Hidden within the remnants of the Carolinian forest, Short Hills Provincial Park is a neglected gem.
In the first grey light of an overcast morning, the sweeping vista of deep, wooded valleys and hilltop meadows seen from the Bruce Trail in Short Hills Provincial Park is sombre and muted. Although located a mere kilometre outside the sprawl of St. Catharines, the north entrance of the park is like a portal to another realm, a vast, roadless, unique Carolinian expanse tucked into the nape of the Niagara Escarpment. Even as it begins to drizzle on the morning after Victoria Day, an avian chorus – robins, cardinals, song sparrows, goldfinches and mourning doves – rises out of the gloom, led by the emphatic chant of a common yellowthroat perched on top of a low dogwood thicket.
The 735-hectare park, steeped in history and ecological diversity, has beckoned me in almost every kind of weather for more than 30 years. Shortly after the provincial government purchased the land, it seemed a boundless new space to explore. There I discovered waterfalls, hidden ravines and dark hemlock groves surrounding the Boy Scout Camp Wetaskiwin. The park became an intimate learning ground for appreciating southern Ontario’s rich but beleaguered natural heritage.
Short Hills Provincial Park occupies a gap almost three kilometres wide and five kilometres deep in the escarpment, where a much more spectacular predecessor of Niagara Falls drained the Lake Erie basin before the last ice age. As if poured into a sandbox, glacial till and meltwater sediments later filled in the ancient gorge. After the ice receded some 13,000 years ago, erosion created a deeply wrinkled landscape that formed the watershed of Twelve Mile Creek, the only coldwater brook trout stream in the Niagara Peninsula. Short Hills, a natural environment class park, contains four provincially designated Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI) and 428 species of vascular plants, including many rarities.
Despite its size and significance, Short Hills is not a well known park outside of the immediate area and is treated as a backwater by the government. The park has no full-time, on-site staff and entry is free. Use by local dog walkers, hikers, cyclists, equestrians, birders and others, however, has skyrocketed in recent years to an estimated 60,000 annual visits. Mountain bikes, in particular, are leaving their mark, while sprawl rapidly encroaches on the park from different directions. And, while awareness of the need to protect the remnants of Ontario’s Carolinian forest is growing, action has yet to be taken on many aspects of long-standing, detailed plans to enhance the park’s natural heritage.
Disbanded Loyalist soldiers gave Short Hills park its name when they began settling and farming in the area in the 1780s.The steeply rolling topography made it a valuable setting for water mills, which were built around the perimeter of the present park, and as a source of timber for pioneer construction and shipbuilding in St. Catharines. The province started buying land in the area in 1967 and officially designated it as a provincial park in 1985.
Almost a third of the park is still covered with old fields, which contain scattered clumps of dogwood, wild plum, hawthorn, feral apple trees, highbush cranberry, wild rose and raspberry canes. Red cedar grows along the valley brows. The open tablelands are good places to watch red-tailed hawks patrol for mice and cottontails throughout the year, as well as for migrating raptors tracing along the escarpment in the spring. On this dreary day, though, I see only a pair of turkey vultures struggling with little luck to gain lift in the absence of thermals.
In 1991, the ambitious Short Hills Management Plan called for ending leases on the 15 percent of the park still under cultivation and replanting the farm fields with native trees. In particular, the plan envisioned the reforestation as an ideal opportunity to expand the foothold of the endangered cucumber magnolia tree and other Carolinian species in the area.
Fifteen years later, after the Harris era’s deep cuts to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) staff and budget, more than half of the farm fields remain and cucumber magnolia is still absent. The management plan was supposed to be updated after 10 years, but no review has taken place.
Still, volunteers coordinated by the Friends of Short Hills group, founded in 1995, have planted 150,000 trees, about 70 percent of them white pine and the remainder largely ash, oak, sugar maple and walnut. Most of the more recent plantings have been on the east side of the park, particularly around the perimeter of a large, mature stand known as Cataract Woods, which contains tulip trees and other rare plants. The group hopes the new trees will enhance the location’s draw for deep-woods nesters such as the endangered Acadian flycatcher and the rare hooded warbler, both of which have been sighted in the park. The crow-sized pileated woodpecker has also been spotted in the forest.
Together with the nearby St. John’s Conservation Area, the Hamilton Field Naturalists’ Short Hills Sanctuary and several large, unprotected private woodlots to the south, Cataract Woods also hosts the second largest nesting population of rare hooded warblers in Canada – 32 pairs in 2003. Because of these and other rarities, the Canadian Wildlife Service has designated Short Hills and the other sites as the Twelve Mile Creek Headwaters Important Bird Area (IBA). This IBA forms one of Ontario’s biggest concentrations of Carolinian forest close to urban centres. Unfortunately, those urban centres are also encroaching on the park; new subdivisions in St. Catharines are now nudging against the park’s northeastern borders. Construction is ongoing upstream around Fonthill, raising concern about the ecological integrity of the watershed.
“There is continuing development in the Twelve Mile Creek headwaters that may have an impact on the creek,” says George Dewar, chair of Friends of Short Hills.
“There’s a concern about suburban runoff – oil, gasoline and road salt.”
Passing from a large field and through a small white pine plantation, I turn south on the Bruce Trail into rich hardwood forest on the west side of the park. Raindrops fall from the lush, spring-green leaves of sugar maple, oak, beech, white ash and black cherry. Like most of the woods that shade about half the park, this forest has a strong complement of Carolinian species – bitternut and shagbark hickory, blue beech and witch-hazel.
Patches of trilliums, mayapple, blue cohosh and wild ginger sprout from the smooth contours of the forest floor. Blue and yellow violets, Jack-in-the-pulpit, false Solomon’s-seal and wild garlic also abound. Several ancient red and white oaks along the path, each well over a metre thick, spread out huge, low, heavy limbs, testifying to a time when they stood on mostly cleared land, before the forest grew back up around them.
At one of the park’s half dozen small waterfalls, the Bruce Trail exits Short Hills and faithfully follows the Niagara Escarpment west. But the Swayze Falls Trail, part of a 24-kilometre system of footpaths, continues on to its namesake destination. Also known as Dry Falls, Swayze Falls – the park’s largest cataract – drops about 20 metres into a narrow gorge exposing seven layers of Silurian sedimentary bedrock, laid down between 420 and 440 million years ago. One shale layer is of a type seen at only one other site in Ontario.
As I reach the falls and the rain lets up, a veery’s rippling song rises up from the black maples near the bottom of the gorge. A red-eyed vireo, a white-breasted nuthatch and other songbirds join in, while a wet scarlet tanager preens on a branch above.
Close by, an open stand of walnut trees affords good views of a great-crested flycatcher, Baltimore oriole,warbling vireo and the first of the day’s many indigo buntings. Savannahlike groves of widely spaced black walnut are common throughout the park, especially in the bottomlands of the wider river valleys.
Terrace Creek, an ANSI near the centre of the park, is probably the least disturbed spot in Short Hills, with little sign of garlic mustard or other invasive plant species. Earlier in spring, the forest around the creek’s small, scenic waterfall is adorned with an especially rich assortment of blooming Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, hepatica, twinleaf and other spring ephemerals. Uphill from the falls, amid a small group of hemlocks, stands one of the park’s two mature American chestnuts, among the very few of this threatened species that have survived since chestnut blight fungus ravaged Ontario’s Carolinian forest a century ago. Though only a few mid-trunk branches and shoots at the base of the tree remain alive, it still produces spiny-husked nuts.
Since the Terrace Creek and Hemlock Valley trails traverse sensitive ecological areas, they, along with the connecting Scarlet Tanager Trail, are open only to walkers. Even so, several mountain bikers whiz by me and I pass many deep, muddy tire ruts on these paths. Mountain bikes and horses are permitted on the park’s other 13 kilometres of marked paths, but on weekends I have seen groups of up to a dozen bikers streaming down restricted trails. Both cyclists and hikers commonly use other paths that have been closed for regeneration and erosion control, a constant problem for the park’s many steep ravines.
Assistant Park Superintendent Mark Custers hands out a few tickets to mountain bikers each year, but with two other parks on Lake Erie to oversee, plus winter duties at Bronte Creek Provincial Park, he’s got his hands full. “We usually give a warning. A lot of people just don’t realize [that they are not allowed on non-bike trails],” explains Custers, who grew up in the area and has a special fondness for the park, where he’s worked since 2000. “If we catch them a second time, there’s a good chance they will be charged.” Fines run about $70.
Custers says he patrols a different section of Short Hills at least once a week during the winter and more often in the warmer months when he has staff. A warden is also on-site doing daily trail maintenance, cleanup and repairs during the summer. Overall, the park’s annual operating budget for salaries, equipment and materials is about $13,000. Several thousand dollars are available some years for new bridges and other small capital replacement projects.
There are also worries that white-tailed deer are overrunning Short Hills. Over the years, I have seen more than a dozen at a time bound single file from woodlot to field. MNR estimates the deer population in and around the park at about 400, more than four times the area’s natural carrying capacity. The deer feast on wheat, corn and soybeans in the surrounding farm fields, as well as on the forest understory.
“We have seen deer come out of the forest and eat the tops of tree seedlings while we’re still planting in the same row down the field,” says Dewar. Depredation by white-tailed deer, in fact, has forced the tree planters to stop their work altogether. While Custers says MNR will probably do more research on the impact deer are having, public debate is heating up over the prospect of a deer cull. “There are all sorts of issues [around a cull].Who would do it? When? Where? How? What about public safety and liability?” notes Dewar.“We don’t really know what would succeed.”
Later in the day, after the sun comes out and the sky turns to brilliant blue, I wander into the southeast corner of the park, listening to the loud, resonant call of a red-bellied woodpecker echo along the steep,wooded slopes of Hemlock Valley. The area, also called the Samuel Chandler’s Valley Nature Reserve Zone,was named after the leader of a small rebel force supporting William Lyon Mackenzie that attacked a squad of Queen’s Lancers in June 1838 at Osterhout’s Inn at the edge of the park. The Battle of Short Hills ended after four combatants were wounded and the Lancers surrendered, though most of the retreating rebels were themselves soon captured.
On the last leg of my day-long journey, the sun sinks low and a wood thrush sings vespers as I head northwest on the Black Walnut Trail along a high wooded ridge with a commanding view of Twelve Mile Creek’s wide, grassy floodplain 40 metres below. At the bottom of the valley, another trail branches off and follows the stream to the park’s northern extremity. The trail passes a fallen tree that spans the stream banks, much like the one Laura Secord used to ford the same stretch of creek on her fabled trek during the War of 1812 to warn the British at Beaver Dams, just up the escarpment from there, of an impending American attack.
Contemplating this, I marvel again at all the things that make Short Hills Provincial Park such a special place and at the same time despair that it is being left to drift with little regard for what makes it so.
Tim Tiner is a Toronto-based nature writer who grew up in St. Catharines. His latest book, co-authored with Doug Bennet, is “Wild City: A Guide to Urban Ontario, from Termites to Coyotes.”