Ribbons of Life

Who among us has not coveted a waterfront lot, a scenic view, a refreshing spot to swim?

We build our dream homes and cottages along streams, rivers, lakes and oceans; we fish, boat, or just sit back and revel in nature’s splendour. But all too often our ideal waterfront esthetic is not quite what nature had in mind.

We mould our waterfront lots with an urban mentality, fertilizing putting-green lawns, paving driveways and planting gardens of ornamentals. But each alteration in the natural landscape leaves an imprint along the water’s edge, where 90 percent of all lake and river life is born, raised and fed.

These “ribbons of life,” the strips of shoreline where water meets land, are meant to foster a jumble of cattails and pickerelweed, ferns, reeds and alders, and the life that teems in the shallows relies on a natural habitat to survive and flourish. For a natural system not only provides food, breeding grounds and shelter for all sorts of wildlife, but also helps to prevent erosion and filter out pollutants.

As shoreline dwellers, we have a responsibility to protect and enhance the vitality of nature at these life-giving margins. We must ensure that we keep the water as clean as we expect those upstream, downstream or across the lake to leave it for us.


The natural look     

Native Vegetation such as cattails, lily pads and trembling aspens all serve as breeding grounds or shelters. They help anchor soil and provide a vital food source for wildlife. Mixtures of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees, naturally adapted to local conditions, are heartier and less labour-intensive than exotics, and help deter introduced species.

Plants pump oxygen into the water for everything from microbes to minnows. Shoreline plants act as the “kidneys” of an aquatic system, filtering out pollutants. Cattails trap and absorb fertilizer and pesticide runoff, while some shrubs form deep, webbed roots which prevent silt from muddying the water.

Plants also mitigate the impact of the elements. They are nature’s air conditioners, blocking out the sun to shade and cool the homes of humans and wildlife. Trees and shrubs hold wind at bay, and aquatic plants break boat wakes that can erode the soil.

A healthy shoreline supports a rich variety of native plants.


Chemical soup     

Think of all the chemicals in an average household: fuels and fluids in cars and lawnmowers, fertilizers and herbicides on the lawn and garden, and shampoos and bug repellents on ourselves. Transport these to a lake or river and they can be deadly.

The toxins in pesticides and herbicides are meant to poison insects and weeds on land. Leached into the water, they can also kill off animals, such as frogs, which are dependent on the shoreline to complete their life cycle.

Nitrogen and phosphorus help plants grow, but excess nutrient runoff from sewage, fertilizers and detergents can leave a body of water virtually lifeless. In a process called eutrophication, chemicals over-fertilize the water, creating thick, often smelly, algal blooms. As the blooms decay, bacteria levels increase and oxygen levels plummet. Fish requiring less oxygen, such as carp, do just fine, but other species that need more oxygen, such as trout, suffocate.

A healthy shoreline is nutrient balanced.


Spinning the web of life     

Oh, what a tangled web is woven along shorelines, some of the richest, most productive ecological turf on Earth. The meeting of air, water and land fosters a diversity of life and thus an intricate food web. Each species is a thread in the web, and each thread relies on all others for survival and on humans to maintain a clean, natural environment. As we alter the landscape, threads begin to snap and the repercussions resonate through the entire web. When too much vegetation is ripped out to make way for a sandy beach, vital habitats for fish and frogs disappear, forcing them to move elsewhere or perish. With fish and frogs gone, insect populations boom and the majestic blue heron takes wing in search of aquatic prey elsewhere.

A healthy shoreline fosters a complex web of life.


Building by water     

An ideal waterfront dwelling offers a great view with the fragrance and soothing sound of water. But the tendency to bring customs of city living to our lakeside abodes contradicts the majestic setting and meddles with the fragile ecosystem.

An ecosystem-friendly home is built no closer than 30 metres from the water – behind the natural shoreline vegetation – with a septic system buried on even, open ground even further back to prevent downhill runoff and damage from deep tree roots. Gravel driveways fit the ecological bill by allowing percolation and avoiding the harmful chemicals in asphalt. The choice of waterfront construction has a vital impact on water creatures. Solid concrete docks and retaining walls destroy fish habitats and inhibit natural currents. Floating docks, on the other hand, can be removed from the water, provide shade and shelter for fish and disrupt only the area where they anchor.

A healthy shoreline had little human influence near the water.


Simple human nature     

Everything we do by water has an effect on shoreline ecosystems. Our actions can stunt plant growth, drive off fish and birds, and as a result, diminish the enjoyment of our waterfront properties.

Being a responsible waterfront dweller begins by giving yourself a break. Think of all the time and money spent on mowing, seeding and spraying; buying herbicides and ornamental flowers and cedar hedges; pulling out reeds and weeds and cattails and pouring down truckloads of sand and setting a perfectly angular concrete dock. Why not just ease into your old rowboat, lazily paddle out from shore and cast out a line? Now, sit back, hands behind your head, hat tipped over your eyes and bask in the splendour of your healthy ribbon of life.

Note: This page was originally published as the “Ribbon of Life” in Canadian Geographic, May/June 1999

Illustrations: Michael Kluckner; Text: Elizabeth Shilts, Dane Lanken; Thanks to Clive Callaway and Sarah Kipp of the “Living by Water” project and to Cliff Craig of the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority.