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What if your beach isn’t monitored? A lesson on sampling and creating change.
May 25, 2016

Leslie Cochran runs a small stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) school on the Grand River near Caledonia. For over a year, she’s been leading small groups of students through the placid waters of the Grand River, guiding them through lessons that combine culture, health, and history.

Leslie’s focus is as much to teach students how to SUP as it is to foster a connection to water. Through her students’ knowledge (who are mostly from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory), she’s been able to tune them into aspects of culture, history, and the environment. Exploring each of these topics, in turn, eventually led her to the Swim Guide.

The Chiefswood Reserve on the Grand River

How do you know when the water at a beach is clean?

A few months ago, Leslie contacted me to talk about the water quality on the Grand River. We spoke at length about her SUP school and agreed: her community and SUP group should know how to protect their health on the water.

When we got to talking about the water quality on the river, however, the knowledge was limited. Although we did have a few sites in Swim Guide somewhat close to the Chiefswood, there was a gap at the Reserve. No sampling was being done there. I didn’t know if the water was clean or not.

Leslie and I wrapped up our phone call with a promise to look into some information around the Grand River water quality. But with the lack of recreational water quality monitoring, I was unable to give her any more than hypotheses about the state of the water.

A month later, I heard from Leslie again. She was excited; she had secured a new job as the cultural coordinator at Chiefswood National Historic Site and was able to build in water quality education into the work she was doing. At its core, she felt her work was to combine traditional knowledge, culture, and understanding of local water quality.

“People here have a tremendous amount of respect for water because of their traditional knowledge of it, though very few people actually trust the water,” she said. Knowing that all good relationships are built on respect and trust, Leslie knew that if she couldn’t bridge the trust between her community and their watershed, they would never realize the fullest extent of the relationship they had with it. She saw a water sampling program as a first step towards creating a waterfront culture at Chiefswood.

I was quiet for a moment when she brought up the idea of a water sampling program. Her excitement was tangible and I immediately wanted to help her, but I had never helped an affiliate set up their own program – everyone we work with either relies on regional data collected by the local health authority or already has their own sampling program in place.

This was a dilemma, one that I hardly had the heart to share with Leslie. In Canada, it isn’t clear how you get a monitoring location added anywhere – this is true for all provinces, cities, and towns. But it’s equally unclear how one person in one location can set up their own system affordably. Setting up a lab can set an organization back several thousand dollars, a price tag that isn’t realistic for the majority of small organizations or community groups.

I brought the problem to Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s (LOW) Vice-President Krystyn Tully, not sure what I could expect. I mean, it wasn’t realistic to help one woman set up a sampling program for one site…right?

I was pleasantly surprised when Krystyn asked me to organize a site visit to Chiefswood. When I told Leslie, she was ecstatic. (I’m not sure I entirely hid my abject surprise and excitement, either).

Our first samples at Chiefswood

We arrived at Chiefswood in the late morning on a spectacular day in May. We pulled up the gravel driveway, and watched a young woman walk towards us from the historic house of E. Pauline Johnson, who had also been an avid paddler and advocate of outdoor pursuits for young women.

We exchanged hellos and Leslie led us on a tour through the historic site, painting the history with such vivid detail I could almost see the dinner parties, the children playing, and people from both the Six Nations and emerging neighbouring settlements walking through one of the two front doors.

After a walk and visit to a local restaurant for lunch, we returned to the river to collect a few samples. The riverside was dotted with oak and hemlock trees, many of which were just beginning to bloom. A group of young people from the community sat, fishing and basking in the sunshine on the opposite bank, their music drifting over the river to where we strolled.

We wandered onto the boat launch dock and mapped out where we’d take samples. Each of us took a few samples while Krystyn spoke through standard data collection protocol. We smiled in the sunshine and put our eyes up to the sampling containers to look at the mosquito larvae trapped inside. Eventually, we wandered back up the road to the car.

Looking at mosquito larvae in a water sample

As we drove away, my mind was filled with thoughts and questions. Our team talked about the difficulty of setting up water sampling programs in Canada, a challenge faced by individuals and community groups everywhere.

Leslie’s spot is just one such example, one opportunity we had to help someone learn, connect with, and eventually teach others about their watershed. For now, I’ll keep thinking about how we can bring these kinds of projects to people like Leslie everywhere.

We got our samples from Chiefswood, and the samples we took that sunny day in May were all positive: the water was clean, and bacterial presence was low. We’re working on getting Leslie’s spot on Swim Guide. In the meantime, anyone can take their boat out there and spend an afternoon on the quiet, peaceful waters of the Grand.

And if the photos don’t capture it – it’s awesome.

Tree next to the grand river


Civic Laboratory uses citizen science to combat microplastics
May 3, 2016

Plastic pollution has been found in every ocean in the world. It’s so widespread that plastic chemicals have been found in every human and animal body tested within the last decade. These tiny pieces of pollution, or microplastics, are the core of the world plastic problem. They account for 93 percent of the plastic in the ocean, and at sizes smaller than a grain of rice, we can barely see them, let alone study them.

Microplastics are at the heart of what Dr. Max Liboiron, Director of Civic Laboratory in Newfoundland, is studying. “When I got to Newfoundland, I wanted to know what the state of plastic pollution in the province was. But there was nothing – no data,” she says. “I started searching for microplastics myself – which I quickly learned you can’t really do in Newfoundland because they disappear between the rocks. It took me four months to find microplastics and I was looking hard.”

This isn’t surprising given the craggy shores of Eastern Canada, though it presents a seemingly unworkable problem: if we can’t see the pollution, how do we study it?

NL_beach plastic

Figure 1) Plastic pollution at Scotts Beach, Newfoundland.


IJC survey: Great Lakes citizens value the Great Lakes for drinking water, recreation and as treasured natural resource
April 14, 2016

This article has been modified from Mark Mattson’s post on Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s website April 14, 2016. 


Great Lakes NASA photo

We started Swim Guide because we believe that every person should be able to swim at any beach on any day of the summer and never have to worry about health risks. When water isn’t safe to touch, people withdraw from it. And when the connection between us and our water fades, so does our instinct to protect it.

Since its inception in 2011, Swim Guide has been helping its users discover great places to swim while at the same time helping protect their health by providing reliable information about beach water quality.

Today, we were reassured that Swim Guide is a necessary tool for the Great Lakes’ protection.


They Will Surf Again: SurfAble puts Canada on the Map for Adaptive Surfing
April 12, 2016

As Canadians, we are blessed to have beautiful, albeit cold surf on both coasts. For many people, next month marks the beginning of four months of uninterrupted summer surf.

For many – but not for all. Surfing represents perhaps one of the most extreme accessibility challenges for those with physical disabilities. In an unfortunate statistic, young males between the ages of the 19 and 25 that love extreme sports – exactly the people who anxiously await surfing season all year – are some of the most common to incur spinal cord injuries.

This is what Occupational Therapist Paula Green sees every day. Her job is to help her patients through physical rehab, a particularly difficult task with this extreme-sport-loving demographic.

“Many of the clients I work with are facing new traumatic injuries and I see them struggling with how they will move on and return to the fun and exciting activities that previously helped to define who they were as individuals,” says Green. “Showing them videos of Jesse Billauer surfing has been a great motivator for my clients.”

Billauer, a junior surfer one month away from going pro, was rendered a quadriplegic at the age of 17 after being pulled inside a barrel and thrown into a sandbar. With the help of the surf community, Billauer went on to become a motivational speaker, the founder of Life Rolls On, and World Champion for Adaptive Surfing.

Green’s work with spinal cord injuries, along with her experiences surfing in Australia (where she met her husband, also a surfer) and exposure to Billauer’s story, started a ripple in her life that turned into big waves. In 2014, Green helped to organize the first ever international event for Life Rolls On – They Will Surf Again Martinique Beach.  Spurred on by the success of this event, SurfAble, a Nova Scotia-based not-for-profit modeled after Life Rolls On, was formed four months ago, pioneering the movement for adaptive surfing in Canada.


No notifications, no information: Paddling with a floating condom
April 8, 2016

This article was first published by Ruby Pajares on Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s website on April 6, 2016. 

Last summer, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment decided that Toronto should notify the public of wet weather events. This will alert the public when recreational water quality is in question. But nearly eight months have passed. We’re less than three months away from the next swimming season. Torontonians are still waiting. If you happen to be one of Toronto’s many dedicated rec water users like Michael and Nadia Austin, you probably have a few concerns. Waterkeeper caught up with these two surfer-SUP’ers to discuss their recent experiences on the water.

Michael Austin - Condom floating in Lake Ontario

Paddling past a floating condom. (Photo by Michael Austin)


Originally from the Sunshine State, Michael moved to Toronto when he married Nadia. Coming from Florida’s sandy beaches, Michael had one condition. “I told Nadia, we have to live on the water.” Now they live by the Humber River and Humber Bay area, along the shores of Lake Ontario.

As avid surfers and stand-up paddleboarders, Michael and Nadia are in the water year-round. They praise the days in winter when the winds are howling and waves come crashing. When the water is calmer, they enjoy recreational paddles and race in the Ontario and Toronto SUP Series. Mike is currently training for the upcoming Niagara to Toronto raceacross Lake Ontario this September.

“To have Lake Ontario as my backyard and be able to do these things – hang out with like-minded people, do beach cleanups, paddle, whether it be for rec or racing – it’s so amazing,” said Michael.

But things aren’t perfect.