The storied Spanish River, once a well-used trade route for First Nations peoples, reveals its natural splendours to a summertime paddler – and many other paddlers as well. Lacking sufficient protective measures, this mystical watercourse is in grave danger of being loved to death

by C. Dorothy Beevis

Half an hour out from our put-in point, I have begun to get into my paddling stride. My shoulders have loosened up, and I draw the paddle back with confidence. The sun is shining and reeds sway in the calm waters of the Spanish River. This canoe trip is my first in two years, and the first whitewater trip with my dad. The day before our arrival, we drove four and a half hours from Toronto to the Sundog Outfitters Base Camp in Dowling, west of Sudbury, then travelled via train the following morning to begin a leisurely three-day, 53-kilometre trip along the Spanish River. Our canoe is flanked by a second, steered by Jim Little, one of Sundog’s co-owners and our guide for the trip, with Anne, an environmental policy analyst from Ottawa, in the bow.

ONTARIO’S PARKS

Ontario Nature has been at the forefront of the fight to create protected areas across the province for years. In the 1950s, the provincial government approved the Ontario Parks Act (now the Provincial Parks Act) largely due to the efforts of Ontario Nature. In 1983, Ontario Nature’s campaigning led to the creation of 155 new parks, including five new wilderness parks, encompassing more than two million hectares of protected habitat. A decade later, Ontario Nature, CPAWS-Wildlands League and World Wildlife Fund Canada formed the Partnership for Public Lands to advocate for the completion of the provincial parks system. The result? The Province created 378 new parks and conservation reserves (2.4 million hectares of habitat) in northern and central Ontario.

Number of parks in Ontario: 319

Total size of Ontario parks: 7.9 million hectares

Total visitors to Ontario Parks: 10.5 million annually

Best Place to …

See woodland caribou: Slate Islands Provincial Park

This park is believed to have the highest density of woodland caribou in the world due, in part, to the absence of predators.

See ancient aboriginal pictographs: Missinaibi Provincial Park

More than 100 pictographs can be seen at Fairy Point, located at the western end of Missinaibi Lake.

Hear a wolf howl: Algonquin Provincial Park

Every Thursday in August, park staff howl at the moon in an often successful attempt to entice a wolf pack to howl back.

See a lynx: Steel River Waterway Park

The northeast region of Lake Superior is a hot spot for the elusive cat.

See bald eagles and golden eagles: Quetico Provincial Park

Bald eagle sightings – and even the more atypical golden eagle sightings – are pretty much guaranteed around many of the lakes here, especially Quetico Lake.

Jim MacInnis

The Spanish River is situated in a transition zone between the boreal forest and the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Forest Region, resulting in habitat diversity and a range of animal and bird life. Along the riverbank, a keen eye may spot kingfisher nest-holes and river otter burrows distinguishable by the piles of freshwater clamshells that surround them. This is also a popular destination for fishing with its warm-water fish species such as northern pike, walleye and smallmouth bass in the river, brook trout in the lakes and swifts and muskellunge farther downstream.

Hawks, falcons and bald eagles, as well as barred, great horned and saw-whet owls, inhabit the forest. The species-rich territory includes northern ringneck snakes, painted turtles, snapping turtles and blue-spotted salamanders. The four-toed salamander, listed as rare in Ontario, has also been reported here.

The 35,386-hectare section of the Spanish River that stretches from Duke and Biscotasi lakes south to Agnew Lake was designated as a Waterway Provincial Park in 1997. While park status does much to protect the river’s ecological integrity, it fails to safeguard the Spanish from adjacent mining and logging activities or ongoing hydroelectric operations. Despite the much-anticipated review of the Parks Act in 2006, which cites ecological integrity as one of its main goals, the water in waterway parks is not protected in our province. But the greatest threat to the river may be overuse from too many visitors. A decade after the designation of the park, the delayed approval of a management plan, which would allow for caps on visitors and the introduction of entrance fees, means that the river is still not fully protected.

Dad and I have chosen the Spanish because it is popular among novice whitewater paddlers, as it contains gentle class 1 and class 2 rapids, interspersed with stretches of flat water that allow ideal breaks for instruction. In northern Ontario, the Spanish is also the fastest river available for whitewater paddling, with a drop rate of one metre per kilometre. Many paddlers choose the Spanish – easily accessible from southern Ontario – to travel the land that Grey Owl wrote about and paddle through one of the world’s largest white and red pine old-growth forests.

The Spanish River Waterway Provincial Park forms the core of the Spanish River Valley Signature Site, which also includes Biscotasi Lake Provincial Park and three Enhanced Management Areas, a designation that provides moderate protective measures. Although the preliminary management plan for the Spanish River Waterway Provincial Park was scheduled for release in 2006, the plan was delayed for a year, during which another round of public consultations will take place.

At present, Vicki Bradley, the park superintendent, and a staff of two monitor the river and surrounding park area. Says Jenny Martindale, co-owner of Sundog Outfitters, “I am always pleasantly surprised with how clean the Spanish usually is,” and she attributes this to the work of Bradley and her team. Once the management plan is approved, Bradley will take direction from it. Entry fees will allow the management team to put money back into the park, but due to the delays, Bradley does not expect to be able to begin collecting fees until 2008.

Paul Wilkinson, a professor of environmental studies at York University, says that the lack of a management plan is not uncommon. In a recent study of the planning status of protected areas in Ontario, Paul Wilkinson and Chris Wilkinson found that 257 out of 314 regulated provincial parks were merely “paper parks” – areas with no superintendent or management plan at all. The researchers point out that no additional funding or staff were provided to manage these new areas when the parks were designated under the provincial Lands for Life process more than 10 years ago. They also found that only 12 management plans had been approved in the span of five years; at this rate, they suggest, it could take up to 79 years to approve the remainder of the existing plans.