Connecting Lake Simcoe's Community

Local history, naturally

2020 01 27 nathistoryBy David Hawke -- When one stops to think about the history of an area, the usual first impression is of the people who populated the landscape and the results of their efforts.

That line of thought in regards to our social history could start with a general overview of when the first humans arrived and the succession of generations thereafter, or it could be more recent history that looks at the waves of immigration that occurred in the 1830s, the 1950s and again within our current timeframe.

          One could also look at the commercial history of an area, tracking the growth and development of industry and the impacts it has on attracting and employing people of a vast range of trades to "put down roots" and raise their families. All of these people needed churches, schools, stores, services and a place to build a home, and they needed the money to do so. Commerce ensured that a community prospered over time.

          The third aspect of a historical review seldom gets the attention it deserves other than a passing comment such as "The forests went on forever" or "the water is so pure one can dip immediately from the lake and to sate one's thirst." I speak of our natural history.

          The study of natural history has gone under different guises, from notes made by explorers in the 1600s and 1700s that assessed the natural resources upon which a community may establish itself, to the sharing of knowledge orally from generation to generation as to when the fish spawn, how to prepare a meal from local wild plants, where to find deer, how to irrigate crops and why do some wild species show up and then disappear.

          The study of natural history may be done from the perspective of ecology (how to all things inter-relate), of biology (what animals are found here and why), of botany (what plants are found here and why), of conservation (how to wisely use natural resources), of environmentalism (how do people affect the natural processes of nature).

          Let me use Orillia as an example of natural history, and allow me to start not at the beginning but just 12,000 years ago when the most recent glacier retreated from the area we now call the Lake Simcoe watershed. It was a period of climate change and global warming and big things were happening across the land.

The thick layer (about two kilometres thick) of ice that we now refer to as the Wisconsin Glacier was melting. As the face of the glacier gave way to sunshine and heat, the resulting bodies of water began to flow down the gentle slopes and gathered to form the first series of great lakes: Lake Iroquois, Lake Scugog and Lake Algonquin. As the immense ice block melted, the weight it had been exerting downwards was no longer there and the land begin to rise up (like depressions in a mattress) and after a while, well a few thousand years actually, the landscape began to look somewhat like what our current maps show us.

          As that ice melted it left in its wake piles of mud, of sand, of mixed soil and, in some places, patches of bare rock of either granite or limestone. (How did the limestone get to be sandwiched between the granite and the ice? That's an even longer story that perhaps we can address at another time.)

          Each of these soil deposits provided nutrients and moisture to plant seeds that were being dropped by visiting birds or were carried by water from distant southern shores. These plants are what botanists call 'native' in that they got here of their own accord. Some seeds did well in the wetlands, some on the mixed soil, a few on the sand, and even the barren-looking rockscapes became home for lichens and mosses.

          As the plants established themselves on the slopes and till plains that we now call Orillia and area, they attracted certain birds, insects and mammals that ate those plants or found shelter within them. And reproduced in healthy numbers.

          On a lovely summer's day about 9,000 years ago a human family wandered off the trail while hunting mastodons and discovered that this place 'had it all'... fresh water, abundant growth, and oodles of animals including large fish. So, they set up camp and lived happily ever after... until more people showed up and a few wars ensued over who had claim to food sources in what parts of the neighbourhood. And then the Europeans started trickling in, also looking at all those big beautiful pine trees and luxurious fur pelts. Ah, the delicate beginnings of our social and commercial histories.

          Orillia was situated on the shores of two fabulous post-glacial lakes, and the surrounding forests provided not just homes for passenger pigeons, deer, rabbits and grouse, but also building products! The folks of the day realized that this natural wealth must be protected from those dastardly Americans to the south, so schemes were invented to lure more people to leave England, Scotland and Ireland to come live here, in Upper Canada, where everybody gets land and prosperity! Sign up now! Of course, the real reason was to ensure a garrison of able-bodied young men were in place just in case, you know, those southern people got greedy again.

          Within the few hundred years since Sam Champlain wandered about these local fields and forests in 1614, the passenger pigeon disappeared (overhunting and habitat loss) and the loss of pine forests, from being turned into sailing ships, left the sandy soil exposed to erosion by wind and water and useless for farming. Trumpeter swans and wild turkeys were hunted out of local existence, and the forest floor was denuded of wild ginseng.

          But people being people, new ways were found to use the remaining natural resources for commercial gain: hunting and fishing camps, sailing and canoeing on the waterways, sliding down hills on skis and more recently powering over the snow on machines that, well, let you power over the snow.

          When looked at from a global perspective our region is still a magnificent place. Not as great as it once was, but still pretty good. And we owe that to the natural history of the region.

David’s notebook: With the weather we have been getting, I often find myself wondering how the original Indigenous folks and my ancestors coped with winter. It would have been harsh living no matter how prepared they might have been.

© 2020 David J. Hawke

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