by Allan Britnell

For three decades aerial photographer Lou Wise has been snapping his unique photographs of southern Ontario’s manipulated, overrun and sometimes buried waterways.

Lou Wise first earned his pilot’s wings in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during the Second World War, and since that time has logged some 3,000 hours of flying time. But the 86-year-old is more than just an ace flyer. He is also an award-winning environmental photographer. Over the past 30 years, Wise has taken thousands of aerial photographs of Ontario’s wetlands and waterways for a number of environmental organizations, compiling an unprecedented bird’s-eye view archive of southern Ontario’s dwindling wilderness.

In 1939, Wise, then 18, signed up for the RCAF, but he did not earn his pilot’s wings until 1944, after repeated requests to be transferred from ground crew to air crew. After the war, says Wise, he “became a weekend pilot.”

Wise also worked for the Avro Aviation Limited as head of the film department, documenting the development of the Avro Arrow. Subsequently he took a job in the media resources department of the Toronto Board of Education.

But Wise continued to fly recreationally whenever he could until retiring in 1984, in large part to spend more time in the air. “There’s a very special feeling about flying, kind of a built-in desire to be airborne … to emulate the birds in a sense,” he says.

In 1980, conservationist Charles Sauriol, at the time a director at the Nature Conservancy of Canada, commissioned Wise to photograph Ontario’s waterways from the air. Since then, Wise has criss-crossed the province countless times in his single-engine Piper Cherokee, documenting the landscape from a thousand feet up on behalf of various conservation authorities and environmental groups. The images on these pages are just a small snapshot of Wise’s extensive aerial archive.

The Don River
Toronto’s Don River once flowed into marshland as it entered Ashbridges Bay, near the foot of present-day Coxwell Avenue. In the 1800s, city planners began a series of floodwater “improvements,” culminating in the river making a sharp right-angle turn into the stagnant, silt-filled Keating Channel just after passing under the Gardiner Expressway. Lou Wise says the Don possesses “the ugliest river mouth on Lake Ontario.” Thankfully, plans are underway to restore the lower Don to a more natural state. The Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation recently held a design competition to restore this area. The winner had not yet been announced when this issue went to press.

Lake Wilcox
Lake Wilcox, north of Richmond Hill, is the largest glacierformed kettle lake on the Oak Ridges Moraine. “It was a cottage community [during the war],” recalls Wise. “But gradually a lot of people turned their cottages into permanent homes.” More recently, modern housing developments have moved in around Lake Wilcox and smaller Lake St. George, seen near the top of this 2005 photo.

The Humber River
In 2004, Wise began documenting the Humber River and its 120 tributaries. This shot – showing the mouth of the Humber as it flows into Lake Ontario – is the first of nearly 2,000 he took for the series. In the foreground is a popular pedestrian bridge that crosses the river mouth and is part of Toronto’s lakefront Martin Goodman Trail. Less inviting are the circular pools at the top of the image: they are part of a 45-hectare sewage treatment facility at the river’s edge.

The Humber again
This image of a Humber river headwater tributary running through a more serene – not to mention pristine – pond near Mono Mills, Ont., “has always been one of my favourites. I had it as the wallpaper on my computer for a long time,” says Wise. He’s particularly fond of ponds, saying, “They’re very picturesque and lend a great deal of beauty to the countryside.”

The Nottawasaga river
Today, the banks of many Ontario rivers are bordered by golf courses surrounded by large estate homes, as seen in this shot of the Nottawasaga River as it flows through the 27-hole golf course of the Nottawasaga Inn Resort, just east of Alliston. The chemicals that are used to maintain the golf course’s brilliant green grass wash into and down the river.

Beaver creek
In 1999, while filming the Rouge River watershed – which meanders south from the Oak Ridges Moraine to the river’s mouth, a sandy Lake Ontario beach on the border between Scarborough and Pickering – Wise followed a small tributary, Beaver Creek, north to Richmond Hill. When he reached the location on his map that showed where the creek began, he took this photo. Any trace of the headwater had been buried under a new subdivision. Says Wise, “Another small stream has become a sewer.”

allan_britnellToronto-based writer Allan Britnell is a regular contributor to ON Nature who has hiked and biked in many of the areas Lou Wise has photographed.