At our cottage in Haliburton Highlands, Ontario, we collect drinking water from a nearby spring. The water is sweet, clear, refreshing and arises from one of Earth’s most ancient land masses.
I’m grateful for the work of local cattagers who maintain the spring. They have covered the main source to keep out dirt and fallen leaves. A plastic pipe brings the flow conveniently to a platform near the road. This year someone has replaced the old wooden trestle with a secure metal grate.
Whenever we go there, I enjoy reading a simple poem someone nailed to tree years ago.
Its fading blue typeface reminds me of the transience of human life—all our pleasure, tragedy, and quest for meaning—overtop a geological history lasting billions of years.
Standing on this trestle
While water fills my vessel
I contemplate with wonder
The water source that’s under
How deep, how wide, how far around
The crystal sea that’s underground
Sustaining life, nourishing health
Praise be given for such wealth
The municipality has also posted a sign, far more prosaic.
The spring arises near the roadside leading to a secluded region of seasonal properties not far from Algonquin Provincial Park’s southwest border. Nearby, ambitious canoeists can penetrate one of the park’s backwoods access points via Dividing Lake Provincial Nature Reserve. A few rare old growth white pines are reported to dot the forest there, though one of their stands was destroyed by a tornado about 20 years ago.
My father and I once hiked the requisite portage from Kimball Lake to Rockaway Lake. It’s 2.7 kilometres long and ascends at least 70 metres. We scrambled through soggy wetland and slippery crevices. I couldn’t imagine carrying a canoe and a week’s supplies, at least not in this body and lifetime.
Haliburton is less famous and more laid-back than adjoining Muskoka, both part of Ontario’s cottage country. In Ontario, Adirondack Chairs are called Muskoka Chairs. Haliburton and the Kawarthas got overlooked along with all the wilderness further north.
Popularly called Haliburton Highlands, this is one of the highest points on the Canadian Shield in Ontario. In researching this, I discovered it was named after Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a Nova Scotia politician in the 19th Century, international best-selling author, and a founder of North American humour. I’d never heard of him before.
Geographically it is part of the Laurentian Uplands of Southern Quebec and Central Ontario. This formation extends into parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York, where it is known as the Superior Upland. Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains and New York’s Adirondacks belong to it. These rocks were formed about 2.5 billion years ago.
They collided with some even older land masses up to 4.2 billion years old. The resulting Canadian Shield covers most of Ontario, Quebec and Labrador, northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, all of the Canadian Arctic, and Greenland. It once contained mountains higher than any on Earth today, but they have been worn down by erosion.
Glaciation during the past few million years has shaped the landscape existing today: more rolling than mountainous, with thin topsoil. Thousands of small lakes and rivers dot the Canadian Shield. Young watersheds still haven’t sorted themselves out. Bogs are common, known in many parts of Canada by the Cree word, muskeg. Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven painters made this scenery more familiar to the world. Muskoka and Haliburton Counties are famous for low cliffs of pink granite emerging from serene lakes.
Although the Shield has supported important logging and mining industries, it has resisted agriculture and urban development. For this reason Canada, the world’s second largest country by area next to Russia, has the second lowest population density next to Australia. Most Canadians live in fertile regions south of the shield.
Canada famously contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, largely due to lakes and rivers on the Canadian Shield. However, the majority of this is fossil water in lakes, glaciers and underground aquifers that can’t be renewed.
In fact, Canada contains only 7 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water resources. About half of that flows north across the Canadian Shield to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. It is inaccessible to the vast majority of Canadians living along the southern border.
Our cottage is located on Fletcher Lake, one of more than 2,000 lakes in the Muskoka River watershed, which flows southwest from Algonquin Provincial Park to Georgian Bay, part of Lake Huron and the Great Lakes. This watershed area features relatively moderate summer temperatures and high precipitation, nearly 1,000 millimetres per year. Vacationers come to Muskoka and Haliburton to escape the sweaty heat of Southern Ontario.
And they come for the water. Especially the water. Personally, I go there also for the solitude, wildlife and plant life, but I’m a reclusive botany geek. Even to me, cottage life wouldn’t be the same without that clean, sweet water, a delight for swimming. Fletcher Lake is probably spring fed, perhaps from the same fossil aquifer feeding the nearby fount where we draw our drinking water.
I don’t think I take this water for granted. I’m always grateful. On the other hand, I assume the spring and our lake are too far from anywhere, that no one will ever come demanding our water.
The Ontario government recently raised the fee for bottled water companies from $3.71 to $503.71 per million litres of water they extract from natural resources. However, critics doubt it will deter Nestlé Waters from mining an aquifer near Guelph. They argue that clean water must be protected as a human right, belonging to the commons. It should not be privately owned or commercially exploited.
The flow of water never fluctuates from that pipe someone has kindly set up by the spring. It will probably keep flowing as long as I live, but no one can tell. I doubt anybody even knows where it comes from.
Rights come with responsibilities, as demonstrated by invisible caretakers who graciously share this spring. A right is actually a privilege until we lose it.