Respect for Healing Lands: Frozen islands, forgotten hills

Double Crested Cormorant drying its wings


Cootes Paradise is often described as the most valuable wild space in the Hamilton area, while nearby disturbed sites are widely dismissed as valueless. But what other forces have acted on Cootes and the surrounding area, and how does the land’s past relate to ideas of value?

Overnight, snow has covered the land. Since there are so many fun things to do in the winter that are harder to do other times, we set off towards the frozen marshes of Cootes Paradise.

From Dundurn Castle, we cross York Blvd and dip down to the traintracks below the Hamilton Cemetary. We pause by the tracks and remember a friend of ours who, standing in this spot, gestured to the shrubby hills below the York St bridge and the other wild spaces along the tracks and said that they had “no value.” Then he turned and pointed out towards Cootes Paradise and said, “Over there, celebrate that.”

He did however give respect to one tiny strip growing along the west side of the tracks. It’s easy to spot the single, tidy row of tall White Oaks shading a healthy understory of Witch Hazel here. This shred is some of the last old growth oak savannah remaining on this side of hwy 403, but not long ago, these savannahs covered most of the sandy soils of West downtown.

Cutting under the highway towards Princess Point, we find it troubling that our friend would dismiss these wildlands that, although mostly non-native species, are doing the work of stabilizing these disturbed, manufactured landscapes. We arrive at the point with with these thoughts in mind, and, stepping down onto the frozen marsh, we resolve to walk due North to Hickory Island across the ice.

We have heard a lot about the damage that has been done to Hickory Island by the large flocks of migratory Double Crested Cormorants that have taken up nesting there. The birds are accused of killing all the vegetation on the island, and today we want to take the opportunity to go check it out for ourselves.

Trudging through snowdrifts, we see many big stumps and dead trees on the island as we approach it. But no such large trees stand here now. Now, the island is mostly covered in an early succession stand of Sumac, while on its Eastern shore, there are some small trees that we don’t recognize. Its buds and twigs remind us of the Elm family. In the remnants of a tent caterpillar nest we find a small leaf with many teeth, pinnate veins, and an asymetrical base. These are all traits of Elms, so we decide that this might be a foreign Elm of some kind.

The snow banks around the island are freshly streaked with soil – the Sumacs are doing their best, but with the trees gone, erosion seems to be happening rapidly. We find Mullein growing from these collapsing banks, and celebrate its presence as a familiar friend of places where soil is scarce, like city cracks and gravel fields.

The impact of nesting Comorants on this island has lead the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) to actively prevent the birds from taking up roost on the other islands in Cootes: Goose and Rat. Typically, Comorants prefer to nest on bare rocky shores, like the artificial islands along the east shores of Hamilton harbour. Recently however, conservation authorities have decided to sink Farr Island, a large island in the middle of the harbour and a favourite nesting spots for the birds. Where will the birds who once nested there go next? Last year, over six thousand Comorants were culled in Lake Erie – could the Hamilton flocks be facing the same fate?

To better understand the current state of Hickory Island, we trek back across the frozen marsh towards Goose Island for comparison. (According to maps, it’s called Cockpit Island, but we like Goose Island, because geese hangout there in the summer.)

Our route through frozen Cootes Paradise, starting at the bottom and following the dots

Goose Island is longer than Hickory Island, but equally narrow. Unlike Hickory though, it is home to many large trees – we find several Red and White Oaks, both young and old, probably relatives of the Oak Savannah on nearby Sassafrass Point. As well, we meet some Willow, Alder, Paper Birch, Trembling Aspen, and the dried stalks of many wildflowers. Despite the healthy stand of young and old trees here, the banks of Goose Island seem to be rapidly collapsing as well. We don’t know much about the history of these islands yet, but erosion is clearly a constant pressure, regardless of whether or not the islands are treed.

Looking at the dirt-streaked snow here though, below the sprawling canopy of a mature White Oak, we are humbled by the reminder that change is constant – these islands were once different than they were today, and they continue to transform. And yet, while listening to the rumble of the highway nearby, we remind ourselves that there are many unnatural forces acting on this land today, forces bigger than the simple observation of the presence of the pesky Comoronts themselves.

From the highest point of the island, the red of Scots Pine and the yellow of Weeping Willow back on the North shore catch our eye. Why not cross the ice for a third time today? It’s not every day we have such a direct and quick route to the other side.

Willow banks: Cootes Paradise, Hamilton

Scots Pine and Weeping Willow are both foreign species planted for decoration, and, arriving at the North shore, just beyond them we see the cleared lawns of the RBG, where many trees are on display. We follow some deer tracks along the ice and munch a bit of well-browsed White Cedar beside a massive feral Lilac tree, another escapee of the tree museum above.

With a bit of Cedar under our tongues, we climb up to walk a section of trail that’s lined with many nut and other food trees, and soon come to an old flaking signboard. One part of the board shows two rough maps: one depicting this area in 1860, and one depicting it as it appears today. It takes us a moment to realize what we are seeing. In the map from 1860, the section of Cootes covered by open water is much narrower – and there are no islands at all!

These are dramatic changes. The forested banks were probably in about the same place, so we can concluce that the area between the banks and the standing water in 1860 was marshy and covered in plant life – a much larger marsh than today. We take from this map that, in the hundred and fifty years since then, the marshland has retreated to just hug the shoreline, leaving the islands alone in open water.

We pause by the shore to consider our observations and wonders from the day and how they might fit into the story these map tell.

The first thing we discuss is that there have been many major development projects in this area since the map’s date of 1860. The marsh was dredged several times as the Desjardins Canal struggled for viability until 1895, and The construction of York Blvd and the 403 completely reshaped its East end. Invasive Carp became established in the area soon after, continuing to disrupt the stability of the marsh floor. As well, near-complete deforestation and rapidly accelerating urban sprawl throughout the watershed means an ever greater amounts of silt washes down into Cootes..

The landscape here today is radically different than it was in the past – this ecosystem has adapted to many changes, from the development projects, to the Comorants, to the intrusion of a museum of foreign trees. The scrubby hills by the traintracks that look out over the remaining sliver of old growth oak savannah have done the same. There is overwhelming hope in all of these different lands.

All land has the capacity to heal and become richer, even the scrubby hills and Hickory Island. We need much more wild space than we currently have, so it’s time we begin including the amazing ability for land to heal in our ideas of value.

Defining value for ourselves is an important place to begin. This process of unlearning means going beyond notions of conservation as valuing isolated parcels of land, and instead recognize equal value to all parts of whole systems.

2 responses to “Respect for Healing Lands: Frozen islands, forgotten hills

  1. Yes the double breasted cormorants ruined the trees and the island in Cootes Paradise. The smell of the cormants reaches for miles near the Burlington Bridge. The trails on thee south shore need some maintenance work, All this rainfall and runoff has made the trails muddy and slippery for walking.

    • Hi William, thanks for your comment.

      Glad to hear that you’ve been out walking in spite of the rain. What’s your favourite walk to take on the south shore?

      I guess it depends what you mean by ruined. One of the points we’re making in this article is that, although coromorants may change the places they choose to nest, the history of those islands is long and complex, and we are seeing them at only this one particular moment in theor story. In our opinion, it’s difficult to judge the changes to Hickory Island as being negative. However, speaking of Burlington bridge, the massive infrastructural projects across and around Hamilton Harbour have had a clear negative effect on the ecosystem and all the creatures that live in it. Can you imagine what this area was like before it was so heavily developed? What role do you think the coromorants played here at that time?

      Good adventures,

      klr collective

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