Julia and Rachael’s excellent Muskoka adventure

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Julia Colm, a Masters student at Queen’s University with lots of stories to tell about working in Ontario’s beautiful cottage country.  For more about Julia, check out the end of this blog!

My project began as the 2014 Grass Pickerel Survey but soon became the 2014 Grass Pickerel Hunt, as my favourite Species at Risk had proven elusive. As we prepared to travel to the Muskoka region for the next leg of sampling, I felt both excited and discouraged, knowing that this population is difficult to sample because there are few Grass Pickerel and it is found in the heart of cottage country. I thought that shoreline alterations would be our biggest problem with the cottagers. I thought wrong.

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

We had spent hours canoeing a shoreline looking for a nice, weedy spot to sample, but were finding few areas that were not directly in front of someone’s cottage and had not been cleared of all aquatic vegetation. We finally found a spot off of an island that had no cottages (though it did bear a ‘No Trespassing’ sign). Since we would not be venturing onto the island itself and had no way of knowing who owned it to offer a courtesy explanation of our work, we figured we were safe to sample.

Just as we got our seine net deployed, a concerned cottager boated over to us and yelled “what are you doing?!”. We politely explained that we were from Queen’s University doing a fisheries survey of the lake. The cottager then informed us that all of the neighbours had been watching us and were ready to call the OPP; they thought we were poachers. I’ve been called many things in my life (including “homeless looking” later that day by a total stranger), but for two people who have devoted the last few years to working with Species at Risk and have been passionate about conservation their entire lives, being called a poacher was truly insulting. We kept our smiles on and apologized for worrying them, offered to show our permits, and suggested that they call the MNR tips line and alert a Conservation Officer if concerned about poachers in the future. The cottager lightened up, and generously offered to let us launch our canoe from her cottage the next day, but suggested we try to look more official and somehow make our net look less like a net. I wasn’t sure what to do with that last bit of advice, but I’m now trying to figure out how we can fly a “Queen’s University Research Vessel” pirate flag from our canoe. We apologized again and said goodbye, and as we paddled away began laughing at the thought of poachers using a canoe as a get-away vehicle. “The OPP are coming! GO! GO! GO!” [Frantic paddling]

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.

Although this was our only negative interaction with cottagers, it was certainly not our only difficulty. Finding spots to launch our canoe on lakes praised for their ‘excellent boating’ proved to be an unexpected problem. One lake in particular, Grass Lake, which if the name is any indication, should offer perfect habitat for Grass Pickerel, was particularly difficult to access. The first day, we sampled a tributary of Grass Lake and caught three Grass Pickerel, and I was convinced we would not be disappointed when we got to the main body of the lake… if we got to the main body of the lake. We had driven all around the lake without any success. The closest we got to it was reaching a dead end road, and having the man who lived at the end tell us he has lived one kilometer from Grass Lake for 15 years and has yet to see it. That was upsetting. He then said that horses have gone missing in there. That was disturbing.

We concluded that we would have to access Grass Lake from the Trent-Severn Canal, an option we had been avoiding as canoeing through the canal isn’t exactly safe. We found a road that led very close to the mouth of Grass Lake, and we should only have to cross the canal to get in. Well, it turns out Grass Lake is connected to the canal through a tiny underpass below the CNR train tracks. So we now not only had to cross the canal, but then portage across the tracks with all of our gear.

Not your standard portage.

Not your standard portage.

When we crossed the canal and entered Grass Lake, we realized why it had been so difficult to get to: it was literally a lake of grass, a giant marsh. There were no cottages, and no way for non-motivated people to get to it. It was a totally undisturbed, undiscovered piece of paradise. The banks were lined with trees displaying a range of colours normally reserved for autumn, and the variety of aquatic macrophytes created a breathtaking underwater display. Fish representing almost every family were easily observed from the canoe, and I could not wait to pull up my first seine haul teeming with Grass Pickerel. Then I put my paddle in the substrate to test its firmness and my vision evaporated. My paddle slid through that silt as easily as it had slid through the water above it, and there was no way a person could stand without sinking. No wonder horses got lost. It might have been harder to get over my frustration about expending all that effort to find the lake and then having no way to sample it, except that it was such a beautiful, serene place, and even though we knew we were defeated, we paddled around the entire lake taking in its beauty.

Grass Lake, Gravenhurst, Ontario

Grass Lake, Gravenhurst, Ontario

In the end, we were redeemed at Grass Lake as one of the banks close to the mouth was clay and allowed us to do our three seine hauls. We caught several Grass Pickerel, including the first Young-of-the-Year of the year. So Grass Lake not only provided me with half of the Grass Pickerel captured during our Muskoka visit, it has also inspired me to develop new gear types for sampling fish in remote areas full of weeds and soft substrate. Canoe electrofisher, perhaps?

Julia Colm

Julia Colm completed her B.Sc in Ecology at the University of Guelph in 2010 and is currently working on her M.Sc at Queen’s University. She is interested in management and conservation of freshwater fisheries and her work at Queen’s focuses on the biology of Grass Pickerel across Ontario.

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3 thoughts on “Julia and Rachael’s excellent Muskoka adventure

  1. Pingback: Did you say you work with rattlesnakes… In Ontario? | Dispatches from the Field

  2. Pingback: This land is our land | Dispatches from the Field

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