The Carden Alvar
A Trip to the Carden Alvar
The Carden Alvar is unique among Ontario’s Provincial Parks. So many Ontario Parks are organized around natural features that have broad appeal—the endless canoe routes of Algonquin; the breathtaking white mountains and clear lakes of Killarney; or the sandy beaches at Sandbanks. The Carden Alvar is not a provincial park because it is the kind of place where a lot of people like to hang out. In many ways it is precisely the opposite—which is what makes it special.
The valley around Lake Dalrymple which lies just to the west, is a much cooler way to spend a summer afternoon. With a beautiful bridge spanning the narrows, and a friendly cottage neighbourhood encircling its perimeter, it is a popular place for summer fun, while enjoying the cool breeze off the lake. But as you ascend the limestone cliffs to the Carden Plain, the environment becomes much drier and more arid. On a hot summer day, hiking across the limestone sheets of the Carden Plains can almost feel like crossing the desert. And anyone setting out on the journey needs to be ready for poison ivy—there is a lot of it on the trails, and in many places it is unavoidable.
For generations, the Carden Plain has been a difficult place for human habitation. It was far from the Michi Saagig villages of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, and as settlers streamed to the area, it was quickly evident that their traditional mixed farming way of life would not readily translate to these natural clearings—though it has found a niche as arid cattle pasture. Unlike many of Ontario’s Parks, the Carden Alvar became a provincial park in 2014, for its significance to other species, recognized and advocated by many local volunteers. It is a provincial park, where most visitors truly are there to appreciate the local ecology, especially its birds.
The Carden Alvar is a unique ecosystem—an area of thin or no soil and sparse vegetation on top of limestone bedrock. Alvars are harsh environments, evidenced by stunted tree growth, surrounded by open plains where they cannot grow at all. Yet, in the context of eastern North America, where the overwhelming majority of temperate uplands were forested, alvars provide one of the few natural grasslands which support plants and animals, including some that are uncommon in the surrounding forests.
For visitors who have grown up in the Kawarthas, especially those inhabiting the farms on the fringe of the Canadian Shield, the ecosystem may not seem all that different from the stony fields found elsewhere. With monarch butterflies fluttering between asters, alongside cattle grazing in fields coloured by granite boulders, rusty old windmills, Indian paintbrush, buttercups, goldenrod, and blueweed—many locals might feel home. But there is something a little different about the golden grasslands.
If you spend a lot of time in the Carden Plains, you will begin to notice that among the familiar plants and animals there are many species that are unusual elsewhere. Though many of the birds in the Carden Alvar are shy towards humans, seeing a Loggerhead Shrike is something special. A bird that sits atop trees or shrubs and looks for prey in short grasslands, they were common in the 1970s, but one recent estimate indicates that only 25 breeding pairs still live in Ontario—principally in the Carden and Napanee Limestone Plains. One of the bluebird boxes on Wiley Road is a spot where a Loggerhead Shrike family can often be seen.
Though the Loggerhead Shrike often attracts much of the attention—and bird watchers from all around the world—the Carden Alvar is home other nationally threatened species. On a hike across the plains, you might be fortunate enough to see a Grasshopper Sparrow, Short-Eared Owl, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Least Bittern or Red-Headed Woodpecker. It is home to other grassland birds like the Upland Sandpiper, Field Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Horned Lark, Henslow’s Sparrow, and Common Nighthawk. Journeying along the trails, it is evident there is a lot of avian activity nearby, much of it just out of sight. For birders, the Carden Plain is an IBA—an Important Bird Area.
It is not just the birds that make the Carden Plains unique. In places, you can look out across grey sheets of limestone to see stunted trees in the distance. On some of the trails, it feels like you are walking on giant stepping stones, with narrow strips of grass filling the cracks. This limestone pavement is actually characteristic of alvar ecosystems.
Though much of the region is a natural grassland, it also supports scattered forests and wetlands. Here and there, there are forests, with trees approaching a common height. But many of these pockets of soil are small, and not too far away the exposed limestone and stunted trees return. Though many of the plants have to be hardy to survive, they are growing in what is often extreme conditions, and visitors can do their parts by staying on the trails.
Alvars are a rare ecosystem, only occurring in the Great Lakes Region, and parts of Northern Europe, especially the Nordic Countries, Baltics, United Kingdom and Ireland. Many alvars have been developed, and three-quarters of those that remain substantially undeveloped are in Ontario. Of these, the Carden Alvar is one of the largest and most important remaining in the world—at 42,576 acres (17,230 hectares). It has been preserved because of the devoted efforts of local naturalists, with the help of the Couchiching Conservancy, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Carden Field Naturalists and Toronto Ornithological Club.
Among Ontario’s Provincial Parks and public spaces, the beauty of the Carden Alvar is subtle. It takes a trained eye to recognize alvar plants like Fragrant Sumac, Tufted Hairgrass, Little Bluestem, Rock Sandwort and Hairy Beardtongue. But for those brave enough to venture through the poison ivy across the arid plains, wading through the odd wet spot along the way, visiting the Carden Plains is an experience all its own—a must-see for bird watchers, a unique hike stepping from stone to stone on the natural pavement and a chance to see an ecosystem unlike any other.
The loggerhead shrike is one of the rarest birds at the Carden Alvar, rarely seen, except in a few locations in Ontario.
Pasture at Cameron Ranch
The Cameron Ranch walking trail runs alongside a cattle pasture.
Monarch Butterfly on a New England Aster, framed by the page wire fence separating the Cameron Ranch trail from the adjacent pasture
Butterfly and Bee
Seeing pollinators is quite common on the New England Aster growing alongside the Cameron Ranch Trail, including this bee and monarch butterfly.
Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly
Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly feeding on New England Aster near the Cameron Lake Ranch trail.
The Trail at the Cameron Ranch
The Cameron Lake Ranch trail, as it runs along the wire fence
Detail of rust growing on the T-bar fence posts at Cameron Ranch
A bumblebee on an aster
A grasshopper at the Cameron Ranch
Facing a Grasshopper
Eastern Pheobe on an old fence post at the Cameron Ranch
Poison Ivy growing on the trail at the Cameron Ranch. Poison Ivy is abundant at the Carden Alvar, on some trials it is unavoidable.
Honeybee on Goldenrod
A honeybee on goldenrod at the Cameron Ranch
Yarrow is common along the trail at the Cameron Ranch
The Prairie Smoke Alvar trail from above
Shelving Tooth Fungi
Shelving Tooth Fungi growing on a tree beside the Prairie Smoke Alvar Trail
Limestone Pavement on the Prairie Smoke Alvar Trail
Garter snake sunning on open rocks of the Prairie Smoke Trail
A crow perched on the information station at Prairie Smoke Alvar Trail
Bare rock with trees in the background on the Little Bluestem Trail
Cattle grazing across Wylie Road from the Carden Alvar
Stony ground, grasses with woodlands in the background are a common scene at the Carden Alvar