A map of Lake Ontario, like one in an old geography textbook, might miss Cootes Paradise. Without detail it can seem this great lake runs dry at western shore of Burlington, about 50 kilometres from Toronto. Some more careful maps have it end in Hamilton Harbour. But no, Lake Ontario fades out in a little 320 hectare triangle of marshland called Cootes Paradise. It’s really a river delta, but a remarkable one. On either side over two dozen streams, the largest being Spencer Creek, flow over the Niagara escarpment and the shallow basin.
Once, those waters made this a hunting and fishing Mecca. Then its location at the head of the lake and some industrious canal work n the 1820s turned Cootes Paradise into a short-lived shipping lane. A century later it almost became an airport. It’s also been home to shantytown of “canal rats”, a ragtag community. Those homes, sometimes on stilts, clung to the marsh’s shores in the 1920s and 30s. Residents playing hockey on its frozen surface in the winter and sometimes hosted hobos from the railway that ran across the sandbar that separated it from Hamilton Harbour.
These days, though, the shantytown is long gone. So are much of the indigenous plants and waterfowl. They’ve been upstaged by voracious carp and relentless phragmites and manna grass. In a canoe, as the sun creeps to the horizon, you can see the trouble in paradise. In the murky marsh, carp jump and shimmer. A paddle shaft vanishes from sight two feet down. High water a couple of years ago submerged a barrier that was to keep the bullying bottom feeders out.
Now what was once so dense a marsh it was surveyed as land, is now open water. In 1941, when the environmental trouble from industrial and urban runoff was becoming obvious, the Royal Botanical Gardens was given stewardship of Cootes. It’s been a hard row to hoe for the environmental champion. Bad luck, climate change, urban expansion, oxygen-sucking algae have set the RBG’s plans of recovery by years.
But there is a hero in this story, the man who’s in charge of saving paradise. His name is Tys Thysmeyer, the head of natural lands for the Royal Botanical Gardens. I spoke with him about his work and his passion for saving a remarkable wetland.