When I think of Whitby, Ontario, I think of suburbs and big box stores, not wild apples and old growth forest. Surprise!
- Transit: Thickson’s Woods is accessible by the Waterfront Trail by bike or foot. There’s a small parking area nearby. I don’t think there’s a bus that goes close.
- Cost: None.
- Crowds: None when I’ve been there.
- Attractions: Hiking, bird watching, nature, photography, tranquility in the middle of suburban sprawl. It’s a great stop if you’re doing the waterfront trail. I understand it’s the only original white pine forest left on the north shore of Lake Ontario.
- Accessibility: The trails through Thickson’s Woods are all dirt paths of varying steepness, none of which is very wide.
- Conservation note: This habitat is extremely rare. Please stay on the paths so the understory doesn’t get trampled.
- Click here for map.
Industrial parks. Parking lots. Cavernous big box stores. Highways. Suburbs as far as the eye can see. All these things come to mind when I think of Whitby. It’s a well-earned reputation; this sleeper community just to the east of Toronto has each of those things in spades – none of which is what I think of when I plan a getaway (a nice enough place to live, sure, but not my type of tourist destination…).
It’s hard to erase that mental image of the city, walking into Thickson’s Woods. We head down the Waterfront Trail, which the nature reserve straddles on either side. Sure, to the south is a small, old lakeside community, nothing like the vast tracts of new developments that Whitby is known for, but to the north is industrial land and Highway 401 – one of the busiest highways in North America.
Far overhead, the preserve’s signature white pines soar above the other tall trees of the forest…
In fact, when I first found myself in Whitby I used one of my tried-and-true tricks to search out treed space, perusing Google Maps to find sizeable green splotches, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I saw in Whitby. Thickson’s Woods and Lynde Shores on the lake, Heber Down, dozens of city parks, and piles of conservation areas just to the north in the Oak Ridges Moraine.
And yet here I was in Whitby, strolling through an old farm field left to go back to nature. Tall grasses, brilliant red dogwoods, and innumerable unseen songbirds surrounded me, as well as the occasional apple tree that had gone wild: Old, gnarly trunks supporting spreading branches and whorls of white, delicately perfumed flowers. A handful of birders are here today, as are a couple of volunteers selling booklets about Thickson’s Woods. Since I first came here a few years ago, hunting for old-growth forests, this is the busiest I’ve seen it.
The former farm field to the north is hot in the late spring sun. Every now and again a cool breeze drifts up from the south – a reminder that the deep expanse of Lake Ontario is only a stone’s throw away, keeping the communities around its shores warmer in cold weather and cooler in hot weather (until the humidity sets in).
On the other side of the Waterfront Trail, the paths wind down and down through old-growth forest. Here, in the shade of the leaves high above, where the lake breeze settles, it’s cool and quiet. Plants that were done flowering a few weeks ago further from the shore of the Great Lake still bloom.
Far overhead, the preserve’s signature white pines soar above the other tall trees of the forest: Supercanopy trees, I’ve read them called. I remember that, while the ones in this small, precious parcel of land look enormous, I’ve read that they used to grow well over sixty metres tall in Ontario. But virtually all of the ancient giants were cut down in the hundreds of years since European colonization, for lumber and masts for the British Navy.
I breathe in at the foot of one of the towering white pines. In my mind I roll back all of the development around here – the asphalt, the concrete, the big box stores – and imagine that this is what it all used to be.