Trees tell the story of the Haliburton Highlands
By Sue Tiffin
Published January 15, 2019
Witness trees, trees that have stood through history and can help date when significant events like forest fires occurred by way of increment boring – extracting a small sample of the core of the tree to analyze and count rings – can help tell us about the history of Haliburton County.
So said Peter Hynard, a longtime professional forester who spoke to a full house at the HHOA fish hatchery on Jan. 9 alongside fellow professional forester Ernie Demuth at a talk called, May the Forest Be With You, as part of the Yours Outdoors Telling Our Stories Speaker Series.
Hynard has used the increment boring technique to determine the date of events in the forests here in Haliburton County, and told the crowd attending his talk what he had learned.
“You don’t want to cut down every tree to get the story,” he said of the value of the less invasive process, which can show signs of injury in the tree rings, or the change of growth pattern. “It’s like killing your only living witness.”
Hynard began his story 1.1 billion years ago, in the Precambrian era, when earth was made up of one super continent called Rodinia, before continental drift brought the seven present continents to their present latitude and longitude positions. Using “you are here” tabs on historical maps, and through photos in a slide show, he helped the audience connect with how the local land was formed.
“The important thing to keep in mind,” he said, “is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s gneiss or schist or marble that you’ve ground into dirt, it produces a soil that’s silky and sandy and stony and generally shallow and not at all suited to agriculture. Where it’s deep and well-drained, it can grow trees well, but it’s no good for farming, which people found out later.”
The last ice age began melting 20,000 years ago and by 10,000 years ago the melting was virtually complete in the area, he said.
“The glaciers kept receding northward and all that’s left now is in the high arctic,” he said.
The melting ice produced tremendous amounts of water that formed post-glacial lakes, with the one covering our area called Lake Algonquin.
“It flowed out across Lake Iroquois and down what is now the Erie Canal and Mohawk Valley and the Hudson Valley to New York and out to the Atlantic that way,” he said. “It couldn’t go out the St. Lawrence which was blocked at that time by ice.”
The events left us with water scoured landscape. Hynard said we know about the lake by finding old beach lines, and connecting the dots. He noted examples of the Harburn wells – natural bore holes created by debris in natural depressions during times of high water that map out the river that existed during the period of glacial outflow at the end of the last ice age.
“All of these give you some clues as to the history of what happened,” he said. “They also give you some clues as to what the land could be used for.”
Fast forward quite a few years, to 1854.
“That’s when the government of the day, this was before Confederation, but their self-governing colony made the decision to open the shield country to settlement,” said Hynard. “Southern Ontario was filling up, it was an agricultural society, they needed to expand somewhere, and they made what turned out to be a poor decision to expand up onto the shield.”
A network of colonization roads – including the original Bobcaygeon Road, Monck Road and Peterson Road – were built.
“That road system was there to allow for settlement, and at the same time ... all the townships were surveyed out, all ready for settlement.”
Peter Hynard has worked as a professional forester for nearly 50 years, and shared the history of forestry in Haliburton County with the crowd gathered at the fish hatchery in Haliburton.
Although settlers came, the land turned out to be largely unsuitable for agriculture.
“Sales were poor because the land was poor, but people did come here,” said Hynard. “In 1880, Haliburton County had a 15,000 year-round population. We just surpassed that about 10 years ago. They cleared the land with the means they had, built a shanty and later a house, all of which was later abandoned in almost every case because things did not work – it’s not agricultural soil. Things didn’t work out, and for those of you that roam the woods, you’re going to bump into artifacts of that piece of history.”
A series of photos from throughout Haliburton County compiled by Hynard showed stone piles created by settlers clearing the land and piling up stones in the middle of what is now bush. Stone fences, once bordering a field for farming, now sit covered by forest. Even a cemetery, off in the woods, about 2.5 kilometres from the nearest road.
“Some of those stone piles were done with loving care,” he said. “They really wanted things to work out, but it was a futile exercise. We would never be able to do anything like that today. We’re not as tough as these folks.”
Though the land was not suitable for farming, it did offer another resource: white pine.
“The agriculture was a loser, but when they got here, there was a tremendous resource of white pine that they went about felling,” he said. “It was cut not with an axe, but with a crosscut, skidded out to skidways, loaded onto sleighs and sleighed out to lakes and rivers and dumped on the ice, and in the spring ... towed down the lake with an alligator boat.”
Log drivers pushed the logs through along the Gull River, and Hynard’s photos show examples of iron bars driven into bedrock on Anson Creek to hold a log chute in place.
“The Canadian Land and Emigration Company made a deal with the biggest sawmill in the country at that time, Mossam Boyd, Bobcaygeon,” said Hynard. “The deal was, 35 cents a log and 25 per cent of the sawn lumber profits. They gave Mossam Boyd free licence to cut pine on those nine townships north of Haliburton.”
It’s a myth that the pine from Haliburton County was taken out to England for ship masts, said Hynard.
“What happened is it went through the Mossam Boyd sawmill, and was sawed into lumber,” he said. “He barged it to Lindsay, loaded [it] onto rail cars, railed it to Port Hope, shipped it across Lake Ontario, down the Erie Canal and the Hudson River to New York City. That’s where most of it went.”
The logging industry created immeasurable wealth, with a photo of Kinmount showing big Victorian buildings and a bustling town, but it was not to last long.
“These people may have been tough and hardy but they did not care for the land they made their living from,” said Hynard.
The removal of white pine was done without much planning for the future, and piles of flammable debris just waiting for wildfire were left behind.
“This map shows the forest fires in one year, 1913, across the southern shield. Absolutely enormous, the size of a township. Those fires took place because all the logging debris was left to bake in the sun, the settlers were using fire as a land clearing method, and there was no firefighting agency. Nobody cared. It was all going to last forever anyway, so some of it burns. In the end, it was all cut or burned, and by 1900 or so, it was over.”
White pine stumps are durable and can still be found today throughout the county.
“And you can find the physical evidence today, many white pine stumps with char on them, still, 100 years later,” said Hynard. “And you can date it. You can date each one of these fires. 1913 is a big one. It shows up in the woods as well as on [the map].”
Nowadays, foresters take considerable care in how they cut, using different methods.
“Let’s fast forward to present day times, today not much logging is done with chainsaws, it’s mostly mechanized, even now in this area, to a large degree,” said Hynard. “Those big machines do far less damage than the old-style logging. Where the trees are marked carefully and the loggers are held to low damage standard, they can do a fine job. You’d think not, but they definitely can.”
In the future, he said, it will be harder to find a damaged tree to use as a witness tree to date, although tree rings still harbour evidence of events through the way they grow when the forest around them changes. For glimpses into our past, however, he said the trees are living witnesses.
“You can actually, if you take the time and know the methods, you can actually date these things rather precisely,” he said.
While Hynard spoke to the past history of trees in the area, Ernie Demuth spoke to the present and future situation of local forests.
“If you don’t want to get depressed, you probably don’t want to talk to a forester right now,” said the registered professional forester of more than 20 years. “Unless it’s Peter, because Peter can talk about the history and the past, but what’s coming up is not good.”
Demuth told the crowd foresters are now dealing with more than typical forestry and silviculture, and are largely dealing with invasive species.
“That tends to be what we’re dealing with all the time now,” he said.
In southern Ontario, invasive species have been an issue for quite awhile, and now as they arrive in our area, said Demuth, where we deal with the thin soil and growing conditions Hynard had talked about, we are seeing the impacts much more.
Demuth became interested in beech bark disease at a three-day workshop in 2014 involving scientists from Vermont, Michigan, Quebec and Ontario who had been dealing with it for decades. He clarified he wasn’t an expert, but as a forester was seeing it spread.
“It’s coming so fast that nobody really knows how to react,” said Demuth.
Though now, many in the audience had heard of beech bark disease, Demuth said that wasn’t the case a few years ago, and that beech bark disease caught people off guard.
“We just started to watch forests just dissolve, just fall down,” he said. “We weren’t prepared for how fast it was going to move.”
Beech bark first came to Canada in 1890 from Europe, and to Ontario – Elgin County area – in the 1960s, and in the Parry Sound area it was noticed in the early 2000s. The disease starts with a crawler, a scale. As the insect bores into the tree, it creates a waxy substance. Heavy rains will wash the scale off giving the impression the disease is not there anymore, which has in the past tricked some areas into believing the problem is gone. Nectaria, a fungal invasion, follows the scale very quickly.
“Once you start seeing the red, the tree is pretty much standing there dead,” said Demuth. “Up in these areas, it happens so quick, when they die.”
Beech bark disease has three phases. The advancing front describes when the scale can be seen on the tree. The killing front comes next, which Demuth said we are “well into it right now.” The killing front is characterized by elevated levels of beech scale, neonectaria fungi, and extensive above ground mortality.
“The mortality rate and the speed that this happens cannot be overstated,” said Demuth, noting that in some forests elsewhere, over 50 per cent of their beech trees died in three years. “That’s nothing. I’ve seen like 60 to 70 per cent of forests just be on the ground in a year in some of our operations. It can be expected that 80 to 100 per cent of mature trees will die. So we’re going to lose them all. Most of them.”
Demuth said there have been times he hasn’t seen the forest floor for dead beech trees, and showed the audience photos of beech snap, which is a major safety concern.
The third phase of the disease is the aftermath forest, following the heavy mortality of the killing front. The roots of the dying trees produce dense thickets of beech bark disease susceptible sprouts, which persist and intensify over time, perpetuating and continuing with a secondary killing front.
Plant diversity under the thickets is destroyed due to the beech leaf layer and blockage of the sun. Demuth quoted U.S. Forest Service researcher David Houston who said, “beech bark disease represents the first case that we know of where a specialist plant pathogen actually increases the density of its host.”
“As I say, I’m sorry, it’s a very depressing subject,” he said. “Once you get over the mourning process of losing the beech, it is now the explosion of beech that’s going to happen that’s going to be the problem ... It’s not like they die, they continue. We’ll be the last people to know those big grey beautiful beech trees, they’re going to be this small, stunted tree, they almost look like a black cherry.”
Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania now claim that beech has taken over and is the most prevalent understory species in their states, with a 24 per cent increase in beech saplings between 1993 and 2007.
Though beech bark disease has been an issue in southern Ontario for years, now that beech bark disease is in Haliburton County, it is spreading quickly.
“It lingered around in southern Ontario without seeming to cause a big problem,” said Demuth. “Some beech would die, some wouldn’t. Trees are healthier down there, you’ve got deep limestone soils, whereas up here, you’ve got those thin, poor kind of growing conditions for trees, so we see those effects of these diseases much more than they do in southern Ontario.”
To work through the crisis, Demuth said using a shelterwood system of cutting is an option, acknowledging that if the beech were simply removed, root spouting would likely still occur. Controlling the understudy with manual or chemical means prior to cutting is a possibility as well, but Demuth said it’s almost too late for that. Landowners could use a brush saw to take their beech now, while there’s something still in it, but he strongly cautioned that beech bark disease can cause trees to look fine while being completely dead inside, making their stability unpredictable.
Moving forward, Demuth said it’s important to deal with problems due to invasive species ahead of time, as we see them coming, rather than once they get here.
“I would say, well, we learned a lesson here,” he said. “We should have been dealing with this 20 years ago. We should have been reducing beech in the understory, we probably shouldn’t have been promoting beech so much ... We should have been thinking more strategically. We can learn a lesson here.”