Ontario's Old Growth ForestsWhat's New Ontario's Oldest Trees

Ontario's Old-Growth Forests: A Guidebook Complete With History, Ecology and Maps

Go to www.oldgrowth.ca to visit the official webpage of the Ontario's old-growth forests book

Overview of Ontario's Old-Growth Forests book

The year is 1615. Samuel de Champlain, Etienne Brule, and 10 Huron are travelling up the Ottawa River by canoe, into a territory largely unknown to Europeans. Not far to the north, at the headwaters of the Ottawa, a seed germinates in a forest gap and grows into a tiny white pine seedling. Champlain and his party soon turn west and head to Georgian Bay... the seedling soaks up the sun Ontario's largest beech tree. Photo by Molly Crealockand begins to grow. Over the next 375 years it will survive forest fires, windstorms, drought and flood years, and finally in 1989 it will be spared from the chainsaw by mass demonstrations and the arrest of 344 peaceful protestors on Red Squirrel Road, in Temagami.

The year is now 2010, and this tree is protected within the Obabika Lake old-growth forest. But it's story has never been fully told, or those of the countless other old-growth trees that grow scattered throughout Ontario. Who'd have thought that dwarf cedar trees growing on the Niagara Escarpment could live to be nearly 2000 years old? Or when you paddle your canoe by small bonsai cedars that line the rocky shorelines of the Canadian Shield, they frequently measure their age in centuries. Not all of our old-growth forests are small, of course. Old-growth pine trees in Temagami can be over 10 stories tall and a metre in diameter. But even they would have appeared small beside the trees of yesteryear, which were as much as 20 stories high, rivalling California's giant sequoias in height.

Most people in Ontario live within an hour's drive of an old-growth forest, but we don't know where they are. We may go right by them and not notice. For example, in both Algonquin Park and Temagami old-growth forests are scattered along many canoe routes and hiking trails, but only a few are clearly marked on maps and documented in trail guides. There are still corners filled with magic in Canada's most populous province. The book Ontario's Old-Growth Forests helps us find these places, and understand them when we arrive.

The ecology of old-growth forests is fascinating. The beautiful puzzle-piece bark of old red pine trees helps them to survive innumerable small forest fires, each time sowing their seeds onto the blackened soil to create a new generation. The fires record their passage in fire scars on the base of many trees, which are obvious once you know what to look for. Or consider hemlock saplings that are a few metres tall, but have been growing ever so slowly in the shade for a century or more waiting for a gap to open in the forest canopy and let in the sunlight.

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Some summer 2005 field results

Ontario's Largest Trembling Aspen
A huge trembling aspen

Champion Trees

We've been finding champion-sized trees all over eastern Ontario.

A large-tooth aspen near Dickson Lake in Algonquin Park tops the current Ontario champion, weighing in at 74.3 cm in diameter and 28.5 metres in height.

A trembling aspen near Big Crow River in Algonquin Park is 105 cm across and 30.4 metres tall!

In Springwater forest we found a beech tree that is 107.5 cm diameter (DBH) and 35.5 metres in height. Springwater forest has many large beech trees, this may not be the biggest!

The Gordon Cosens Forest

In September we visited the Gordon Cosens forest, which borders on the eastern shores of the Missinaibi River south of Kapuskasing, and which has some of the last large expanses of pristine, unlogged boreal forest left in Ontario's claybelt region. Within the Gordon Cosens Forest, cedar, black spruce, balsam poplar, jack pine and other species reach exceptional sizes and ages for the boreal forest, with trees fairly commonly reaching 200 years old or more. Some of the eastern white cedar growing in remote and protected pockets may be over 300 years old.

However, like many old-growth stands in the boreal forest, several of these rare older stands within the Gordon Cosens forest remain unprotected. The concentration of old growth is particularly high in the southernmost portion of the GCF that is now a Tembec freehold. On the bright side, Tembec is managing the area according to the high standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and we can hope that it will recognize some of the most significant remaining old-growth patches in this forest and protect them.

Algonquin Park

In the late autumn, we portaged through Algonquin Park's interior with ant-like tenacity, carrying not only our food and camping gear, but also forest sampling and photography equipment. It was well worth while! We found hemlock forests where the trees are up to 375 years old, in Algonquin's management zone, where they could be logged. Click here for more background about Algonquin Park forests and logging history.

During a trip through one of Algonquin Park's nature reserves, we stopped to count the rings of a fallen hemlock log and found that it was over 390 years old - probably much older since the tree had snapped about 5 metres up the trunk, and a few years had rotted from the center.

We found white pines in Algonquin that were 39 metres tall, and still vigorous and growing. Will these be tomorrow's giants?

Other Areas

A white ash log in Springwater Forest had at least 230 annual growth rings - it seems likely that many trees in this forest are 200 to 300 years old.

A black cherry in Dundas Valley was an impressive 36.4 metres tall.

In Peter's Woods we found a white oak tree that is 118 cm in diameter and 34.2 metres tall (measured with a clinometer and laser rangefinder) - that is over ten stories tall! White pines in this forest are at least 37 metres tall.

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Ontario's Old-Growth Forests published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside in 2010, available in bookstores

Visit the official webpage of the Ontario's old-growth forests book

About the Authors

Learn more about Michael Henry, and Peter Quinby

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