Monday, January 12, 2015

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Black River - Forgotten Valley

The Black: Forgotten Valley
Usually we think of the northern reaches of Ontario when we think of wilderness rivers, for the hand of man lies heavily on most waterways in the south. But here and there a river has escaped. Hidden away among the inhospitable mounds of gneiss in the southern Shield. Often the natural character of these rivers has been protected more by oversight than by intent. Such is the case with the Black, nestled in the rocky country northeast of Lake Couchiching.

A local history of the townships surrounding the Black is called The Land Between, an accurate summary of its economic geography. Certainly the land and the rivers to the south have fallen under the wheel of "progress" - the mills and cottages of the Kawarthas, the long history of canals on the Trent and the Severn. To the north, Cottage country has boomed over the lakes of Muskoka and  Haliburton, lining the waterways with shacks and palaces. But the land between -the valley of the Black - has so far escaped most such developments.

Several factors have contributed to the quiet state of affairs along the Black. The valley had its pine - two thirds of the original forest was white pine - but this dowry to economic development was squandered. When the loggers had stripped away the pine and whatever quality hardwoods they found convenient, they left no lasting developments in their wake. No new towns grew up along the Black; little land was found with soils deep enough to sustain permanent farms, most of the crude roads built to service the logging were allowed to revert to the wilderness, and the valley slumbered once again.

A second factor played a more active role in protecting the Black. Longford Township, one of the central townships along the river, is unusual in that it has been held continuously as a single block by various owners since its first sale in 1865. For the past 55 years it has been owned by an American company and maintained as a private hunting and recreational reserve. For this reason the 40 lakes in Longford, all part of the Black system, have not seen the intensive cottage development that otherwise would almost certainly have taken place.

The result of all this is a canoe route, barely two hours from Toronto, which provides an interesting and unspoiled natural setting for day or weekend trips. The Black River drops slowly with few lengthy rapids, so it is an ideal trip for those who prefer flatwater or lack the experience to tackle more remote rivers. Since the Black holds its water well, it can be paddled at any time during the canoeing season, with the possible exception of late summer in dry years. In spring, however, the nature of the rapids changes dramatically, requiring more caution, and more portages, than those described here.

The route we outline here includes only the lower Black, from Victoria Falls to Hwy. 169, a distance of 30 km. The 25 km stretch from Vankoughnet southwards is also navigable by canoe, but its use is actively discouraged by the owners of the Longford Reserve. As well, it is possible to paddle through the more developed sections of the lower river to its junction with the Severn on the outskirts of Washago. This branch of the Severn is known locally as the Green, for its clear, limestone derived waters contrast strikingly with the dark, organically stained water of the Black.

Snappers, Skinks and Squirrels
Trickling southwesterly off the great Algonquin dome, the Black traverses banded Precambrian gneiss so characteristic of this area.

It comes teasingly close to the boundary between these Shield rocks and the younger sedimentary limestones, but at the last moment turns west and refuses to leave its ancient hard rock bosom. The glaciers scoured deeply in the valley of the Black, especially when their flow matched direction with the grain of the rock, leaving a landscape of rounded edges and smooth flowing lines.

In most of this region the glaciers left only a thin veneer ground moraine. However, at one stage of the glacial retreat Black valley became a long bay of glacial Lake Algonquin, Sand and clay deposits laid down in that period are common along the riverside, providing a more varied and rich woodlands there than in the surrounding uplands.

On many of the scoured rocky hills, trees are sparse and scattered blueberries, juneberry and sumac form the main cover. These barrens are likely the result of irresponsible logging and repeated fires in its wake as much as the earlier action of the glaciers. If you search carefully here, you might find more unusual species, such as the delicate corydalis, blue harebells or nodding ladies' tresses, in wetter pockets.

On the sandy areas along the river the forests are now mostly second-growth deciduous, with white birch and largetooth aspen leading the way. On moister sites silver maple, bur oak and basswood are common trees; in drier areas the birch is joined by hard maple, white ash and red oak. These forests provide shelter
for a rich assortment of shrubs and ferns, as well as a varied bird life including several warblers, vireos and sparrows.

The river bank itself often creates a special type of habitat. Watch for the scarlet blooms of cardinal flower late in the summer along muddy shores, Higher up, a hanging mat of roots and vegetation often includes mosses and liverworts as well as the common sensitive fern and the uncommon long beech fern.

The Black River is an excellent place to watch for flying squirrels, easily identified by their soft grey fur, loose folds of skin between the legs and bulging black eyes. Flying squirrels are actually as common as their noisy cousin, the red squirrel, but the fliers emerge only at night. They spend their days snuggled in groups in woodpecker holes or tree crevices, where your search for dry firewood might rouse them to take a look. Flying squirrels don't actually fly, but rather glide on their outstretched skin, a technique that can take them as far as 45 metres.

On the aquatic side, the Black is a good spot for snapping turtles, Canada's largest turtle. Female snappers bury their leathery eggs in sand banks in early summer, sometimes travelling several kilometres from their home territory to make use of traditional nesting spots, Often you will see the remains of a nest dug up by raccoons. Those eggs that survive have a most remarkable peculiarity. Unlike most animals, the sex of the egg is determined not by its fertilization but by the temperature at which it incubates within the sand. Over the years, cool summers and warm produce a roughly even sex balance in these primitive reptiles.

A more uncommon reptile which has been found along the Black is the five-lined skink, Ontario's only lizard. Usually found around rock or log piles where insects are abundant, skinks can reach a length of 15-20 cm. Young skinks are especially visible, for their tails arc a bright blue colour.

Few Came to Stay
The history of the Black is one of transience, for few settlers chose this watershed as a place to put down roots. Even Indian use seems to have been light, for no former village sites have been discovered. Undoubtedly the river was used for local trapping and hunting, but the transport of furs from the highlands appears to
have mostly funnelled down the Gull River just to the east. The Black lay along the edge of the territory of the agricultural Hurons, but its poor farmland was largely spurned even by these early farmers.

In any case, the Hurons abandoned their lands east of Lake Simcoe near the end of the 16th century, in response to growing Iroquois pressure from the east. Their retreat to fortified villages in Simcoe County did little to save the tribe, however, from the savagery of the Iroquois in their attack of 1649. No doubt the Black also saw the canoes of the Mississauga and Ojibwa after these tribes had pushed the Iroquois southwards again after 1740.  But this reign was to last only a short time. for in 1818 the countryside was handed over to the British government as part of a large treaty encompassing Peterborough and Victoria counties, The first Europeans to travel the Black may well have  been Lt. W.B. Marlow and Lt. Smith, who in 1826 examined it as a possible route for the long-sought canal to link Georgian Bay and the Ottawa.  From their sketch map, it appears that their route took them up the river into Longford Township, and then up Anson Creek towards the east.

It was not until the 1860’s that the townships in this area were laid out, and lots were offered for sale soon after. The Canada Land and Emigration Company, an English firm set up to encourage emigration (at a profit, of course), bought the whole of Longford Township in 1865 for 50 cents an acre, The company soon began to realize how little value this township possessed for settlers, and the land was sold outright to the lumber company of Thompson and Dodge.

For the next few years, thousands of logs moved down the Black River as Longford was stripped of its pine. The waste was enormous, for only the best logs were taken, the others being left to rot on the ground. Those logs that did make it down the river were herded into a canal that took them to Lake St. John. From there, a jackladder portaged the logs across a narrow neck of land to the company mills on the shores of Lake Couchiching.

For the few settlers who built their shanties along the Black in the late 1800s, the future must have looked promising. They were able to make a living selling oats, potatoes, hay and meat to the local lumber camps. The Victoria road, a rough track along the township line between Dalton and Digby, snaked northwards all the way to Vankoughnet, crossing the Black in the vicinity of Victoria Falls. At one time a rural post office opened at Ragged Rapids. Discovery of deposits of gold was reported along the river, though this later proved to be the iron pyrite "fool's gold."

But when the pine was gone and the lumbermen left, the community collapsed. The remote farmers on their poor soils could not compete for more distant markets. The little-used road was too expensive to maintain, or to guard against repeated forest fires, and it was soon abandoned. In a pattern repeated across the southern Shield, the end of logging meant the end of farming as well.

One community which did survive, at least partly, is Cooper's Falls. Founded in 1864 by Thomas Cooper, it once boasted a blacksmith shop, cheese factory, general store, two churches, a school and a small sawmill. Only a few remnants remain today in what has become a small cottaging community, although the
Cooper family is still well represented in the village.

Exploring the River
A leisurely trip from Victoria Falls to Hwy. 169 takes two days, covering a distance of about 30 km. To reach Victoria Falls, follow the Riley Lake road cast for 2 km past Cooper's Falls and turn right onto a dirt road when it bends north. Follow the dirt road, which parallels the river in parts, for approximately 1-1 km to reach the bridge just above Victoria Falls. No camping is allowed here.

Cross the bridge and portage 150 m to a small beach below the falls. The river here pours through a smooth notch gouged by the glaciers, creating spectacular scenery but dangerous swimming above the falls. Almost immediately after you begin, you will be stopped again by a small chute zigzagging through the rocks. This can be lined, or carefully run if water levels are low. As you go by, take note of the iron pegs anchored in the rocks, a memento of the days when the Longford pine had to be manoeuvred around this obstacle.

As you work your way downstream, notice how the contrasting forests relate to soil conditions. On the deeper soils, deciduous forests of birch and maple are characteristic, but whenever a rocky knoll presents harsher conditions, white pine makes its appearance. In these pine areas, you might find partridgeberry, wintergreen and shinleaf, a common type of pyrola. The spiky branches of the juniper shrub also sprawl occasionally across these knolls.

The forest floor of the sandy areas is more dense, with interrupted fern, ostrich fern, marginal wood fern and many of the common wildflowers occurring. Along the edge of the river, wetter conditions encourage the growth of high-bush cranberry, winterberry and mountain ash.

About 2 km from the start, a 1-m falls requires either a short portage on the right or a lift-over on the left. Another 2 km downstream, a large boulder in midstream marks the start of Ragged Rapids, the most difficult portage of the trip. Take out 50 m upstream of the boulder and portage 650 m on the right. Follow a bush road past the top of the ridge, take the left fork and then turn right onto another trail leading downhill past the falls.

At the top of the first ridge on this portage trail, you can get a fine view of the rocky gorge. On the barren rocks here, tough pioneering shrubs such as sumac and sweetfern have established a hold, and red oak trees have colonized part of this hostile habitat. Notice that the oak trees appear to be stunted, with their branches dwarfed. This is the result of decades of bear damage, since bears harvest the autumn crop of acorns by climbing into the centre of the tree and pulling all the branches inwards. In the long slow stretch below Ragged Rapids, the river often cuts into the sand banks, exposing sand cliffs that can be used by kingfishers and several species of swallows for nest holes. If water levels' are low, you may also see exposed banks of clay, cracked and folded in dense layers.

In quiet waters such as these, the spring birdsong can seem deafening. Yellowthroats call out their "witchity-itchity-witchity" from streamside thickets. Red-eyed vireos chirrup endlessly, invisible among the upper leaves. A pileated woodpecker drums out his territorial claim on a dead stub. In the warmth of the evening, a whip-poor-will sings out his name. Increasingly, naturalists involved with research projects such as the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas are using the distinctive songs of the several hundred different birds that nest in Ontario to identify their presence.

Shortly after a bridge crosses the Black, you reach the rapid known as Big Eddy. This is actually a double rapid. The first small set can be run or lined, depending on your experience. The second set divides around a small island. The 75m portage is on the island, starting from the head of the left channel. As you land, notice the glacial scours, nearly a metre wide, where great grooves have been created in the gneiss.

This island is often used as a campsite, since it provides a pleasant setting among the pines despite several nearby cottages. The end of the portage boasts a fine stand of royal fern, as well as sweet gale, speckled alder and boneset. The latter plant was used historically to help set broken bones, apparently in the belief that it would cause bones to join in a similar way to the paired opposite leaves of the plant.

Two km later, a 300m portage starting left of the old bridge leads past Cooper's Falls. Just upstream, a quaint outdoor hockey rink stands on the site of an old sawmill. Unfortunately road access is difficult here, but it is possible to end your trip by clambering up a steep bank to a rural road just south of the village.

As the river heads southward now, hemlock and pine are more common along the shore, perhaps reflecting this area's proximity to richer calcareous soils. Canada yew, one of our few coniferous shrubs, is also abundant in some areas.

Another bridge marks the next rapids, a series of shallow shelves that can usually be lined with little difficulty. Unfortunately the lower sections of this rapid are often too shallow to run safely.

In quiet waters along the Black, a common Sight is a cluster of dark, beetle-like insects on the surface of the water, which seem to explode into a frenzy of gyrations when you come near. Appropriately enough, these are known as whirligig beetles, and they have several other special adaptations besides their defensive strategy. Whirligig beetles are predaceous and can swim easily under water, a habit you can see if you watch closely. They are also one of the few animals with two sets of eyes, one for the air above and another for the water below. Small wonder they are so successful!

Around the confluence with the Head River, the landscape becomes more swampy, with silver maple a major component. A small shallow lake on the left bank provides good waterfowl habitat, since it has become virtually filled with aquatic vegetation.

The river now narrows and passes through a rocky gorge with several small swifts along the way. Just before Hwy. 169, it broadens again as the adjacent land flattens into open farmland. It is possible to take out your canoe at the highway crossing, or you can continue downstream past a small rapid to camp at the Black River
Wilderness Park, operated by the Indians of the Rama Reserve. This band, of Ojibway descent, purchased land here in 1838 after they were pushed out of their former lands on Lake Scugog and at Atherley. Their leader at that time was a widely respected chief known as Yellowhead, or Mesquakie, from which the modern name of Muskoka was probably derived.

The river continues for another 8 km before its junction with the Severn, a pleasant paddle despite an increasing number of cottages along its shores. Several shallow rapids require lining or short carries. Easy access is available in the village of Washago from the centre channel of the Severn.

For detailed one day paddle trips by canoe or kayak, see the links below: