The Flora and Fauna of Lac Heney
One of the most delightful activities of cottage life is to be an observer of the flora and fauna of the lake and to watch the impact of the changing seasons on your natural surroundings. This section is designed to give you a description of the natural beauty and rhythms of our lake over the course of the last fifty years. It has been an ever changing spectacle as the lake has evolved from the earliest settlers, through subsistence farming and fishing and hunting lodges to the community of cottages that now surround the lake.
In its earliest days the lake was part of the huge pine forest of the upper Gatineau, and its trees were cut down and floated down the Gatineau River to Hull for transport to Europe and elsewhere. A small portion went to the saw mill at Pointe Comfort for processing into lumber used in the local area. The trees would have been towering white and red pines. Some of the land was cleared for farms and some fields remain to this day. However in the 1980s as a result of a government program several fields were recaptured as forest with the planting of trees, jack pine, spruce, and white pine destined to be harvested as pulpwood for the mills to the south in a generation or two. These forestry lots are now becoming mature and are dotted around the lake. One of the most significant events that changed the composition of the forest was the huge forest fire in the early years of the 1900s on the north eastern shore of the lake above the narrows. Lots on this side still have the charred remains of huge pines as a reminder of the forest as it once was. However the natural cycle of forest regeneration after a burn is well advanced. Fifty years ago this side of the lake was a deciduous forest of maturing white birches and poplars with a thick hedge of white cedar at the water’s edge. Among the birches one could find red maple, basswood, white ash, white oak, and the occasional butternut tree. On the ridges this changed to scrub oak. Today the birches and poplars are dying out and are being replaced by balsam fir and the odd spruce and the white pine is beginning to come through. In time it will become again the dominant specie.
Elsewhere the cycle of regeneration is proceeding as the forest reclaims abandoned fields. Another area where one can see this happening is the site of the old mica mine in the south east side of the lake. Further up the hill the lands were logged in the 1980s and the deciduous forest is gradually maturing. From a boat one can see the gorgeous spring green swath of birches and poplars. However in many other parts of the lake the evergreens and the pine forest reign. If one looks at the tops of the ridges of the hills, it is clearly evident that large white pines have established their presence.
Within the forest and along the roads to the cottages, one finds a variety of wild flowers and shrubs. In early spring one waits in anticipation for the wild violets, dog tooth violets, hepatica, blood root, Dutchman’s pipe, and trillium to appear. Some are lucky enough to have patches of orchids -lady slippers and Jack in the Pulpits. As the season proceeds, devil’s paint brush, purple vetch, white daisies, and brown eyed Susan daisies come along. Pale purple and white clover, wild sweet pea in pastel colours, and blue straw flowers decorate the sides of the road. In some of the open spaces one finds milkweed and usually in August a few Monarch butterflies looking for a home for their caterpillars. One also finds patches of wild roses and in the fall asters and orchids appear. Usually close by there will be raspberry bushes and even a few blackberry bushes. In the odd place one can find wild strawberries. One hazard of picking a bowl full of raspberries is that there are often patches of poison ivy close by. There is a lot of this noxious weed around the lake, and it is a constant battle to keep this blight under control. Among the taller shrubs there are the alders, and hazel bushes and the sumac which turns a brilliant scarlet in the fall. Down by the water’s edge one finds a few Siberian irises but on a few islands there are larger numbers. These provide a colour contrast to the bulrushes and cat tails growing in the bays. Deep in the forest among the wet places one finds an abundance of forest ferns and in a few places maiden hair fern and sweet fern. By mid summer a variety of mushrooms sprout. Some are tiny and brightly coloured in oranges and reds. Some years one discovers large puff balls the size of tennis balls and larger in the fall.
But the forest is also the home to many animals. White tail deer are everywhere and it is a rare visit to the cottage that does not include a sighting. They especially like to feed at dusk in a field where the hay has been recently cut. Fresh tracks are on the roads every morning. Of course in the fall the deer are hunted and it is wise not to be in the woods during the first two weeks of November during hunting season. They are also fond of domestic gardens, hostas being a special favorite. One expensive remedy to discourage their interest, one is told, is to purchase wolf urine and sprinkle it around. Their cousins the moose are not nearly as numerous but there are some around. Two summers ago a female was spotted outside the kitchen window next door to this observer’s chalet. Although not often seen there is a sizable bear population. A mother and cub were in the woods behind the cottage all summer last year. Bear have been tranquilized and taken away if they become a nuisance with the garbage at the roadside. In the past when there were open municipal dumps around the lake, one of the evening rituals was to go to the dump and watch from the car the bear paw through the garbage. The other large animals are wolves and coyotes. One occasionally hears them on a moonlit night. However coyotes have been spotted quite close to cottages. The other beautiful predator is the fox. There are many and in wintertime their very distinctive tracks (a straight line in the snow) are everywhere. They are beautiful and unforgettable when one sees one in full flight with its long tail flowing behind it as it flies over a field. They are hunting the rabbit which are quite numerous in some areas. The other smaller animal is the porcupine. In the early days there were many and they often left their teeth marks on your door or window ledge as they gnawed away. They also managed to attract the attention of dogs, and several afternoons have been spent painfully pulling barbs from a dog’s muzzle. If the dogs didn’t find the porcupine, some would find the skunk, and there would be a rush to find home remedies usually starting with tomato juice to counteract the smell.
The most common animal to spot is the raccoon. Most cottages are visited every night as part of their routine. They are also adept at raiding compost bins and scattering the contents far and wide. A few like to use your path or dock as an outhouse. The cardinal rule for experienced cottagers is never to feed them. One session of them inside exploring the cottage should be enough to discourage this practice for life. One of the critters that often finds its way inside is the red squirrel. It certainly is vocal about telling you who is the real boss at the cottage. There are also chipmunks that will come and clean up your deck if invited. A surprise to this observer was to discover that flying squirrels had been living for years in the fascia of the cottage. These delightful animals would come out at dusk and fly down the hill to the edge of the lake.
Inside the cottage, particularly if it is of an older variety, one engages in an annual battle with the field mouse. Each spring one is greeted with evidence in tiny pellet form of their winter sojourn. They usually do a thorough inspection of the whole cottage paying special attention to the plates and cutlery. Some years they raise their families on sweaters that were not properly stored for winter. Fortunately the moles and voles outside have yet to discover how to find their way inside. However the most surprising wild visitor to the cottage that this observer ever had was a milk snake. It slithered out of the heatilator in the chimney one October night during a card game. It was a beautifully marked non poisonous snake and apparently is found in barns and dines on mice. It must have enjoyed its stay at the cottage. Other snakes of note in the area are the water snake, copper-backed snakes and the common garter snake. There was one sighting of a huge rat snake over forty years ago.
There are a variety of interesting animals at the edge of the lake that use the lake and the shore as their living space. All cottagers find their property challenged by the beaver Not only are they capable of felling large poplars sometimes on cottage roofs, but they have been know to dam creeks and flood the private roads to the cottages. Often on a quiet canoe in the early morning one hears the slap of the tail as a beaver dives out of sight. There appears to be a perpetual cycle of trapping followed by a few years of respite until the population builds up again to annoying proportions. There is a huge population in Lac Barbue. They are always active in the outlet stream at the south of the lake. Most creeks that flow into the lake show evidence of their activity. The beaver shares the water with the muskrat. Most bays have them and many docks and boathouses provide a shelter and a nest for them. At dusk in summer one sees them swimming out to feed with their tail hooked up in the air behind them. You know that you’ve a resident muskrat when you see fresh water mussel shells on the bottom by the dock. Along the shore one can spot the mink sometimes playing together on a small point of land. There are also larger animals, the otter that in some areas appear to be replacing the muskrat population. Recently there have been reports of the largest of the weasel family, the fisher. These ferocious hunters have been responsible for reducing the cat population, although this observer knows of one cat that survived two attacks.
It is hard to spend time at Heney Lake and not to become an avid birder. Every chalet should have the binoculars close at hand, and the bird book by its side. Over time, the past forty years for this observer, some species have declined, new ones have arrived, and others have multiplied far beyond their original numbers. An early treasured memory of Heney Lake was listening in the tent (before the cottage) to the whip-poor-wills as they called to each other around the lake. Alas their song has not been heard for many years. Another specie that appears to have disappeared is the indigo bunting, a beautiful bright blue bird. There also used to be flocks of warblers cruising through the birches feeding on the caterpillars. There were myrtle, bar-breasted, black and white, and Canada warblers, as well as American red starts. These birds appear to be reduced in numbers, possibly because of a change in habitat as the forest moves toward white pine dominance. However, one can still hear the vireo singing in the bush. Another reasonably common bird that could be seen flying over the fields was the bobolink. As with the rest of the countryside this bird has virtually disappeared along with the king bird that used to line the telephone wires. Fortunately there is no shortage of sparrows, starlings, robins and grackles. This latter bird is a bit of a noisy nuisance as they congregate in flocks in early August and make a huge racket flying through the trees. Their calls are usually intercepted by the call of the blue jay as Mother tries to educate her young in survival techniques. The skies are constantly patrolled by flocks of crows noisily policing the neighbourhood along with the occasional raven. Winter spring and summer would not be complete without the chickadee that flits about all the time. One summer one had the privilege of watching a pair construct their nest by hollowing out the top of a dying birch tree. When completed the entrance looked like a blemish on the trunk- perfect camouflage.
Most cottagers hang up hummingbird feeders and attract a number of male and female ruby throated hummingbirds. This usually leads to intense territorial competition, led by the male. Although smaller than the female he is a pugnacious protector of his feeder and they duke it out in aerial combat worthy of a World War One dog fight among biplanes. Surprisingly the same birds return year after year although they migrate south over thousands of miles. They also recognize you, and will come up to you in early spring hovering about a foot away and order you in no uncertain terms to get that feeder up right away.
Some birds just love to use your cottage as a foundation for their nest. For years we have had a phoebe nesting over the bedroom window, and a nutty robin that thinks the outdoor light on the boathouse is the ideal place. She never learns despite never having completed a nest in that spot. Another spectacular bird that you don’t want attracted to your cottage is the largest of the woodpeckers, the pileated woodpecker. If your wood cladding becomes a home for grubs and insects then this bird will help you get rid them as a neighbour discovered. They do quite a job on your cladding. Nevertheless, they are breathtaking when you see them in action on a rotten tree stump their huge red heads banging away and producing a shower of wood chips. One can also find all of the other woodpeckers, the hairy and the downy, and their cousins the white breasted and red breasted nuthatches that love to go down tree trunks head first. Birdfeeders also attract flocks of goldfinches that add some colour to the scene. A recent arrival at the lake is the wild turkey. They were introduced about 20 years ago to improve the fall hunting for birds. They are now becoming quite common and large flocks have been spotted. They appear to be replacing the ruffed grouse which for years has been the bird to hunt in the fall.
One of the most spectacular species and one that is growing over the years are the raptors. In the early days there were a number of red tailed and broad winged hawks. Most springs one would find evidence of a catch of a ruffed grouse etched out in the snow. In one of the small lakes there was a family of ospreys that lived up on top of the cliff. Then there was the coming of the turkey vulture. They occasionally would cruise the lake edge but one could always find a number of them hovering over the fields or feasting off road kill. More recently the bald eagles have returned and a pair are nesting year after year on one of the islands. It would not be surprising if the golden eagle hasn’t returned. There is also a barred owl that haunts the road. One hears the call often but only rarely sees it.
But the birds that define the lake the best are the water birds. One begins early in the spring with the return of the great blue heron, when the ice is still on the lake and the streams are just beginning to open up. They each seem to have their special fishing spots around the lake and one sees them returning at dusk to their nest away from the lake with their signature silhouette of trailing legs. These are followed in early spring by the pied-billed grebe, a member of the loon family. There are two major species of duck, the mallard and the common merganser. Many bays are filled with their young in July and it is a great sight to see mother and her family feeding along the shore During migration seasons other ducks come down and spend a few days and push on. There is always a flock or flocks of Canada geese that use the lake as a resting place for a few days during their migration. Occasionally a few snow geese get mixed up with this migration. But the bird that this observer most associates with Heney Lake is the loon. One goes to sleep listening to their call. One watches them fish in the bay, and if one is lucky one watches them raise their young from the nest or depression by the water’s edge. One fall in late September, this observer was privileged to see them gathering for their migration to the East Coast. As we paddled down the lake on a canoe trip we would pass groups of 15 or more in formation on the water. We passed by 5 groups of loons that day. The bird that is the least popular and unfortunately growing in numbers is the ring billed gull. Years ago there were hardly any of them on the lake. Now they are the largest population and appear to be having a detrimental effect on the ducks.. These gulls are joined briefly in August in the south of the lake by the common tern on their migration to the southern hemisphere.
The Aquatic World.
Many cottagers will tell you that Heney Lake’s greatest asset is the fishing. This appears to be even more popular to the Heney Lake addict than skiing at Mont Ste Marie. Among the fishing enthusiasts Henry Lake is known as a trophy lake, because the food is so plentiful and nutritious for lake trout. Indeed an early name for the lake was Petit Poisson Blanc because it was famous for its succulent white fish. This observer had thought that they no longer existed but one has been told of ice fishing in recent times and of a near catch of a ten pounder. However the fishers of today will spin you yarns of monster northern pike, huge large mouth bass as well as small mouth bass and of course the lake trout. There is concern about the lake trout because they don’t appear to be reproducing as they should. The scientists say that this is due to a lack of oxygen at the lower levels which hopefully will be rectified once the treatment of the lake really takes hold. However the Government is stocking the lake with slake, a hybrid trout and these can grow up to 12 pounds. Unfortunately they don’t reproduce. For the kids there are still scores of sun fish, smallish yellow perch and rock bass that make themselves available at the ends of the docks. If they are lucky and let their worm drag on the bottom of the lake they might even catch a catfish. These fish give a good tug on the rod and are delicious eating but a real pain for Dad who inevitably is the one chosen to clean the catch. Kids in times past also liked to fill pails with fresh water crayfish that were everywhere along the shore. These days they appear to have retreated to the islands. And yes in the early days there were leaches that caused many tears among the youngsters as they screamed until they were removed. These appear to have vanished.
There are also a variety of turtles, painted as well as snapping turtles. One huge snapper visits the bay once every two or three years. His head is so large that when he pokes his head above the water surface he bears an uncanny likeness to ET of cinema fame. Painted turtles are easily spotted sunning themselves on old logs in deserted bays.
Unfortunately the huge schools of minnows that used to populate the reeds near the islands appear to have vanished. In the past the guides from the lodges would come once or twice a week with their minnow nets and replenish the bait for their clients. However the annual early summer run of fresh water smelts continues. It is quite a sight to see hundreds of them rushing through the water roiling the surface as they go. The most unusual sighting of minnows occurred to this observer while he was repairing his dock. He noticed a huge maroon beach ball that appeared to be stuck six inches below the surface of the water. On closer inspection he saw two huge catfish guarding a squirming ball of a hundred or so catfish minnows of about two inches in length.
According to the archives of the Fishes of Canada, one of the most unusual fish in Heney Lake is the deepwater sculpin. It is a small fish of two to three inches in length and of grey brown colour when freshly caught. It is only found at great depth and is a food source for lake trout. A scientist would refer to it as a glacial reliet, because it was stranded in freshwater lakes after the glaciers retreated some ten thousand years ago. It was observed in Heney Lake and a scientist William Van Vliet, drowned here in 1968 in a scuba gear accident whilst studying this fish.
One can not leave the aquatic world without a comment on the plant life. With the improvement in the quality and clarity of the water after the treatment for phosphate, there has been an increase in the growth of the natural plants in the lake.. They are now benefiting from sun penetration. Thus far the growth in the northern parts has not been too bad, but in the south some bays have been invaded by the alien millfoil weed which can choke the surface and make it difficult to drive an outboard motor boat or paddle a canoe through the mess. If it is any consolation, the same outbreak of weeds including millfoil occurred in the northern parts in the late 1980s, and cottagers hired a special machine to cut paths through the weeds from their docks to open water. A few years later the weeds disappeared and have not come back. A long time resident of the lake remembers a similar plant invasion in the 1930s that disappeared on its own.
The Insect World
Technically the insect world does not come within the definition of flora and fauna, but this survey would be incomplete without a brief reference to it. Heney Lake enjoys the full range of the aggressive biters beginning with black flies in the spring followed by the mosquito and on to the deer fly and horse fly in summer. Thankfully these tend to disappear in August and the forests become again a delight for hiking. For the wind surfers nothing is more annoying than attracting deer flies as you pass an island. They attach themselves to your toes, and you must make the choice of either jumping off the board and suffering a bruised ego, or enduring the pain and maintaining your reputation as an expert. Most new structures built from new lumber attract wasp nests in the early years and the wasps return in late August and September to share meals with you on the deck. But there are more pleasing insects. Clouds of May or shad flies arise from the lake in mid June. These are followed out of the water by dragon flies of all shapes and sizes. One sees their dried up empty skins clinging to the side of docks and logs. Swallowtail and Monarch butterflies are regular visitors. There are a whole variety of moths that cluster around the outside light at night. Every so often the spectacular green luna moth will attach itself to the side of the cottage and stay there for several days. The favorite insect for the kids has to be fire flies in late June. They love to chase and capture them, put them into an empty jam jar and light up their rooms with them.
The only fitting way to conclude this section on flora and fauna is to imagine one self on the deck watching the sun go down and seeing the horizon streaked with red and gold and maroon. For others, a morning coffee mug in hand, it would be the beautiful sun rise with the mist curling around an island. For others it could be the first time that one saw the grandeur of the milky way galaxy and learned how to find the North star, the big dipper and other constellations. It is also a reminder of how important weather is to the enjoyment of the flora and fauna. It provides excitement to the fishers and sailors as they streak for home to avoid a thunderstorm. It challenges the cook during power outages to rediscover the joys of the barbeque and to relearn the art of lighting the Coleman lantern. Above all it provides the rhythm of the seasons, with coloured leaves in the fall, the crack and boom of the ice as the temperature drops in winter, the gorgeous greens of spring, and the incredible songs of the birds in early summer.