Spend the summer paddling or wearing a lab coat? For graduate student Norman Yan, the answer was easy. “I wanted to go canoeing for my master’s thesis.” So in 1973, the biologist launched his canoe in Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park, and J-stroked into an emerging environmental crisis: acid rain.
At first it was a mystery. “Pristine” lakes were losing fish, aquatic birds, molluscs, and plankton. By the late-’70s, researchers in cottage country, including Yan, fingered the culprit: acidic precipitation, spawned largely by pollution from industries. As Cottage Life put it in 1993, “Snow as acidic as Diet Coke—with a pH of 4—fell on Muskoka.” Thousands of soft-water lakes were damaged.
Today, thanks in part to the efforts of environmental groups and cottagers, “the rain that is falling is 30 times less acidic than it was in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Yan, now retired and the chair of the non-profit Friends of the Muskoka Watershed.
Problem solved? Not quite. The rain stripped calcium from the region’s thin soils, leaving lakes where crayfish and animal plankton can’t build shells. Calcium-starved hardwood forests are growing more slowly and are more prone to wind damage. Yan is hoping to redress the balance with a program to sprinkle calcium-rich wood ash on forest soils.
“I remember being told that acid rain was ‘too big a problem’ to solve,” says Yan. But no problem is too big, so long as “democracy is functioning and the public is informed. It only takes two things to solve a problem. Knowledge and will.” And sometimes, a paddle.