Journeys in ancient and old growth forests

The Seaton Trail

img_9637_2_largerLast year I hiked the Seaton Trail in Pickering for the first time – I was amazed that such a beautiful trail exists so close to the city, and really isn’t that well known. It can be hiked in a day, but the Seaton Trail has a larger-than-life feel, and is only a short drive, or public transit ride, from millions of people.

The trail follows West Duffins Creek, climbing in and out of the steep valley, along heavily forested slopes and floodplains, past old fields and fencerows. Numerous staircases adorn the trail, sometimes climbing tens of meters. The metal staircase that was recently built near the Forestream entrance winds beautifully between the trees, and was one of the highlights of the trail for me. As I climbed the twisting staircase up through a 130+ year-old hemlock forest on the slope, I had the sense I was hiking through the forest canopy. It was this and other hemlock forests that initially drew me to the Seaton Trail, because I’ve recently been mapping hemlock forests in southern Ontario as hemlock woolly adelgid becomes a threat here.

img_9669_2This is not the only old forest along the trail. Winifred Wake, in a Nature Guide to Ontario, tells us that 300-400 year old sugar maple and beech trees grow along the trail. I hiked a relatively short section of the trail and saw no likely trees to fit this description, but I’ll keep looking for them. What I did see was occasional white cedars and some hemlocks growing along the edge of small escarpments that were much older than the surrounding forest, likely over 200 years-old.

After I crossed under Taunton Road heading north, I climbed to the top of a steep erosion slope to a spectacular view across river valley, woods and farmland. This lovely rural landscape exists here in part because of the ill-fated and ever-controversial Pickering Airport plan of the early 1970’s. The Pickering airport was never built, but 7,500 hectares (18,600 acres) of land was expropriated by the federal government in 1972 (just a few years after a similar expropriation for the Mirabel Airport near Montreal). Although the airport plan remains in limbo, the expropriation did some good when over 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) of the airport lands were designated for incorporation into Rouge National Park in 2013-2015.

img_9677_2Meanwhile, south of the federal airport lands, the Ontario government also expropriated tracts of land intended to be part of a planned community servicing the airport. Significant portions of the Seaton Trail run through these provincial lands. Now, after decades of sitting in limbo, the development of a Seaton community is going ahead – but hundreds of hectares of natural area have been protected as part of the plan, mostly following the system of river valleys.

More than half of the Seaton lands are being protected, which has received surprisingly little attention considering its conservation significance. But there are two ways to look at the Seaton plan – one is that a large amount of greenspace is being protected in the GTA, including some ecologically significant areas. The other is that an almost equally large area of existing greenspace and farmland is being developed.

Add to that legitimate criticism of the business-as-usual car-oriented development plan of the community, and it is all very bittersweet, and seemingly inconsistent with Ontario’s climate change policy.

However the Seaton Trail is there, it’s beautiful, and the land around it now has a remarkable degree of protection. I intend to do a hike of the full 13 km length when the weather warms up, and I’ll be watching for those 300+ year-old trees. If I make it there in the spring I’ll also be checking hemlock branches for hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). This trip report is part of a series I’ll be doing on hemlock forests in southern Ontario, so if you enjoyed this post, sign up (bottom of page) to receive new posts by email. You can also use our map of hemlock forests, to find other areas near you, and you can use our website to learn to search for and identify HWA when you’re walking in the woods, it can be as simple as flipping over a few branches.

The Friends of Seaton Trail offer a variety of maps of the trail. There are a number of access points to the Seaton Trail. From north to south here are google map links for some of them:

Whitevale Park

Forestream Trail

Concession 3

Trans Canada Trail (public transit option via Finch Ave)

 

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