Fun in fens

One of my recent stories was about some unintentional “swamp-wading” I did when I was taking the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System course in North Bay, Ontario. If you recall, we were venturing out to a fen, but first we had to cross the swamp that surrounded it. Neck-deep in muck, soaked from head to toe, we made it…just barely.

A couple of days later, we ventured out to another fen, this one called Frair Lake. This fen was a little different though. As was becoming routine, all of the course participants piled onto a big, yellow school bus. The bus chugged along for a good half hour along winding country roads and finally turned onto a dirt road that led to a quarry. We all filed off the bus and then headed down the road, passing the quarry entrance and leaving it behind to the left. We hiked down a wooded path off the dirt road, passed through some dense forest and then there it was – the stunning, dark blue water of Frair Lake. It was 30 degrees C that day and the sparkling ripples of Frair Lake called our names, trying to lure us in for a refreshing splash…but we had to resist. We had lots of important field work to do and only about 7 hours to do it!

Working in groups of 4, our task was to conduct a field visit of the wetlands surrounding Frair Lake, and prepare our own wetland evaluation for the site. I won’t get into all the details of what a wetland evaluation involves, but it broadly covers characteristics of the wetland including size and condition, the types of wetlands present (i.e. bogs, fens, swamps or marshes), hydrological components (i.e. flood attenuation, water quality, etc.), biological components (i.e. wetland productivity, soil type, etc.), social components (i.e. presence of wild rice, furbearers, etc.) and various special feature components (i.e. presence of species-at-risk, winter cover for wildlife, etc.).

Eager to get the day started, we set off on our journey around the lake. At first there was some swampy habitat with lots of towering black spruce trees, but because of the high temperatures and lack of rain, the ground was relatively dry, so this was an easy hike around. We quickly collected data on the vegetation forms and communities present, took some soil core samples to determine the different soil types and continued on with our day. “This is sooooo much easier than navigating that swamp,” I thought quietly to myself.

But then we reached a transition point in the wetland, where the tree cover disappeared and we were left with what appeared to be very mossy and low vegetation. As we stepped onto this we noticed that the ground was certainly not stable. We had just arrived at what are lovingly referred to as the Frair Lake floating mats. These floating mats were actually considered fens, another type of wetland. True fens are not really common in southern Ontario, and I had never experienced fens until this course. Fens are peatlands, which simply means they are peat-covered lands. They have little tree cover, are dominated by mosses and sedges and have a higher pH than bogs. In fens, floating mats of Sphagnum moss often extend out into the water, with poorly decomposed peat at the top, and more well-decomposed peat towards the bottom, giving them a squishy and sinking feeling under your feet.

Stepping out onto the fen, I took a few small and nervous steps. Despite being soft under my feet, it was actually quite easy to navigate and kind of felt like walking on a cloud. But we quickly learned though that the stability of this floating mat was not consistent throughout. We first noticed this when a member of another group was walking towards us and, well, the next second he wasn’t. One of his legs had pushed through the floating mat and into the water of Frair Lake below. We helped pull him out and he was just fine, despite a very wet leg. I had a few close calls throughout the morning myself, losing my footing or almost sinking deep enough to break through the peat. We continued around the lake on the floating mats, identifying lots of unique fen species, searching for species at risk and admiring the beauty of this spot.

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A photo of Frair Lake taken while standing on a floating mat

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Another photo of Frair Lake – You can see my group member Bill standing on the floating mat.

As the day came to a close, we finished the loop around the lake with wet feet, covered in sweat and a good number of deer fly bites, carrying notebooks filled with data and having acquired a very deep appreciation for the beautiful wetlands of northern Ontario. I have spent a lot of my time in the wetlands of southern and eastern Ontario, but there is something so different about the wetlands of the north. It might just be the fact that they are much bigger and much more pristine than their southern counterparts, or that many of the wetland types in the north are different from those in the south. It all felt so new and exciting to me. Whatever it was, it has me longing to go back and experience even more.

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One of many gigantic pitcher plants growing on the floating mats