Lake with a Thousand Faces

Rex Weyler

I live on a lake with a thousand faces. Its personality changes not only day-to-day, but moment to moment, one minute menacing and dark, then ethereal with silver light dancing everywhere, and then solemn again, like glass, then lively with trout feeding at the surface.

Hague Lake, near the centre of southern Cortes Island, is connected by a small channel to the upstream Gunflint Lake. This spring, most residents living around Hague and Gunflint Lakes, experienced an extensive algae bloom with a very unpleasant smell and taste in the lake water. For days, no trout hit the surface. I had not witnessed this face before, and frankly, it frightened me. Hague Lake, rocks, reflection

Since I drink lake water, and live close by, and since my good friend and paramedic Ron Croda had lent me his high-powered medical microscope for community science classes, I decided to take samples and look at the tiniest creatures living in the lake.

Christian Gronau offered to help collect samples and identify the micro-organisms. Christian studied palaeontology and geology in Germany and is a seasoned naturalist and biologist, no amateur like me. He brought his specimen net, we launched my canoe, collected samples, and identified the organisms. We had great fun looking through the microscope, into water droplets, and finding the creatures living in our lake. It is quite a show.

If you have not yet done this, imagine: A fraction of a drop of water, pressed flat between two pieces of glass, and within this world, little bacteria, diatoms, and dinoflagellates swim around as if they are alien sea monsters in the mid-Pacific. Students drew pictures of these strange creatures, and Christian took photographs through his own microscope.

From what we saw, here is the upshot:

Our lake is safe to swim in, and the water is safe to drink, as far as I know, even when the taste was annoying. I drank it. However, algae blooms can kill lakes, so doing nothing probably isn’t smart. The algae bloom signals low-oxygen levels along with a nutrient load. The lake is at some risk to continued blooms.

My son says that, according to his Wilderness First Aid book, the first principle of responding to emergency is: Stay calm. This strikes me as sound advice.

Under the microscopes, we learned that the bloom was primarily Volvox algae, which is not toxic. That was a relief. However, Volvox algae blooms have been known elsewhere in Canada and around the world to virtually kill lakes or transform them into swamps. That would mean no more cutthroat trout.

In much lower numbers, we found a cyano-bacteria called Nostoc sp., which can be toxic to other organisms. A cyano-bacteria bloom on the scale of the Volvox bloom would likely kill other lake species and endanger human health.

rw blog, volvox algaeimage005On the left: Micro-photos by Christian Gronau: On the top are the Volvox, the primary bloom, and below, the spiraling strings of beads are the more toxic bacteria, Nostoc sp. The little box-like organisms in the lower-right are diatoms, non-toxic and fairly common in lakes.

Long-time residents report previous algae blooms. Biologists and lake ecologists advise lake watershed communities to monitor the frequency and extent of these algae blooms. Although Volvox algae is non-toxic, it depletes lake oxygen further, toward swamp or bog conditions. This is not uncommon and has happened throughout Canada, at St. Mary’s Lake on Saltspring Island in BC, on Lake Erie between Canada and the US, at Green Lake in Washington State, in Blue Lake and Fern Ridge Lake in Oregon, Lough Neagh in the UK, on Lake Taihu in Jiangsu China, where they have spent billions of Yuan restoring the lake, and so forth around the world: thousands of dead or swampy former lakes. The face of a lake could turn a snarling green.

Keep in mind: Nature doesn’t care. Nature loves all her children and loves a swamp as much as a trout lake. However, people care. I care. I like the trout, both alive in the lake, and occasionally with butter, lemon juice, and fried potatoes.

Long-standing farmer and rancher Ken Hansen used to clear the lake outflow, as I recall, in the 1980s and 90s, when he had horses and cattle on their farm. This practice helped the flow through the lake and will likely be a useful practice in the future.

The algae need certain conditions to grow; still water, warm temperatures, and food. They eat phosphates and nitrates, which can flow from any home, farm, or septic field in the watershed. Those of us living on the lake are likely feeding the algae nutrients from the natural drainage of water through our home sites.

The evidence from other lakes in Canada and around the world suggests that resident, farm, and ranch effluent flow are the most common sources of algae nutrients, primarily nitrates and phosphates. Fortunately, there are things we can do to reduce the flow of these nutrients.

Most of the actions suggested by water biologists are simple, no-brainer actions: Avoid phosphate soaps, avoid nitrate fertilizers (non-organic fertilizers), let manure age before spreading on gardens, have good working septic fields, maintain septic fields, keep animals as far from the lake as possible, isolate manure from the water flow, treat farm/ranch run-off, and so forth. Natural uptake of nutrients helps also, so lake residents would be wise to quickly replant any disturbed lakeshore land.

We can thank Pierre and Annica DeTrey and others, who were primary forces behind establishing Kwas Park that still protects a huge portion of the lakeshore.

I’m watching cutthroat hit the lake surface right now, as I’m writing this, and this gives me some comfort. During the algae blooms, I did not see the normal morning and evening trout feeding.

I have asked others, who know more about this than I do, for help. Rosie Barlak at the Ministry of Environment in Nanaimo has been helpful. Microbiologist Caleb Summers, now lives on the lake in the DeTrey house. One of his former instructors, Dr. Elaine Ingham, is an expert in these matters, and she has provided information and tips for our community. Also on Cortes, Christian Gronau and Sabina Leader Mense are knowledgeable and helpful. Lauren Miller, on Quadra, who wrote the Village Bay Lakes report, has useful experience.

Hague-Gunflint watershed mapSome residents have asked our local environment monitoring group, Friends of Cortes, to help find support from government agencies, and they have found potential support and lots of advice. The BC Park authorities, who operate the Hague Lake Park where residents and visitors go swimming every summer, have offered to work with residents to upgrade the park outhouse.

Leah Seltzer, at Friends of Cortes, has agreed to compile information and publish it for the community. David Shipway, an island ecology mapping expert, has created a Hague-Gunflint Watershed map. Many residents have offered to help.

The thing is: The history of similarly populated lakes shows that there is rarely a single or even primary source of nutrients into a lake. Here on Hague and Gunflint, my home, and every other home in the watershed, is a likely source of phosphates and nitrates. There is no single solution, as far as I can tell. The lake communities that have preserved their lakes do so by addressing all the sources of algae nutrients, which means all septic and grey water sources, animal sources, fertilizers, and so forth.

I feel a lot better, now that I know a little bit about what has happened and what to expect. This new face of the lake feels a little less fearsome, more like a warning, like the snarl one might get from a friend when one’s actions have hurt them. The lake seems to be saying: “Fine. You want to load me with nutrients. No problem. I’ll just feed these nice Volvox algae. How about a little cyanobacteria?”

Okay, I respond. Okay. I’ll check my septic field. I’ll make sure no phosphate cleaners enter my door. I’ll be better. I’ll change, I swear.

Now, the wind has picked up. The lake is all rippley and grey again. The trout have gone back to their cool holes. Show me! The lake seems to reply. Talk is cheap.