Blogger of the Day-Alysse Mathalon

Jul 18 2013

Montreal-Toronto Expedition

Freshwater Research and Scientific Communications Course

Crew size: 14

Blogger of the Day- Alysse Mathalon- BSc. Marine Biology and Oceanography, Dalhousie University

Alysse Mathalon, displaying the plastic pollution collected on behalf of ACA's Stream to Sea Initiative.

Alysse Mathalon, displaying the plastic pollution collected on behalf of ACA's Stream to Sea Initiative.

I ship you not- yesterday morning we awoke to a beautiful, calm day amongst the Thousand Islands, but inside our seaworthy vessel, foul odors arose from deep within the cabins.

On every journey the best of things and the worst of things are experienced, and I believe yesterday morning was the worst of it. It was a nauseating start to the day, as our wonderful captain, Eric and first mate, Shanley, dealt with septic tank blockages through breakfast and beyond. There was a slight tension on the ship, when I was reminded of some wise words that were told to me by someone special. I was told that as we enter new environments with people in life, there is an order to the way things go. That order is: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing. Yesterday morning we experienced a short-lived, yet unmistakable storming segment of our journey. Being the strong, good-intentioned crew that we are, we quickly moved onto the norming stage of our adventure with an incredibly special day on Sugar Island.

We were warmly welcomed to the island by Bill and Marsha Banholzer, who greeted us with friendly faces, cold beverages and snacks. My shipmates and I could not have been happier to spend the day on this magnificent island with its lovely hosts. Sugar Island is not any ordinary island.

The people who visit Sugar Island step onto its grounds with a mission in mind. Bill and Marsha are board members of the American Canoe Association (ACA), which was founded in 1903. Each summer, about 250 people stay on Sugar Island for a few weeks, where they have the opportunity to canoe and kayak around the surrounding islands, and even become certified paddle sport instructors.

The American Canoeing Association's logo. From the ACA website.

The American Canoeing Association's logo. From the ACA website.

The ACA realizes the value of a healthy freshwater ecosystem, and this realization inspired their environmental initiative, known as the Steam to Sea Initative. The initiative provides the means and the inspiration to paddlers to help reduce marine and freshwater debris, by using their mesh boating bags to collect waste they encounter while they paddle. The initiative aims to “educate, motivate and model proactive onwater stewardship practices” in an effort to curb the flow of debris through our lakes and into our oceans (http://www.americancanoe.org/?page=StreamtoSea).

From Lake Superior, all the way down through the Great Lakes to Lake Ontario, water flows and makes its way into the Thousand Islands chain, into the narrow St. Lawrence Seaway, and empties its fresh water into the North Atlantic Ocean. Along this journey, the largest freshwater reservoir on earth becomes contaminated by shameful amounts of human pollution. The Stream to Sea program provides the temporary residents of Sugar Island with large mesh bags on each canoe and kayak to be filled up with pollution encountered on each excursion, preventing it from making its way out to the ocean. Such a simple mission saves the precious lives of many aquatic animals, changing the unfortunate fate of many animals that suffer and die in large numbers from consuming our pollution, which they interpret to be food.

Marsha and Bill Banholzer show us their prized island possession- their vintage refrigerator from 1937!

Marsha and Bill Banholzer show us their prized island possession- their vintage refrigerator from 1937!

Bill happily gave us a tour of the island, showing us cabins built from wood logs, and his and Marsha’s home grounds consisting of a wood-built canopy, covering a comfortably sized tent and a gas powered refrigerator from 1937! The island is free of electricity, and a 400ft well is in its final stages of construction to be the source of fresh drinking water. Spending time on Sugar Island reinforced the realization that a satisfying life can be easily achieved by living simply and minimally in the presence of other species inhabiting this earth, besides humans.

Of course, sharing this way of life with other human beings can further life’s satisfaction. With the blessing of health, humans really do not need much material to live a good life. This is something many of us can forget when living in crowded cities amongst an overwhelming amount of consumer products we encounter, leading us to think we need more materials in our lives than we actually do. Albert Einstein said something like, ‘the more baggage we have is just extra weight around our necks’. We feel the truth of those words when we get the opportunity to live minimally, receiving energy and inspiration from the nature surrounding us.

Touring the island, the girls became intensely distracted by filling up the mesh bags with tons of garbage contaminating Sugar Island’s serene coastline. The vast majority of this pollution was unsurprisingly plastic- balloon strings, bottle caps, bottles, shot gun caps, tampon applicators, a speaker, bags, wrappers, degraded fragments, and much more.

Collecting as much garbage as possible, I was feeling the heavy weight of a tragedy in my heart for all the innocent lives affected and taken due to human recklessness. At that point, all you can really do is be happy that the plastic we collected will no longer harm the aquatic life it may have otherwise encountered. Picking up the garbage by hand is inspiring to continue forwarding the mission of achieving human respect for the rest of life on earth- something that makes a lot of sense to myself and the rest of the Sea Dragon crew.

By the time I raised my head from the polluted beach, I realized all the female crewmembers were surrounding me, also picking up trash, while the guys had moved on to collect water samples to assess the health of the waters. Separated from the guys, we started exploring more of the island’s coastline, stopping for many swims in beautifully clear, refreshing water- it was truly delightful. After reuniting with our male counterparts, having a bonfire and thanking Bill and Marsha for their generosity, back to the boat we went.

We ended the day with conversations lead by Dr. Sherri Mason and Dr. Paul Helm, discussing the presence of contaminants in everyday consumer products. How many of us do not even consider the ingredients that are in the products we use daily? Chemicals many of us are unfamiliar with are found in our shampoos, dishwashing detergents, make-up, deodorants, hand soaps, and toothpastes.

Colgate Total contains the chemical compound Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical that is reported to be found in human breast milk.

Colgate Total contains the chemical compound Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical that is reported to be found in human breast milk.

When reading the ingredients on these products, we discover that the majority of them are synthetic chemicals that we know nothing about. There are approximately 80 000 synthetic chemicals on the market today. Of those chemicals, only 4% have been tested for human health impacts. Knowing this reality, we should be questioning the effects that these various compounds may have on our health.

These 80 000 chemicals were approved under the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, created 27 years ago. Since then, only 5 chemicals have been removed from the market. As a group, we discussed how it is very hard to actually prove a chemical substance to be harmful in scientific terms, especially since nowadays we all contain so many contaminants in our own bodies that there is no pure control human to compare to.

What we do know is that we encounter thousands of contaminants everyday, and each time we flush our soaps and detergents down the drain, they enter our environment and circulate throughout the earth. We can detect and measure the presence of these contaminants in our blood, and even in the placental blood of pregnant women. We know many synthetic chemicals are endocrine-disruptors that can feminize animals in nature. We know that since regularly using these chemicals, allowing them to circulate throughout our environment, especially through water and air, human males have significantly less testosterone than they used to, and females are maturing and going through puberty at earlier ages.

It is very difficult to attribute specific chemicals to specific health effects, however we can acknowledge these trends appearing in nature, and question the addition of these chemicals into our environment. They are ubiquitous, and can potentially influence the direction of our evolution. This is a scary thought, since we do not understand the implications that many of these chemicals may have.

One way we can work towards solutions to this issue is to be conscious of what is in the products we buy. We need to go back to simpler products, such as baking soda and vinegar as cleaning products, and natural based soaps to wash our hands. Simple feels good! My advice- question things. It is healthy to do so.

I have to say, I could not have asked for a better crew to spend this time with on the Sea Dragon. We function as one tight unit, efficiently extracting daily samples and sailing smoothly through the lake. Everyone is so interesting and different, I feel refreshed by their personalities! We are all having a spectacular time, and the adventure continues!

The Undergraduate course crew group shot at the American Canoeing Association's Sugar Island.

The Undergraduate course crew group shot at the American Canoeing Association's Sugar Island.

We have now set sail into beautiful Lake Ontario, riding the Dragon on our way to Toronto. And that is why this experience has changed my life forever.