Rainbow Falls Provincial Park

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#1)  Rainbow Falls Provincial Park

Postby KoutaR » Fri Nov 15, 2013 4:15 am

After my canoe trip to Quetico (see viewtopic.php?f=113&t=5832), I stayed one night in Thunder Bay and then rented a car for one day. From Ontario’s Old-Growth Forests by Henry & Quinby, I had read about Rainbow Falls PP and wanted to check it out. The park is small, only 1,421 acres. It protects a piece of hilly forest along the northern shore of Lake Superior. The trail described in the book is Back 40 Trail. At the park gate the officer said the trail was closed because four trees had fallen over the trail. She called her boss and asked if I might get special permission. The boss approved and said I should be very careful and they wouldn’t take any responsibility. Later on the trail I noticed even my 3-year-old son would have managed to get over the trees…

The book says all of the forest behind a bay of Whitesand Lake is old-growth. But the park brochure told about an old camping ground. What the h***? There were a loop trail and a spur trail to a hill top. I began with the spur trail. The most important trees are white and black spruce and birch. The book says the birches are white birches, which apparently is a synonym for paper birch. However, the birches looked rather odd for paper birch, a bit like an imaginary hybrid between paper and yellow birch with large heart-shaped leaves, dense crowns, thick trunks and shade-tolerant-like appearance. Only at home, after the trip, I realized that they were likely mountain paper birches (Betula cordifolia), which is said to be common around Lake Superior.

Hillside from below. Black and white spruce, mountain paper birch (also the foreground foliage) and American mountain-ash.

The book says the forest canopy is very uneven and the white spruces “very tall”. Even without a laser I saw the spruces were not “very tall”, not even tall. After measuring a few, I concluded they are mostly below 20 m (65 ft). Besides being low, the canopy is very open, probably due to the winds from Lake Superior. From below the spruces just look tall because the bush (birch, mountain-ash, green alder, mountain maple etc.) around them is so low. Of course, conifers here and there surrounded by shrubs a few meters tall can also be called “very uneven canopy”… Anyway, the view from the hilltop was nice.

Lake Superior, background; Whitesand Lake, bottom. Black spruce, mountain paper birch and (American or showy) mountain-ash.

Next I continued with the loop trail. Soon I realized that the loop is essentially an abandoned campground with parking places at each tent/RV place still clear visible. If you only walk along the trail you will see walls of pioneer shrubs / young broadleaf trees a few meters tall on both sides. If you want to see forest you must go off-trail. Here the forest was more closed than on the spur trail but still rather bushy. There were also some taller white spruces; the tallest I measured was 27 m (88 ft) which may still not be “very tall”. According to the book, the oldest trees germinated about 1770.

Lower slope forest. Mountain paper birch (foreground), white-cedar (left), mountain paper birch foliage (upper half of the photo), mountain maple foliage (lower half of the photo) and a lot of young balsam firs. The trees looks much taller in the photo than they really are.

Conclusion: Rainbow Falls PP is barely worth visiting. If you drive along the north shore of Superior, you could take the spur trail for vistas, though there are also other lookouts along the shore.

I stayed again one night in Thunder Bay and continued in the morning by bus toward Wawa on the eastern shore of Lake Superior. From the bus I noticed that forest looking similar to that in Rainbow Falls PP is relatively common along the northern shore of Lake Superior. A few miles north of the Pukaskwa National Park boundary, the highway left the lakeshore and soon the forest became more closed “normal” coniferous boreal forest. I also saw a HUGE burned area, at least 10 miles, maybe even 20 miles in length. It was now covered by “dog-hair” jack pine seedlings and quaking aspen sprouts. The fire had spared some small spruce-fir stands at more protected sites.

It was a 6-hours bus trip, which I considered long, but many passengers were going to Toronto - 21 hours! Doug Bidlack was waiting me at the Wawa bus stop.

The story continues here:

Last edited by KoutaR on Mon Mar 14, 2016 11:29 am, edited 2 times in total.

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#2)  Re: Rainbow Falls Provincial Park

Postby dbhguru » Fri Nov 15, 2013 8:56 am


 Great report. Your experiences support mine in Canada. Naturalists in the parks are very shaky on their interpretations of old growth. Not sure why. Some of the most impressive old growth I've seen in Algonquin Provincial Park occurs on trails that feature other things in the trail brochures. In fact the brochures may not even mention old growth.

  The stark, but appealing, north country look with spike-topped white spruce sticking above short hardwoods deceive visitors in terms of their dimensions. Sizes are all scaled down. A 6-foot circumference, 75-foot tall white spruce looks impressive among  but that aspect seems to escape notice of many visitors who may not realize that every thing has been scaled down. There are a few places in southern Canada that offer promise of large white pines, but where spruce dominate, the climate is simply too harsh. Canada's big trees are in British Columbia.

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Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest
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#3)  Re: Rainbow Falls Provincial Park

Postby mhenry » Wed Mar 12, 2014 1:01 pm

This area is significant for age, not size of trees. I used data supplied by a dendrochronologist to locate it, down to gps-level location of 240 year-old paper birch. And yes, they were in and adjacent to an old campground. As we say in the book, "If you didn't know what you were looking for, you'd probably never guess this was an old-growth forest." Old-growth boreal forest often just doesn't look like much (white cedar would be an exception), but you have to admit that 240-year-old paper birch is notable - it's the oldest record I could find for Ontario. Because it doesn't look like much, the existence of old-growth boreal forest was denied for decades, and still would be by some foresters. Granted, Rainbow Falls is not the finest example (except by one measure). This was by far the hardest chapter of the book to write because information was almost non-existent. Go to Little Abitibi Park if you really want to see old-growth boreal wilderness - the trees will still be very short though, while reaching 300 years in age. In Western Ontario, go to Greenwood Lake for largish trees (even by your standards) - but this is Great Lakes - St. Lawrence forest, not boreal.

Size isn't everything.

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