Bubbling Spring. The Healing Spring. Spirit Spring. Fountainhead. PEI’s springs are so culturally important that many have names. We may not give springs much thought today, but our ancestors sure did.
Wherever you are on the Island, there is water under your feet – the groundwater that supplies all our drinking water. In some places, cracks in the rock allow groundwater to flow to the surface where it appears as springs. Some springs mark the start of a stream (Photo 1) while others start high in the hills, flowing a long way to their watercourse (Photo 2). Other springs can be found further downstream (Photo 3) or bubbling up underneath waterways.
All these springs have one important feature in common: they emerge from the ground at a constant temperature of 7C (about 45F) year-round. That’s most easily seen this time of year, when the Island’s small streams remain open even in the coldest temperatures (Photo 4). Knowing the locations of springs was a matter of life-and-death for early Islanders who travelled ice roads in winter – areas near springs were soft and needed to be avoided. They were also choice spots for what was perhaps an equally important activity: making shine. While we may not pay as much attention to the locations of springs today, they remain important to people and wildlife.
In winter, springs provide useful open-water areas. The spring near my house (Photo 1) is a wildlife haven, visited regularly by Coyotes, Foxes, Raccoons, Skunks, Squirrels, Grouse, Ravens, Crows, Blue Jays and other overwintering birds. It’s a bit like an oasis in the desert, with predators keeping an eye on the area for prey, and prey doing their best to avoid them. This spring also helps keep a small pond on my land ice-free most of the winter, and there are almost always a few ducks using that open water.
Larger springs are sometimes used by aquatic mammals such as Beaver and Muskrat, who appreciate the open-water reprieve from their ice-covered winter ponds. Unseen in the bottom of our springs are overwintering invertebrates such as stoneflies, caddisflies, mayflies, and midges that will emerge from spring to fall (depending on species) as important prey for fish and amphibians.
In spring, PEI’s amphibians – Toads, Frogs, Newts, and Salamanders – awake from their winter hibernation and search for standing water to breed and lay eggs. Two important habitats for them are vernal pools and our slow-moving, climate-controlled springs.
In summer, the Island’s springs help keep our streams cool during warm weather and flowing during droughts. Brook Trout and Atlantic Salmon are cold water fish and can become stressed when water temperatures exceed 20C (68F); warmer water also holds less dissolved oxygen. Springs not only moderate water temperature, but also provide cool, oxygen-rich refuges for fish during the hottest summer days.
In fall, springs are critically important for fish spawning. The spring in Photo 3 is chock full of large Brook Trout; if you look closely, you should be able to spot them by the white edges on their lower fins. Brook Trout prefer to lay their eggs in or near springs, and PEI research has shown that these eggs have much better hatching success in and around springs than in other locations along the river.
PEI’s streams and rivers are all spring-fed, which is why most of them flow even in the driest summer conditions. Although “pure spring water” has a bit of a health halo as a marketing term, I don’t recommend drinking directly from springs. There are lots of opportunities for contamination (think of the waste products from all that wildlife use!), and it’s always safest to treat water through boiling or purification tablets before consuming.
If you enjoy angling, streamside hiking, or just listening to the sound of a flowing brook you can thank these important parts of PEI untamed.