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Minesing Swamp

2003 May 15 – Minesing Swamp

Active Pursuits, Travel Column
Toronto Star Newspaper

Southern Ontario’s largest wetland, the Minesing Swamp, is playfully referred to as the Northern Everglades, and as Ontario’s Everglades.

While not home to alligators but to great blue herons, turtles and orchids – oh my – the Minesing Swamp, west of Barrie, is a 6,000-hectare, internationally significant complex of swamps, marshes, bogs and fens.

From the outside, from bordering roads, the Minesing doesn’t look terribly impressive. There are bulrushes, cattails and rivers and creeks that flow amidst grassy embankments towards far off dead trees. At a glance, the sopping landmass is the kind of Florida real estate you wouldn’t want to be suckered into buying.

But follow one of its rivers or creeks with a paddle and you’ll enter a fantastical world.

Pick Willow Creek, and let its gentle, meandering channel transport you into a vast graveyard of silver maples. Topless trunks at half-mast and others mere stumps, the former giants jut solemnly from watery muck. Belying their last leg, they form eerie and mesmerizing silhouettes.

Closer still, the dead, bleached white trees have nests. In rotted cavities and in woodpecker holes, in every conceivable nook and even on improbable tops of fully exposed snags, nests are everywhere.

Flocks of birds fill the air with wing and song. Swallows swoop acrobatically in front of your canoe. Turtles line fallen logs, soaking in the sun, while the chorus of frogs is as deafening as a highway.

Then, where Willow Creek meets the Nottawasaga River, you’ll enter Carolinian forest with living trees of Hackberry, Black Maple, Blue Beech and other exotic species typical of southern United States. Protruding from mounds, shallows and embankments, they hang heavily over the water with bright leaves.

The Minesing Swamp, with its seasonally flooded and permanently flooded land, is designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the RAMSAR Convention on Wetlands. A world class designation, it puts the Minesing on par with Florida’s Everglades, Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp and Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park.

With its diverse habitats, the Minesing Swamp statistically is home to 400 species of plants of which 11 are provincially rare and one nationally rare, 221 bird species of which 135 nest on site, 23 species of mammals, 30 species of fish and numerous reptiles and amphibians. We’re talking muskrats, minks, otters and opossums, bats, newts, frogs and butterflies, songbirds, ducks, raptors, sand hill cranes, swans and owls.

Naturalists marvel at the Swamp’s remarkable microclimates that uphold not just Carolinian forest but tundra plants typical of the Hudson Bay lowlands.

“We’re looking into the possibility of having the Minesing Swamp also designated under UNESCO as a world biosphere reverse,” said Byron Wesson, the director of land management for the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA).

The highest of dead standing trees support the 5th largest blue heron colony in the province. Forest of dense cedar and black spruce on the southern fringe provides a deer “yard” in which 300 to 400 deer find refuge in winter. Pockets of particular growing conditions support populations of rare orchids.

“One orchid found last summer, was a one-of-a-kind – a cross between a purple and white prairie fringed orchid that was pink,” said Wesson.

A colourful poster map of the swamp, produced by the Friends of Minesing Swamp, outlines four canoe launch sites, wetland information, plus area highlights, including historic Fort Willow and the Trans Canada and Ganaraska trails. The map is available free at a variety of outdoor shops in Barrie and also from the NVCA office.

For paddling, spring is best while the water level still provides clearance over submerged logs. Even so, there are spots where paddlers may have to get out and walk their boat. Note well, however, that routes through the swamp are not marked and getting lost is possible.

Guided hiking, canoeing, skiing and snowshoeing tours are offered by “Friends” monthly except in June, July and August, with fees going towards ongoing management. The non-profit group of volunteers works to preserve the integrity of the Swamp.

“One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is the increased numbers of visitors and the impact they’re having,” said Wesson, who is also a past president of “Friends”.

To assist with the rehabilitation of heavily used areas and to educate visitors on the importance of low-pact activities, user-fees are coming into effect at the end of May. Expect to pay $20 for a yearly pass and $5 for a day pass.

For more information, phone NVCA at 705-424-1479 or visit web site: http://www.nvca.on.ca.