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.
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.