Monday, March 14, 2016

A bee in my bonnet

My wife likes to tell me I have a bee in my bonnet. In fact, sometimes I have a whole hive buzzin' about in there. I sit at my computer, coffee in hand, heart held in check by my ICD-pacemaker, and I tap out page after page addressing whatever is distressing me at the moment. Today, it's the Thames River.

Years ago I wrote a weekly column for The London Free Press called Celebrate the Thames. I put a lot of myself into that column. For instance, there was a little boy that my wife and I often cared for at the time and he and I explored the Thames River system together, often by canoe. We traveled from the source, near Tavistock, to the mouth where the river empties into Lake St. Clair. We covered literally thousands of kilometers in the year and a half that I wrote that column. Much of the investigative work was done on my own time. I mixed business with pleasure.

Following UTRCA directions, we drove over the Thames River near Tavistock.

Today all that work is forgotten. When Randy Richmond, the paper's present Thames River expert, writes a piece on the river, I shake my head in disbelief. He is making many of the same mistakes I made all those years ago.
Map of North Thames River is from the GNBC Website.
Like Randy, I got sucked into the what-is-the-correct name for the Thames River and its tributaries confusion. I watch as Randy drowns in the same flood of different monikers.

I wish I could throw him a lifeline but as a reporter, a professional journalist, he is unapproachable. I've learned that reporters do not handle criticism well. They perceive criticism as an attack on their skills as journalists.

The problem that sunk both Randy and me is that the Thames River and its main tributary sometimes have the same name depending upon the map. Unless one has an excellent editor checking accuracy and consistency, errors creep in.

Some maps show Fanshawe Dam on the North Branch of the Thames River, others label the same river the north branch of the Thames River and others simply call the river the North Branch. The river flowing into London from the north is rarely labeled the North Thames River but that is its actual name. If you don't believe it, check the Geographical Names Board of Canada site.

In Canada, since 1897, names on official, federal government maps have been authorized through a national committee, now known as the Geographical Names Board of Canada (GNBC). 

The need for a Canadian names authority was recognized in the late 1800s, when resource mapping beyond the frontiers of settlement and extensive immigration made it an urgent matter to manage the country's geographical names - to standardize their spelling and their application.

I first learned that there was a lot of confusion surrounding the name of London's river and its main tributary from readers of my column. These folk were keen on local history and wanted to clean up all the confusion surrounding the name of the local river. My sloppy river naming was driving these folk crazy. (I imagine they were surprised and disappointed when a respected, investigative journalist stepped in and stumbled just as the photographer-playing-journalist had.)

Note: the Thames River reaches Tavistock and beyond.
The river with the flood-controlling Fanshawe Dam is the North Thames River. The river flowing into the Forks of the Thames from Woodstock is the Thames River. Pittock Dam is located on the Thames River. There is no south branch of the Thames River. That is a misnomer for the Thames River itself.

If only Randy would think for a moment about what he is writing, he would realize that if there were two branches merging at the forks and no Thames River upstream from London in either direction, then the Thames River according to this logic springs to life at the Forks of the Thames.

This, of course, doesn't mesh with the  John Graves Simcoe stories of the mighty Thames River flowing east possibly as far as the highlands north of Toronto. After arriving in Canada, and viewing the river firsthand, JGS realized the Thames was not so mighty after all but he still saw it as flowing east to Woodstock.

As for Randy's claim that the Thames River starts as a drainage pipe, that is a bit of a stretch but not as big a one as the folk at UTRCA would like. Way back when my little buddy and I traveled all the way to the source of the Thames River we walked along the narrowing river until we reached water-logged ground. We stood with our feet wet in the boggy wetlands that are the source of the Thames River. Later I took a picture of the young boy straddling the creek that would quickly expand to become the Thames River.

Near the Ellice Swamp, the source of the Thames, the river is but a big creek.

I understand that there are signs of drainage activities in the lands surrounding and in the headwaters of both the Thames River and the North Thames River. This should come as no surprise as historically wetlands just seem to beg to be drained and turned into farmland.

For me the constantly shrinking drainage activity in these wetlands areas symbolizes our awakening understanding of the value of wetlands. UTRCA recognized the importance of Ellice Swamp near Tavistock almost 70 years ago when the conservation authority began purchasing property there in 1948. Over the intervening years, the swamp has been declared a Provincially Significant Wetland (PSW) and is recognize as one of the largest natural areas in south-central Ontario.

It was Randy-the-award-winning-writer who wrote the south branch of the Thames River starts as a drainage pipe and the north starts as a wetlands and came to the conclusion that "one source (is) symbolic of human management and one source symbolic of nature." Writers love a good dichotomy.

A more boring reporter might simply say that both are symbolic of human management and good human management at that. Take a bow UTRCA.

Both the Thames River and the North Thames River have their origins in what remains of their respective historic wetlands and not the remnants of drainage canals, drainage pipes and tiling. And I didn't come by this belief from just looking at a map. Back when I was writing Celebrate the Thames, it took almost an hour's drive, a canoe and a soggy hike to find and become intimately familiar with the source of the Thames.

The Plan for Mill River Park
In the coming days, I am going to try and find the time to examine another false dichotomy that The London Free Press is pushing: human needs versus environmental concerns. The paper pits "human enjoyment of the river" against the goals of environmentalists. The two goals are intertwined.

Randy makes reference to the worldwide movement that finds more and more people viewing dams as environmentally damaging. He, in my estimation, needlessly adds that these people also view dams as "tributes to human arrogance." In a lot of cases, this is simply not true. Many of those dams served a purpose at one time and many do not dispute this. But times change.

The Free Press fails to report in depth what is being done in other communities worldwide. There are increasing numbers of cities removing dams and being hailed for the move by a majority of residents from the young to the old, from millennials to baby boomers.

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