Torrance Barrens Trail: A Diverse Bonsai Garden Under an Endless Sky
When I was asked to write this blog series for the Muskoka Trails Council it was the Torrance Barrens Trail that first entered my mind. As it turned out, this was the last trail in the sixth municipality—Muskoka Lakes—that I visited for the project. I’d never been to the Torrance Barrens, though had heard legends. I adore another trail of bedrock barrens in the municipality of Muskoka Lakes, the Huckleberry Rock Trail, as it is absolutely stunning when the deciduous trees and flowering shrubs break their winter dormancy. The profusion of treetop blooms brings the first colour to Muskoka in the spring and Muskoka’s barrens offer an eye-level view.
Breaking bud. The Sweet Fern (Comptonia perigrina) can be either monoecious or dioecious. These plants were in fine male form, with pollen catkins on display ready to release pollen. Sweet Fern are a member of the Myricaceae family. They are known for their waxy ways—being nitrogen fixing plants that magically manage fungi and available phosphorous—so they can grow in nutrient-starved and acidic soils.
I had planned to hike the Torrance Barrens—the epitome of Muskoka’s barrens habitat—when the deciduous trees were due to be in full flower. I’d set my sights for a late April hike with hopes to repeat past photographic glory, but the snow and ice simply was not melting. The region seemed to be in a spring stall.
Our native plant nursery was having its busiest spring yet—if you could call it spring—our inventory was frozen in, right up to the last week of April, but business timelines do not have patience for Mother Nature; we had to get the 2018 inventory pulled from the field and ready before the leaves flushed. I didn’t manage to get away from the nursery until the second week of May.
Friends from the south had been posting tree blooms on social media throughout April and the serviceberries were in bloom around Lake of Bays. I was certain that I’d missed the tree blooming window, but soon realized that I really hadn’t missed anything—as I drove the 100 kilometres to get to the trail I noticed that the trees were still quite dormant.
The Serviceberries had flushed and were in bloom across the barrens. Serviceberry (Amelanchier) are one of the first spring blooms to burst in Muskoka. Their flowers produce delicious berries for humans, other wild mammals, and the local bird population. Remember to share with the wildlife.
The drive to the Torrance Barrens Trail was simple and the parking lot was easy enough to spot. I parked in what I thought might later be a shady spot, got out of the car—and heard the call of a Field Sparrow immediately—O.M.G! I. Love. Field. Sparrows!!! This bird is one of the many reasons why I am drawn to the Carden Alvar and I instantly knew that this would be a fantastic day filled with species which I rarely see—I again got my hopes up to spot a Five-lined Skink, an endangered species in Ontario, which I’ve still yet to see.
I couldn’t get ready fast enough. I had the sense to put on a bit of sunscreen and a hat, I shouldered my camera, packed a bit of lunch and a bottle of water, and headed across the road towards the sparrow. I then heard the call of another bird I was not used to hearing—an Eastern Towhee! This was definitely going to be a great day to observe wildlife, tree flowers be darned.
Did I mention that the birding was great?! Well, it was fortifying for someone from the north-east regions of Muskoka. My best camera was in the shop for repairs, so the photos aren’t so great. This montage shows a few of the bird species that I managed to capture. I never did get my lens on the Field Sparrow. Then there were the usual suspects: Common Raven, Blue Jay, Turkey Vulture, Nuthatch species, woodpeckers, and Black-capped Chickadees, to name a few.
In my birder frenzy I didn’t realize that I had entered the trail in a backwards fashion, but it all worked out fine. I’d entered the tail end of the Main (Highland Pond) loop. I had a photo of the MTC trail map downloaded onto my phone, which was fully charged, and I ended up crossing the road towards the Barrens Extension Trail in reasonable time.
We’re not the only creatures crossing the road! Blandings Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii), as you can see here, are the most likely turtle species to be negatively impacted by road mortality. There are other great reptiles to see, like other turtle species, and skinks, and rattlesnakes—who may be underfoot—so wear sturdy footwear and tread lightly with your eyes steadily focusing on where you step next.
My naturalist-in-a-new-world pep quickly became metered as I began to experience the mission’s first personal comfort observation—it was VERY hot. The sun was relentless, and I was parched. I started into my water supply. Make no mistake, when it is sunny at the Torrence Barrens it is sunny—and it is HOT, and this was a dry spring to boot. There was a thunderstorm predicted to arrive in the evening and I was thankful that it would rain for the sake of the region’s plants but wanted to get back to my car before any lightning arrived.
The Torrance Barrens are a bald height of bedrock, an ancient glacier-ground mountain, and the trees here are stunted and short because they have a limited area to root. As above, so below as the saying goes. Therefore, there isn’t much shade to seek on the barrens; especially in early spring because there are not many leaves to provide the shade.
The creatures that live upon barrens habitat thrive in the hot and arid summer climate that results from the sun bouncing off bedrock. Ontario’s only native lizard, the Five-lined Skink, and Ontario’s only venomous snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, both love the Barrens for this hot, dry environment. The crevices, glacial erratics, and random rocks that are peppered about this bedrock dome likely make their lives all that more enjoyable.
My second personal comfort observation—mentally—was that my pal, who had been to the Barrens before, was very correct when he’d cautioned me to be ‘EXTREMELY CAREFUL NOT TO GET LOST’ because I was going solo. Therefore, I had prepped myself to stay fully aware and well-found during my hike with a compass, and printed map in my pack. The landscape of the Torrance Barrens can absorb you. It is easy to wander off to look at something interesting and then lose track of where the trail was when you left it.
When hiking the Torrance Barrens Trail, one needs to pay attention to the white dash trail markings and keep them in your periphery at all times. The trail has several ‘You are Here’ maps, but as I wandered farther along into this sun-baked land I was very thankful for the photo of the MTC trail map that I’d screen-saved on my phone—so I didn’t have to rely on a Wi-Fi or cellular connection to refer to it. The map was my security. I could feel assured of my location; that I was always headed in the right direction. This made for a pleasant solo hike.
Where is the trail?! Sometimes the Torrance Barrens Trail is easy to find—sometimes not. Remember, always keep a trail marker in sight—do not wander too far without keeping a Muskoka Trails Marker, white blaze, or sign post in your sight.
My third observation, which had nothing at all to do with personal comfort, was that the Torrance Barrens are not barren! They are so full of life! AND other interesting things that one doesn’t get to see everyday. There were plentiful examples of thriving ecotypes (that are found in larger form elsewhere in Muskoka), which have adapted to the no-soil, no-nutrient environment on the barrens—the ecotypes are just miniaturized! I was still enthusiastic, though I was beginning to feel like a forest elf stuck sweating in Mordor. Perhaps the present-day barrens are not as intimidating and smouldering as the infamous land described by JRR Tolkein—but they once were! The Muskoka region was literally cooking hot two billion years ago.
Two billion years ago, these barrens were a part of the planet’s highest mountain range. They formed a part of the molten core of the mountain range and they were brewing and churning into the bedrock dome you now see today.
When the planet chilled out a bit, as it rotated through the ice age, the glaciers formed. These powerful glaciers grated over the giant mountain range and made it crumble, wearing it down to the smooth rocks that now support the trail. As the last glacier melted, it deposited the crumbled rock or ‘erratics’ onto the spots they occupy now.
Glacial erratics were tossed about the Torrance Barrens and most of them host impressive lichen colonies. The glaciers also carved out a nice depression here for water and sediment to collect, which has formed a moist mudflat for shorebirds and other creatures. The Barrens Extension Trail meanders around this mud flat pond.
Perambulating along, I eventually gave up on the hope of seeing any the larger trees in bloom—the Oak buds were still tightly sealed—but the low-growing members of the Ericaceae family were pumping out flowers! The Ericaceae family, as I’ve described previously in the MTC Kahshe Barrens Gravenhurst blog, thrive in barrens habitats due to their evolutionary ability to succeed in acidic conditions and with fewer nutrients than many other plant species. Their friendships with fungi are key to their survival.
Members of the Ericaceae family spotted along the Torrance Barrens trail from top left to right: Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi); High-bush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum); Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens); Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens); and Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata).
Wandering over the hot bedrock proved to reveal constant distractions, which persistently pulled me away from the trail. As I approached the Extension Loop’s mid-way point the birds were again a reliable draw, but there were also spring ephemerals—like Trout Lilies and impatient Trilliums—and other neat wildlife highlights. It was at this point where I stumbled upon several bear nests in a good-sized White Oak!
Bear’s nests?! I’ve seen bear’s nests high in American Beech trees around Algonquin Park, but these platforms were pulled together in a White Oak—for acorns no doubt—which I thought was pretty cool.
Now, don’t panic for me, a bear nest is not the same as a bear den—there are no cubs born in a bear ‘nest’. Black Bears create these ‘Snack Shacks’ in trees when the nuts are perfectly ripe for the picking in the late summer and fall. This feast uncoincidentally follows the time of year when they have sufficiently sugared-up their metabolism on berries and hope to begin fattening up for winter. The bear climbs the tree and pulls the branches that are loaded with fat-rich acorns towards their mouths. They then fold and tuck the finished boughs under their backsides and pack them down. As they continue to do this, a comfy platform with a great view is formed and they just lounge in the tree and eat and eat and eat…and get fat…sigh.
The Trout Lily flower is a spring ephemeral which bursts from the tiniest of bulbs and are a hardy and reliable Muskoka wildflower. These lilies are an opportunistic species. They form carpets of spotted leaves and do this both in the pockets of parched soil over bedrock of the barrens—and in the deeper, richer soils found under tall forest canopies.
Continuing toward the mid-point of the Barrens Extension Loop I found myself alongside a stretch of shallow, sun-baked mud flat between bog, pond, and beaver dam. I assumed that this formation could hold more water in years with more precipitation. The mud flat was full of gulls, Killdeer, and other shorebirds, which I couldn’t get my lens on. It was a world in itself!
The mud flats narrow to a point where the trail crosses a bridge over a fissure in the bedrock, through which the water flows. This beaver-damned crossing marks the half-way point of the Barrens Extension Loop. At this point I had a quarter-bottle of water left and yearned to drink it all.
Upon crossing the bridge, which is located at the apex of the Barrens Extension Loop, another world of bedrock was revealed! This stretch of trail was quite barren, with fewer soil pockets for vegetation. This is where the lichen and moss species were truly given a chance to shine.
From top left to right: Rock Foam (Stereocaulon saxatile); Cinder Lichen (Aspicilia cinerea); Reindeer Lichen (Cladinia) mix with Bryophyte sporophyte protrusions; snow-compressed Bryophyte preparing for spring and summer sun.
Although there were sights to be seen, I found at this point that it was hard to focus on anything other than my body temperature, the sun (still baking hot at 4 pm), and my meagre water supply. I did, however, remember to focus on the MTC trail markers—and was sure to keep them in my sights. I had determined early on that, because I had such small amount of water on hand, I must stay alert; if I were to lose my way the remainder of my day could be unpleasant.
Taking the trail in reverse meant that I when I arrived to what I dubbed as ‘The Place of Many Meetings’ I was sun-baked and parched. I was almost out of water so I was totally relieved that so many friends had marked this the junction of the Main Loop, the Extension Loop, and the Pine Ridge Loop. The signage gave me clear direction as to where to head next, and I knew that my car (the water bearer) was closer to me than it was when I was at the midway point.
As I trekked closer to the parking lot, the storm front began to roll in with each step, and the sun’s power diminished a little. A breeze began to push through—what a relief! I was now walking adjacent to a shallow Tamarack bog.
Tamaracks are a very interesting tree. In some situations, they are practically a floating aquatic! They often establish themselves on floating woven mats of sphagnum moss and rhizomatous sedges. They then stitch their roots among the other plants and they all hover together above a bog’s highly acidic, nutrient-barren depths. The Tamarack is a gymnosperm, or conifer, which means they produce cones like other evergreens, but Tamaracks are not evergreen. They lose their super soft needles in the fall like deciduous trees and turn a bright orange far later in the fall than the broadleaf trees—their needles drop in early November. We call Larix laricina ‘Bog Fire’ in my house.
The thunder clouds started to roll in and things started to cool off when I was traversing alongside these very shallow Tamarack bogs at the end of west end of Highland Pond. I’m not sure if this is a bog carved out in bedrock or if it is a shallow acidic water seep over bedrock, though the diversity here is still impressively rich.
The various ways that plants adapt to shallow-soil habitats has been observed and harnessed by botanists throughout the ages. Some botanists create art with plants in the form of Bonsai. I think that the Torrance Barrens are a wonderful natural example of a diverse bonsai garden.
Bonsai artists keep their tree specimens in very tiny pots and prune them with special tools and wrap them around wire to train them to be unique—yet true to the species’ form. The tinier the pots; the tinier the plant—so you can understand why the trees and shrubs that have established themselves on the Torrance Barrens may be small yet could in fact be very old. Miniature in fact.
The bonsai artists on the Barrens are the wildlife—being the moose, deer, bear, rabbit, voles, mice, squirrels, muskrats, birds et al. and the tools are the teeth, beak, and bill, that nibble on the tips of the plants that grow within the shallow soils over bedrock.
Though the method and motive behind this art is instinct, sustenance, and survival.
These White Pine (Pinus strobus) are stunted due to the lack of mineral soil and the acidic water beneath their roots. In a drive to survive, they have responded by producing shorter needles, completely unaware of the vast barrier they are attempting to overcome.
This White Oak (Quercus alba) is in true form—yet miniaturized—and its neighbour, the Common Juniper, is in true form and full-size because this species has evolved to drive root deep into bedrock fissures in search for water and nutrients, often fracturing rock in the process.
I was scanning for more evidence of wildlife, and enjoying the breeze as it released my hair from my sweaty forehead when I stumbled across some fresh-looking ladies who looked like they had an important job to do. They were indeed working! They were researchers collecting data for the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s START Muskoka program (START stands for Saving Turtles at Risk Today and is administered through Scales Nature Park), and Sarah Marshall was the team lead who let me in on what they were up to. They were looking for Herps, (which is slang for Herpetology—the study of amphibians and reptiles). They had seen many skinks that day (Ooooh! This meant I HAD to hang with them for a while), along with frogs, salamanders, turtles, and several juvenile Massassauga Rattlers. I told them about my Blandings sighting. Then I really stuck with them—though I was so horribly thirsty—just in hopes of photographing more reptiles. Sarah explained how they went about their research and told me to call the Blandings I’d photographed in to the Turtle Hotline, as we all can do when we see a turtle of any kind (they keep the location of the sightings to themselves) and you can also call in injured turtles to the START Turtle Hotline: 705-955-4284. They will send someone to help.
As I reached the Highland Pond bluff I spun around to view the vista and noticed that there was indeed a whole crew of Reptile Warriors! As I looked across Highland Pond from the opposite crest I saw a researcher in hip waders cruising over the sphagnum mat casting a silhouette of a superhero, like my new friends were doing on this side of the pond.
The ladies whom I dubbed ‘The Reptile Warriors’ were taking an inventory. We were all commenting on how difficult it was to keep up with natural evidence and data results with the short window between snow melt and vegetation flush.
Since I hiked the trail in reverse, this was the highlight of my week—and my walk. The crest over Highland Pond is so close to the parking lot, it could be fairly accessible for most abilities.
This sinky bridge IS the place to cross to continue along the Highland Pond Loop. My sun-baked brain and dusty boots thanked the hiking powers that be for the cooling soaker I received when I was mere metres from the car—but hey, my foot felt great when it was in the water… N.B. No biggie, I retired the stinky old boots soon after. Improvement of this bridge could make the lookout over Highland Pond fairly accessible for most abilities.
I am really looking forward to returning to the Torrance Barrens Trail to hike the Pine Ridge Loop with a friend or two, and to try again for the tree blossoms—but next time we will arrive even better prepared—with more sustenance, with my repaired camera, and with LOTS and LOTS OF WATER in our packs.
Written by Rebecca Krawczyk aka Botanigal. www.botanigal.com @botanigals
Visit the Botanigal website for more information about her family’s native plant nursery and apothecary, to see more botanical highlights of Muskoka, to learn more about plants of edible and medicinal interest, and to glean some of the other odd and interesting things she regularly stumbles upon in her travels throughout her home range of Muskoka and Haliburton.
Thank you to the MTC for the opportunity and the motivation to experience the Muskoka that I’d not yet seen.
Over the course of the Muskoka Trails Canada 150 Blog Project, Botanigal logged the following stats:
- Kilometres hiking/skiing: 27.2
- Hours hiking/skiing: 11
- Kilometres driving: 732
- Hours driving: 12.75
- Memories: Thousands!
Torrance Barrens – How to get there and back
I was heading to the Barrens from the north. These are directions from highway 69. Whether you are heading north or south on highway 69 you will end up turning onto Southwood Road Westbound just south of Bala. You will cross some train tracks and may well end up seeing a train because these tracks belong to a busy line.
To head north from the Southbound lanes take the Southwood Road exit ramp. When the ramp meets Southwood Road head directly under the bridge and then turn left onto the Manson Lane extension to get back onto Hwy 11.
Southwood Road takes a sharp turn over the same set of tracks–take the left. If you go straight you will then be on Nine Mile Lake Road, and you don’t want that. Once you cross the second set of tracks at the Southwood dog-leg, you are pretty much into the Barrens. You may see other random parked cars along this stretch but keep going until you see the red sign with the Muskoka Lakes logo. There are several excellent interpretive panels adjacent to the parking lot and this lot is an excellent place to observe the night sky as the Torrance Barrens are also a Dark Sky Reserve.
If you are heading to the Torrance Barrens Trail from the south you could also take the Southwood Road exit off of Highway 11 and drive until you see this sign at #3942 Southwood Road.
Upon departure you can head north or south on Southwood Road—depending on your next destination. Southwood Road runs from its exit off of Highway 11 (just south of the Muskoka Tourism Centre), all the way to highway 69 where it intersects several kilometres south of Bala. The Torrance Barrens are practically at the halfway-point of Southwood Road.
May the forest be with you. R.