Explore White-Water Ecology on the Oxtongue Rapids Trail
The Oxtongue Rapids Trail in the Township of Lake of Bays is a fantastic exploration of white-water ecology.
White-water ecosystems are special because they take in water, roll it about, and improve the oxygen and mineral content of water as it moves downstream. They provide specialized niche habitats for countless creatures, and are a vital asset to the planet.
Turbulent high-oxygen waterways are used by many animals, including humans. Many of the natural heritage attractions along the Oxtongue Rapids Trail highlight water’s power to carve through stone, as well as the local plant and animal community’s ability to adapt to the wild ways of white water. As you will find, humans were pretty good at carving out a niche through this landscape as well.
As you walk alongside the Oxtongue River Rapids, you will see many interesting geological features; the result of a long history of water vs. rock. Potholes are evident here and are very interesting to gaze into. You will also find interesting patterns in the rock below your feet, which are the result of igneous intrusions eroding at a different rate from the surrounding material.
Potholes begin forming when pebbles catch in a fissure in the river bedrock and are tumbled indefinitely, drilling deeper over time.
These igneous intrusions are not as easily persuaded by white water to erode away, and therefore leave raised patterns in the surrounding river bedrock.
Turbulent water systems are biologically rich, providing habitat for many macroinvertebrate species who breed and thrive under the surface. These are an invaluable food source for local wildlife. From mammals to songbirds, fish to insects, macroinvertebrates (and the resulting adults) are key for sustenance. With Mayflies, Caddisflies, Dobsonflies, crayfish, minnows, and tadpoles living in this habitat, it is a hidden city in itself. And what a high-speed environment!
Rapids are a ruthless and dangerous place to live. Not only do the inhabitants have to endure the pounding current, but they must always be on guard for their lives! Several species of aquatic macroinvertebrates even prey upon their own relatives!
Some dragonfly species can spend four years or more as an aquatic larva and will ambush minnows, and even tadpoles for a meal. All the while, they themselves are hunted by frogs, birds, fish, and other dragonfly nymphs! Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus) dragonfly larvae will morph from preying on other dragonfly larvae in the river, to catching other species of dragonflies right out of the air! They can be seen hunting above the mist of the rapids on warm, sunny days.
Another dragonfly found here is aptly named the Ebony Jewelwing. With its distinctive black wings, and an iridescent emerald body, it is truly a dainty gem representing the vitality of this ecosystem.
Many birds, particularly Flycatcher species, can be seen swooping across the expanse of the rapids to net flying insects. Kingfishers find the calm pools and eddies between the white-water ideal for plucking up frogs and minnows. Whereas mammals, such as Raccoon, Mink, Weasel and Otter, rely on the rapids and shallow pools to provide crayfish, frogs, fish, and plant tubers. Talk about meat and potatoes!
This deposit of Dobsonfly wings depicts the important role macroinvertebrates play in the food chain here. Dobson fly larvae appear quite frightening, and the adults are apparently quite delicious.
The flora that take root along these rapids really hold on to survive through fluctuating water levels, unpredictable saturation, and a turbulent environment. The Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) miraculously grows from the tiniest of seeds. These seeds are driven down into crevices between the rocks which are full of sand. Here they tumble in the grit, where the seed coat is scratched thin so the root can break through and take hold. The Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) eject microscopic spores which stick to organic deposits, often in fissures, where their roots can take hold.
Cardinal Flower and Royal Fern are tenacious companions along the edge of the Oxtongue River Rapids.
Spotted Joe Pye-weed (Eupatorium maculata) is another fine-seeded species that seems to thrive here, despite the fine size of the seed. They are another wonderful addition to the Oxtongue Rapids floral palette.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators love Cardinal Flower and Joe Pye-weed blooms. Plants at the water’s edge are very important for aquatic larvae so they can climb above the water and stay sheltered as they dry in the sun and transform to remain a valuable link in the Oxtongue Rapids food chain.
The area’s First Peoples used the Oxtongue Rapids as a route for travel efficiency and optimum health. They created the original human trail here. It was a valuable portage route with reliably clean and oxygenated water. As water levels dropped later in the summer, the river bed made for easier trekking and foraging, with a clear path and a steady breeze, rather than competing with the foliage and biting insects.
In 1892 David Gilmour bought the timber rights to the Oxtongue area where he would become Lake of Bays’ most famous logging baron. Gilmour envisioned the Oxtongue River system as a tool for logging efficiency and profit, though it turned out to be quite an exhaustive endeavour. The failure of the operation and the resulting bankruptcy is part of what brought him fame, though the Log-lifting Tramway in Dorset was quite a feat of engineering!
This five-kilometre Jack-ladder took many years and many men to build in harsh and dangerous conditions. You can learn more about the Gilmour Tramway with a visit to the Dorset Museum, which has an impressive model depicting this feat of human industry.
Aside from a lumber run, the Oxtongue River Rapids portage was seen by Gilmour as an ideal path to drive cattle to his Canoe Lake logging camp for his men. What he didn’t know was that cattle poo is a major distributor of poison ivy and other foreign weeds. Poison Ivy is still evident here along the river’s edge, so watch out, but it is rare to non-existent in the surrounding forests.
Poison Ivy: Note how shiny the leaves are. ‘Leaves of three, let it be’.
Artists also enjoyed the Oxtongue Rapids area. A.J. Casson summered here, and found inspiration at the rapids when he stayed in the little wooden cabin opposite the Oxtongue Rapids Road on Highway 60. You’ll see it when you turn into the road to the trail.
Next time you are on your way to or from Algonquin Park, take a brief detour off Highway 60 down Oxtongue Rapids Road, stay on the LEFT fork, and pass by the municipal landfill (which is where you’ll end up if you take the fork to the right). The road is quite rustic, and is shared by hikers, cyclists, and ATVs, so take your time as you make your way to the parking landing by the picnic shelter, which is on the right shoulder of the road.
We hope you enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the Oxtongue Rapids Trail!
Written by Rebecca Krawczyk aka Botanigal. www.botanigal.com @botanigals