9 easy ways to get a beautiful shoreline and a healthy lake

Natural-shoreline-Sunset-and-pines-at-Lake-of-Two-Rivers-Algonquin-Park-Ontario Photo by Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock

In the fifth episode from Season 2 of The Cottage Life Podcast, Dan Kraus, a Senior Conservation Biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, explains how cottagers can protect their lakes through the restoration of their shorelines. Listen below or find more episodes here.

Over her 24 years on Christina Lake, in the Boundary Region of B.C., Brenda LaCroix has seen a growing footprint on the beautiful waterbody—“bigger buildings, boats, and lawns,” all culminating in a bigger impact on the natural, vibrant shoreline. But as stewardship manager for the lake, she is a cheerleader for better change. A healthy shore “not only benefits myriad wildlife,” she says, “but us as well—through erosion control, water quality, species diversity, and the intrinsic feeling you get from living a lifestyle on a lake the way it is supposed to be. Most people know this, but need some reminding from time to time.”

For cottagers who need reminding, and those who may need convincing, here are nine dos and don’ts for keeping a thriving shoreline or restoring one to health. When you allow it to function as nature intended, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what it gives you in return.

1. DO Less Work

If you’re lucky enough to have a natural shore, unaltered by manicuring, clear-cutting, or concrete barriers, love it and leave it alone. Instead of using your precious cottage time to “tidy up” the water’s edge, you can loll in the hammock, enjoying the blessings that come from being hands off. That strip of native plants, shrubs, and trees with their extensive root systems forms a “green wall” of protection for cottage properties, says Dan Kraus, a conservation biologist for the Nature Conservancy of Canada. “It buffers erosive forces coming from the lake, such as waves and boat wakes, and prevents runoff from carrying nutrients and sediments into the water.”

A healthy shore is not only a friend to cottagers, but countless wild species, adds Heather Murphy, the manager of the Love Your Lake program, a partnership between Watersheds Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Federation. Up to 90 per cent of all lake and river life is born, raised, and fed within the shallows and first 10 to 15 metres of shore. “All of that space is critical for wildlife to thrive.” It’s home for painted turtles and bullfrogs, a frequent haunt for waterloving mammals, such as mink, a nursery for young pike and bass, and a foraging haven for mallards and goldeneye. For cottager Sherry Cox, also on Christina Lake, watching creatures amid so much natural beauty is the payoff for having a pristine shore. Her thicket of thimbleberry, ferns, and cottonwoods “takes no maintenance, just a little pruning. We let it be what it wants to be.” 

2. DO Learn to Value What’s There

“I’ve seen people dig up what they think are weeds along their shore, then go to the local nursery to buy the same wildflowers they got rid of,” says Rick Keevil, a geologist and shoreline rehabilitator on Lake Vernon in Muskoka, Ont., where he also cottages. He uses a variety of native plantings in his work, from willow to Labrador tea, species you can learn to identify by getting help from your lake association’s environmental committee or a local naturalist. Kraus recommends iNaturalist, an app that can take a picture of a plant or animal and then help you ID it. Simply putting a name to a “weed” can change perceptions. Sweet gale, for instance, a common shore shrub, smells wonderful and repels biting insects—what’s not to like? “We seem to prefer plants and trees once we know their unique stories,” says Kraus. “They give your cottage country its identity.”

3. DO Minimize Your Mowing

Okay, we know lawns can be a touchy topic with both fans and foes of cottage turf. As the president of the Eagle Lake Conservation Association, in North Bay, Ont., Michael Mitchell isn’t thrilled that “the lake’s biggest problem is the lack of natural vegetation,” thanks to manicured lawns running right to the shore. While clean-looking (to some) and great for sports, close-cropped, shallow-rooted grass is essentially ornamental and a hard surface that gives contaminants such as fertilizers and pesticides an easy ride into the water.

Happily, there is a compromise for those who want to keep some lawn and reduce runoff: create a “no-mow zone” at the shore, says Watersheds Canada’s Heather Murphy, which “allows grass to get a little taller and native seeds to take root.” Your NMZ can be as big or as small as you like, although the farther back it extends from the shore, the more effective its absorbency (it can include a path to access the water). As part of a substantial restoration of his eroded waterfront on Wabamun Lake, Alta., Kelly Aldridge stopped mowing six to eight metres of his large lawn, which he’d had for years, unaware of its impact. After he joined his local stewardship group, however, he discovered “what I was doing was no good for the lake’s health.”

When persuading cottagers to shrink or to give up their barbered lawns, Meaghan McDonald, the lake-planningshoreline stewardship coordinator for the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, in Manotick, Ont., says those lawns are no match for climate change. “A natural shoreline withstands flooding and large rain events. You can have that lawn, but it will come at a cost to your property.”

4. DO Recreate a “Living” Shore

Perhaps you have a cottage that came with an altered shoreline, or maybe, like Kelly Aldridge, you did the altering without realizing the repercussions. In many cases, all you have to do is stop clearing vegetation and removing deadfall from the shallows for a shoreline to slowly repair itself. But you can lend a hand by planting a buffer of native species from water’s edge to drier land. Through the North Bay–Mattawa Conservation Authority’s Restore Your Shore program, which provides a site assessment, plans, plants, and planting crews for free, Paul Girard of Wasi Lake, Ont., reinforced his shoreline with bush honeysuckle, red oak, wild rose, and others. “It’s nice-looking and complementary to the cottage,” he says, “and it’s future insurance for the lake.” Other CAs in Ontario offer similar planting programs, with cottagers paying 25 per cent of the overall cost, as does Watersheds Canada, which covers Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. And there are more like-minded partnerships across the country, between lake associations, government agencies, and environmental organizations.

For cottagers on marine coasts, confronted with oceanic erosive forces, there are no easy answers. The best is a natural shoreline left totally alone to do its buffering work, says Brian Emmett, a Victoria marine biologist and a co-founder of Green Shores, a shoreline protection program initiated by the Stewardship Centre for B.C. Where vegetation and beaches have been removed, the next best remedy to defend against erosion is “beach enhancement,” he explains. Often requiring the aid of professionals, the idea is to cut back into the upland to make a longer, more gradual slope, built up with native plants, gravel, and sand, so waves have farther to travel to dissipate energy.

On tiny Killenbeck Lake, Ont., big waves and wind aren’t an issue. However, Mike Jackson wasn’t happy with the grass he inherited on his waterfront, so he enlisted the aid of Watersheds Canada, whose restoration plan included a wide path to the lake and a 12-metre deep buffer of 140 native plants. “It has been fantastic,” he says. “We’ve seen a significant increase in small mammals, frogs, and snakes, and more beneficial aquatic plants such as waterlilies. And this year, there was lots of flooding, but while our neighbours saw noticeable erosion, our shoreline wasn’t impacted.” He urges others to convert. “You can easily work hand in hand with nature.”

5. DON’T Harden Your Shoreline

“In the past, retaining walls were sought to combat erosion,” says Heather Murphy. “Cottagers thought, It’s tough, it’s going to hold my shoreline together. But over the years we’ve definitely found out these hardened structures do more damage than good.” They actually cause waves to reflect back with greater energy, undercutting the structure and sometimes collapsing it, explains Dan Kraus. “You end up with exposed shoreline and more erosion.” Kraus is slowly dismantling, log by log, the retaining wall put in by previous owners of his family cottage outside Algonquin Park, Ont. His plan is to let native growth like sweet gale, red maple, and alder come back on its own as a vegetative buffer. “Some family members worry the exposure will lead to erosion, but I just point to the adjacent shorelines that haven’t been altered and you’ll see they aren’t receding.”

Like their counterparts on lakes, seawalls can make matters worse, says marine biologist Brian Emmett. “They might protect the upland, but there’s a huge amount of erosion at the toe of the wall. A big wave sucks away sediment at the base, and suddenly you don’t have beach below that structure, and the habitat is gone.” He stresses to coastal cottagers that these sterile barriers between land and water disrupt the natural food chain of terrestrial insects feeding young chinook, which then feed orca whales. As he says, “Hard shores are dead shores.”

6. DON’T Add to Your Lake’s Nutrient Load

You’re forgiven if you think “nutrient” sounds like a good thing. In fact, these naturally occurring elements, like phosphorus, do nourish plant growth. It’s when we add man-made ones to the environment, by using phosphorus-laden fertilizers, for example, the overabundance wends its way into the lake, fostering suffocating algal blooms that steal oxygen from other aquatic life and degrade water quality. More worrisome is blue-green algae, actually a toxic bacteria, which is grim proof of “significantly higher phosphorus levels, much of it due to fertilizer,” says Michael Mitchell, the association president of Eagle Lake, which identified its first-ever case last year. He’s talking with the local council about making a bylaw to prohibit fertilizer use within a set distance of shore. Not using it at all, or any products containing phosphorus, is even better.

Faulty septic systems are another nasty nutrient loader, as waste water is rich in phosphorus and nitrogen. Be preventive by pumping out yours every two to five years and having periodic inspections, advises Meaghan McDonald. And watch out for warning signs. “Really wet or green grass around weeping fields indicates excess nutrients,” she says. “Your septic might be overloaded or you might have a running toilet.”

7. DON’T Sacrifice Your Trees for Sightlines

The green giants on the upper slope of your cottage shoreline aren’t there to muck up your view. They are the heavy lifters when it comes to absorbing runoff, taking water from the ground and transpiring it through their leaves into the air. “A mature oak tree can transpire 150,000 litres of water in the growing season,” says Brian Emmett. Their overhanging vegetation provides shade and a steady supply of dead insects and other organic “fall” for young fish sheltering in the shallows, he adds.

If you let your birches and aspens play their role, you can still see the lake by giving them what is sometimes called a “vista prune.” “I just trim the lower branches and leave the higher ones,” says cottager Kelly Aldridge. “You don’t have to wreck trees for a view.”

8. DON’T Wage war on Water Weeds

You hate them, we get it. Clogging up your prop or snaking around your ankles when you swim, water weeds seem to have no purpose but to drive you crazy. Would it help to know they are erosion-fighters, capturing and controlling wave energy that would otherwise hit the shore? Plus, they oxygenate the water and improve its clarity by impeding waves and wind that stir up sediment, says Dan Taillon, an aquatic biologist with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) in Peterborough, Ont. And for aquatic wildlife, the vegetation is a vital underwater sanctuary.

So can we make peace with water weeds? “It’s about finding the right balance,” says Taillon. “You can clear an area for swimming and keep an area for water weeds so everybody benefits.” Regulating bodies for aquatic plant removal vary from province to province and may require cottagers to seek approvals. In parts of Ontario, for example, you may be able to avoid a work permit if you can follow the MNRF’s rules, such as using only mechanical devices or your hands, not clearing an area exceeding its specified dimensions, and not doing the work during fish-spawning season.

Not only a chore (and who needs more?), hauling out weeds can be a losing battle, cautions Dan Kraus, especially on lakes that are shallow and naturally phosphorus-rich, two conditions that fuel plant growth. Don’t want so many water weeds? Think preventively, he says, and “reduce your nutrient output.”

9. DON’T Be a Cowboy Boater

Big wakes are bad news for your frontage. More and more, Rick Keevil’s shoreline work on Lake Vernon is focussed on repairing erosion caused by increasing boat traffic. He says people are using larger boats, in particular the wakeboarding style with a water-filled ballast bag designed to make “super-big wakes.” These whoppers are now smacking areas of the lake that historically have been very sheltered, eating into the banks and sending out large plumes of silt.

As well as harming shorelines, megawakes are like tsunamis to loons and other birds that nest in the shallows or at the water’s edge, adds Kraus. “Big waves can be a major cause of nest failure, washing away the eggs or drowning the chicks.” Don’t joyride in sheltered bays and known nesting areas, and, as the law dictates across much of the country, limit speeds to 10 km/h when boating within 30 metres of the shore.

Are we saying that you can’t wakeboard? Of course not; just watch to see if your wake is hitting the shore, and, if so, move farther out. Keevil, who’s on the environmental committee for his lake association, says, “We encourage boaters to stay in the middle of the lake, so wave energy has a chance to dissipate.” By being mindful of your shore’s ribbon of life, you can have your wake and hear loon calls too.

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