A guided tour of nine great nature getaways in eastern Ontario.
By Caroline Schultz & Mark Stabb
Eastern Ontario naturalists sometimes jokingly refer to the phenomenon of the “Kingston curtain” – a perceived boundary in the knowledge and experiences of southern Ontario nature lovers about the landscape east of Kingston. During almost a decade of living and working in the Ottawa Valley, we both observed this anomaly. We know “the Valley” as a distinct cultural community that retains a link to the great river that shaped its history. Defined by its drainage through tributaries such as the Petawawa, Bonnechere, Madawaska, Mississippi and Rideau, the Ottawa Valley is rich in unheralded natural areas. Now that we have moved from the region, we miss our natural history explorations in this beautiful part of the province – the big, clean waters, the wild areas and the hidden gems that spice up the landscape.
Most of these spots have strong river connections. Like the Nile, the Ottawa River flows through a gargantuan trench caused by bedrock displacement. The area has a high concentration of fault lines and the earthquakes that come with them. The geological activity created a huge linear depression known as the Ottawa-Bonnechere graben. Hills and cliffs climb steeply along the sides. Downstream, clay deposits mark the site of the postglacial Champlain Sea.
The mighty Ottawa, which drains an area twice the size of New Brunswick (around 146,000 square kilometres), still has wild shorelines and roaring whitewater. But the 1,300-kilometre long river is much diminished from what it once was, not least because of the 50 or so dams that interrupt its flow. Some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, the river carried most of the waters of the Great Lakes and carved evidence of its force in the bedrock. The channels of this ancient waterway swerve away from the existing riverbed and have developed into large wetlands.
Spectacular and special sites line the Ottawa River and its tributaries. We encourage you to explore some of our favourite spots, places we love to return to.
Mer Bleue and Alfred bogs
Two of eastern Ontario’s best-known wetlands – Mer Bleue Bog and Alfred Bog – were formed in ancient, low-lying former channels of the Ottawa River. While most bogs in southern Ontario have been drained or mined for peat, groups of committed conservationists have seen to it that large portions of these two bogs are protected and, with the aid of boardwalks and interpretive signs, accessible to visitors. In the fall, you can find these wetlands aglow with the rich reds and auburns of heath vegetation.
Mer Bleue Conservation Area protects a 2,500-hectare raised peat bog, located within the Ottawa Greenbelt. The site was expropriated in the 1940s by the Department of National Defence (DND) to serve as a bombing range. DND ownership allowed Mer Bleue to escape development amid the rapidly urbanizing landscape, and it is now one of the most studied bogs in the country, recognized as a wetland ecosystem of international significance under the Ramsar Convention.
A walk along the 1.5-kilometre boardwalk will give you a true taste of northern flora, with sightings of black spruce, tamarack, bog rosemary, Labrador tea, blueberry and cottongrass. Orchids, as well as insect-eating pitcher plants and sundew, are also common. Birding is a popular activity here during spring and fall migrations, and in the summer you can get glimpses of such breeding birds as Lincoln’s sparrow, clay-colored sparrow and palm warbler.
Protecting Alfred Bog required a greater effort. For 30 years, the bog was actively mined for peat, after a struggle by the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC) and the Vankleek Hill and District Nature Society (VHDNS) failed to prevent a zoning change that allowed peat extraction to proceed. Today, thanks to dedicated collaboration between the OFNC, the VHDNS, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the South Nation River Conservation Authority and the United Counties of Prescott-Russell, 90 percent of the remaining bog is permanently protected. The raised peat bog has been building for 10,000 years and harbours many rare or endangered plants and animals, including the bog elfin butterfly, Fletcher’s dragonfly, eastern white-fringed orchid and rhodora. Northern birds such as the gray jay and black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers have been spotted there.
At 4,200 hectares, the Alfred Bog is the largest peatland in southern Ontario and the pride of Alfred and Plantagenet Township. “Rarely do you go there when there isn’t someone visiting the boardwalk,” says Frank Pope, OFNC member and chair of the Alfred Bog Committee, which oversees the bog’s protection. “It gives a super view of the heath portion of the bog.” With a nature reserve at its core, the bog adds wildness to an otherwise tame agricultural landscape. Moose still inhabit the area, which is outside the species’ typical range. Alfred Bog is well worth a visit, though it’s a bit more out of the way than Mer Bleue and the boardwalk is more rustic.
Madawaska Highlands trails
In the rugged and wild forested hills of the Madawaska Highlands, undeveloped Crown land eclipses private holdings, and logging, hunting, trapping and fishing continue on the public lands. But over the past decade, some new opportunities have opened up for nature lovers to explore the public properties in this land of marble and granite. For people who crave the self-propelled challenge of backcountry wilderness exploration, the Madawaska Highlands offer a number of ways to become immersed in the region’s natural history. At Calabogie Lake, local resort owners and municipal authorities have opened a series of loop trails that lead to wonderful vistas of the hills. Eagle’s Nest Trail and Manitou Mountain Trail are two well marked and well used paths through highland habitats.
But perhaps the best introduction to this area is the Griffith Uplands trail. Opened in 2010 (with assistance from the Greater Madawaska Township), it offers a two- to three-hour walk that takes you first through a young forest and then across a clear creek, where trail creator Tim Yearington has left a water cup to tempt thirsty hikers. Here, you can actually hear the water running underground through the fractured rock. Then the ascent starts. You climb past some mature stands of pine and oak before the forest begins to open up to barren rock, with shrubs and stunted trees along the hilltops. In summer, you may see blueberries in profusion and woodland sunflower. The trail even skirts some wetlands nestled up in the hills.
Madawaska Highlands Trails
The middle reaches of the Madawaska River are best known for thrilling whitewater, but they also contain a hidden oasis. Conroy Marsh spans the confluence of the Madawaska, York and Little Mississippi rivers, and has been an important travel corridor for people and wildlife for thousands of years. In the late 1800s, it was also a busy junction for the shipment of red and white pines. Today, the area is a 2,400-hectare provincially significant wetland, protected as a conservation reserve.
The large wetland, south of Combermere and bounded on the north by Negeek Lake, is made up of marsh, fen and swamp habitats, and has stands of wild rice – a boon for waterfowl. It is also a known hot spot for wild cranberries. River otters, ospreys and bald eagles live here, and the marsh supports healthy populations of black and ring-necked ducks. Hemmed in by the hills of the Madawaska Highlands and broken up by granite mounds, the eight-kilometre-long Conroy Marsh is an ideal area to explore quietly by canoe or small boat. With its many side channels and inviting indentations, the marsh is a place in which you can get pleasantly lost.
A mere 30-minute drive east from Ottawa along Highway 417, the Larose Forest is an oasis of biodiversity in the heart of an almost entirely agricultural area. The 10,540-hectare stretch of land includes a complex of wetlands, riparian thickets, small open areas, and mixed deciduous and coniferous forest.
The woods are home to an impressive number of breeding birds, offering a refuge for whip-poor-wills (listed as a threatened species) and evening grosbeaks. It is also one of the few breeding locations in eastern Ontario for the Cape May warbler. More than 200 species of moths have been observed in the forest, and the list of butterflies spotted there now stands at 67, at least two of them – the mulberry wing skipper and the pepper-and-salt skipper – considered very rare. Among the 12 known species of reptiles and amphibians found here are the four-toed salamander and the threatened Blanding’s turtle. And for mushroom enthusiasts, Larose Forest is a fantastic hunting ground, with more than 500 species. “Larose Forest has enough biodiversity to satisfy any naturalist, whatever their interests, whether flora or fauna,” says Christine Hanrahan of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC). “The variety is astonishing.”
Diane Brunet, of the Club de Miroise de l’Est Ontarien, also sings the forest’s praises: “The Larose Forest is one of the crown jewels of the United Counties of Prescott and Russell. This beautiful historical area is cherished by all nature lovers, bird watchers, mycologists, or simply for a nature walk.” (“La Forêt Larose est un des joyaux des Comtés unis de Prescott et Russell. Ce merveilleux site historique est privilégié de tous, que ce soit pour l’observation d’oiseaux, la mycologie ou simplement une randonnée en nature.”) The extraordinary thing about this haven of biodiversity is that it is less than 100 years old. In 1919, algologist Ferdinand Larose planted the first conifers on abandoned farmlands (known as the Bourget Desert) around the present-day villages of Limoges and Bourget. Since then, more than 18 million trees have been planted by an array of forward-thinking groups and agencies. Today, the forest produces Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber and is logged, with care being taken for its ecological integrity, during the winter months.
The OFNC has done extraordinary work in documenting the species in the forest and keeps adding new records. Any naturalist planning a visit should download the species lists from the Larose Forest website (www.ofnc.ca/conservation/larose/index.php), along with other information about this ecological gem.
For a unique natural history experience, consider a winter trip to Oxford Mills, on Kemptville Creek, a tributary of the Rideau River. Roughly 60 kilometres south of Ottawa, this area is the haunt of naturalists Fred Schueler and Aleta Karstad, who offer one of the few winter herpetological programs: Mudpuppy Nights. Mudpuppies are secretive aquatic salamanders with frond-like external gills. These animals are active year-round in many of our bodies of water (much to the surprise of numerous ice-fishers). The salamanders tend to concentrate in flowing water from time to time, and in the 1990s, a large number were discovered just below the dam in Oxford Mills. They move fairly slowly and can be seen from the shore with the aid of a flashlight.
Schueler and Karstad, both committed natural historians, held the first Mudpuppy Night in 1998. Today, Mudpuppy Nights are recognized as the longest-running winter herpetological program in Canada. These events are held on Friday evenings through much of the winter, and kids get priority to observe the slippery creatures. “It’s your only chance to see an active amphibian when the air temperature is -26 C!” Schueler claims proudly.
Outside the winter field season, Schueler and Karstad, along with family, friends and visiting researchers, operate the Bishop’s Mills Natural History Centre, offering research and educational programs and facilities. It is a place where you can learn about the natural history of eastern Ontario from a committed and concerned family and community.