Friday, March 31, 2017

The Bruce Peninsula Part III: Rugged Shores of the Georgian Bay

 *Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV* *Part V* *Part VI* *Part VII*

I hope my previous post on the phenomenal Singing Sands at Dorcas Bay was enough to whet your appetite for more of the Bruce peninsula because this series is just getting started. The region is such a memorable and botanically, geologically, ecologically etc. fascinating place that I'd be doing it a genuine disservice to not share an in-depth look at it. Plus, I'll be honest and say that this is a bit personal and a fun way to reminisce on one of the more exciting weeks of my life. Really, I can't sell the perfection of the Bruce enough!

Crystal clear aqua water and rough shorelines of the Halfway Log Dump area

Part III on this series takes us to the opposite side of the northern Bruce's shoreline. While Dorcas Bay and the western shores have been worn and weathered away, the eastern side sits in the calmer, more protected Georgian Bay. This makes for a rather dramatic landscape complimented by boulder-strewn beaches and breathtaking cliffs as you'll come to see. Your blogger is of the opinion that these stretches of coast are as gorgeous and scenic as you'll find in the entire Great Lakes region. In this post we'll stick to an area locally known as Halfway Log Dump and the botanical treasures that reside within.

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)
Twinflower (Linnaea borealis)

The drive through the interior of the peninsula to its eastern shores takes you through a mosaic of wetlands, coniferous forest, marsh, and alvar pavement. Next to no development; just preserved and undisturbed wilderness. The northern flora takes full advantage of this with plants like the charming twinflower (Linnaea borealis) a common sight on the hike to Halfway Log Dump's aqua waters.

Striped Coral-root (Corallorhiza striata var. striata)

The Bruce is perhaps best known to plant folks for its staggering diversity of native orchids in such a small geographic area. It shouldn't come as any surprise that this fact was the catalyst for my initial visit years ago. Some species are so locally common that you'd have a harder time not coming across them, like the striped coral-root (Corallorhiza striata var. striata). Also known as peppermint stick orchid, this striking myco-heterotroph loves to appear in the drier upland coniferous woodlands bordering the Bruce's wetlands. Striped coral-root ranges widely throughout the Mountain West but persists in a disjunct, rare fashion in the Great Lakes.

Dewey's Sedge (Carex deweyana)
Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera)

The walk through the woods to the Georgian Bay's shoreline was very fruitful and gave me the opportunity to enjoy plants I'd never get to see back home. Looking down along the trail I noticed Dewey's sedge (Carex deweyana), a species long extirpated from Ohio's soils; and then looming directly above it was the Ohio endangered balsam popular (Populus balsamifera). Both won't get much of a look from local botanists but to a 'southerner' like me they were plants to cherish!

Bleached limestone cobble along the aqua waters of the Georgian Bay

Upon breaking out of the forest and onto the coast you are rewarded with a sight like something out of a dream. An endless beach of bleached limestone cobble melts into the most pristine crystal clear water for as far as the eye can see.

Perfect waters of the Georgian Bay

If you didn't know any better you'd seriously think someone transported you to the equatorial waters of the Caribbean or Indonesia looking out across the Georgian Bay. The aqua shallows quickly dive into the dark blues of deep water just off the coast in a fashion similar to continental shelves in the oceans. This becomes much more apparent when viewed at a higher elevation as photos to come will show.

Halfway Log Dump along the shores of the Georgian Bay

Halfway Log Dump always gets a bit of a chuckle out of me when I read, hear and/or see the name, especially considering just how beautiful the landscape is. The name comes from the beach being used as a 'dump' or staging area for lumber during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was much easier to amass cut timber here and float the logs up and down the coast to mills for processing. There's no evidence of this practice left, at least as far as I could tell but the name stuck.

Northern Bog Violet (Viola nephropylla)
Ancient white cedar

The harsh conditions of the beach do a good job of preventing much plant growth overall with sun-baked summers and ice-covered winters but a number of species manage to do just fine. The most noticeable and distinguished are the ancient white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) growing from the cobble and cracks in the limestone pavement. More on them and their incredible story in a future post! On a smaller and much more ephemeral scale is the northern bog violet (Viola nephrophylla). It grew in just about every seepy crack and crease on the beach.

Halfway Log Dump with Cave Point in the distance

The further north you explore along the shores of Halfway Log Dump, the larger and larger the boulders become with some reaching house-sized proportions. In places the beach is a literal labyrinth of limestone and a challenge to successfully navigate. This draws rock climbers from all over and makes this beach one of the region's most popular bouldering areas. But be careful where you do your climbing because a stretch of this shoreline is off limits as it hosts one of the continent's more rare wildflowers.

Huge boulder polka-dotted with Lakeside Daisies
The federally threatened Lakeside Daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea)

If you know where to look and time it right you might see some of the larger boulders polka-dotted yellow with the globally rare and federally threatened Lakeside Daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea). It's endemic to select spots of the Great Lakes' alvar habitat and currently only known from The Bruce; nearby Manitoulin Island; Ohio's Marblehead peninsula; and the Straits of Mackinaw area of Michigan. It curiously occurred in the past in a couple limestone gravel barrens in NE Illinois, too.

The federally threatened Lakeside Daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea)

Halfway Log Dump is hardly the only, nor the best spot on the Bruce to see this stunning bloomer in early June but it's hard to beat these particular plant's view of the Georgian Bay atop their boulder homes. Stay tuned to a future post where I'll share the alvar pavement ecosystem of the Bruce and the sensational displays of lakeside daisy they produce.

Incredible view north across the Georgian Bay and Cave Point

As incredible as the shorelines of Halfway Log Dump are to explore and botanize, you'd never get the full experience of the place without making your way to the top of the coast's dramatic cliffs. The views are unbeatable and give as good a representation of the Niagara Escarpment as can be seen. Recall how flat and tame Dorcas Bay was? Hardly the same situation here! And how about that water now? It's even more vivid and blue in person. At the back of the photograph above is Cave Point, which I think I recall reading is the tallest vertical cliff to be found on the peninsula at nearly 300' above the waters.

View from atop Cave Point looking back the way I came

Above is the view from Cave Point looking exactly back where the last photo was taken. The famous Bruce Trail winds its way along the bluff tops at this location and allows for numerous unbelievable vista views across the landscape. Mind your step, though! It's a long way to the bottom and a bit too close and personal a relationship with that perfect water.

Rock Sandwort (Minuartia michauxii)

As mesmerizing as the scenery and views are from the top of the Niagara Escarpment's bluffs you can't forget to look down. The botany is exciting up here as well! The dainty and fairy-like rock sandwort (Minuartia michauxii) thrives in the dry, sunny conditions and literally clings to existence at the very edge of the bluffs.

Northern Comandra (Geocaulon lividum)
Northern Comandra (Geocaulon lividum)

In fact, the botany along the bluffs of Halfway Log Dump is so exciting that one of my favorite and best plant finds of the entire trip occurred there. It may look lame and the epitome of unmemborable to many but what northern comandra (Geocaulon lividum) may lack in showiness it more than makes up for in rarity and uniqueness. It's only known to occur sparingly in less than a dozen states; all bordering Canada, where it's more frequent. It grows in cold coniferous forests on stabilized dunes and bluffs, and on rare occasions in bogs/fens in the Great Lakes region. It's much more conspicuous in fruit when it trades its small green axillary flowers for a striking orange-red drupe. 

Wider view from Cave Point looking southeast towards Cabot Head

I'll end this post with one more look down the coast from atop Cave Point. Even if you aren't much of a plant person, I think this blog has shown what else the Bruce has to offer and how it's worth anyone's time who's interested in the wild, untamed beauty of the Great Lakes. Speaking of untamed beauty, amazing botany and geology, and the Georgian Bay's aqua bliss, stay tuned for my next post dealing with the magical Flowerpot Island. Seriously, there's nothing and nowhere else like it on Earth! Thanks for reading and come back soon!

- ALG -

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Bruce Peninsula Part II: Singing Sands of Dorcas Bay

 *Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV* *Part V* *Part VI* *Part VII*

Recently, I've had the pleasure of talking to a number of people who've taken the time to compliment this blog. It always means a lot to hear someone say such positive things about the countless plants, places, and topics I've shared on here for nearly six years. But that praise is almost assuredly followed with the regret that I'm barely active on here anymore. Believe me when I say no one understands that more than your blogger. It seems just about every post I've managed to get on here the last couple years is prefaced by more or less the same message of "not enough free time and energy", which is Nature's honest truth but getting a bit old to type. I'll never post on here like I did back in the first few years but it's nice to know this blog is always waiting for new adventures to be shared.

And new adventures will be shared, indeed! Starting with my long overdue series on my botanical whirlwind tour of Ontario's Bruce peninsula back in early June 2015. Devotees may remember my intro piece from last summer that was the planned starting off point but never went any further. Until now! The Buckeye Botanist is back to take you vicariously along to one of eastern North America's most incredible displays of botanical and geological wonder. If you'd like to read the intro, which I encourage you to do, you can click this link here to do so.

Limestone cobble and alvar shorelines of the Singing Sands at Dorcas Bay

My intrepid group of botanists/naturalists and I visited so many wondrous spots on the Bruce that it's difficult to know where to begin. However, when one really thinks about it there's no wrong answer so it might as well be the picturesque shorelines of Dorcas Bay. I'll warn you ahead of time this is a lengthy post but more in pictures than anything. So read it all, peruse the photos only: just have fun and enjoy!

Sprawling shoreline fen complex near the shores of Lake Huron

This parcel of Bruce Peninsula National Park known as the Singing Sands sits near the northern tip of the peninsula on Lake Huron's western shores. It's home to a nice array of both wetland and forested habitat with the likes of alvar, shoreline fen, and mixed coniferous woodland all merging together in a tapestry of diversity.

Scarlet Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) on the limestone cobble shorelines

The Singing Sands allegedly gets its moniker from the eerie howl the sand makes as its blown over the limestone cobble shorelines and alvar. It's true the wind is nigh on always whipping about at this site and it is one of the only sandy beaches on the northern end of the Bruce, so I guess we can let our imaginations do the rest. Due to the western shores of the Bruce constantly battling the unbroken fury of Lake Huron its landscape is much more flat and topographically docile than the eastern shores as you'll come to see in this series.

Odd yellow colored form of the scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)
Odd yellow colored form of the scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea)

One of the more common and delightful denizens of Dorcas Bay's wet, open shorelines is the scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja conncinea). It's certainly hard to miss when aglow in its traditional red garb, but an uncommon lemon yellow color form was even more conspicuous. However, my friends and I did not come to swoon over the paintbrushes but rather a rare, elusive orchid that haunts the adjacent woodlands.

Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)

During my initial foray on the Bruce back in 2011, I was just a bit too late to see the ram's head lady's slippers (Cypripedium arietinum) in their prime. It was a bittersweet thing to be so close and yet too late for the plant you came so far to see. So this time around I made sure to adjust our arrival to coincide with their brief peak bloom schedule.

Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)
Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)

Perfection! I dare say Dorcas Bay could not have put on a nicer show of these miniscule orchid wonders if it tried! Literally hundreds of them peppered the ground in the best spots and brought a literal tear to this orchid nut's eye. Ram's heads are a globally rare species largely restricted to sandy upland conifer woods characterized by hemlock, cedar, and pine with an association of limestone beach cobble. That's some habitat specificity right there and the Singing Sands has it in spades. It's little wonder then the Bruce is one of the continent's last strongholds for this disappearing orchid. Climate change is not doing this northern boreal species any favors.

Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)
Ram's Head Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium arietinum)

The spectacular snow white labellum of this lady's slipper is marked with a rich purplish-crimson reticulate venation that jumps out at you from the surrounding emerald vegetation. Its striking color and architecture is equally matched by its diminutive size. None of the other eastern Cypripediums are this small and a large specimen can fit on your thumbnail. It really takes seeing them in person to understand how truly tiny they are!

Large Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium pubescens)

Speaking of lady's slippers, I'd be remiss if I didn't throw a shout out to the Bruce's 'weed' of an orchid in the large yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium pubescens). Yes, I did in fact say weed and you'll see and read what I mean in posts to come. As pretty as the pair is in the photo above, I'm much more interested in the colony of familiar looking leaves at their feet...

Federally threatened dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris)
Federally threatened dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris)

At first glance any Ohioan might see this majestic little iris and scribble the name dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata) into their notes but remember we're not in Ohio anymore. This iris is much, much more special and another of the Bruce's most rare specialists. The dwarf lake iris (I. lacustris) is so rare that it's listed as federally threatened in both the United States and Canada. It's endemic to the limestone shorelines of northern Lake Huron and Lake Michigan along the Niagara Escarpment and found nowhere else on the planet. Although, in certain spots such as Singing Sands you'd never know it was so globally scarce. The Bruce is one Canada's best strongholds for the dwarf lake iris and easy to spot, especially when in bloom. The photos do nothing for scale but the word dwarf is very accurate in this plant's case as the flowers are only the size of a silver dollar!

Shoreline flora awakening as summer appears on the horizon

Not to be outdone by its aforementioned brethren, the blue flag iris (I. brevicaulis) was beginning to unfurl its purple tepals in the marshy areas between the lake and wooded dunes. Notice the pink flower buds of the tuberous Indian-plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum) among the iris, too. It's a rarity back in Ohio and even more rare further north in Canada where it's restricted to high-quality fen complexes as well.

That gang exploring the cobble shorelines of Dorcas Bay

When I say that Dorcas Bay may be one of the most magnificent beaches I've yet experienced it's truly through the eyes of a botanist and ecologist. I'm not sure many beach goers would agree after looking out across a landscape of bare rock, muck, and vegetation. They prefer their sand and palm trees with towering concrete behind and I say they can keep it!

Northern Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris

Perhaps the neatest plant to call the rocky shorelines of Dorcas Bay home was the peculiar and always exciting northern butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris). This oddball of an insectivorous plant thrived in a seemingly sterile environment in specialized areas where water seeped out from the bedrock and formed mucky pools along the forest's edge. The butterworts are much more diverse along the coastal plains of the Atlantic and Gulf states with this lone species making due in the north.

Northern Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris)
Northern Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris)

There's certainly no mistaking this plant for anything else with its insidious highlighter yellow leaves. While greasy and slick to our touch, these conspicuous leaves are the things of insect nightmares. Each leaf produces two types of glands: one that secretes a sticky substance for nabbing its prey; and another that secretes a digestive enzyme that helps break down the helpless insects into a more usable form. The butterworts were in full bloom during our visit and are adorned with blue-purple flowers quite reminiscent of a violet in my opinion.

Great Lakes Bulrush Sedge (Carex scirpoidea subsp. convoluta)

If you've been a follower of this blog and my botanical adventures for a while you know without a doubt I'm head-over-heals for sedges. A self-diagnosed sedgehead and I'd have it no other way. The Bruce is well known for its diversity of photogenic plants like ferns and orchids but it's a sedgehead's dream, too! Honestly, I could do a whole post on sedges but I'll let you off the hook with a handful of photos of my favorite species. The one featured above, the Great Lakes bulrush sedge (Carex scirpoidea subsp. convoluta) gets special mention as a globally rare endemic of the Great Lakes limestone shorelines and alvars; it's other more common subspecies spread throughout the western states.

Buxbaum's Sedge (Carex buxbaumii)
Mud Sedge (Carex limosa)

Hair-like Sedge (Carex capillaris)
Pale Sedge (Carex livida)

Sedges come in so many different shapes, colors, sizes, patterns etc. that it makes them hard to not love and appreciate when you realize just how wonderful they are. The Bruce is home to over 150 different species from the sedge family (Cyperaceae) and during my group's week we saw nigh on 30 different taxa.

A cool, foggy mist blowing off Lake Huron

Singing Sands attempted to somewhat live up to its name during our time there when Lake Huron blew in a bank of cool fog. It was awesome to watch it race across the waters, up onto the beach and envelope us all in a very refreshing wave of mist. It went as quickly as it came and I have no idea what caused it to develop but it certainly made for a unique experience that I won't forget anytime soon.

Great Lakes Sand Cherry (Prunus pumila var. pumila)

Scattered about Dorcas Bay's rocky shorelines was scads of the regional endemic Great Lakes sand cherry (Prunus pumila var. pumila) in picture-perfect bloom. This straggly shrub never attains much size and is happy to grow in tangles about its prime beachfront property. Its confined to the beaches and dunes of the northern Great Lakes with its narrow leaves and glabrous twigs excellent ID characters. Unfortunately, this species has long been extirpated from Ohio's extremely limited lake shore habitats, so I always take immense pleasure in seeing it while up north.

Immense expanse of shoreline fen at Dorcas Bay's Singing Sands

I'll wrap up this marathon of a post with another of Singing Sands signature rare habitats it protects in the immense expanses of shoreline fen meadow. Unlike the small, isolated fens that pocket west-central and northeast Ohio, the Bruce's can stretch for as far as the eye can see and contain hundreds upon hundreds of acres of graminoid-dominated goodness. Their species assemblages and associations are quite similar but their hydrology differs in adjacent Lake Huron's water levels playing a key role.

Northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea var. purpurea)
Slender-leaved Sundew (Drosera linearis)

One of the first things you'll notice when exploring these shoreline fen complexes is the overwhelming abundance of insectivorous plants. This habitat is naturally low in nutrients and plants have evolved to combat that by attaining these much-needed items by outside means. Literally thousands upon thousands of northern pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea var. purpurea) dot the fens, which happened to be just a week or so away from flowering during our visit. At their bases in the saturated muck is thousands more of the alien-like slender-leaved sundew (Drosera linearis) waiting for a passing insect to meet its sticky demise.

Green-keeled Cotton Sedge (Eriophorum viridicarinatum)

I can't help but go back to the world of sedges in order to share one of the fen's most iconic and beautiful of scenes. Hundreds of green-keeled cotton sedge (Eriophorum viridicarinatum) plants waving their namesake cotton-like perianth bristles in the cool breeze never fails to put me at peace and in a mood of tranquility. A sapphire blue sky above can only make it better, eh?

Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia)
Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum)

Of all the things I love about the northern woods its plethora of woody wetland shrubs may take the cake. Dozens of species occur throughout the region's diversity of habitat and the two featured above are arguably the best, at least in my opinion. Both the bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) and labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) are extirpated from Ohio and more commonly found in acidic boggy habitats, but select areas of fen meadow can have peat accumulations that turn the pH low enough for these gorgeous Ericaceous shrubs to occur and persist. Bliss!

With that I do believe I'll give my keyboard a rest and continue my series on the ever-fascinating Bruce peninsula at a later time. I certainly have the desire to get to it much sooner than later but I've learned it's best to not make any hard promises. I hope you've enjoyed this look at the Singing Sands and its incredible wealth of plant life and look forward to more. Please leave your thoughts and comments below and I thank you for your time!

- ALG -