MJWA 25th Anniversary Interview Series - Doug Mather

The Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Areas is a volunteer organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of the resources of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area (MJWA) including its provincially significant wetland and wildlife, along with meadows and forests. They work closely with Cataraqui Conservation (CC), owner of the Wildlife Area. 

This year marks the groups 25th anniversary. To commemorate this significant milestone, Cataraqui Conservation presents a series of interviews with individuals who have played key roles within the Friends over the past quarter century.

First off, we chatted with long-time executive member Doug Mather.

CC – How long have you been with the Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area?

DM – I joined the organization about halfway through year one, so I am at like 24 and a half years.

CC – Did you already know about the Friends of Mac Johnson and what it’s mandate and goals were?

DM – I knew people like Don Wright and some other folks who got together because the CRCA at the time was short on funds and was having a harder time doing things. So, what these folks did was they got together with people who decided something needed to be done. Don Wright had been on the board of the CRCA [now Cataraqui Conservation], and he was from this area, and some of the other folks got together and developed the organization to preserve, protect and promote the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area. That really sums it up well. And over the years, that’s what we have done.

CC – What was it that prompted you to step up and get involved yourself?

DM – Well I am interested in the outdoors, and I thought this would be something that I would enjoy, and I certainly have over the last 25 years. I have been involved in many different projects. There has been great teamwork and fellowship, and that’s basically the reason I got involved.

CC – Were you already familiar with the property itself before joining the Friends?

DM – In this community, as you know, it is known as the ‘Back Pond’. And even today it’s known locally as the Back Pond. And even though it is named after Mac Johnson who was involved with the board of the CRCA, even today people refer to it in the local paper and in the media as the Back Pond. So yes, I had been out here. And in many ways, it is still the best kept secret, really.

CC – What have been some of the highlights of some of the programs and activities the Friends have been involved in over the past 25 years?

We’ve had our Fall Festivals for many years, and the Family Day event and also our Winter Fun Day as well, and one of the most popular parts of both these events, started off just for the Winter Fun Day with our partnership with Mush Larose, with the dog sled teams. And then of course we started having those in the fall as well and they don’t have the sleighs they use carts.

MJWA fall festival

We’ve had the skating on the rink. And I must mention that we used to have skating on the pond, thanks in large part to Stefan Foerster, and I will give all kinds of accolades to him, because he was an employee of the CRCA for over 20 years, and he’s now retired and of course he has become a member of the Friends, so he is volunteering there.

And Stefan was very easy for us to work with. He came up with ideas, and we’d bounce ideas off him, and certainly we had the best natural ice rink in the area on the pond. And also, too we helped with other projects. The Friends have been involved in working on the trails and trail maintenance, and the fencing along Centennial Road, which is about five kilometres, over a period of about three to four years, we helped put up the new fencing there. These are just some of the projects we did.

One of the other things is we have great partnerships with the Royal Bank, who would come out with their employees from the local branches, and also the TD Bank with the tree planting. So, we have been involved with a lot of community groups. Dupont/Invista, and Shell have been very good, and has Proctor & Gamble over the years. They were very good in terms of giving us money for projects and working on the trails and things like that.

RBC volunteers at MJWA tree nursery

One other group we’ve had over the years is a local group into astronomy here, so we did something on the skies of Mac Johnson with that group. We have had a number of presentations and speakers talking about butterflies and snakes, including staff from Cataraqui Conservation and Parks Canada.

Those are some highlights that we have been involved with over the years.

CC – if you were to tell someone who has lived in the area for a while but maybe doesn’t really know, or someone who just moved to the area, what is so special about the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area itself?

DM – it’s very accessible. As you know, Brockville is a small community, but we’re not just talking about the Brockville community, this property is both in Brockville and in Elizabethtown-Kitley Township, so you can access the property not only from Centennial Road but from Debruge Road, which is actually the main entrance.

We have lots of people that know the property from entering off Centennial, but they don’t know about Debruge. So, we have 10 kilometres of trails, and they are really beautiful trails. In fact, my favourite time of year at mac Johnson is the wintertime. I enjoy cross-country skiing and I have for years on that property with my wife. It’s been a great place to cross-country ski.

It's a great natural setting, and it’s also on the reservoir, which is easily accessible. I have been out there a number of times and there are fish in the reservoir believe it or not, and of course we now have the Trumpeter Swans which we introduced back in 2000, and the Friends then had a contest with the elementary school kids to name the two swans at the time, and of course the winning names were Millie for Millennium, for the female, and Mac of course, for Mac Johnson.

MJWA Swan introduction program - circa 2000

We had them in a compound, and they were clipped swans, and then I guess it was around 2001 we had another 15 swans come in, and those swans now have become between 75 to 95 swans throughout this area. Many people will see them on the St. Lawrence River as you drive along the parkway, because these swans will stay all year round if they have open water.

CC – Why is it important for individuals, or groups or entire communities to preserve and protect these natural spaces?

DM – Obviously we have wetlands, and I think there has been quite a bit written over the years about the importance of wetlands and the value they have in terms of contributing to the overall balance of nature and the environment. So that’s important.

Also, one of the latest things people are talking more and more about is an individual’s overall mental health. I think there has been a lot said about that recently in regard to spending more time in the outdoors and getting back to nature. This is something that people have known for years, but I know of recovery groups in this particular area who have made a point of using the trails at the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area for therapeutic walks.

For exercise certainly is another good reason to come out to the Area. Like I said I enjoy cross country skiing. And over the years I know the track and field groups from the Brockville area have practiced at the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area in terms of cross-country running, so it’s become a recreation area, although that is not the main purpose of conservation area.

CC – We all hope that these groups will see and appreciate what the MJWA has to offer and will come out more often and even get involved in helping with the protection, preservation and promotion. And events like the Family Fun Day also may get people coming out more often just to enjoy the nature.

DM – Preserve, protect and promote, those are the three ‘Ps’ that we operate under. And certainly, over the years we have had co-operative efforts with the Girl Guides when they had a camp here. We worked with them on various different projects that they had, and most recently there have been the summer camps in partnership with the Frontenac Arch Biosphere and Cataraqui Conservation. So, yes, we know how important it is to get people out, especially students.

CC – One thing that is quite noticeable is how the Friends Group is open to anyone and how there are so many people with diverse interests and skills involved. It really is an organization where you can use your own individual skills and interests to help out, isn’t it?

One of the things that we did back in 2009 is we had a bio-blitz, in other words to go around and take a look at the flora and fauna on the property. And we did that just as a Friends group and prepared a report and gave it to the Conservation Authority. It was done over a 24-hour period, and we invited a lot of people from the area who we thought would be helpful from Parks Canada, I know there was a biologist who came from Carlton University, and we prepared that report.

Also of course, there is the tree nursery, which has been going on for about 20 years. It started just after Stefan came. There is a greenhouse on the property now, and we just finished it recently, and there are a number of volunteers who come out to work on that, and of course there are also those who come out according to their schedule since people are very busy today. But we appreciate everyone who can give even a small part of their time.  

MJWA tree nursery - new workshed construction

When people join our organization, they come in with different interests. Some people want to be involved with the nursery, other people are interested in working on trails, other people based on their skillset want to work on promotional pieces.

One of the things that came out of us doing the Ontario Senior Winter Games in 2007 and 2009, is there was some legacy from those Games, and we used it and we rebuilt the skating shack on the property, which was quite a project for the volunteers to do. So, for the people who like to do carpentry and building, they get involved in things like that.

And then there’s the musical group Fiddlers Plus, and they provide entertainment at our Family Days and the people have really enjoyed that over the years. One of our newer members actually plays with Fiddlers Plus and now they come out and help in the nursery. We have a lot going on.

CC – For you personally, what do you get out of being a member of the Friends of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area?

DM – I enjoy the outdoors, and I enjoy getting out in nature and going out for walks. We have over the years had potlucks with the members, and at some of the events we have a canteen and some of the members we only see them at the canteen, because they say, well I can make cookies or tarts, so they come out to the canteen and that’s they way they participate.

I know when the young kids come out and they see the sled dogs, for example, it gives you a nice feeling to see their enjoyment. It’s something that you can take for granted after a while. I appreciate getting out and taking a look at leaves along the trails this time of year.

We’ve had a senior’s exercise group come out here and do some programs, so not only are these folks getting exercise, but they are spending quality time out in nature and learning more about the property. We’ve had bird watchers come out here leading different groups.

I enjoy the outdoors, and if people enjoy the outdoors and if they come out with the Friends there is good camaraderie with the other folks on the trails, and friendship. With the friends we have new people joining, some people stay for a long period of time, other people for a shorter period of time. It’s amazing how many people do use the area too, and we have benches. We built nine benches already and we’re going to put in a 10th bench soon, and these benches are spread throughout the trails.

We have also put up bird houses and all those kinds of things, so if you enjoy that kind of building and doing things in the outdoors, the Friends is a good thing to get involved in.

For more information about the Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area, visit https://cataraquiconservation.ca/pages/friends-mac-johnson.

Thank you Doug for sharing your stories, dedication and passion for the Friends and the preservation of the Wildlife Area.

Please stayed tuned for interview number two in this three-part Anniversary series.