In an alien land


A Volunteer for Nature group explores the otherworldly landscape of Manitoulin Island’s Quarry Bay alvar on one of Ontario Nature’s biggest nature reserves

by Graeme Stemp-Morlock

On a cool August night, I stare into a thick midnight fog off the western tip of Manitoulin Island in northern Lake Huron. I cast my eye over waters that conceal a graveyard of ships, including the fabled Griffon, which many believe sank off these very rocks in 1679.

Ten years of teamwork
Every summer for the last decade, Ontario Nature has been sending small teams of passionate nature lovers into unique environments to participate in conservation projects. Groups may find themselves removing invasive species, improving trails or collecting data on a variety of animal species. In 2007, some 200 individuals joined in a dozen trips. Trips range in duration from a day to a week, and the only cost is for meals and accommodation.

The inspiration for the program can be traced back to a U.K. program called the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, which sends volunteers around the United Kingdom and beyond to join conservation efforts. In 1998, Ontario Nature (then called the Federation of Ontario Naturalists) decided to initiate a similar program with a provincial focus, and so Working for Wilderness came into being.

In 2001, Ontario Nature and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) joined forces and, with funding from the Trillium Foundation, Working for Wilderness became Volunteer for Nature (VfN). Not only has the name of the program changed: the trips run under it have also evolved. In the early years, outings lasted several days and were usually located in provincial or national parks. Now, single- and multiple-day trips are offered, and often they are to Ontario Nature’s nature reserves, allowing volunteers to play an important role in the stewardship and healthy maintenance of the organization’s sensitive protected areas. This year, VfN will be holding events geared to kids and families, such as a freshwater shellfish and insect larvae inventory at the Cawthra Mulock Nature Reserve, located within the Greater Toronto Area, and a crayfish survey along the St. Lawrence River.

The main goal of the program is to connect ordinary people with extraordinary natural environments. “People love it because they are doing something good for the natural environment, which is in turn good for themselves,” says Lisa Richardson, Ontario Nature’s Volunteer for Nature coordinator. “There are no specified skills [needed], and we take everyone – from university students to retirees to city people who have never camped before. They all get a chance to contribute to protecting biodiversity and natural areas in the province.”
Graeme Stemp-Morlock

The captain of the Griffon, a fur-trading ship, and his barebones crew were sailing across vast Lake Huron when a storm erupted. They were never seen again. More than 200 years later, local farmers and fishermen collected iron and lead from a beached wreck resembling the Griffon at the western tip of Manitoulin Island. The Mississagi Strait lighthouse keeper and his assistant found the skeletons of six sailors in a nearby cave. With the moist air heavy around me, I appreciate the lighthouse that still flashes, even if it couldn’t save the Griffon from foundering.

The next day, I feel as though I am on a modern-day version of the Griffon, as I and my fellow travellers on an Ontario Nature Volunteer for Nature (VfN) trip search for the island’s Quarry Bay Nature Reserve (QBNR). We had set out from the Mississagi Lighthouse Campground and headed for the reserve several kilometres away, but we quickly discover that the vague, handwritten directions we received are confusing, and the logging roads we take are as treacherous as the shoals and islands that capsized so many ships. We make several wrong turns into hunting camps and dead ends, and our Jeep bounces along the rough road.

Unlike the Griffon’s crew, however, our small group of explorers finds safe passage to our destination, thanks to our trusty compass and a Department of National Defence map from the 1960s.

A dozen nature lovers and a handful of Ontario Nature staff have assembled at the Mississagi Lighthouse Campground on the western tip of Manitoulin Island for this five-day excursion. At 2,766 square kilometres, Manitoulin is reputed to be the largest freshwater island in the world. Most of the island’s 12,600 people live at the eastern end, near the highway that leads to the Chi-Cheemaun ferry and the mainland.

Ontario Nature owns and manages 21 nature reserves, but the QBNR that we’ve come to explore is the organization’s second largest, at just under 400 hectares. In 1999, Ontario Nature, along with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), the Nature Conservancy in the U.S. and Ontario Parks, spent over $5 million in the largest conservation land deal at the time, to aquire not just QBNR but another 6, 600 hectares now owned by NCC. “The uniqueness of the Quarry Bay Nature Reserve – it’s part of the largest amount of protected alvar in Ontario –makes it a really important site to preserve,” says Mark Carabetta, Ontario Nature’s conservation science manager. “It’s exciting to go there. It’s so remote – there are even wolves on the island.” Few Ontario Nature staff have visited the site before, due to its out-of-the-way location. During our time here, we hope to identify a wide variety of plants, animals, birds and rocks, as well as get a good look around the place.

Our group is an eclectic assortment of young and old, from recent university graduates to retirees. A few have been on VfN trips before, but for most of us this is our first time. Held in common is our collective desire to experience and help protect nature.

The nature we have come to experience and protect on Manitoulin Island is a highly unusual ecosystem and geological formation known as alvar (see “Endangered ecosystem: alvars”). Alvars – “alvar” is a Nordic word meaning “limestone pavement” – are large areas of exposed bedrock that do indeed resemble pavement.

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