The Phenology of The Little Rouge River and Woodland

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Old sugar maple tree on banks of Little Rouge River

I’ve been visiting the Little Rouge River since spring of 2018, when I discovered this little-known woodland—in truth, part of the largest urban park in Canada (The Rouge River Park) and nestled within one of the few remaining Carolinian forests: a diverse mix of willow-Manitoba maple- cedar bottomland, with red oak-hemlock-white cedar slopes and hemlock-white pine-sugar maple-beech-black cherry-red oak tableland.

 

Here, on the Little Rouge, Nature sighs with a wild wind…

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Looking up an ash tree

A walk along the Little Rouge River enchants. Each time I make a small discovery that surprises, enlightens and delights me. Each time I visit the Little Rouge, I learn something; whether it is a unique strategy of some small plant or it is something about myself.

I normally take the lesser-used path right along the river and explore the immediate shores as the river winds its way through the remnant Carolinian woodland of oak, maple, beech, birch, hemlock, pine and cedar. This involves abandoning the path and immersing myself in this little wilderness to scramble through wet marsh and hummocks, slide along loose cobble and splash through ankle-deep water, negotiate gnarly shrubs such as red osier dogwood and Manitoba maple, and brush through Rough Cockleburr (Xanthium strumarium) that hitches a ride on my coat and pants. Each engagement immerses me more in Nature. And I am glad.

Spring on the Little Rouge

When I enter the cool forest of cedar, pine, maple and beech, chipmunks scatter and scold me for interrupting their calm. I chuckle and think that I’ve seen more within the space of one minute here than I have in a year in the Toronto suburb I currently live in.

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Root entangled cedar trees

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Red trillium

The path leads me through a network of snaking roots beneath the pungent smell of pine, cedar, hemlock and oak. As I pick my way through the intertwining roots, I draw in a medicinal breath and nurse the aromatic shade of this cathedral. Science tells me that all the trees of a forest are really one organism—connected by roots and the microorganisms inhabiting them—communicating through the micorrhyzae in the ground and the hundreds of aerosols the trees exhale every second of every day. If you sit long enough in the forest you will start to feel this too. You will breathe it in. And in doing so, you will realize that we are all connected and we are all one.

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Trout Lily

I make my way toward the banks where beech and maple bow like lords over the water—their queen. I spot the occasional ironwood, balsam poplar, oak, white ash and basswood, contributing their voices to the forest community of multi-timbral sound.

The complex smell of the forest and the sight of its floor awakening with spring flowers tugs me back to childhood. Every spring and summer, I used to follow my older brother and sister to our nearby woodland and local stream in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. We stirred soil, flower petals, moss and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions.” I spent a lot of my childhood days in the forest, close to the ground. Observing, poking, catching, prodding, destroying and creating.

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Blood root

Beneath the cool overstory of beech-maple-oak and hemlock, a colourful understory thrusts up through the litter and loam. Trillium. Blood root. Solomon’s seal. Trout Lily and Ostrich fern. All friends from childhood. Within weeks they will form a thick living carpet of mottled green, brown, yellow and white. A tiny forest of its own and foraging shelter for squirrels, chipmunks, voles, slugs, insects and fungi.

As I peer at the living mosaic, I spot a familiar friend I’ve not seen in a while: Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). They are all over the forest floor, pushing up in profusion, their large hooded and striped flowers appearing in shades of green, greenish-white and purple. The flower features a pouch-shaped spathe (“pulpit”) and fingerlike central spadix (“jack”), which give the plant its common name. This rather bizarre looking plant is even more bizarre in behaviour.

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Jack-in-the-Pulpit

I meet a nature photographer on the path and we get to talking about the spring flowers. He tells me a wonderful story about this strange bryophyte: the young Jack-in-the-Pulpit plant first emerges as a male plant from a vegetative cormlet, putting out male flowers, which produce pollen. As it grows, the plant switches sex and the larger spadix puts out female flowers, which can then produce seeds and a cluster of berries. A more nutrient rich soil or brighter area accelerates the growth and shortens the transition from male to female. But, if conditions grow difficult from lack of nutrients or stress from drought, the female plant reverts back to being a male plant. This cycle—called sequential hermaphroditism—ensures that the plant is strong enough to reproduce and produce healthy seeds. Jack is patient and wise. And a shapeshifter.

 

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Little Rouge River

The Little Rouge River calls me to sit and listen to its flowing song—a joyful playful symphony of breaths, chortles, cackles and open-throated froth. I scramble down the overhang to the cobbles and rocks. I sit. And still my breath. I find my whole body relax from the tension of the suburban drive. I am home, sighing with a rhythm I’d forgotten. Realigning. Bones with rock. Rock with twig. Twig with root.

The animals no longer scold me. They have resumed their natural rhythm, as I merge into scenery. I notice the huge sugar maple tree above me on the bank overhang. The bank is a tangle of roots; I’d used some of them as steps to get down. They wind a braided network, thick snakes that hold the bank in place. A mysterious never-ending Ouroborous. I’m home…

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Cedar trees and intertwined roots

Fall on the Little Rouge

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Beech stand with hemlock / cedar background

It’s a half-hour drive to this woodland from where I am currently cat-sitting. The drive is mostly through suburbia until I emerge into open country and farmland. The park entrance lies off a small road with no obvious sign. I park the car and see that I’m the only one there. I make my way to the path alongside the river, noting several older maples, oaks and white willows (Salix alba) along the forest edge. The wind has shaken all the willow’s yellowed lanceolate leaves onto the ground; One tall many-branched tree stands with deeply furrowed shaggy bark that looks like interlocking ropes; watersprouts spring out of the lower trunk in typical fashion.

The forest is now a mix of earthy colour. Most of the deciduous trees have stripped off their leaves in a revealing show of textured grays, gray-browns and blacks.

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Deeply furrowed bark of White Willow

The bare trunks and fractal branches contrast with the deep greens of the conifers. Rogue trees—like the oak and beech—still claim their leaves, adding deep russet tones to the varigated grays and deep greens of the canopy. The forest is now more open, emerging with ancient magnificence from a soft brown carpet on the ground.

The air is fresh with the scent of loam, decaying leaves and saprophyte activity. I have the whole place to myself—that is, along with scampering squirrels, tapping woodpeckers, chirping birds and the like.

I am looking for the old sugar maple (Acer saccharum) I’d spent time with this past spring. After several bends in the river, I see it, leaning precipitously over the river bank like an old man sharing an intimate story. It has already lost its leaves; they cover the ground in a soft carpet. The old tree literally hugs the bank with its roots; like a carved figurehead hugs the prow of a great tall ship.

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Burl on my old maple

Eager to see my old friend up close, I scramble down the overhanging bank using the maple’s root “stairway,” then ungracefully drop onto the cobbles below. I do a scrambling dance not to slide into the river (that will come later) and gaze at my prize.

My shaggy gnarly old sugar maple is a splendid tree. Every part of it is splendid. I gaze up at its shaggy trunk, stretched up in a long bow, with typical silhouette of branching out arms that every Canadian kid drew when they were six. I gaze down at the horizontal roots that stretch out to hug the bank. They stitch the bank together with their tangle of ropes, keeping it intact.

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Old cedar with woodpecker holes

 

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Old sugar maple and extensive root system

I rest my soul here and eat my lunch. Feeling the need to get to the other side of my maple, I do a kind of contortion to scramble beneath its bow and get around it. I stumble through the loose cobble and finally splash into the river as the cobble rolls out from under me. But I cheer myself; I’ve reached the other side of my tree. From this vantage, I note several large burls at breast height on the maple’s trunk and extensive aerial roots. Dead branches drop off healthy trees all the time, and wood knots appear in the trunk and roots where branches have died. These burls are the result of self-pruning—particularly on the river-side—when the tree drops its lower branches as it reaches maturity.

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Fungus and moss growing on a tree

Refreshed and joyful after visiting my maple, I scramble up the bank and resume my walk through the woodland. I pass an open stand of beeches that have left a thick monopoly of beech leaves on the ground. There are more maples and red and white oaks—their splendid overall forms proudly revealed. I spot other trees and shrubs and try to identify each using the tools now presented to me: the bark of the tree trunk; the overall form of the tree; the now visible branches (whether they are oppositely or alternately branched); the clues left on the ground in the litter of leaves, nuts and seeds.

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Yellow birch in foreground with cedar trees behind

The trunk of the Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) peel off in curls of amber-gray. I remember my botany professor at Concordia demonstrating that if you scrape a twig with your finger nail, the twig emits a strong wintergreen scent.

The bark of a mature Ash (Fraxinus sp.) is tightly woven in a distinct pattern of diamond-shaped ridges. The ash tree, like the maple, also branches in pairs, not alternately. There are, in fact, few tree groups that show an opposite branching pattern like the ash and the maple.

 

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Icing over main channel of the Little Rouge showing thalweg in foreground

Winter on the Little Rouge

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Shallow pool icing over

I discovered a wonderful way to negotiate a kinder way to my Little Rouge sanctuary: instead of driving through miles of sterile suburbia, I take the highway then drive along a forested windy road through the Rouge Park that includes a one-lane mesh bridge. Again I am the only human in the Little Rouge park and I enjoy my solitude with Nature.

I take a less worn path alongside the river, which ends in wild marsh where I walk through water and ice and unknowingly capture many burr passengers on my wool coat. Ice has formed in the quieter parts. Its first appearance in the ponds is as a murky slurry; microscopic hexagonal crystals were formed and aggregated. At the shore, the ice is already a solid sheet, trapping organic debris. Dead leaves and branches lie embedded, like cryogenic candidates, waiting for a more hospitable time to emerge. The ice creates patterns in the quiet shallows in the shape of leaves, seeds and sticks caught in its icy web.

The main river channel is also icing over.

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Large ice boulders create added turbulence in the channel

Giant ice blocks settle over existing rocks in the main channel. Acting as boulders, they create additional turbulence, eddies and wakes in churning blue-green water. In some parts of the river, more ice aggregates around these “seed” boulders, forming a floating ice archipelago.

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Bubbles forming under ice

The thalweg—the deepest and fastest part of the river—remains open. It cuts a winding channel of dark water. From 19th century German that means valley (thal) way (weg), the thalweg is the line that connects the lowest points of successive cross-sections along the course of a river. Disputed river borders are often designated along a river’s thalweg.

I wander through bramble and brush, finding mats of bright moss growing on the crooks of shrub branches. The recent snow has provided the moss with moisture to grow, despite the cold temperatures. Mosses lack true conducting tissues; they must absorb water directly through the stem and leaves. Mosses alternate generations in a two-phase life cycle.

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Winter moss clings to a lichen-encrusted shrub branch

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Moss life-cycle

The dominant phase is the gametophyte (haploid) phase—the typical green moss plant that most of us see. The gametophyte consists of rhizoids that attach it to a substrate, a simple or branched stem, and small leaves (mostly one cell thick). When there is enough moisture, the male and female gametes produce the short-lived second phase, the sporophyte. The sporophyte “foot” embeds into the gametophyte and forms a stalk and capsule filled with spores. When the spores mature, the stalk bends and a tiny lid opens to release the diploid spores in the wind. Mosses also reproduce asexually (by groups of cells called gemmae or deciduous shoots called bulbils) or by fragmentation (e.g. breaking off of almost any plant part, which then grows into a new plant).

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My old maple bows over icing Little Rouge

I eat my orange beside my favourite maple tree and listen to the trees creak in the wind. Occasionally an ash or poplar will clank against another. The water is a constant rustle and trickle. In the quiet solitude of this non-human community, my soul inhales deeply. I breathe in Nature’s graceful and calming songs…

In a few months it will be spring again, when hibernating life stirs and emerges in shades of splendid greens. Diaphanous. Fluorescent. Fresh with new life. When the river roars with meltwater making its way to the lake.

My old sugar maple will go into bud then tiny leaves will spring from them, bursting with chlrorophyll that actively captures light from the spring sun. Flowers will form in panicles of five to 10, yellow-green and without petals. Clusters of helicopter seeds (samaras) will then form. The old tree, with its spread-out roots and vaulting branches, clothed in gossamer green, will sing its song as sap will flow joyfully up its massive trunk.

And I will rejoice in it.

 

 

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Winter on the Little Rouge River

Phenology is the study of “appearance” of entire ecosystems over the seasons. The word phenology comes from the Greek words phaino (to show or appear) and logos (to study). Scientists who study phenology—phenologists—are interested in the timing of specific biological events (such as [but not limited to] flowering, migration, and reproduction) in relation to changes in season and climate. Seasonal and climatic changes are some of the non-living or abiotic components of the environment that impact the living or biotic components. Seasonal changes include variations in day length, temperature, and rain or snowfall. Phenologists use what they learn about abiotic factors to elucidate how plants and animals respond. My phenological study focuses on how my stream changes, ices over, changes its flow and clarity with seasonal factors; how it reveals various aspects of its morphology such as its thalweg, and how these, in turn affect the biota. My phenology of the Little Rouge woodland included a seasonal study of my old maple: its budding in the spring, growth in the summer and dropping its leaves sooner than its surrounding oaks and beeches in the fall. I looked at what drops into the stream, how the ground changes, freezes over, locking the nuts and dropped cigarette butts in place…

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Map of Rouge and Little Rouge Watershed

About the Little Rouge River Park: A site on the Internet claims that the park has been untouched by development since the arrival of Europeans; however, I have seen evidence of logging and development throughout and the locals I meet in the park confirm this. Along with the housing development encroaching its southeast boundaries, the park is currently surrounded by agricultural land—some of it continuing inside the park. Little Rouge Park remains a gem of ecosystem health despite the history of human interference. I learn that, unlike other rivers in the Toronto area, the Rouge is allowed to fill its entire flood plain on a regular basis rather than being forced through an artificial channel. The result is, of course, an ecosystem that can behave like it is meant to behave, providing a home to a diversity of life.

The Rouge River watershed is home to 1,700 species of animals and plants; more than 20 are classified as species at risk.

Once blanketed in Carolinian forest, southern Ontario retains just 15 percent of the highly biodiverse Carolinian land it once did. “Fly across southern Ontario today and the occasional woodlot or tree line along a stream are about all that remain of the Carolinian ecosystem,” wrote author Chris Wood on the vanishing ecozone for The Tyee. The scraps of marginal forest remaining are so fragmented and miniscule they’re almost useless, writes Reeves. It wasn’t until 1984 that the Rouge Valley was formally recognized as a critical slice of Carolinian forest. Today, Rouge Park remains, next to Point Pelee National Park, one of the largest intact Carolinian zones left in Canada.

In 2018, the TRCA gave the Rouge River watershed an overall ‘C’ grade for surface water quality, the same as the previous report card in 2013. The Little Rouge also received a ‘C’ grade. This was based on concentrations of phosphorus (from agricultural runoff), presence of bacteria, and urban runoff contaminants, as well as the kind and abundance of benthic invertebrates found in 24 stations throughout the watershed. Chloride concentrations—though not part of the grade—were high throughout the watershed, including the Little Rouge River, where concentrations at times came close to exceeding the guideline of 120 mg/L. Chloride typically comes from road salt and can harm many aquatic life forms, particularly the benthic invertebrates, which are food for fish.

 

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

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