Story and photography by Scott Leslie
As beautiful as Atlantic Canada’s larger rivers are, they are but the culmination of the untold wetlands, brooks and streams that flow across the landscape. Added together, the lengths of the largest river in each of Atlantic Canada’s four provinces and Labrador amount to about 2,200 kilometres. Yet, this impressive length—which, in a straight line would reach all the way from Halifax to Winnipeg—pales in comparison with the many tens of thousands of kilometres of water courses that drain each of these river’s respective watersheds, to say nothing of the watersheds of hundreds of rivers in the region.
Countless kilometres of such tributaries, many just a few metres wide, crisscross the land, often carrying life sustaining freshwater to human communities while providing crucial habitat for wild animals and plants. But, like our own circulatory systems, these precious vessels of the landscape remain largely hidden from view.
Until recently, many of these wetland and stream habitats were unseen to all but the resident wildlife and the relatively few people who were willing to put in the work to visit them. Seeing such places often requires a strenuous slog through boggy country, a difficult paddle in shallow, narrow waters, or an overflight in an aircraft. Many are beautiful and inspiring and the pay-off for reaching them can be worth it. However, their inaccessibility means that these places are generally not appreciated and therefore more at risk of being destroyed by resource extraction, since it’s hard to get support to protect a place that few people have seen.
Now there’s a new window on the land: small remotely operated cameras on sophisticated quadcopter platforms that can reveal many of these hidden jewels of nature in high resolution. If used properly, they can help change the way we see the natural riches of Atlantic Canada, revealing things about our home we never realized. In fact, sometimes, rural residents are surprised to learn how beautiful their local brook or wet meadow looks when I show them aerial images taken nearby. Occasionally, they are even shocked to learn of the existence of some wonderful natural place hidden just beyond the screen of forest surrounding their homes.
These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) enable photographers to visually access ecosystems and habitats that were hitherto inaccessible. What’s more, because of their small size and the degree of control a user has over the camera platform, closer and more finely composed views can be made of the landscape than shooting from a plane. When sensitively operated, a UAV can have less impact on wildlife than a circling aircraft would. This often results in intimate aerial images of natural wetland, forest and shoreline habitat. In addition, because of the UAV’s stability, it’s possible to do panoramas and vertical top-down perspectives of landscapes that would be nearly impossible from an aircraft. Of course, traditional aerial photography still has a few advantages, foremost among them the higher altitude attainable. For safety’s sake UAVs are generally limited to about 100 metres of altitude in Canada. The beauty of this new perspective on the land is in the details, however, and the low altitudes that are possible with a remotely operated platform makes this possible.
By creating aerial imagery of the landscape and its intricate system of moving freshwater, we can discover a detailed perspective of our region as we’ve never seen it before. It reveals the complexity and pervasiveness of the natural wetlands and aquatic ecosystems that cover so much of Atlantic Canada. Because of this, this new view from the air can be a powerful tool for quickly assessing the health of many such places, as well as a highly effective means of monitoring the effect that resource industries such as forestry and mining have on our precious lands and waters.
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Intro caption: Adding brilliant colour to the spring landscape, wild rhododendrons (Rhodora) bloom in a wet meadow.