There are a lot of ways to catch fish but certainly one of the most productive are weirs.
A weir is a fence or wall-like structure of timber or stone that is built to direct the movement of fish and confine them so that they may be harvested en masse with nets, traps and/or spears. Evidence of weirs dating back many thousands of years have been found throughout Canada.
Although the concept behind the construction of all weirs is the same, each is unique as it must be adapted to local conditions; for example, some weirs are built in or below rapids, while others are associated with estuaries and yet other weirs were simply placed to take advantage of waterways where the terrain is naturally constricted.
The best-known example of fishing weirs in Canada are the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs located where the waters between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching narrow and join at what is now known as Atherley Narrows in Orillia, Ontario.
These weirs have been radiocarbon dated to over 4,500 years ago and were made from wooden stakes thrust into the lake bottom and packed with layers of silt. The silt created an anaerobic environment (an environment lacking oxygen) that has prevented bacteria from breaking down the wood of the stakes over time. As a result, remnants of some of the stakes remain today despite historic dredging of the channel and the damaging effects of modern-day boat traffic and property development.
Samuel de Champlain left a written description of these weirs after observing their use while accompanying a party of Wendat (whom the French called Huron) warriors enroute to a distant village on September 1, 1615:
…we set out…and passed along the shore of a small lake [Lake Couchiching]…where they make great catches of fish which they preserve for the winter. There is another lake immediately adjoining [Lake Simcoe]…draining into the small one by a strait [Atherley Narrows], where the great catch of fish takes place by means of a number of weirs which almost close the strait, leaving only small openings where they set their nets in which the fish are caught.
In 1982, the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs were recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada and, if you visit, you will find the location marked with both Parks Canada and Province of Ontario plaques (although any posts you see sticking above the water are more recent and not part of the weirs).
Casino Rama, located close by, embodies a fuller tribute to the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs with a multitude of architectural and other design details that warrant a visit in themselves. A restaurant off the main lobby has even been named The Weirs! To enter, you cross a small bridge over water into a circular room topped with beams of wood encircling a colourful and artistic mural of fish. Even the carpet design is reminiscent of water and additional artistic fish portraits adorn the walls.
An application for funding to build a pedestrian bridge over the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs with an associated interpretive centre has been made which would be most welcome at this time when Canadians are, more than ever, interested in exploring our own back yard.
The people of the past enjoyed this beautiful lake country spot for the same reasons we do today and this connection of people across cultures and through time offers a unique opportunity to share a wealth of related knowledge and perspectives. History is all around us but it is not always seen to be so. The proposed Mnjikaning Fish Weirs pedestrian bridge and interpretive centre is a beautiful opportunity to change that.
© Joyce Wright