In December, trees are dormant. But the people who live with them are still active, thinking over the events of the past year and making plans for the year to come.
Winnipeg’s urban forest has been challenged over the past year. First, the trees faced drought conditions for much of the summer and record amounts of precipitation in September, followed by a catastrophic Colorado Low storm in October that damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of trees.
Add to that the damage done to ash trees by the cottony ash psyllid and the emerald ash borer and 9,458 elm trees diagnosed with Dutch elm disease and you have to feel sorry for the urban forest and those who maintain it.
That burden has fallen on both City of Winnipeg’s urban forestry department and individual homeowners: we know the October storm damaged more than 30,000 trees but no one has any idea how many additional trees were damaged on private property.
In December, I got an email with the subject line: "Ash’s Elm?"
Ash Raichura is an engineer who works for the City of Winnipeg; his latest file is the pilot composting program. He lives in Armstrong’s Point and he wanted to tell me about an elm tree on the riverbank behind his property.
He calls it his "contemplation tree." And he’s spent hundreds of hours on or near that tree since his family moved five years ago into the neighbourhood, which sits in what the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation calls "a promontory formed by the winding Assiniboine River."
Raichura wrote me because he thinks that his tree will be washed away during break-up this spring.
Riverbank trees faced an additional challenge last year — a fall flood.
Given September’s precipitation and the approaching snowstorm, the province activated the Red River Floodway on Oct. 9. It was the first time the floodway had been used later than August, since it opened in 1968.
The river crested at 17.19 feet above the James Avenue gauge on Oct. 23. The city considers anything above 18 feet to be a "moderate flood" — the 2011 spring flood, by comparison, peaked at 19.6 feet and the 2009 flood at 22.5 feet.
The floodway operated until Nov. 7 for a total of 29 days.
River water levels have slowly and steadily dropped and are currently at 3.4 feet, but freeze-up started when water levels were still very high. And when the rivers dropped, those first few inches of ice were left behind.
Which means that this unseasonable flooding has presented problems for riverbank trees on two fronts.
First, the potential damage from high water levels.
"Riparian trees typically are able to withstand spring flooding," says city forester Martha Barwinsky. "However, there is a greater impact when there is the extended high water levels during the summer months when the trees are actively growing and in full leaf, or even from the high water levels last fall when the trees would be slowing down to prepare for winter. We won’t start to see those impacts until this coming summer."
Second, approximately 2,500 of the 9,458 elm trees marked for removal are on the riverbanks.
"The high water levels last fall have left many riverbanks covered with suspended ice ‘floors’ and treacherous working conditions, ice shelves extending over the rivers, and poor ice conditions on the larger rivers (Assiniboine and Red) making it very challenging and posing high safety risks for our arborists to remove diseased elms from riverbanks this winter," says Barwinsky.
"We have removed approximately half as of last week. There will be some riverbank elms that we may not be able to remove until conditions improve or until perhaps summer."
Raichura’s family moved into the home in January 2015. The house, built in 1953, was described in the real estate listing as follows:
"STUNNING backyard with gorgeous views of the river and Wellington make this home a must see! Lower level of riverbank features fire pit and seating to enjoy with your family & friends + access to river walk & Skating in winter!"
That spring, when Raichura investigated the riverbank, which was empty except for a thriving colony of common burdock, he discovered a fallen tree stretched 30 feet straight out from the riverbank.
"It was a full-sized mature elm," he says, glancing out the window. "I couldn’t get my arms around it."
The tree functioned as a natural dock; you could walk out on it, stand on it. That first year, it still had leaves.
That June, Raichura and a friend planned an adventure that included his elm.
"On summer solstice 2015, a friend and I cycled to Headingley to pick up a canoe from another friend’s house." he says. "We loaded our bicycles into the canoe and paddled back to my place under the solstice moon. When we arrived at my place (the tree was our visual landmark), we used the tree to roll our bicycles out of the canoe and up onto the shore."
While he only got to use the canoe a few times before it was stolen, Raichura kept on using the tree to orient himself.
"I just go out there and sit and relax, often after work, I bike back and forth to work and when I come home I go straight out there," he says. "I really like and value having that time to myself. Nobody bugs me when I go down there, they know that’s my space."
When he and his family had friends over, they’d spend time on the riverbank.
"One time we were down there, it might have been Canada Day, and I guess there’s a chorus of bearded men in the city that sing," Ash said. "So they were paddling down the river, in syncopated rhythm, knocking their paddles on the floor of the canoe, singing, and we were out there, looking at the river, and we heard them coming and we were like, ‘Oh! Cool!’ and so we got this little musical interlude."
He taught his children what to do if — when — they fell in the river. He only had one rule for guests: he’d only jump in after his own kids, now 15 and 10.
And so they enjoyed the riverbank and the river via the elm, but every year during break-up, chunks of ice would shear off pieces of the tree.
This past spring, only a stump was left.
But thanks to technology, Raichura can see it whenever he wants on Google Earth. He was able to pinpoint when the tree fell after a friend posted a photo from February 2014 that showed the elm upright.
On Feb. 13, the National Weather Service’s office in Grand Forks, N.D., released its latest Red River and Devils Lake Basin spring flood report.
After analyzing the frost depth, the soil moisture at freeze-up, the winter snowpack, precipitation, and base streamflow, they concluded that "the risk for significant snowmelt flooding continues to be substantial, running above long-term historical averages across the Red River and Devils Lake Basins (U.S. portions)."
The office says it could be a "top five flood," especially if we have a cooler and wetter than usual spring as is predicted.
Manitoba’s Hydrologic Forecast Centre was a little cagier.
"The magnitude of peak flows in Manitoba rivers is also dependent on the timing of peak flows from the United States and Saskatchewan portion of the basins," it states in a January report. "The coincidence of local peak flows with the peak flows from the U.S. and Saskatchewan leads to higher flows in Manitoba rivers.
"It should be noted that weather conditions from now through April will largely determine the occurrence, extent and severity of spring runoff in 2020."
This spring, all of us will be watching the riverbanks for signs of trouble.
From the age of 24 to 30, Raichura spent summers tree planting, first in B.C. and later in Manitoba near The Pas.
In the latter years, he usually planted 3,000 trees a day. One day in 1997, he planted 6,000 trees.
"That was the record for the company," he says. "The year after, four or five other guys did it, because they saw that it was possible."
Though he was responsible for planting thousands of trees, Raichura has found the ones he planted recently more meaningful.
Partly, because he’s so invested in his house.
"I call this my St. Adolphe house," he says. "I grew up in Charleswood and on my tenth birthday we moved to St. Adolphe."
He loved his parents’ house; it was next to the Red River and was treed. He planned to buy it when he was grown but the 1997 flood left the property and that of their neighbours uninsurable, though the house was eventually moved 100 kilometres north to Matlock.
"On my son’s tenth birthday, we moved here," he says. Raichura is gratified his sons have said they want to buy the house when they’re grown.
Last year, Raichura planted three trees on his property via Trees Winnipeg’s Releaf program. And the Armstrong’s Point Association’s tree committee, which has given itself the mandate of protecting "the parks, riparian forest and boulevards including the replacement of trees" planted a hackberry on the boulevard.
This summer, he’s thinking of planting a row of conifers at the top level of his yard to block out the condos on the other side of the river, which are only visible during the winter.
While his elm is dead, he still considers himself to be in relationship with it.
"With a living tree, you appreciate its life, its shade or its leaves coming and going, but for this one, I have no expectations," Raichura says.
"It’s not serving a common purpose, but I found a post-life purpose for it. I appreciate while it’s there and I understand that it’s temporary."
As he spoke, I realized we were sitting at a wooden table in a room that had wooden beams and wooden decorations; I was taking notes in a journal whose pages and cover were made from wood pulp.
It reminded me of all the ways we rely on trees, both in life and in death.
Do you have a favourite tree? Tell me about it at email@example.com.
Ariel Gordon is the author of Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests.