Jasper Fitzhugh: Celebrating Water

On Science


The Fitzhugh, January 10, 2013

By Niki Wilson


2013 is the International Year of Water Co-operation, as voted by the United Nations General Assembly. This designation aims to draw attention to countries that have committed to protecting freshwater resources, and to encourage them to start taking concrete actions to protect and share this increasingly valuable resource.

Access to freshwater, and its key role in healthy ecosystems, may be the biggest global issue in the decades to come. This idea is hard to absorb when you live in a place like Jasper National Park. Here, the Athabasca River rushes by, rising and subsiding with the seasons. One only needs to walk a short distance on the Pyramid Bench before encountering a small lake or slough teaming with birds, frogs and fish.

Problems in places less pristine than here are well documented, and I’ll leave it to your Googling fingers to sift through the bad news on your own. Instead, given the relatively clean watershed we live in, I thought it more appropriate to kick off the International Year of Water Co-operation by celebrating with a couple of things that are right in the aquatic world: Stories of life that thrives in local water bodies.

The first story is about the plentiful and varied dragonflies that turned out in the summer and fall of 2012, likely because of the generous amounts of rain bestowed on Western Canada the previous spring. The second is about the great migration of whitefish that takes place between the Athabasca River and surrounding lakes every fall.


2012: The Flight of the Dragon Flies

Last spring, the June monsoons resulted in a heck of a lot of standing water. Which led to hoards of mosquitoes. You would had to have been walking around in a Hazmat suit not to notice, and believe me I thought about it. I went from a Mom-against-DEET to practically making my son drink it. But the good thing about mosquitoes is that they are tasty eats for a host of other insects, fish and birds.

One predator that likes to chow on mosquitoes is the dragonfly. The larval, aquatic phase of dragonflies feed on mosquito larvae. Those of you who’ve seen these larval dragonflies know they can be kind of scary looking. They are slightly shorter than your pinky finger, with big buggy eyes, plump, segmented bodies and pointy things on their abdomens (or “butts,” as some kids I know would say).

But soon enough, between one to three years old, they transform into the colourful, aerial acrobats we see each summer. This past summer, however, the sheer numbers and diversity of dragonflies surpassed anything I’d seen in a decade. The result of several rainy springs and an increase in food (like mosquitos) has been documented province-wide as giving dragonfly populations a boost.

We had more of the usual suspects – the blue darners and hosts of bluets too. But others really stood out as not having been around for a while, at least in the numbers that appeared. For example, the big green and brown guys you were seeing at places like Lake Edith were the green variety of variable darners. There were also little red guys breeding on the Pyramid Bench near Two Sloughs – these are candied orange dragonflies. It was magical watching a cloud of them flitter back and forth in the late afternoon sun as they hunted those damn mosquitoes. It’s a nice image to conjure in the dark and cold of winter.


Variable Darner, Lake Edith, Jasper National Park. Photo Credit: Niki Wilson.

Variable Darner, Lake Edith, Jasper National Park. Photo Credit: Niki Wilson.






















The Great Mountain Whitefish Migration

Every fall, thousands of mountain whitefish migrate into Lac Beauvert from the Athabasca River, and never leave. This aquatic parade begins with the smallest of the species, gradually giving way to larger and larger fish until the great migration ends sometime in late October. You won’t see them during the day – they arrive under the cover of darkness in an attempt to avoid the keen eyes of osprey and eagle

They come from the Athabasca River, the spawning grounds of most mountain whitefish populations in the Athabasca watershed. According to Parks Canada Aquatic Biologist Ward Hughson, some fish come from as far as 900 kilometres down river to spawn in the mountain water they were born in.

Perhaps triggered by the warmer water emanating from the stream they follow, or perhaps following a desire to search out deeper water in the hopes they are less visible to predators, these fish wiggle their way up the shallow stream that is the outlet of Lac Beauvert.

With all these whitefish pouring in every fall, one would expect the waters of Lac Beauvert to be boiling with them.  In addition to the numbers that arrive, it’s likely some of them continue to spawn there throughout the years. However, it seems they are in high demand for predators including raptors, mink, and metre-long northern pike.  In other words, there’s a lot of animals getting fat on fish around there.

Dragonflies and mountain whitefish – these are summer stories to look forward to as we move into the latter part of our winter. Right now, dragonfly larvae lay burrowed in muddy soil of bogs and ponds. Mountain whitefish hover in the warmest strata of water near the bottom of lakes, beneath the ice. So adapted are they to these fresh water systems that they can survive the winter without much food, waiting for the warmth and light of spring to signal a new season, and a new cycle of life. Now that’s something to celebrate.