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The forest that the first Europeans found here, filled with huge white pines and other species, was very different from the forest we see today. How did this once impressive forest come to be? The answer lies in the history of the landscape before European settlement.
During the last continental glaciation between 78,000 and 10,000 years ago, up to three kilometres of ice ripped and scraped across the landscape, wiping out all established plant life.
But this rocky landscape was a tough match for the glacier and it was only the weakened rock that yielded to the crushing action of the glacial ice. When the ice melted, the broken material dropped out of the ice and created a thin blanket of soil called “glacial till”.
This till was a mixture of boulders, gravel, sand, silt, and clay and not much of it was formed — certainly not enough to cover all the bedrock! That’s why farming in the Haliburton Highlands has never been very good.
In some cases, the glacial meltwater washed the gravel, sand, silt, and clay down into small, low lying pockets in the landscape, but much of the high bedrock uplands and slopes were left barren.
After the glacial meltwaters receded, the barren, rocky landscape left behind was probably close to being lifeless. But even under these harsh conditions, life eventually took hold on the landscape and over thousands of years, the huge white pines, red pines, hemlocks, and other species emerged. The new forests were the result of natural processes and cycles, which were allowed to take their course largely without human interference. However, the trees had enough problems without the loggers being around.
For a huge white pine to grow, for example, a seedling had to overcome a number of daunting obstacles. First of all, wind- or animal-borne seeds had to fall on just the right sandy soil to send down roots and to avoid being eaten by squirrels and mice. The young trees had to survive animals feeding on twigs, bark, and needles. As the trees grew, they had to endure insects, disease, drought, and forest fires. And the taller the trees got, the more vulnerable they were to being blown over by wind and getting hit by lightning.
So how then did the white pines in this area 150 years ago ever make it to heights of 75 metres and diametres of up to two metres? What did the forests have back then that they don’t have now?
The answer is time.
Century after century, an untold number of trees failed in their bid to survive. However, through a natural cycle of trial and error, individual trees succeeded against all these odds. Once the trees survived the ordeals of their youth, they were allowed to just keep growing. Without the ring of the axe and the rasp of the saw, these trees had centuries to achieve staggering heights and widths. In contrast, once the loggers arrived in the mid-1800s, the larger, taller trees were sought and harvested – but never replanted. Once they were cut down, nature’s cycle had to begin again.
The first European explorers encountered forests resulting from 10,000 years of landscape evolution and natural challenges. In fewer than 200 years, human beings changed the forests of southern Ontario with axe and saw. Although the same species are present today, the quantity and distribution of these tree species have changed. Their spectacular history is left to photos and folklore.