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What did the Forests of the Kawarthas Look Like 250 Years Ago?

June 17, 2022

Tea in the Ancient Oak Grove: Maryboro’s Oak Grove is one of the rare public spaces in the Kawarthas that is a remnant of the landscapes that once characterized the region. Even then it was exceptional, a bur oak savannah, growing on soils that were so poor that they could not support a dense forest.

Today, the landscape of the Kawarthas is something that so many people know and love. With its rolling hills, chain of lakes, meandering creeks, farm fields, forests, alvars and country villages the ‘nature’ of the Kawarthas is much appreciated. But what did the Kawarthas look like 250 years ago?

It was said that back then a (very energetic) squirrel could run and jump from one end of the province to the other without ever having to touch the ground. Much of southern Ontario was once dense forest. Locally, aside from wetlands and scattered ecosystems that would not support forests (like the Ancient Oak Grove in Fenelon Falls, the Carden Alvar, and the Oak Ridges Moraine), the Kawarthas were densely treed. South central Ontario was unique in having a waterway, that was home to three Michi Saagiig villages, where people lived along the waterway, or Gamiing, as they might say.

In some ways the forests were not that different than what exists today. Sugar maples were the most common trees in the upland forests, often growing together with basswood, white pine and, less commonly, beech. Red pine was much rarer than white. Hemlock and balsam fir characterized poorer soils—at the time many settlers were encouraged to use tree cover to select farm lots, with mixed results.

Cedar, tamarack, black ash, mixed with some soft maple and birch, populated the wetlands. Elms were fairly common and grew in many different sites. Oaks usually appeared on very dry soils, such as sands or scarcely concealed stones. Poplar, birch and soft maple were most common near the watercourses.

Before the nineteenth century deforestation, the Kawarthas were home to some incredible trees. The very best white pines were taken for ships masts, timbers that were 75 to 120 feet long, and a minimum of 18 inches diameter on the small end of the log. But those trees were exceptional. Some of the earliest data on the sizes of local sawlogs shows an average diameter of about 15 inches, anything over 30 was unusual, over 40 was rare indeed. Up around Gooderham where the forest industries carry on to this day, common sawlog diameters are not that different today. A great many exotic species from buckthorns, to earthworms, to black locusts now populate local forests, and some species have catastrophically declined, but many of the common tree species from 250 years ago are the same as their descendants today. There was just so much more mature forest. To appreciate the landscape back then involved observing the nuances of the forests and watercourses, a huge part of the local Michi Saagiig way of life.

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