Stouffville's Woodlands thriving in face of change
June 18, 2015
By Sandra Bolan
What was once a desert landscaped with sand dunes is now 543 acres of forest, known as the Eldred King Woodlands, utilized annually by thousands of hikers, bird watchers, equestrians and families.
In the 1800s, after decades of farming and tree removal, the result was barren land.
But as a result of a greenbelt reforestation program, initiated by the province in the early 1900s, there are now pine trees reaching high into the sky, while squirrels, birds and frogs make their home in the lower trees, ponds and rivers.
Reforestation was spurred on by Department of Agriculture position papers, which cited a concern with the loss of trees and the erosion of soils in the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to Ian Buchanan manager, natural heritage and forestry for York Region.
The Department of Lands and Forests then worked with local municipalities/counties to create forests on public lands for reforestation under the Agreement Forest Program, he said.
“This program enabled perhaps the most significant restoration program in Southern Ontario in the last 100 years.
This was the origin of the York Regional Forest,” according to Buchanan.
There are, however, still remnants of the desert on the sandy trails in the Eldred King Woodlands.
When the land was being reforested, it was done by planting 10 and 20 cm tall seedlings in rows for “competition control,” according to Buchanan.
Today, the Eldred King Woodlands, at Hwy. 48 in northern Whitchurch-Stouffville, is about 80 per cent mature conifer dominated by red pine, with white and Scots pine, along with spruce and larch, according to Kevin Reese, program manager, forest conservation for York Region.
The remaining 20 per cent, he said, is natural forest dominated by sugar maple, beech, hemlock, white ash, red oak, basswood and poplar.
Eldred King Woodlands is the first public forest in Canada to be certified by the Forest Stewardship council, according to Buchanan. It has been certified since 2001.
But it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows in the forest. It has had some hardships throughout the decades.
About three kilometres inland from the Hwy. 48 parking lot are the remnants of a 2006 downburst.
A downburst is a strong downdraft, which causes damaging winds on or near the ground, according to the National Weather Service Forecast Office’s website.
“You (can) see the tortured and twisted stems that remain. ... That’s part of the natural regeneration of a different kind of forest,” Buchanan said.
The trails were closed following the storm to remove some of the downed trees.
Fast forward to the 2013-14 ice storm and the impact was surprisingly minimal.
The weight of the ice on the forest’s canopy caused some damage, but mostly to trees that were already weakened and pre-disposed to coming down, according to Buchanan.
“It wasn’t a dramatic impact,” he said.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
The Eldred King Woodlands used to be called the West Main Tract in the 1950s.
“It’s not too exciting of a name,” Buchanan admitted.
This particular section of the forest came by that name honestly - seeing as it’s on the west side of Hwy. 48, he said.
In the late 1990s, the region renamed the forest after former regional chairperson Eldred King because he was an environmental champion who hailed from the community, according to Buchanan.
King, a Whitchurch-Stouffville resident, was the regional chairperson from 1984 to 1997. He died in 2011.
Located at the west end of the site, this small body of water has become a gathering place, a popular picnic spot and a favourite for dogs looking to cool off.
It is not clear if the pond was created before the 1920s for agricultural purposes. But in the 1920s and ‘30s, it was available as a reservoir for fire suppression, Buchanan said.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the Ministry of Natural Resources stocked the pond with brook trout.
The pond, which is in the headwaters of the Black River watershed, is no longer stocked, but a native population of frogs and minnows inhabit it, he added.
“It’s not a swimming pool,” he said.
It may not be a suitable spot for humans to swim, but dogs love diving into the pond to fetch sticks and balls.
Hikers with canine companions, along with professional dog walkers are among the avid users of the Eldred King Woodlands.
The trail’s rules require dogs remain on-leash or under voice control and their waste must be kept off the trails.
Dogs that venture off the trail impact the wildlife, such as ground nesters and amphibians, Buchanan said. Horseback riders are also among the forest’s frequent guests.
“People find sanctuary and regenerate,” Buchanan said of the forest’s appeal.
The sandy trails that keep mountain bikers away from the tract are the very reason why equestrians love it.
“You can go all day and hardly use the same trail twice,” said Christel von Richter, a member of the Ontario Trail Riders Association (OTRA) and York Region forest board member.
“If you have a bad day, you get on your horse and ride, it goes away,” she said.
OTRA was formed in 1970 with the mandate to promote trail rides, along with development and preservation of the shared trails.
Two or three times a year, the not-for-profit organization hosts a members-only camp-out in the forest. Trail etiquette dictates all others step aside and let a horse and its rider through.
Keep your dog leashed, as the interaction between the two animals can be unpredictable. Horses may spook and buck the rider, or it kick a dog if it comes too close.
TAKE A HIKE
The trails, while wide and firm in some spots, sand covered in others, are not accessible. The sandy portions can cause a bit of a challenge with traction, but that does not deter hikers, whether they are part of an organized group or solo, from traversing the woodlands all year round.
“You see a totally different part of the tract because they go into a deeper part of the woods,” according to Frank Alexander, chairperson, Whitchurch-Stouffville chapter of the Oak Ridges Trail Association.
In the spring, hikers “feast” on raspberries and blackberries, according to Alexander. However, there is not a lot of bird life to view because the forest is at the high point of the Oak Ridges Moraine, he said.
The trail association’s biggest fundraiser - last weekend’s 160-km Adventure Relay - also went through Eldred King.
The 160-km relay, in which people canoe, bike and run from Rice Lake to King City, attracts up to 500 participants and is one of the largest events of its kind in Canada.
The one-day event, which takes place June 13, helps fund the association’s work in repairing footbridges and enhancing parking, along with general maintenance of the trail.