Posts Tagged ‘South Nation river’


Over the last week or so, I have been preoccupied with assorted small trials, including the extraction of a couple of wisdom teeth. While I have been distracted, the season has moved inexorably onward, with the leaves first changing colour and then falling to carpet the ground. One positive event has been the return of our small river. As the drought we suffered through this summer deepened, the stream began to dry up until, by mid-September, I was able to walk more than a kilometer up the dry stream bed.


I took the opportunity to see what lies hidden from the eye most of the time. The mud-bottomed river is perpetually cloudy, and one can’t enjoy watching the fish and other small waterlovers. During the drought, any fish were confined to small, increasingly oxygen-deprived puddles, where they were easy prey for raccoons. There were plenty of raccoon tracks along the river course.


Near our house, where there have been human inhabitants living near the river for more than a hundred years, the river bed was littered with broken glass and bottles. I took a couple of buckets and collected up a couple of large pails full of garbage, mostly glass but also a few shoe soles and sheets of plastic.


I soaked the glass in water for a few days so that I could clean up the glass a bit and put it out for recycling. When I was cleaning off the mud, I was surprised by a crayfish! He was perhaps hiding in one of the bottles. I put him in a pail and returned him to a puddle of water. He matched the colour of the muddy bottom perfectly.


The area north of here was hit harder than we were, and many farmers experienced a diminished harvest. With global warming bringing rising temperatures, it is likely we will experience hotter and drier summers more frequently.

Farming must be more dependent on reliable weather patterns than just about any other occupation. Unless you have been living in a hole at the bottom of the sea, you know that our current Conservative government has turned its back on Kyoto targets and is now failing to even meet their own downsized goals for emissions reduction. You might expect farmers to be circling their tractors on Parliament Hill, demanding action! But you would be wrong. At election time, rural areas are a sea of Conservative signboards. In effect, the farmers voted for drought. Very strange. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot with your unregistered long-gun.


It has been a comfort to see the river slowly return, first to a trickle and then to a small stream. I’m certain that all of those creatures who depend on its water for their very lives are unimaginably relieved. Here’s a Great Blue Heron that has returned to search for a meal once again. He watched me warily as I walked down the laneway, ready to make a quick escape.


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In the days before electrical power lines reached across the land, it was commonplace for towns to spring up around rivers where water power could be harnessed to support industry. In this, nearby Spencerville was no different from many Ontario towns. Records show that a mill was in place on the South Nation river as early as 1812, situated on land leased by Peleg Spencer. Peleg’s son David Spencer purchased the land in 1831 and thus became the official founder of the town of Spencerville. By 1851, David had a sawmill and grist mill on the south bank of the river, and erected a carding and fulling mill on the north bank.

Mill in 1878

Mill in 1878

In the early 1860s, fire destroyed the grist mill, and David’s daughter, Mercy, and her husband, Robert Fairbairn, constructed a new grist mill on the present site. The mill was again gutted by fire in 1884 and rebuilt on the remaining stone walls. It continued to operate until 1972.


In 1912, J.F. Barnard purchased the mill and he and his family ran the mill for the next 60 years. One of Barnard’s inovations was to replace the existing waterwheel with a turbine waterwheel, purchased from Chas. Barber & Sons of Meaford and installed in August of 1934. The turbine waterwheel nearly doubled the horsepower of the mill, increasing it from 60 to 110.


Wheat was the primary grain milled, but buckwheat, barley, corn and oats were also processed. The ground wheat might be sold as flour for household use or feed for stock, according to its quality and how finely it was ground. Surprisingly, grain from the Canadian prairies and U.S. midwest was processed at the mill through the 1930s and 40s, and up to 20 car loads of grain might be held for processing at the mill at any one time. Corn was not grown locally as extensively as is now the case, and because high tariffs on American corn made it too costly to import, corn was brought from South Africa for processing as corn meal.


When grain arrived at the mill it was lifted to the top floor by an elevator formed of cups on a belt. From the top floor, the grain would then be fed into either the mill’s double or single roller to be ground.


The Spencerville Mill was purchased by the South Nation Conservation Authority in 1985. In recent years, restoration work has been completed and the mill features displays that clarify how the mill operated and illustrate the history of the mill. Work on further displays is ongoing. The mill stands as a testament to the ingenuity of early residents and preserves an important aspect of the history of Spencertown.

Turbine Waterwheel

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On the most recent fine afternoon, three fishermen enjoyed the afternoon sun sitting on the bridge over South Branch Creek with their fishing poles. They had a bucket between them and kindly allowed me to photograph their catch. The fish are Brown Bullheads (Ameiurus nebulosus), a kind of catfish. These ones were about 8 to 10 inches long. The fishermen assured me they are good eating, lightly floured and fried in butter. I was content to take their word for it.

The brown bullhead is native to the freshwaters of eastern and central North America. It is a warm-water species, usually found on or near the bottom of ponds, shallow lakes or slow-moving larger streams with aquatic vegetation and a muddy or sandy bottom. In the spring, the fish begin staging, coming together preparatory for spawning. The adults move from larger waterways upstream towards headwater areas. They spawn in late spring, May or June. The parents clear a shallow nest in the bottom sand or vegetation, usually near a protecting stump or rock. The water may be as shallow as 6 inches or several feet deep. After spawning, the eggs are cared for by one or both parents, who fan and manipulate the eggs with their whisker-like barbels. After 6 to 9 days, the young hatch and lie in the nest for about 7 days. The juveniles are then guarded by their parents for a couple of weeks until they disperse. The adults return downstream to deeper waters.

Bullheads are omnivores, eating a variety of insects, crustaceans and plant items. They use their barbels to locate food and feed mostly at night. Brown bullheads are very tolerant of low-oxygen conditions and turbid water, and are also more pollution resistant than most other fish, sometimes surviving in polluted streams where they are the only fish species present.

The brown bullhead pool.

The brown bullhead pool.

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A week ago, it looked, not surprisingly, like the middle of winter around here. The world was covered in a foot-deep blanket of snow and the river, the south branch of South Nation River, looked like this:


That began to change as a February thaw set in. Yesterday, the rains began. By midday, the river looked like this:


After lunch, I braved the rain and took a walk to inspect the changed aspect of the river. The current of the newly released river was strong and the water level was still rising as the rain continued. Big slabs of broken ice were adrift and piled up along the banks. A small dark figure on one of the ice flows caught my eye:


On closer examination, the little critter turned out to be a star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata). In his sadly compromised state, his star nose isn’t conspicuous, but his strong front claws and long furred tail are good identifiers. Star-nosed moles live in wet lowland areas and often have tunnels that exit underwater. Although I have always associated them with digging in soil and eating earthworms and the like, star-nosed moles are good swimmers and are happy to eat aquatic insects and snails.


These busy little animals are active both day and night, and throughout the year. The star-nosed mole is named for the 22 feelers, or tentacles, around its nose, which are covered with tiny sensory organs called Eimer’s organs. These enable the mole to rapidly detect information about its prey. About 15 to 20 cm long (6 to 8 inches, including tail), the mole is covered in dark, water-repellent fur. Its tail acts as a fat storage reserve that may help it through the breeding season in late winter or early spring. The female typically bears one litter of 4 or 5 young in late spring or early summer. How this particular individual came to end his days on a February ice flow, one can only guess.

By this morning, the rain had stopped, the sun was shining and the temperature had dropped to -11 C. The river had slowed to a casual pace and the water level was down slightly. The view from the window looked like this:


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