge of O’Reilly’s Road leading up to the crossing.

As I was observing this antique bridge, I found myself wondering why the Region would wish to remove it—and replace it with something large and modern.

While it is obviously in poor condition and in dire need of repair, tearing the bridge down and replacing it with a new one hardly seems like a logical solution.

Indeed, the Region’s consultant on this project estimated that the construction of the new bridge would cost 2.9 million dollars, whereas simply repairing the existing structure would cost only 1.3 million.

In other words, the Region could save 1.6 million in taxpayers’ money by preserving a piece of our heritage. Nor would constructing a two-lane concrete structure bridge in this rural area be an environmentally friendly undertaking.

The contention that the crossing needs to be expanded to two-lanes in order to accommodate existing traffic is flatly false. The consultant’s report on replacing the bridge claimed that the average daily traffic volume on the bridge was 600 to 700 vehicles.

In actual fact nine traffic counts conducted between 1999 and 2006 yielded a daily average of only 538 vehicles crossing the bridge.

The inflated numbers were the result of including traffic counts done while Beckett’s Bridge (the nearest river crossing to the west) was closed. The closure of that bridge increased traffic on O’Reilly’s to an average of 910 vehicles per day.

When Beckett’s Bridge re-opened, the average daily vehicle use of O’Reilly’s fell dramatically—to 477 vehicles per day.

Therefore, when examining the data in its proper context, it is clear that the bridge need not be replaced by a two-lane structure.

It is my sincere belief that replacing O’Reilly’s Bridge with a new bridge makes no sense from a heritage, environmental, and economical viewpoint. Indeed, it would be a shortsighted and costly decision.

Coyle Creek Clean-up for the Beavers

Two Sundays ago, a group of local residents conducted a cleanup of Coyle Creek; a slow-flowing, meandering waterway that is a significant tributary to the Welland River.

The lower-section of this creek constitutes an oasis of wild habitat in an otherwise increasingly developed area of southern Pelham and the western part of Welland.

While I was canoeing the creek back in the summer of 2006 I devised a plot to organize a group of local volunteers to keep the creek free of litter and carry out various conservation-related initiatives.

I did have some past experiences with Coyle Creek, as I had worked one summer for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. I had helped plant native fauna along the creek’s banks at the Welland River golf course (since renamed Pelham Hills).

As there was no community group devoted to Coyle Creek in existence yet, I decided to establish the Friends of Coyle Creek (the FCC) with the assistance of some like-minded residents.

One of the major motivations for forming the group was the fact that Coyle Creek is actually home to a colony of beavers.

Beavers were once widespread across North America, however, due to habitat destruction and trapping, the beaver’s range has been greatly reduced. Thus, Coyle Creek’s beavers are a comparative rarity in heavily populated Southern Ontario.

In order to keep the human impact on the beaver’s fragile environment to an absolute minimum, we conducted our recent cleanup via canoes. In this manner, we were able to avoid disturbing the beavers on land, where they gather wood for their lodges and bark saplings for sustenance.

The flotilla of vessels we managed to assemble consisted of a 13-foot cedar-strip canoe, a 16-foot fibreglass canoe, and a rowboat. Our little fleet travelled downstream: we started at a stone bridge that spans the creek on South Pelham road, and ended up at the Welland River.

We were determined in our efforts to remove whatever litter there was to be found—beer bottles, plastic bags, coffee cups, even part of an old stove—and to ensure that recyclable and non-recyclabe materials were kept separate.

We also removed purple loosestrife, a harmful species of weed that is not indigenous to North America, but was in fact introduced here on account of gardening centres.

Purple loosestrife chokes out native species, and if left unchecked, can monopolize entire creeks and other wetlands.

The creek itself and surrounding forests are rather beautiful.

Lilly pads dot the surface of the creek, arrowheads protrude up through the clear water, and on shores grow large oaks and maples. Both the roots and tubes of arrowheads—so called because the broad green leaves of this plant resemble an arrowhead—as well as lilly pad roots, are edible.

The creek’s shoreline had a great deal of luscious wild grapes growing, and on the banks in many spots is jewelweed. The stalks of jewelweed when crushed can be utilized as a remedy for the maddening itch caused by poison ivy.

Sunfish were observed swimming in the clear, shallow waters of the creek, and basking in the warm sun on a log was a painted turtle. In the adjacent deciduous forests were noisy grey squirrels and numerous bird species.

While we did not have any luck spotting beavers on this particular day, we did note their handiwork: pencil-shaped stumps jutting up from the banks, cut by the beavers’ strong teeth in order to use the wood for their lodges.

At least two different beaver lodges, (one of which is possibly abandoned), are on Coyle Creek. These industrious animals, an enduring symbol of Canada for nearly two centuries, build remarkable lodges partially submerged and partly on the banks, which serve as their homes.

On the whole, the cleanup was a great success, and it is my sincere hope that the creek will remain as it now is—-in all its natural splendour—for many generations to come.

Save the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River

For the Welland Tribune: by Adam Shoalts

Deep in the Canadian wilderness, some 400 kilometres north of Lake Superior, I paddled along a wild, majestic river with my friend Wesley Crowe in the summer of 2004. We were awed by the river’s remoteness its ancient forests, the abundance of wildlife, and the intensity of the white water rapids.

As a lover of wilderness travel, I knew I had found a gem in terms of pristine, unspoiled wilderness—something that is increasingly difficult to find these days.

Unfortunately, in the twenty-first century the world’s once vast reaches of unsettled wilderness are by and large a thing of the past. The population explosion of the twentieth combined with industrialization left the previously green spaces of the earth ravaged, depleted, and in many cases, altogether vanished.

Humans have trampled over every last corner of the earth’s land surface, and roads, human habitation, and pollution of one sort or another can be found even in the deepest pockets of remaining wilderness.

Yet this river we were travelling, the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat, seemed to be a miraculous exception to all this. Here in Canada, successive provincial and federal governments have been guilty of taking the country’s wilderness for granted; erroneously believing it was sufficiently vast to endure forever.

As a result of this major misconception, comparatively little of Canada’s great stretches of wild were protected, and hence the reason it is hard to find much pure wilderness remaining today.

It therefore came as welcomed news when the federal government recently announced that the fame Nahanni River in the North-West Territories would be further protected by the expansion of the existing Nahanni National Park Reserve.

The Nahanni River is a sublime place of towering limestone canyons, raging white water rapids, and spectacular waterfalls.

While I personally have not as of yet canoed the Nahanni River, I have canoed a river that surpasses the Nahanni in remoteness and nearly equals it in majesty, but has nothing of the Nahanni’s renown.

After graduating from high school, my friend and I wanted to attempt to canoe the remotest, most untouched river that we could find.  Naturally then, we focused our attention on one of the largest intact areas of wilderness left on earth, the vast stretch of boreal forest and muskeg that covers the far northern part of Ontario.

We selected for our trip the almost unheard of Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River system, a 750-kilometre waterway that slices through the heart of this last great wilderness before emptying into James Bay.

I was awe-struck by the beauty of this wild river, and afterwards recounted the tale of our journey in my book, Sense of Adventure, published last year by Cedar Tree Press.

While the upper section of the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat is partially protected by a provincial park, the lower section is Crown land and thus remains unprotected from industrial projects.

As a result of poor, short-term polices, or rather a lack of polices by the provincial and federal governments, Ontario’s far north is now under ever-increasing threat from industrial development projects, especially mining and logging. This includes the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River.

De Beers, a South African diamond conglomerate, has plans to establish what would be Ontario’s first diamond mine, on the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River, approximately 90 kilometres inland from the James Bay coast.

Despite calls from numerous conservation and environmental groups to halt this ecologically destructive project, De Beers has been granted the go-ahead and construction is expected to commence in 2008.

If built, the mine will necessitate the construction of roads and hydro corridors penetrating into the depths of this wilderness, a giant open-pit mine over two kilometres in width, as well as an industrial complex.

The muskeg surrounding the proposed site of the mine must be drained, which will irrevocably destroy the area’s natural environment. A massive amount of water, 100,000 cubic metres or roughly 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools, is expected to be daily pumped out of the diamond pit and into the nearby river.

It is believed that at least 5,000 sqaure hectares will be affected by the mine, thus forever runing this magnificent land. The river itself is almost certain to become contaiminated, and numerous animal species, including the threatened woodland caribou, will lose a huge portion of their habitat.

With the Ontario provincial election looming, now may be the last chance for concerned citizens to make their voices heard on this urgent issue.

I for one think it is high time to make our politicians realize that wantonly destroying the last great wilderness of the world in order to satisfy the greed of foreign mineral companies is little short of madness.

Pristine, unspoiled wilderness is rarer than diamonds these days, hence the reason I believe we should save this river—the real gem—from suffering the same fate of all too many other wild places.

An Ancient Wonder: The Comfort Maple

Half a millennium ago, deep in a virgin forest, a small seed in the form of a maple key began to take root. In time it would germinate into a sapling that would grow into a massive sugar maple tree; along the way enduring countless storms, avoiding blights, forest fires, and evading the pioneer’s axe.

This incredible tree, which defied all odds, still stands tall and proud today, in the midst of farmland in North Pelham. Known as the Comfort Maple, the immediate area surrounding the tree is a Niagara Peninsula Conservation site.

The Comfort Maple, at approximately five hundred years old, is widely believed to be the oldest sugar maple (accer saccharum) in Canada. The towering tree was already a century old when Samuel de Champlain was exploring Canada; and well over 250 years old when the first settlers arrived in this region.

In 1816, shortly after the conclusion of the War of 1812, the Comfort family obtained the land, which contained the then three centuries old maple.  Providentially, the Comfort settlers never felled the mighty tree, and thus it became the oldest of its kind in all the land.

On a recent Sunday afternoon I paid a visit to this ancient wonder. Located off Metler road, the tree is situated at the end of a dusty, bumpy, country lane. To the right side of the dirt lane grow several sugar maples, which are dwarfed by the colossal size of the Comfort Maple.

It soars some eighty feet high, and is a full twenty feet around the trunk.

The tree, while somewhat misshaped, is nevertheless an awe-inspiring sight to behold. I circled it several times, gazing upwards at its thick, snake-like branches, while listening to the warm breeze rustle through its green leaves.

Staring at the great tree conjured in my mind remembrances of Grey Owl’s short story, “The Tree” from his classic 1936 book “Tales of an Empty Cabin.”  The legendary Grey Owl, Canada’s greatest nature writer and a prophet of wilderness preservation, tells the tale of a fictional ancient tree in that story.

Guy wires help support the tree’s branches, and concrete has been laid in the cavity of one of the tree’s two main branches. (Presumably to protect it from disease and insects.)

I was somewhat surprised to see the tree itself is remarkably free of graffiti carvings, however, the concrete within the tree did contain a few. Apparently, Dave and Jenn as well as BW and SW thought it fitting to proclaim their love for each other by marking it on the concrete within the tree.

A rustic wooden sign nearby informs visitors that Miss Edna Eleanor Comfort donated the tree and the ground directly around it to the NPCA “for its preservation” on April 30, 1961. The land had been in the Comfort family for nearly a century and a half by that point.

The tree is officially dedicated to the memory of Earl Hampton Comfort.

As Mary Lamb noted in a previous Voice column, according to legend the Comfort Maple is also the site of an ancient Native burial ground. If true, the tree perhaps embodies more than the memory of just Mr.Comfort, indeed, that of a whole vanished people.

As I left the cool shade provided by the giant tree to return to my parked vehicle, I found myself hoping that the great Comfort Maple endures many more years to come.

Return of the Eastern Cougar?

For the Welland Tribune: by Adam Shoalts

With my sturdy walking stick in hand, I wandered alone through a labyrinth of lush foliage, inhabited by venomous snakes, prowling panthers, and blood-sucking insects.
The heat and humidity felt suffocating.

Was I in the South American jungle? No, that trip of mine, alas, lies further down the road.

I was in fact, still right here in the Niagara Peninsula, somewhere deep in the Wainfleet bog: the largest protected area in the peninsula. It consists of 801 hectares of land owned by the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Auhtority, as well as a smaller tract belonging to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR).

I am familiar with the Wainfleet Bog, having worked one summer for the MNR during which I spent several weeks conducting soil sampling in the bog.

The Wainfleet Bog is the largest remaining bog in all of southern Ontario and constitutes the greatest stretch of unbroken greenery within the confines of Niagara. It contains an astonishing diversity of flora, including 350 different species of bog plants.

The bog is home to the eastern Massassuga rattlesnake, an endangered species and the only venomous snake native to Ontario.

However, rattlesnakes, while fascinating in their own right, were not the object of my visit to the bog on this occasion.

I ventured into the deciduous forests of the bog to seek out evidence of the elusive eastern cougar, which officially has been extirpated from this province for nearly a century. Cougars, also variously known as panthers, mountain lions or pumas, once inhabited virtually the whole of this continent, save for the far north.

An adult male cougar can weigh up to 90 kilograms (200 pounds), and in western North America, where cougars remain relatively widespread, cougar attacks on humans occur periodically, sometimes resulting in death.

Increasing human populations, expanding farmlands, and above all rampant hunting of these big cats resulted in the general belief that they had been extirpated from not only Ontario, but the whole of the northeastern portion of North America.

The last known shooting of an indigenous cougar in Ontario took place in 1884, in Creemore. In 1908, the naturalist C.W. Nash’s book, Manual of Vertebrates in Ontario, was published, in which he asserted that the cougar had been extirpated from Ontario.

That has remained the MNR’s official position on cougars. For decades many experts even believed the eastern cougar was extinct.

However, today some MNR biologists and many others firmly believe cougars still exist in the wilds of Ontario.

The evidence to support this belief is quite convincing and manifold. In 1995 scat discovered in northwestern Ontario was identified by a DNA analysis as cougar scat, and only a few weeks ago the MNR confirmed that scat discovered in the Wainfleet Bog was positively identified as cougar scat.

Hence the reason I set out alone into the bog, hoping to uncover further evidence of these magnificent predators, or perhaps even catch a glimpse of one.

While I was unsuccessful in my quest on this particular day, in Ontario more than 500 people have reported cougar sightings since 2002.

The Niagara Peninsula, while hardly a wilderness, is surprisingly a hotspot for these sightings. The cougar’s primary prey is whitetail deer and the explosion of the deer population in southern Ontario, including Niagara, might be responsible for the resurgence of the cougar.

Some sceptics have argued that recent cougar sightings in eastern North America are not of wild, indigenous cougars, but in fact are only escaped or released animals from private owners or zoos.

This conjecture though seems rather dubious. Firstly, cougar sightings are scattered all across the province and are quite numerous, which casts considerable doubt on the notion that all of these pumas are merely escaped pets.

What is far more probable is that the cougars of eastern North America were never fully extirpated, only severely endangered, and are now staging something of a comeback.

The eastern cougar is in fact listed as an endangered species in Canada, and local lore as related by old timers holds that remnant cougar populations have long existed in the remote interior regions of New Brunswick, as well as the Appalachian Mountains.

Bruce S. Cartwright, a naturalist and conservationist, argued in his 1972 book, The Eastern Panther: A Question of Survival, that the elusive cat had not been entirely extirpated. right detailed extensive eyewitness accounts of cougars, photogaphed cougar tracks and found other evidence of wild cougars, such as dens.

More recently, a story by Bob Reguly in the sportsman magazine Outdoor Canada discussed the discovery of cougar’s tracks and dens in southern Ontario (one such site was in Niagara), and quoted several MNR officials as saying they believe some wild cougars still exist in Ontario.

As for myself, I want to believe in this wildlife success story, and intend to continue my solitary wanderings through the woods until I see one of these magnificent animals with my own eyes.