Visiting one of the rare strongholds of a vanishing ecosystem.
- Transit: The Cameron Ranch Walking Trail is really only accessible by car, unless you feel like biking from one of the few nearby towns.
- Cost: None.
- Crowds: We were alone on the trail on a September weekend.
- Attractions: Photography, birding, natural beauty, the chance to see lots of flora and fauna rare to the area. Serenity and solitude, too.
- Accessibility: Most of the trail is on a boardwalk, and most of it is quite flat.
- Environmental Impact: This park was made to protect a vanishing habitat. Please stay on the trail, take nothing from the park, and leave nothing behind.
- Click here for map.
We’re on our way somewhere else when we stop by the Cameron Ranch Walking Trail, part of the relatively new Carden Alvar Provincial Park. I’m familiar with the area, but not too many people are. It’s flat, dry, dusty, and out of the way.
There are no big parks signs pointing the way. We know where we’re going thanks to GPS and an Ontario Parks truck parked in the small gravel lot. It’s the only vehicle around. We talk to the ranger – he too is on his way somewhere else and decided to take a quick detour – and learn that he’s never been here, either. “It reminds me of Texas,” he tells us. He wouldn’t be surprised to see cacti here. I wouldn’t be either.
The sun is hot, and so is the ground. Alvars are a thin (sometimes non-existent) layer of soil on top of a (usually) limestone bedrock that absorbs and reflects the heat. They feel hot on warm days; on hot days they’re more like a kiln. They’re also rare, and about two thirds of North America’s are located in Ontario, scattered, cut off from one another. I’m reminded of Pelee Island’s Stone Road Alvar, and the sweat-drenched shirt I got there on an otherwise mild May long weekend.
Here it’s well into September, summer is winding down, and it even smells hot, like baked limestone and overheated plants. Elsewhere in the province leaves are just starting to turn colour. Here, away from the streams that cut through the land, a few are, but most plants just seem to dry out.
Stomclouds are building to the north and the west. Around here that’s just another sign that autumn is on its way – thunderheads being pushed down from the prairies and Hudson’s Bay.
The Cameron Ranch Trail isn’t a long one. We take our time, amble, see what we can see. The boardwalk amplifies our footfalls, the soft sound echoes out from between the slats where the alvar’s grasses push through.
At different times of year this place is full of rare plants and endangered birds. Hundreds of species call it home, many of them unique to this scarce ecosystem. As we pass through it, there’s lots of birdsong, but it’s all coming from the distant treeline where the little songbirds must be vacationing from the heat. Elsewhere in the province, in the verdant fields and emerald forests I think off when I think “Ontario,” goldenrod is ubiquitous, another surefire harbinger of autumn. But in the alvar thistles and asters, hardly rare in the province but rampant here, are coming to the end of their season.
Butterflies and bees flit and buzz across the prairie from flower to flower, each getting ready for the cold months ahead – whether that be collecting nectar to store, or to burn off flying south. When the wind blows – and despite the flatness of the landscape and the clouds billowing in the distance, we’re treated to only a few puffs of breeze on our walk – I can just make out the perfume of wildflowers over the scent of the hot ground and dry grass rippling up from below.
The heat builds, and without clouds overhead there’s no break from the sun, no cool shade to duck into. It’s at the same time lovely and sweaty work. Our shirts are pulled off and stuffed in our belts before we’re half way to the end of the trail, which turns out to be a beautiful, if unceremonious turnabout, surrounded on all sides by tall, dry grasses. The vista ahead suggests a wilder continuation of what we’ve already seen, vaster and protected from people by low wire fences.
It strikes me that I’d love to see this place in the height of spring, still lush and blanketed with wildflowers. I imagine it alive with travelling birds and foraging bees.
But now it remains quiet, dry, and hot.
The sameness of the prairie-like terrain and the relative shortness of the trail make small things become trail markers, noticed on the way out, and greeted with a little smile on the way back…
…like downy hawthorns and their impressive spines near the creek, and purple spikes of viper’s bugloss standing sentinel by the boardwalk.
Just as we pass the old farm fence on our way back, and a spray of purple asters just starting to fold up for autumn, the rain that’s been threatening since early morning begins to fall.
It feels magical on bare skin – and, at the end of summer, something to be savoured. There won’t be many more moments like this until May. And, like the seasons themselves, the rain is ephemeral.
It stains the boardwalk and cools the skin, but only briefly. Before long the sun is back out, the heat returns, and the rain that tried to cover us and the land is sublimated. Air that was hot and dry is now hot and humid.
I hold on to those sensations as we get back to our car, which is like a sauna after sitting for the better part of an hour without shade.
I look back at the ranch, having a drink, and then pouring the rest of the water on my head. The smell and feel of summer hold on here, like sun poking out between twilit clouds at the end of the day, even as the inexorable celestial gears that govern the seasons bring it to an end for another year.