When Bob and I paddled through the extensive wetlands known as Minesing Swamp, one of the highlights was observing dozens of Great Egrets at rest in a stand of long-dead trees. The sight was breathtaking!
We had booked a canoe through an outfitting company in Edenvale, Ontario, and they transported us to the launch point along George Johnston Road, southeast of Edenvale. This location had us setting off into the northeast corner of Minesing Swamp, one of the largest swamps in Canada, and the largest intact wetland in Southern Ontario, encompassing more than 15,000 acres.
We drove from Toronto very early that morning, in order to achieve the appointed rendezvous time, and by 9:30 a.m., our canoe was launched, our safety gear organized, and our picnic protected from the sun. We were ready to set off into the wilds of the wetlands. A guide had been recommended, but we felt confident in our levels of skill and experience, so passed on that option. I was filled with trepidation because of the warnings that people have become lost in the swamp and been forced to spend the night out there.
The earlier forecast for the day had predicted rain, but a sudden shift had the weatherman now calling for a sun/cloud mix. Even at that, billowing, stacked thunderheads rimmed the horizon when we pulled away from the dock.
Our journey began on Willow Creek, a very long, narrow, sinuous creek that winds its way into the depths of the swamp. Hot, humid air enveloped us as we paddled along, made all the steamier by the rifts of tall marsh grass that prevented any breath of fresh air from reaching us there on the surface of the water.
The outfitting company had provided brief instruction on how to navigate the myriad channels that intersect one another across the unending expanse of the wetlands. We were to keep an eye out for the occasional yellow and orange markers. That was not as easy as it sounds in amongst fast growing and thick vegetation that soon swallowed up some of the flimsy plastic ribbons.
Bob and I certainly felt like we were having an adventure! Brushed by soft grasses that reached from both sides of the narrow creek, we could fool ourselves into believing that we were in some tropical jungle. Sitting in our canoe, beneath the blazing sun, the only sounds to reach our ears were the occasional croak of a bull frog, frenzied ducks scattering on the breeze, and the grass whispering tales of long ago.
Minesing Wetlands boasts a bountiful bird life – over 206 species inhabit this special habitat – so our eager eyes keenly scanned the stands of dead trees that dotted the skyline. We saw our fair share of Cormorants (Phalacrocoracidae) and many species of ducks,
Black-Crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) and myriad songbirds, all the while acutely aware of the storm clouds that occasionally darkened the sky.
As we held the canoe still and stable so I could snap a picture of the Night Heron, one humongous Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) slipped into the water with a splash.
The Black-crowned Night Heron did not offer to move from its perch but maintained a watchful eye on our passage, which took us around the bend and into close proximity to the snag upon which it sat.
The Minesing Wetlands are home to Ontario’s fifth largest Great Blue Heronry, which explained the multiple sightings of Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) that Bob and I made that day. Standing erect at the edge of the water, some of these avian beauties remained invisible until they suddenly took flight. In fact, so many of these majestic birds crossed our path that we lost count.
The brisk current of Willow Creek was in our favour so paddling the canoe required little effort. From time to time, we paused and let the water carry us along. Here and there, the deep channel gave way to beautiful sand bars where we stepped from the canoe to cool our feet in the icy water.
As we drifted silently around one deep bend in the Minesing Swamp, the most amazing sight greeted us. About 30 Great Egrets were roosting in a grove of grim dead trees, and they seemed totally unaware of our presence.
The contrast of the bare black trunks standing stark against the dazzling blue sky was truly magnificent when liberally spotted with brilliant white egrets in various stages of repose. It was enough to take our breath away.
For a good while, Bob and I skulked in the shadow of the marsh grass, holding our position against the fast-flowing water by grasping handfuls of long, slim leaves, and silently watched the goings and comings of the elegant birds.
Dozens of photographs later, we chose to continue along, knowing full well that our canoe would take us ever closer to the birds. At long last, our presence spooked them, and they took flight en masse.
Where the creek grew wider, the riverbank showed signs of being more solid and dry, so perhaps a good place for a rest stop. Beneath a large shade tree in the Minesing Swamp, Bob and I tethered our canoe where it seemed an ideal spot to have our picnic and soak up the remote and silent atmosphere.
The same could not be said as we moved on in the early afternoon. At regular intervals, we were startled when a Great Blue Heron burst into flight from the plants shrouding the muddy riverbank, and flocks of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) took to the air, their thunderous wings bearing them up and away.
At any one time, numerous Great Blue Herons could be seen soaring on high above the Minesing Swamp in search of their next “fishing spot” further down the channel, while the graceful Great White Egrets seemed to float on the air.
About 3 hours into our paddle, the Minesing Swamp was beginning to peter out, and we found ourselves coasting along beneath a canopy of very large deciduous trees, while over-sized ferns and small bushes made an impenetrable dense border along the waterway. Verdant green growth was everywhere! As we paddled into the surreal reflection in the glassy surface of the river, it felt like we were entering paradise.
Five hours into our outing is when we came to where Willow Creek joins the Nottawasaga River. Quite noticeably, the water changed to a muddy brown colour, and the waterway became much wider and deeper than the creek. Even after being on the water for that long, Bob and I couldn’t believe that we were the only two people enjoying the pristine silence in the wetlands that day.
Always looking for a new “creek to paddle”, Bob and I made a detour into the woods when it became apparent that we could paddle right in amongst the trees. The river had overflowed its banks giving rise to a vast flooded forest floor.
Although the depth of water was nowhere near its earlier level of perhaps 2 feet deeper, evidenced by the matching high water marks on the tree trunks, we still managed to navigate towards a vast swath of brilliant red Cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) seen in the distance.
As far as the eye could see, tall spikes of this native perennial plant shimmered in the dappled sunlight like little bits of fire. Bob and I abandoned the canoe in a flooded clearing, and waded across the watery forest floor trying to get closer to the flowers. As we stepped gingerly through submerged fallen tree branches, little schools of minnows darted around our ankles and tickled our toes.
The vibrant red blooms of Cardinal Flower are an irresistible attraction for insects, but most have a difficult time navigating the long tubular flowers. The plants, therefore, rely heavily on hummingbirds for pollination as they feed on the sweet nectar.
Towards the end of our trip in the Minesing Swamp, Bob and I were forced to paddle very hard against a strong headwind sweeping across the farm fields, but seeing as the major part of the journey had been quite relaxed, we relished the effort required to make headway. It took us another hour to make our way to the pick-up point in Edenvale, which is where our car was waiting for us. We had thoroughly enjoyed our passage through the wetlands and can’t wait to go back again.
Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean