|Saving the Steel
by Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is an outdoor Writer based in Thunder Bay.
As a boy, I was fascinated with the Nipigon River. I pored over pictures of
the river, and read stories ofthe amazing brook trout that had been caught
there. It didnít seem possible that such a magical place could be only an hour
from my home in Thunder Bay.
The Nipigon was once a churning river, with long stretches of white water rapids that had names like the Great White Chutes. It was in these wild waters that the world record brook trout was caught in 1915. Yet, the river I finally discovered as a young man was different then the one IĎd read about. Three huge dams had flooded most of the white water, creating large, mostly sterile reservoirs. Many nights were spent camped along the river, talking with friends about what it must have been like on the Nipigon before thedams drowned the rapids.
ďIt would never happen today,Ē I used to say. ďNo government would allow the worlds greatest trout river to de dammed.Ē
Sadly, Iím starting to think thatís not the case. This past spring, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources announced they were considering proposals to develop 18 new hydro electric projects along SuperiorĎs north shore. One of the rivers named in the long list was the Steel, located west of Marathon.
The Steel River is a unique and amazing tributary to Lake Superior. The headwaters of this great river reach deep into the boreal heartland of the Northwest. The upper section of the Steel is gorgeous, and a popular destination for kayakers, canoeists and anglers. However, when the Steel leaves Santoy Lake and plunges over a high falls, the character of the river changes. From the falls to Lake Superior, the Steel charges to the lake, churning through tight rapids and creating deep pools perfect for cold water fish. In this lower section of river, just about every species of salmonid in Lake Superior is known to spawn. The Steel has been identified as prime coaster brook trout habitat, and itís an important nursery river for this rebuilding population of this native fish. Perhaps the largest runs of fish in the Steel occur in the spring, when Lake Superior rainbow trout enter it to spawn. These fish use the entire lower Steel to procreate, as do the various salmon species an coasters that run later in the fall. The Steel is a blue ribbon trout river; one of the very few on Superiorís shore thatís not been harnessed for power.
When I saw the Steel named as one of the possible choices for a hydro project, I was shocked. It seemed unthinkable that the MNR would consider this a suitable place for a dam. Apparently, Iím not the only one who felt that way. Recently the board of the North Shore Steelhead Association met with leaders from a variety of conservation and environmental groups to talk about the Steel River hydro proposal. The coalition has already met with Thunder Bay/Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle and voiced their concerns. Iím sure Mr. Gravelle will see to it that Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay looks over the Steel River file. I canít imagine Mr. Ramsay wonít have second thoughts about the proposal once he learns whatís at stake.
We all know that Ontario needs more power. Anyone who watches the nightly news can figure this out. More dams will be built on a number of other rivers, and the energy goat will be fed.
But canít we leave one wild Lake Superior tributary for our kids and grandkids to enjoy? Do we have to drown them all? The upper Steel is already a park, why not extend the same protection to the lower river basin?
I hope in 50 years, my boys wonít be standing along a tamed Steel saying ďIt would never happen today.Ē
If you would like to comment on this article you can visit the NorthShore Steelhead Assoc web site at http://www.northshoresteelhead.com/ or contact the club at email@example.com