Ribbons of life
Shorelines beckon and nurture all life, from cottagers to forest creatures, from fish
Who among us has not coveted a waterfront lot, a scenic view, a refreshing spot to
We build our dream homes and cottages along streams, rivers, lakes and oceans; we Þsh,
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 þourish.
For a natural system not only provides food, breeding grounds and shelter for all sorts
of wildlife, but also helps to prevent erosion and Þlter 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, wildþowers, shrubs and trees, naturally adapted to local
conditions, are heartier and less labour-intensive than exotics, and help deter introduced
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.
Think of all the chemicals in an average household: fuels and þuids 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 Þsh and frogs disappear, forcing them to
move elsewhere or perish. With Þsh 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 has 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.
- Elizabeth Shilts, Dane Lanken, Canadian Geographic
This article first appeared in Canadian Geographic magazine, May/June
1999. It may not be reproduced without written permission from Canadian