UP!. May, 2009

Old Growth Niagara

Within spitting distance of wineries, casinos and wax museums, the raw and stoic beauty of another age can be found with hiking boots and a map.

Through the roar of Niagara Falls and its shroud of mist, the view from Table Rock House's observation area includes the falls, the Niagara gorge and the development surrounding it. More elusive are the ancient cedars that gow out of the gorge's periphery, predating the area's European settlement. Better still: no raincoat is needed to enjoy the cedars.

North of the falls, a metal staircase takes you about halfwave down into the Niagara Glen Nature Area, which is honeycombed with trails. Head left on the trail along the base of the cliff, with an eye out for garter snakes. Follow the red trail down into an area of forest and stone. On your descent you'll pass through what appears to be a cave, but really is two giant rocks leaning together. Off to your right near the gorge's bottom is yet another trail leading past a horeshoe-shaped valley to a human-like rock face. At its southern end is the pay-off: awe-inspiring clusters of old-gorwth tuplip, sassafras, oak and cedar trees. The late ecologist Bruce Kershner once called this the tallest and oldest broadleaf forest in Ontario. If you're lucky, you might also see a bank beaver in the Niagara River.

Back atop the gorge, meander along the Niagara Parkway to the edge of the town of Niagara-On-The-Lake. From a small parking lot on John Street, follow the dirt path into an unimposing swath of forest called Paradise Grove. Very soon you'll come to huge, imposing oakds, whose diameters are as big as the width of a car. There are between 30 and 40 of these old trees, believed to pre-date the War of 1812. You half expect to see bears and now-extinct passenger pigeons roaming these woods.

Moving south again, through St. Catharines and into the neighbouring town of Thorold, stop for lunch at the elegant Keefer Mansion Inn (905-680-9581; keefermansion.com). Try the Ontario beef tenderloin burger, topped with melted Niagara Gold cheese and tomato jam, served with a garden salad ($11). The Inn sits atop the Niagara Escarpment, overlooking the filled in routes fo the first and second Welland Canals brlow, and the locks of the present Welland Ship Canal in the distance.

Afterwards, head for Port Colborne and the Wainfleet Quarry Conservation Area. The former quarry is well known for its many Devonian Period fossils of corals, brachiopods, trilobites and other ancient life forms. Not far from the present-day north shore of Lake Erie, this area was a coral reef below a tropical sea about 380 million years ago. Look very closely as you walk along the rock floor to see lots of corals and shells. (There's no shade here, so be sure to pack and sunscreen.)

A few kilometres away is Mud Lake, another conservation area. Formed from the spoils of the construction of the Welland Canal during the 1920s, it's a great place to watch warblers and ducks, like redhead, ruddy and hooded mergansers. A trail takes you around the large wetland in the centre of the park. Here, you'll feel like you're in the middle of nowhere, despite being right across the road from a garbage dump and a kilometre from industrial suburban sprawl

C2009 Peter D.A. Warwick

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