Community Spotlight: Friends of Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes

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What does it take to create a water quality dataset for one of Canada’s largest urban wilderness areas? 

In the spring of 2021, five volunteers from the Friends of Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes (BMBCL) hit the area’s waters for the very first time to monitor 21 lakes via an extensive paddling and portage route.  The study team consisted of Don Gordon, Pierre Clement, Dusan Soudek, Heather Leslie and David Young.  Leader Don Gordon welcomed the Atlantic Water Network team to his family camp on Coxs Lake to give us the lowdown on their grand undertaking, decades worth of BMBCL history, and exciting new happenings. Despite a sixty year career in ocean research, Don has a deep connection to the wilderness area after many years of walking its trails and paddling its waters with family and friends.

Over coffee and muffins, Don explained that the creation of the BMBCL urban wilderness park has been an ongoing community passion project for over 30 years. Just minutes from downtown Halifax, the extensive land (3000 ha in area) is home to pristine forest and freshwater, a rare gem full of accessible hikes and paddles, and the perfect environment for countless terrestrial and aquatic species.  Land is now gradually being assembled by the Halifax Regional Municipality, the Province of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. And, just recently, it was announced that Parks Canada was considering including the area in their new national urban park program currently under development. Don noted that proper management of a park like this should include a comprehensive water quality dataset for each and every lake within the park.

So, here’s what it takes to create a water quality dataset for one of Canada’s largest urban wilderness areas, and where Don and his team come in. They borrowed equipment from our equipment bank to measure basic water quality properties and arranged to have analyses of total phosphorus done through the provincial Department of Environment and Climate Change.  In addition, they collected water samples in selected lakes for analysis by Dalhousie University as part of the fifth Metro Area Lake Synoptic Survey.

In just 3 days in early April 2021, the sampling team covered:

  • 21 lakes in the Nine Mile River and Kearney Run watersheds
  • 41 km of paddling
  • 7 km of portaging
  • 39 sampling stations with at least one vertical profile in each lake

Don reported good news from their sampling run: the water quality in most of the lakes is excellent. However, there is evidence of elevated levels of road salt and other dissolved chemicals in the lower part of the Kearney Run watershed, especially Susies, Quarry, Washmill and Kearney lakes which are subjected to development.  A close eye should be kept on this situation and the Friends of BMBCL plan to do just that.

But it’s not over: the study team recommends implementing a formal long-term water quality monitoring program for the wilderness area.  Ideally this should be conducted collaboratively by government, universities and volunteers and include sampling all seasons of the year, not just the spring.  Lakes with the highest impact from development should be first on the list. To keep an eye on the other lakes, an in-depth monitoring run — similar to the April 2021 run — should be completed every 5 years at minimum. Until this is in place, Don is conducting his own more frequent monitoring in Coxs Lake, where his family camp is located.

This project was over a year in the making which could only have been done with extensive planning, collaboration, and community dedication. We started chatting with Don in January 2020 to help make the monitoring run a reality and are so excited to see the program come to fruition. The full report on this initiative can be found here:, and the data, formatted with the help of AWN’s own Noah D’Ascanio, can be found here:


Photos courtesy of Don Gordon.

Don Gordon at his family camp on Coxs Lake.