Our tires crunched over the gravel parking lot, indicating our arrival at our destination about 20 minutes after we left my tiny cottage-apartment in Pembroke. The Wheaten sat upright and whined softly from the back seat. As soon as we released him from his seatbelt he leapt six feet out the car door, nose to ground soaking up the scents. Mid-fall in the Ottawa Valley brought crisp blue skies, puffy white clouds, and long afternoon shadows while the warm, herbal scent of brittle leaves permeated the breeze. I grabbed my camera, a notebook, and my copy of Forest Plants of Central Ontario. My husband took on dog duty.
Ostensibly we were at Petawawa Terrace Provincial Park to give both of them a chance to stretch their legs after a long drive from Toronto. I also needed to collect a number of species of trees and shrubs for a project for school. As we walked down the hill from the parking lot, the smells started to change. Gone were the warm herbals of dry leaves and needles. Our senses were attacked by wet, decaying leaves and marshy grasses. To my untrained eye the shrubs and trees melded together into walls of greens, reds, and yellows. I couldn’t easily identify prickly wild rose from smooth wild rose or green, white, or black ash from one another. To add to the “foreigner in a foreign land” feeling, I felt as if we were being watched. Sure, the artillery exercises from the nearby army base were unsettling. After a while though we were able to tune them out. That feeling that someone was looking over our shoulders? Not so easy to ignore.
There is, of course, a long history associated with the land where the park sits. The Petawawa Terrace has been in existence for thousands of years. The area where we parked is a sand ridge that formed about 10,000 years ago when a glacial lake drained into the Ottawa River and then flowed into the Champlain Sea. It sits about 150 meters (~490 feet) above the rest of the park which overlaps with the traditional lands of the Algonquin First Nation. Two hundred years ago the Patswald family built its homestead beneath the ridge and lived there until 1931. The remains of its foundation can still be seen from the park’s trails. In 1928 the province of Ontario set up the Pembroke Crown Game Reserve on the land and a year later launched a fish hatchery, spawning lake and brook trout for stocking the Ottawa Valley’s lakes and streams. Continuing its conservation efforts Ontario constructed goose ponds in 1935 near the river. Fifteen years later, it built a goose sanctuary feeding area to attract migrants. The province started a project in the late 1970s to establish a resident flock of Canadian geese. While formal attention paid to the geese ended in 1984, the ponds still host several nests every year.
Petawawa Terrace serves the Ottawa Valley as a non-operating provincial park, overseen by the superintendent of Bonnechere Provincial Park. A non-operating designation means that there are minimal to no visitor facilities and fees are not generally charged. There are however some lovely informative interpretive panels along 12 kilometers of trails, describing the varied flora and fauna within the park’s 215 hectares (~530 acres). The panels were installed in 2004 and could use a little refresh after a decade of standing up to the elements. From the parking area, visitors can wind their way past a children’s play pad, through a red pine plantation, down the ridge through a mixed forest, and into marshy wetlands sourced by natural springs. The trails are open to non-motorized means of travel. In the winter, Petawawa Cross Country Ski uses the park as its home base.
Over five hundred species of native and invasive plants have been identified within the park’s confines. Virtually all of the leaves I needed for my project are here. Both the roses I was looking for, wild red raspberry, common blackberry, and red osier dogwood were among the shrubs I gathered. All of the maples (red, silver, sugar), oaks (white, bur, red), and the aspens (largetooth and trembling) were tucked safely in my notebook. According to the Ontario Parks’ Management Plan from 2006, several unusual plants can also be found including field sedge, lake watercress, and tubercled orchids. I did not see these nor was I seeking them out. I needed to learn the basics first.
Over the course of my program, I would find myself at Petawawa Terrace several more times: for more flora history, for bird watching, for wild edibles. While I might not ever have shaken the feeling that someone was watching us as we worked, I felt less and less foreign with each visit. The plants became familiar, old friends. The birds’ songs wove a cheery soundtrack while we basked in the sun, drawing staghorn sumac berries and leaves. If you’re in the Ottawa Valley this fall, stop by the park, walk the trails, check out this view, and read the interpretive panels. If you’re a technology nut, apps such as Leafsnap and websites like Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology are lovely ways to learn more about the nature around you.
Just the Facts:
The parking area can be found off of Laurentian Drive in Petawawa, about 15 kilometers northwest of Pembroke. Ottawa Valley Tourism has a map here.
The park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Trails are not necessarily maintained, so use at your own risk.