May 19, 2010

Alton's cedar forests create hiking opportunities

As published in The Erin Advocate

I recently took a pleasant hike to one of the major forks of the Credit River; not the scenic juncture east of Belfountain known as Forks of the Credit, but further north, where Shaw's Creek joins the river. It is definitely worth the 15-minute drive to Alton, where there are two fine protected natural areas.

Just east of Alton, bounded by Beechgrove Sideroad and Porterfield Road, nestled by the Osprey Valley Golf Club, is the 350-acre Alton Grange property. It was purchased from the Grange family by the Ministry of Natural Resources back in 1974. The community volunteers of the Alton Grange Association signed on as partners in 2002 to help manage the land. The easiest access is via Station Street, off Main Street.

Shaw's Creek flows east through Alton, where it once powered the historic mill (now a beautiful arts and heritage centre), then into the Grange property. The East branch of the Credit River flows south from the Island Lake Reservoir near Orangeville, which was created in 1967 by a dam that flooded 445 acres of farm, forest and swamp. The reservoir helps dilute the discharge from Orangeville's wastewater treatment plant.

Where the creek joins the river in the Grange tract is a towering cedar forest that is eerily quiet, filled with mossy undergrowth. The network of trails takes you through meadows, hardwood forests, highlands that were reforested back in the 1930s and vast wetlands with many a gnarled, uprooted tree stump. Steel bridges enable river crossings, and a boardwalk traverses part of the swamp. I encountered turkey vultures, ducks and woodpeckers on my two-hour tour.

Included in the network is the Alton Side Trail, which runs north from the Bruce Trail, along McLaren Road. It starts at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park near Cataract village, passes through Charles Sauriol Conservation Area, the Grange property and Alton, and ends at the Pinnacle lookout. There it meets the northern terminus of the Grand Valley Trail, which turns towards Orton, on a 275 km trek along the Grand River system to Lake Erie.

If you head north out of Alton on Peel Road 136, you'll find the relatively new Upper Credit Conservation Area, created by Credit Valley Conservation (CVC). You won't see any signs at first, but turn right at the Canadian Pacific Railway line (turn left and you're in gravel pit territory).

The small network of trails, complete with free doggie clean-up bags, can be hiked in less than an hour, covering both meadows and established forest areas. There are educational signs along the way, courtesy of AGCare and the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, explaining how farmers are doing their bit for the environment.

The land was acquired with the help of the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Region of Peel and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Since 2007, volunteers including the Conservation Youth Corps have planted more than 10,000 trees and shrubs in open areas near the Credit there, to stabilize the banks and extend the wildlife corridor.

It is worth departing from the beaten path to explore the edge of the river through part of the cedar forest – a truly memorable environment. It is amazing how many natural treasures are available, so close to the large cities of Southern Ontario. The fact that they are practically in our backyards does not make them less spectacular, just easier to take for granted.