Explore the Environment and History of Georgian Bay on the School House Trail
We set out to hike the School House Trail near Port Severn in the Township of Georgian Bay at the end of September. This would be my farthest trek from home for the Muskoka Trails Council Blog Project. The mosquitoes had subsided a little and we wanted to hike this area while it was leafy green and the skies were still kind.
Having never been to Port Severn specifically, and realizing that it was only accessible by way of Highway 400, we needed to plan the route. The head of the trail is located at the dead end of Violet Drive, which can be found directly west of Highway 400 off the Port Severn exit #156.
The parking situation required more strategy.
My pal Judite and I had planned to meet in the middle, with both of us multitasking between weekend events. She was driving from the Barrie area, and I from Lake of Bays, so we would have two vehicles, which would end up saving us time in the long run.
You see, the School House Trail is NOT a loop trail, and it was because of this that we had two choices:
1. We could park a car at either end of the trail to hike 4 kilometres, or
2. We would walk 8 kilometres return to our vehicles.
but we were pressed for time, so we settled upon option #1.
Violet Drive is located parallel to Highway 400 on the West side almost opposite the entry ramp to the Southbound lanes.
Drive past the Baxter Snow Riders shed on Violet Drive to a bedrock parking lot right next to Highway 400 – Judite parked here at first but be assured that it IS a dead end, so keep going…
The parking landing at the head of School House Trail, Township of Georgian Bay.
Once we had shuttled one car to the west end of the trail at Musky Bay Road, Judite and I set off from the Violet Drive parking landing. We found the trail very easy to hike as it was absolutely level and topped with limestone screenings.
About fifteen minutes in from Violet Drive, we encountered a couple of forks that led to the right. We stuck to the left. We continued on the trail over a service road for a communications tower about a third of the way through the trail. Had I not had Google Earth satellite imagery on my phone, I would have had my doubts. The interpretive panels and the odd trail marker let us know that we were still on the right track.
The District of Muskoka holds examples of some of the most interesting geology in Ontario.
The southwest side of the Muskoka District represents Barrens habitat; this area includes the Townships of Georgian Bay and Muskoka Lakes and the Town of Gravenhurst. Bracebridge is a bit of a transition zone, while the highlands on the northeast side of the District represent the Algonquin Dome and include the Township of Lake of Bays and the Town of Huntsville.
The first thing one notices around Port Severn are the spectacularly smooth bedrock outcrops. The Township of Georgian Bay has a long history of glacial, water, and wind erosion. One can see far into the distance here. There are fields upon fields of shallow soils over Precambrian bedrock where only scrub can grow. Then there are the pockets of water that has migrated into the otherwise hidden hollows carved in the bedrock. These watery pockets are often filled with peat and form highly acidic conditions that few living species can tolerate.
As a result, the vegetation that grows upon the bedrock fringes of Georgian Bay is commonly stunted, like Bonsai.
The Eastern White Pine is the iconic tree of the District of Muskoka. This tree species truly does clings to bedrock throughout the entire district. White Pine are easily spotted all along the School House Trail.
However, there are some species that are found along Georgian Bay that are not as common on the east side of Muskoka. The Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), White Oak (Quercus alba), and Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) have tenacious roots which seek out the moisture and nutrients that settle in the crevasses in these barren fields of bedrock. These specimens grow compact, with tight annual rings compared to the same species which grow in areas with deeper soils. They make the most out of the minimal nutrients offered by the barrens. White Ash and Elm grow here too – where there are deeper pockets of soil.
Upon spotting a Kestrel, a colourful falcon which loves to hunt wide open spaces, I began to compare the Georgian Bay Barrens to another favorite spot of mine – the Carden Alvar.
The Georgian Bay ecosystems that are found upon shallow soils over the Precambrian Shield are very similar to the shallow soil ecosystems found atop the limestone pavement (sedimentary) rock which are typical of the Carden Alvar. The two ecotypes, though they have a completely different bedrock makeup and pH, house highly adaptable and unique flora and fauna, and though many of these species are very different; many are the same. After I started making this comparison, I couldn’t stop myself from constantly scanning for Skinks and making up songs that were about Skinks. How many times could I fit ‘Skink’ into a song?…
There are several interpretive panels along the School House Trail which outline the cultural, geological, and biological history of the Port Severn area. The biological panels state that several Species at Risk, such as the Five-lined Skink (yes!!) and the Massassauga Rattlesnake, along with the Hog-nosed snake, are possible reptile finds here.
The Port Severn area has some very intriguing bird species too. Nightjar species, like the Nighthawk, find the bedrock flats ideal for raising young, and the Red Headed Woodpecker is a great species to add to your list if you can spot one here. We did not see any of these species, but we did see some other good birds.
Judite took great interest in the interpretive panels. I was stuck with my nose next to my camera most of the time.
We had Meadowhawk dragonfly species dancing and mating in the air around us for the entirety of our hike and we theorized that the Odenate watching could be spectacular here in the summer with the abundance of big water, along with the heat of the bedrock dome and the plant host biodiversity. We are planning to visit here again in July.
Meadowhawk dragonfly species were in abundance here at the end of September.
White Oak manage to take hold and thrive upon the rocky outcrop shores of Georgian Bay, often in miniature form.
The Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) were full of ‘berries’, which are in fact cones, as Cedars are Gymnosperms, a.k.a. Conifers.
Arrowood Viburnum with fruit are very common along the shores of Georgian Bay.
Thimbleweed or Tall Anemone (Anemone virginiania) is a species found also on the Limestone Pavement of the Carden Alvar just East of Orillia and Lake Couchiching.
The School House Trail has an impressive wooden bridge over an isolated marshy wetland, which allows for some great wildlife watching. It is a part of the snowmobile trail in winter.
Our favourite part of the trail was the bridge, which is shared with the snowmobile club in the winter. It really lends to birdwatching and other wildlife observation.
Wood Ducks were in abundance on the wetland that is spanned by the bridge.
The bridge has great viewing vistas and are friendly to those with a scope or binoculars.
Port Severn is located at the head of the Trent-Severn Waterway from Georgian Bay, and is therefore rich with cultural history. I could certainly feel the energy of the great lake and the marine history influences during this particular hike.
I always get a thrill when I find myself in the vicinity of a Great Lake; it is as though the air is thick with stories. This human history here is also very evident in the botanical offerings along the trail.
The Chippewa used this waterway long before the arrival of the timber harvesters and named the spot Gissinnausebing, meaning ‘Cold Water’. The Helianthus around the parking lot by the highway were most likely cultivated by the Chippewa for nutritional value as they made ‘little seeds’.
Logging of course arrived to the area in the late nineteenth century (1868), and carried the name of the Georgian Bay Lumber Co. by 1875. The loggers paid no mind to the Helianthus, but did utilize horses and cattle, and hence cultivated a very healthy colony of Poison Ivy.
Poison Ivy ‘berries’ are white and pithy. The woody stems grow from rhizomes that lie just beneath the shallow soil surface along the School House Trail. Note the black ‘tar’ evident at the base of the bud scar. It is this oily tar that sticks to our shoes and clothing and burns our skin when it makes contact. Best practice to remove: wash with grease-cutting dish soap.
The trail is ultimately named after the Ecole Pointe aux Pins School, Baxter Township’s first organized Roman Catholic one-room school house, built in 1909 using frame construction with board and batten siding. The land was donated by Albert Cadeau.
French was the first language taught at the school, as the staff for the Georgian Bay Lumber Company who settled the area were predominantly Francophone. English was introduced to the curriculum later.
We could not find any evidence of the school along the trail. The vegetation on the site was pioneer forest of approximately 50 years at-a-glance. There was evidence of contemporary human activity in the presence of derelict furniture, and fire pits. There was, frankly, too much Poison Ivy to consider exploring the area with any more detail.
We did find this concrete structure in the brush just aside from the trail.
There were some beautiful perennials found near the school house site that still survive after their usefulness to the institution is long-gone, like old strains of Mint and Oregano, along with this darling Perennial Sweet Pea.
At the schoolhouse site there was a side-trail that led to the wetland that afforded the opportunity to bird-watch yet again.
I dismissed this Trumpeter Swan, whose head was tucked under its wing, as a plastic bag, and was focusing my lens on the Wood Ducks. Judite pointed out that the swan had in fact raised its head – it was a living thing, and a VERY good bird!
Once we emerged from the spooky little side trail, full of enthusiasm about the ‘Swan Sighting’, we had no idea how close we were to the western end of the trail at that point.
It took Judite and I only ten minutes to get from the school house site to our car where we had left it at the West end of the trail. It took another five minutes to drive the 3.3 kilometers back to Violet Drive to get to the other car.
The western end of the School House Trail off of Honey Harbour Road #5.
We left a car at the end of the trail beside the community mailbox landing.
We said our goodbyes and headed home – one of us North, and one of us South, both feeling quite satisfied that we’d gotten some great exercise and had connected to an area so very rich in both natural and human history along with the other fun things we had packed into this last beautiful day of September.
Written by Rebecca Krawczyk aka Botanigal. www.botanigal.com @botanigals