Wawa, Ontario (part one)

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#1)  Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby DougBidlack » Thu Jan 16, 2014 1:16 am


early last year Kouta and I discovered that we were each thinking about visiting Ontario, Canada sometime later that year.  After a little back and forth we decided that we would meet for two full days of exploring in and around Lake Superior Provincial Park near Wawa in early August.  Wawa’s climate is greatly influenced by Lake Superior.  It is cooler in summer, warmer in winter and foggier, cloudier and wetter than other areas of similar latitude in the interior of Canada.  The average annual temperature is 33 F and they receive 39.5” of precipitation a year.  The average number of days with precipitation is 172.  Michipicotin Bay lies four miles farther west right on Lake Superior at one of the trailheads that we were hoping to hike.  Although only four miles from Wawa, the lakeshore at Michipicotin Bay is significantly rainier, foggier and milder than Wawa.  In ‘Ontario’s Old-Growth Forests’ by Henry and Quinby, Steve Newmaster says that at least some of the coastal forests along Lake Superior should be considered as boreal rainforests.  He states that the climate diagrams at Michipicoten Bay are nearly identical to two better known boreal rainforests:  One in Wells Gray, British Columbia and the other along coastal Norway.  In addition, the old-growth forests along Lake Superior support very high bryophyte and lichen diversity with many species known only from the Pacific Northwest and around Lake Superior.  Lake Superior Provincial Park is one of the largest provincial parks in Ontario at 384,610 acres (155,646 hectares).

I arrived in Wawa late in the afternoon on the 8th of August, checked into the Best Northern Motel where we would stay for the next three nights and drove to the bus stop to wait for Kouta to arrive.  The bus was late but I had a great time talking to a kayaker who had grown up near my hometown in southeastern Michigan, went to Michigan Tech, became a forester and disliked it, quit his job and he now lives in the UP and does all sorts of odd jobs.  He said he had been kayaking around Isle Royale once but it was far too crowded for his taste so now he prefers to kayak along the northern shore of Lake Superior.  For those who may not know, Isle Royale is one of the least visited National Parks in the United States.  Time seemed to pass quickly and the bus soon arrived.  Luckily, Kouta managed to appear after I thought everybody had gotten off the bus!  Normally I have little good to say about any motels, hotels or other places to stay, but the Best Northern Motel was different.  There was nothing special about the rooms but the food was a different story.  The owners happened to be from Poland and they cooked some wonderful Polish food as well as more typical Canadian fare.  I made the mistake of ordering a simple chicken sandwich the first night but at least I was smart enough to get some Ukrainian borscht and a Polish lager as well.  Oh what a joy!  For the next couple of nights I would dine on great food and wash it down with a nice Polish lager.  Perfect!  Kouta seemed amused at my delight.

The next morning we ate a hearty breakfast and drove to the voyageur trailhead.  Despite all my earlier info on Lake Superior Provincial Park this particular section of the voyageur trail is actually not within the park.  It is located just to the north of Lake Superior Provincial Park and to the south of Michipicoten Post Provincial Park on what I believe is private land.  This trail closely follows Lake Superior and we were prepared for a cool day but it was maybe a little cooler and wetter than we expected.  The temperature never even reached the 60’s even in Wawa and it rained much of the day.  It certainly felt like a rainforest on this day!  We started the hike by taking a wrong turn and we ended up at a dead end where a stream emptied into Lake Superior.  We became acquainted with both alder species at this point.  I was already quite familiar with speckled alder (Alnus incana) but I didn’t know anything about green alder (Alnus viridis).  Here is a picture of a green alder growing near the lakeshore.

We always found speckled alder closely associated with water while green alder was an upland species.  Speckled alder is a significantly larger species than green alder.  After this short detour we backtracked to where the trail had divided.  The trail that we wanted followed the creek upstream for awhile.  Here’s a picture showing the stream and plenty of northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and mountain maple (Acer spicatum).  Both of these species were especially common near streams or near Lake Superior.

Along the stream we found several good-sized mountain-ashes.  Up to this point we had identified a few mountain-ashes and all but one came out to showy mountain-ash.  The lone holdout had us stumped and we couldn’t decide if it was showy (Sorbus decora) or American (Sorbus americana) mountain-ash.  During our three days in this area we didn’t positively identify a single American mountain-ash.  I had already known that showy mountain-ash is the only species found on Isle Royale so it appears that this species is more common along Lake Superior than American mountain-ash.  We measured two showy mountain-ashes near the stream.  The first was 2.22’ x 41.7’ (0.68m x 12.7m) and the second was 2.00’ x 46.3’ (0.61m x 14.1m).  Kouta made these height measurements as well as all the others to follow with his Nikon 550 A S.  I made all the girth measurements at 4.5’ (1.37m).  Unfortunately I forgot to take measurements at 1.5m which I believe is the Canadian standard.  At this particular site we also noticed the unusual paper birches (Betula papyrifera).  We didn’t understand why they tended not to be white but rather mostly shades of gray and pink.  It wasn’t until we each went home that Kouta realized that we must have been looking at mountain paper birch which is also known as heart-leaved birch.  In the past this particular tree has been treated as a subspecies of paper birch (Betula papyrifera var. cordifolia), but in more recent publications it is often treated as a separate species (Betula cordifolia).  I’m going to treat it as a separate species just as Welby Smith does in his excellent book, ‘Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota’.  The other thing that especially bothered Kouta was that many of the birches appeared to be quite old and they were an important component of the old-growth forest along Lake Superior.  Welby Smith says that heart-leaved birch are longer-lived and especially prefer to grow along Lake Superior.  Mystery solved!  Heart-leaved birch are also noted for their gray and pink bark in addition to some white and of course they have heart-shaped leaves.  Here is a picture showing the bark of a showy mountain-ash in the foreground and a heart-leaved birch in the background.

We followed the trail up to a beaver dam where we crossed the stream.  Here is a shot of Kouta on the other side of the stream.

Not long after crossing the stream we measured a large mountain maple.  It was 1.25’ x 32.2’ (0.38m x 9.8m).  This tree divided into two major trunks just below 4.5’ so it would have probably been over 2’ in girth if the split had occurred farther up the trunk.  Just before we reached a Lake Superior overlook we went through a patch of blueberries with lots of nice berries.

Here is a picture of Kouta and Lake Superior from the overlook.  Naturally it was raining.

Unfortunately I didn’t bring any rain pants so my pants became thoroughly soaked.  Kouta was a whole lot smarter because he remembered to bring rain pants.  Here’s a picture of Kouta in this wonderful boreal rainforest.

At this point I should probably mention that that northern third of Lake Superior Provincial Park is within the Boreal Forest while the southern two-thirds is within the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest.  The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest is referred to as the Laurentian Mixed Forest in ‘Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota’ and the Northern Hardwood-Conifer Forest in ‘Michigan Trees’.  Since we were hiking north of Lake Superior Provincial Park we were very much in the Boreal Forest.  Still, we were a bit  surprised that we didn’t see a single pine or sugar maple or yellow birch or any other tree from the more southern biome.  What we saw was a forest dominated by white (Picea glauca) and black (Picea mariana) spruce, balsam fir (Abies balsamea) , northern white-cedar and heart-leaved birch.  Mountain maple was the most important understory tree and showy mountain-ash was present wherever there were natural openings such as streams, lakes and cliffs.  We saw one relatively small area with tamaracks (Larix laricina) but we didn’t notice any quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) or balsam poplars (Populus balsamifera).

After hiking for a while longer the rain began to let up and we came to a very cool place where the trail went between a cleft in some moss and fern covered rocks.

Eventually we came to a second beaver pond and the sun came out for awhile.

Kouta measured a balsam fir to 71.5’ (21.8m) and a white spruce to 83.7’ (25.5m) although he felt that he didn’t quite get the top of the white spruce.  I didn’t measure the girths of either of these trees.  Here is a picture of Kouta measuring the balsam fir.  We decided to head back at this point.

On the way back we went back to the overlook again because it was a bit clearer.  Here is the view again with a nice black spruce off to the left.

While we were at this overlook we heard, and I actually glimpsed, a large black bear crashing through the brush right in the area around the big blueberry patch.  Here is a picture of the first beaver dam again.

The northern white-cedars were thick along the stream flowing out from the beaver pond.

Just as we were nearing the car we decided to try to find and measure a decent-sized green alder.  We measured one that was 0.25’ x 13.8’ (0.08m x 4.2m).  A larger stem on this shrub was 0.29’ (0.09m) but it was a bit shorter than the thinner stem.  When we got into the car we drove slowly along the gravel road back to Highway 17.  Just before we got back onto the Highway we stopped to measure some willows and another showy mountain-ash.  We collected leaves from the willows and we identified them back at the motel as pussy willow (Salix discolor) and Bebb’s willow (Salix bebbiana).  We measured two pussy willows to 0.95’ x 29.2’ (0.29m x 8.9m) and 1.30’ x 33.1’ (0.40m x 10.1m).  The Bebb’s willow was 0.86’ x 25.9’ (0.26m x 7.9m).  The showy mountain-ash turned out to be the largest of the day at 2.30’ x 47.6’ (0.70m x 14.5m).

Here is the rundown of what we measured on this day:

White Spruce
? x 83.7’  (? x 25.5m)  probably not to top

Balsam Fir
? x 71.5’  (? x 21.8m)

Showy Mountain-ash
2.30’ x 47.6’  (0.70m x 14.5m)
2.00’ x 46.3’  (0.61m x 14.1m)
2.22’ x 41.7’  (0.68m x 12.7m)

Pussy Willow
1.30’ x 33.1’  (0.40m x 10.1m)
0.95’ x 29.2’  (0.29m x 8.9m)

Mountain Maple
1.25’ x 32.2’  (0.38m x 9.8m)

Bebb’s Willow
0.86’ x 25.9’  (0.26m x 7.9m)

Green Alder
0.25’ x 13.8’  (0.08m x 4.2m)  a thicker stem measured 0.29’ (0.09m)

After these measurements we headed back to our motel and had a fine meal.  A final picture of the Lake Superior shoreline where we hiked.

This is the first of two parts so stay tuned for part two soon.  Hopefully Kouta will also be able to share some pictures and fill in some details that I missed.


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#2)  Re: Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby Larry Tucei » Thu Jan 16, 2014 9:34 am

DoDoug- Excellent report!  I have wanted to get to Canada for years. On my annual trip to northern Wisconsin I'm only 100-125 miles from the border. I should make it a point to visit that area in the future. I have just started to report more on Wisconsin and Minnesota lately with more plans in the future. The area that you and Kouta visited has many of the same species as northern Wisconsin and again what an outstanding post. Lookin forward to Part II.   Larry
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#3)  Re: Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby bbeduhn » Thu Jan 16, 2014 10:20 am

Fantastic report!  It's incredibly lush around Superior.  It certainly looks like a rainforest.  I assume the spruce is all second growth but the paper birch variety may well be old growth, according to your observations.  Were there any pockets of old growth forest?  I would expect some larger girths and taller heights if there were true old growth but I'm not familiar with the area.  I had no idea the bluffs were that tall.  It looks like an outstanding place for some true solutude.
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#4)  Re: Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby KoutaR » Thu Jan 16, 2014 12:55 pm

Excellent report, Doug! The only thing I have to add is the new revolutionary heighting method we used to measure the 4.2-meter green alder.

PROBLEM: A low tree / tall shrub is surrounded by taller trees, which prevent the laser-measurement to the top. If you go so close to the tree that the top is against the sky, you are too near for a Nikon-measurement (<10m).

SOLUTION, a result from co-operation between American and European tree measurers:

1. Doug stands at the tree holding Kouta's tripod in his streched hands. The length of the tripod is set so that its head is at the same height with the tree's top. Kouta controls the height from the distance of 20-30 m.

2. Doug moves to a free ground and holds the tripod exactly as described above. Kouta measures the vertical distance between the tripod head and Doug's feet with Nikon.


Oh yes, I have also photos of some trees that we considered height records or near-records at that point.

14.1-meter (46.3’) showy mountain-ash

10.1-meter (33.1’) pussy willow

7.9-meter (25.9’) Bebb willow

Brian, according to the book by Henry & Quinby, this is old-growth forest. (But the two willows pictured above are roadside trees.) Only at the very beginning of the trail there were forest that had clearly been logged in the past. Note that we did not search for biggest girths. There were certainly thicker spruces, firs and especially white-cedars. But I think the potential max. height along the trail is not much more than the tallest spruce we measured. There are likely taller spruces further inland but (I guess) the storms blowing from Superior keep the canopy rather low and open along the coastal trail. Doug, what do you think?


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#5)  Re: Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby DougBidlack » Thu Jan 16, 2014 2:29 pm

Larry, Brian and Kouta,
thanks for the kind words.

I think there may be at least two reasons why the trees don't grow so tall here.  You mentioned the first one: Proximity to Lake Superior.  The second has to do with the soil.  This area is part of the Canadian Shield and the precambrian bedrock is often right at the surface or the soils only cover the bedrock quite thinly.  I imagine it is quite difficult to grow large in such thin soils even with plenty of moisture and a relatively long growing season for this far north.  Kouta, I believe you mentioned this second reason when we were measuring on our second day.


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#6)  Re: Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby KoutaR » Thu Jan 16, 2014 3:47 pm


That makes sense. The thin soil must have an influence, indeed.

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#7)  Re: Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby dbhguru » Thu Jan 16, 2014 5:20 pm

Doug, Kouta,

  Doug, your report is one of the best of the best and sets the height of the bar for the rest of us. It also brings back memories of my and Monica's visits to Lake Superior. That great body of water always casts its magic spell on us. It has so many faces, moods, and it influences the climate over so much of the surrounding landscape.  

   I hope Lee Frelich reads your report and comments because he has much to say on what determines growth minimums, maximums, rates, etc. in the Lake Superior country. Lee, we need to hear from you.

Robert T. Leverett
Co-founder and Executive Director
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Co-founder and President
Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
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#8)  Re: Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby Steve Galehouse » Thu Jan 16, 2014 8:40 pm

Doug, Kouta-

Great report! From the distant photos it looks like there are no white or red pines present, and you mentioned the lack of yellow birch and sugar maple. Would the absence of theses species in a way help define the boreal rainforest?

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#9)  Re: Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby DougBidlack » Thu Jan 16, 2014 10:59 pm

I love the area around Lake Superior too and certain places are particularly beautiful.  Lake Superior Provincial Park and surrounding old-growth forest is one of the most beautiful areas around this truly Great Lake!

I guess you missed the part where I said that we also saw no pines.  I was well aware that white and red pines as well as yellow birch and sugar maple are not supposed to be found in Boreal Forest and I'm pretty sure that Kouta knew that too.  The reason I was surprised, and maybe this applies to Kouta as well, is that I expected the line between the two biomes to be much fuzzier.  In other words I expected at least a few southern trees in this Boreal Forest because the line separating the two biomes is so close.  Probably the fact that we were hiking in old-growth forest right along Lake Superior had a lot to do with this strong demarcation between Boreal Forest and Laurentian Mixed Forest.  I had a feeling that I didn't explain that very well the first time around.  I hope this helps.

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#10)  Re: Wawa, Ontario (part one)

Postby Jess Riddle » Sat Feb 08, 2014 11:00 am


Fantastic post!  All of the detailed information of the area's climate and the individual tree species is very interesting, and your photographs are beautiful.

I'm glad to see some measurements of showy mountain ash too.  I measured some large mountain ash in the Adirondacks, but I was never certain which species they were.  I didn't have any fruits available, and the length to width ratio of the leaflets always came out right around the key break ratio.

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