Paddling the Dark Secrets of Black River (11 photos)

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Couchiching Conservancy’s Passport to Nature program offers a ‘paddle party’ on this ‘incredible river’ that helps tell the area’s story

What better way to try out a new canoe route than to be guided by a professional biologist and joined by a group of paddling adventurers?

I always love the opportunity to explore the Black River, and was particularly curious about a new Ron Reid Nature Reserve boat launch, so I joined a Paddle Party offered by the Couchiching Conservancy’s Nature Passport program to introduce paddlers to the region.

Our guide for the day’s paddling adventure was Phil Careless, biologist for Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Parka wilderness park surrounding the Ron Reid Nature Preserve.

The reserve is crossed by a four kilometer stretch of the Black River, making it an ideal destination for a paddle, but with limited access points due to the rugged terrain and steep banks.

Thanks to the ingenuity of Couchiching Conservancy volunteers, the Rosebush Landing was created, featuring a custom-made step ladder, as well as a winch, to help paddlers launch their canoes and kayaks.

The launch is named after Joan and John Rosebush, who were major contributors to the fundraising campaign for the purchase of Ron Reid’s Nature Preserve, and are longtime supporters of conservation.

Before heading upriver to Ragged Rapids, our guide gave us a brief overview of the river we were about to explore.

“It’s one of the best rivers to paddle because it’s low, flat and has a lot of sections, like the one we’re doing today, that don’t have a lot of current,” explained Careless. (He was right; it was pretty easy to paddle upstream.)

“The Black is a very long river, running from Dorset to Washago, about the same distance as Scarborough to Hamilton. It was used extensively by native groups and settlers, and in the past it was an active logging river,” Careless added.

In fact, the destination (and turning point) of our paddle – Ragged Rapids – was once the site of a logging town of 300 people. The area was logged in the early 1800s, then in 1913 a massive fire incinerated all the surrounding vegetation, followed by heavy rains, exposing the 3.5 billion year old rock barrens we see today .

“That’s why you won’t see any trees over 107 years old along the river,” Careless said. “But you will see remnants of pine bark and a few large logs still stuck at the bottom of the river.”

As we traveled along the calm, winding river, Careless explained the features of the “riparian” landscape (i.e. the vegetation that grows alongside a river), pointed out the nesting holes of the kingfishers and swallows along the river bank, as well as the largest burrows dug by river beavers.

One of the most interesting stops on our way was at a soft, sandy shore where Careless told us that the Black River is home to North America’s most endangered animal. To our surprise, he reached shallow water and pulled out a freshwater mussel.

“It’s an oriental elliptio,” explained Careless, who then impressed us with her amazing knowledge of the characteristics and life of this fascinating creature.

The species is endangered due to historical use of dumps and industry near water bodies, as well as invasive species such as zebra mussels.

“It’s your ultimate water purification machine. These molds work like tiny little water purification systems,” Careless said, explaining why saving creatures is so important.

“They act like siphons, pulling water down a hole, which passes through gill-like structures before being pumped out as clean water. Mussel beds are a great way to purify water.

The knowledge Careless was able to share with us about the river and the surrounding park was impressive, but it was also her obvious curiosity and fascination with the wildlife around us that was infectious. It made our paddling a real adventure in nature.

One of the paddlers, John Hungate of Orillia, said, “I can’t believe I’ve lived in Orillia all these years and didn’t know about this amazing river.

To find Rosebush Landing, locate the Ron Reid Nature Reserve on your map or GPS system. The entrance road is at the western end of the reserve near Black River Road, past Lewisham Road and about five miles from the Coopers Falls Road fork. Once launched, you can paddle east to Ragged Rapids or west to Chisholm Trail and Washago.

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