Owen Bjorgan uses historical aerial imagery to find the most ancient ecosystems in Niagara. He is investigating potential rattlesnake and amphibian habitats in Wainfleet Bog, while pondering the fate of other wetlands in the region. (Photo supplied)
I looked outside the window. Gloomy, stale, and super-soaked.
With an all-night downpour on top of an already saturated and frozen landscape, the water had pooled up in all sorts of unusual places. It’s one of those days where you could find a puddle on a hillside.
So, it’s an off day, but it’s a day off. I’m off to Wainfleet Bog to run a few errands, and then a little reconnaissance mission in Niagara Falls after that.
Wainfleet Bog is massive. It’s the only bog on the Niagara Peninsula, and therefore, the southernmost bog of its kind in Canada. It’s a survivor’s island for many rare and relic species.
The bog puts itself on the map in two ways. For one, it’s the largest blob of green on the Niagara map, punching in at a commanding 568 acres. It is also like a vegetation fortress, protecting a small and isolated population of the eastern massasauga rattlesnake.
I describe the bog as a fortress because anyone who has visited it understands the navigation challenges. In areas of the bog that have regrown since the peat industry days (which concluded in the 1980s), you find the vegetation is thick, thorny, and more or less forms a mat about five feet high across the forest floor.
Sometimes, these areas are flooded by a foot of water at the same time. Sometimes, the black earth gives way, and you fall through the bog “mat” into a cold watery hole. I somehow managed to avoid soakers all day.
Of course, this is what you sign up for when you go to a bog. Especially in the winter, after flooding rains.
I used Google Earth to depict where the most ancient vegetation communities might exist in the bog. I’m looking for old growth forests and wetlands with 200-plus-year-old trees growing out of the water. I find these spots from my desk in NOTL by analyzing aerial photography and older satellite images of the Niagara Region. If you can see a dark blob of forest standing strong in 1934, and then you fast-forward to 2020 and still see it standing there, you know it’s going to be old and ecologically significant.
Some of these older forests and wetlands are embedded inside a shrubbier, younger forest. They are in disguise, until you’ve busted through the thick outer wall and accessed the insides.
Wainfleet causes me to drive across the peninsula with a sense of purpose. The rattlesnakes are still there, somewhere. There is a plant out there that eats flies — the carnivorous and provincially rare sundew. Amphibians love the flooded nirvana that exists here — generally free of fish, three species of tree frog and the blue spotted salamanders can lay their eggs here in comfort. Lastly, DNA scat testing in 2005 revealed that a cougar was present in the bog.
With all of that, I find myself cruising along a long gravel road with a wall of seemingly impenetrable vegetation growing on one side. What’s more, I can see the bog water sitting nice and snug up against the crest of the ditch along the road. The bog is saturated and spilling over and out. It’s full.
That means just about everything to my right is flooded for six kilometres. It will likely remain this way until spring.
With my head hanging out the window like a dog, I finally spot a break in the wall. I pull over and go in. It looks like a nightmare. The “trail” is tunnel-like and claustrophobia inducing — a reddish ice sits over pools of black water which have consumed the trail. I spot animal fur in the thick bushes next to me. Alarmed, I pivot to see the skin of a coyote draped over some low-lying branches, obviously gutted by a hunter. The ice I’m standing on is groaning and oozing.
Yet, I need to see what happens deeper in. I am looking for areas of high ground where the eastern massasauga rattlesnakes might be hibernating, so I can come back to verify their presence in the spring.
I didn’t find any cougar scat, but I found an interesting footprint and plenty of scenic memories. Some places were so beautiful, that I stopped to freeze onto the ice I was standing on.
I saw the frozen moulds of animal tracks running across the ice — rabbits, racoons, and deer abounded. With each step, I watched water gush up the icy footprints of creatures from the past. It is a wonder that this is what most of Niagara Region once looked like, and that I was likely the only person experiencing these 568 acres to myself.
I live for these humbling feelings of large and powerful places. That’s why my next visit was totally necessary, and I need to tell you about it.
As some of you may have seen circulating in the papers and on social media, the contentious Thundering Waters wetlands in Niagara Falls have taken their second round of damages to protected wetlands, done by the developer, GR Can. A stop work order issued by the NPCA quickly evolved into the authority charging GR Can with alleged unauthorized work in a wetland or buffer area, which violates the Conservation Authorities Act. According to the NPCA, vegetation removal had occurred in the protected area, yet another dent in a dwindling but significant ecosystem.
To come full circle, why do I roll out of bed on cold mornings to go traversing through black muck and floodwaters? Every time I step into wetlands, I’m stepping back into time. These places matter. The sole thought in the back of my head while out there is, “wow, I can’t wait to get home and show these photos to people, post them on social media, or write this article…”. It all stems from a place of appreciating Niagara’s natural heritage for what it’s worth.
Even on the gloomy, stale, super-soaked days.
Anyone reading this is welcome to attend a free information session at the Gale Center in Niagara Falls, Thursday Jan. 30, 5 to 6 p.m., which will involve the latest updates on the Thundering Waters Forest, hosted by the City of Niagara Falls.