Scout's Valley exception to rule
Whenever the opportunity arises to take a walk through a city park, I usually run the other way.
The paved walkways, horticultural hybrids and droves of rude people are not a lure to me; give me open spaces, native plants and a bit of solitude.
But as with most things in life, there's always an exception to the rule; in this case, it's Scout Valley.
Located just west of Orillia proper, this tract of land has been bounced around in terms of ownership, uses, intended uses and maintenance. It's had an interesting course of use and abuse, from farmland with free-range cattle to being the potential site of Simcoe College, to city park.
It's also been "home" to numerous runaways over the years, the now-rotten sleeping bags and poorly created campsites attesting to that.
While growing up in Orillia in the 1960s and '70s, my buddies and I used Scout's Valley (note the proper spelling) for many a hike and bicycle excursion. Our bikes were the one-speed, pedal backwards for brakes kind, not the glorious multi-geared wonders that fly along the trails today. With our military-style canteen of water, a peanut butter sandwich on "wholesome white bread," and maybe a chocolate bar tucked in a pocket, we were set for the day.
As I walk those same trails today, seeing the same spring where the water flows crisp and clear, sliding down the same rocky slope of loose gravel and stones, it seems not so long ago that we had our great explorations out here.
So now it's a city park, complete with a couple of snazzy parking lots, a few updated information signs (including a long list of what you can't do while visiting), a maze of trails and an improper name (somewhere along the line the 's has been dropped from Scout). The only thing missing is a pay gate and that can take it's sweet time arriving.
Despite the changes, what has remained intact is the forest. It's a blend of hardwoods and conifers, upland and wetland, most of it healthy and all of it intriguing. As I am to be leading an educational excursion in Scout's Valley shortly, I felt it best if I made the time to reacquaint myself with the leafy beasts that live there.
Starting at the Line 15 parking lot, right beside the new old log house, I pick a quiet trail and begin my trek. Because of the drastically rolling landscape, forest habitat changes quickly and often. What starts off as an open area of gravel with the usual sumacs and willows, soon becomes Scots pine and white birch. This is followed by maple and beech which, on the bottom side of the slope, becomes hemlock and yellow birch.
One of the highlights, and a disappointment, was the discovery of a butternut tree. I found only one, but perhaps there are more scattered back from the trail side.
Nice to find one, but unfortunately, it was more dead than alive due to the butternut canker that is sweeping across the region. These trees are facing the same dilemma as elm trees did a few decades ago, as a death-dealing fungus is carried tree to tree.
Further along, a nice cluster of yellow birch is found, the bronze-coloured bark peeling back in tight curls. Deer love to eat the young shoots of this tree, so few small ones survive to mature, and once you taste the minty flavour of a fresh-cut twig you can understand why the deer like it so much.
A grove of tightly spaced hemlocks yields a young porcupine scooting up a trunk. With all the dog walkers on these trails, I guess this is a misadventure just waiting to happen. Keep them on a leash at all times!
In the mud of a dried puddle are found a multitude of tracks, predominately raccoon, but a single set of skunk tracks tiptoed around the edge of the wet area. What was that I just said about dogs? Oh yeah, keep them on a leash, at all times.
The trail breaks into a gravely open area and the trees change to match the new habitat. Juniper clumps abound here, their sharp needles and low-laying branches providing good cover for cottontail rabbits. Dryland cedars attempt to grow in this clearing, but the rocky shale doesn't release much nutrient. The cedars are stunted and appear a bit desperate.
I meet a man out with his camera, who visits here often but isn't sure which trail takes him back to his car. We talk for a while and he mentions how peaceful and rewarding his outings are within the valley. He's taken pictures of deer, fox and bear on these trails, by just waiting quietly and letting the wildlife show themselves.
Two more dog-walkers go by, and I realize that despite the many trail users, I haven't found one pile of doggie do-do. Thank you, dog owners! The second one asks if I know the way back to the main parking lot as she's been going in a circle for a while. I direct her to the nearest exit and she and Beau Regard are on their way.
By the time I make my own way back to the car, I've tallied almost 30 species of trees and shrubs, ample for my needs as a trail guide next week. Yes, it's a city park and yes, there are other people there, but the forest within the valley is so diverse, so lovely, that I quite forgot that I'm not supposed to like walking here.