“The living advantage.” It sounds more like a Bond movie than the name of a trail, until you follow it through the forest.
The Living Edge Trail in Six Mile Lake Provincial Park is only a kilometer long, but it passes through such a variety of landscapes and habitats that it seems much longer.
It also spans time, giving visitors a close look at how glaciers impacted the earth thousands of years ago. Six Mile Lake Provincial Park is small on the outside, but big on the inside.
Six Mile Lake is located near the southern tip of Muskoka and the Canadian Shield. The park contains that classic Shield landscape of pink granite, blue water and towering pine trees. Just two hours north of Toronto, Six Mile Lake is a little piece of northern Ontario.
Six Mile Lake is located at the southern end of the Canadian Shield
The Canadian Shield is a vast expanse of ancient bedrock that forms the core of the North American continent. Most of it is more than a billion years old and some is much older. This is the “edge” of the Living Edge Trail…the southern edge of the Shield.
Walk on the foundations of the Canadian Shield
This hard bedrock is exposed in many places in the park. How did such an old rock get to the top? Billion years of erosion.
The mountains rise and the wind, water and ice try to tear them down. The last major event that destroyed more of this hard rock was an ice age, which only ended about 14,000 years ago in this area and lasted about 20,000 years, which is a blink of an eye in geological time.
Still, it was enough time to knock the Shield down even further, to a few hundred meters in elevation, and when the ice disappeared, a vast expanse of… nothing was left! Neither plants, nor animals, nor people.
Life had to begin again, slowly moving north towards the arid landscape of sand, gravel and open bedrock. That is the “living” part of the Living Edge Trail.
Bedrock, wooded areas, ponds and wetlands
Rocky wastelands are open areas of bedrock found throughout the park and are a difficult place for plants to live, with little or no soil, little water, and extreme temperatures in summer and winter.
Thousands of years ago, glacial ice, filled with chunks of sand and gravel, slowly scraped away this bedrock leaving small grooves that go up and down in this photo.
Some of the bedrock surface looks much like it did millennia ago: scratches left in the bedrock by stones that froze in glacial ice are still visible in some places.
Specially adapted plants
The common juniper is a thorny evergreen tree that grows in the crevices of bedrock, covering the soil to prevent other plants from competing with it for precious water. Some plants even hide inside other living things to escape the extremes of the wastelands.
Lichen is made up of algae and fungi.
Small algae find shelter within the walls of specialized fungi and together form lichens. Lichen can withstand extreme temperatures and humidity that many plants cannot withstand. Fungi form the structures and store water, and algae make the food. Together they produce substances, including a mild acid, that help break down the bedrock surface. In their own way, they help in the slow process of soil formation.
Pale Corydalis grows in crevices, with a deep taproot that helps it find water in dry bedrock. Its delicate pink flowers and yellow tips contrast with its toughness and ability to survive.
The rocky moors seem empty in the height of summer. However, you may be lucky enough to see Ontario’s only lizard running from one rocky crevice to another, hunting for insects. Unfortunately, the common five-lined skink is not that common. It has a wide distribution in eastern North America, from northern Florida to northern Georgian Bay, but is considered vulnerable and a species of special concern due to habitat loss, the pet trade, and roads.
Biologists consider Six Mile Lake “skink hub” because of the park’s healthy population.
A five-lined Skink with its electric blue tail.
One way for a skink to stay healthy is to not be eaten. If one is caught by its bright blue tail, the skink can detach itself from it; That’s right, the tail breaks and the lizard quickly escapes. The tail will grow back.
That’s one way to make land.
The slow process of chemically eroding the bedrock surface takes time. Where glacial ice left sand and gravel when it melted 14,000 years ago, plants found an easier place to grow.
This is called “mineral soil,” and it contains few organic nutrients. Some plants do better than others. The mighty Eastern White Pine, the tallest tree in Ontario and one of the oldest, does well in this mineral soil and seems to dominate the forest here.
An eastern garter snake crosses lichen-covered bedrock at the edge of a white oak forest
After 14,000 years, richer soil has developed in Six Mile Lake. Nearby Georgian Bay moderates the climate here and where that richer soil is found, southern tree species move north.
White oak typically grows further south and also seems more common in deep, moist soils with good drainage. Here, however, it is at the northern end (there’s that “edge” again) of its range, and seems to thrive in the shallow soils of the park. The sweet acorns of the white oak tree are a favorite food of white-tailed deer, black bears, chipmunks, and chipmunks.
The water had to go somewhere.
Glacial ice not only crumbled the bedrock of the Canadian Shield; He marked it and carved it using sand, sand and gravel frozen into it, like sandpaper.
A floating mat of vegetation fills much of the wetland along this section of the Living Edge Trail.
This glacial activity left channels, grooves and cavities. These filled with meltwater, and later rainwater, to form lakes, ponds and streams. At first, they too had few nutrients, but nature is patient.
Living beings began to inhabit them, making them richer in nutrients over thousands of years. Different types of wetlands were developed, with different plants.
Ferns and milkweed spread through the vegetation layer over time.
Along the trail, a long, narrow pond displays a mixed personality. It has stretches of open water like a typical pond. It also has floating plant mats more typical of a swamp.
Sphagnum moss forms these floating “islands” that are colonized by other plants such as Cottongrass and Leatherleaf, which could not grow in water on their own. Sometimes these mats of floating plants cover an entire pond, beginning the process of turning it into a swamp.
A swimmer with teeth
Once forests began to grow around ponds and streams, a toothy swimmer appeared to help: the Beaver. Beavers are one of the few animals that design their environment. Learn more about how Beaver does that here.
A solid beaver dam
They cut down trees, build dams, and sometimes even dig canals. They do this to travel safely through the forest. Wolves and other predators can make quick work of slow-moving, land-walking beavers, creating channels that lead them safely to food and shelter.
The Living Edge Trail passes right next to a dam that has been around for a while. It’s old enough that plants like Touch-me-nots have taken over the dam, making it sturdier and more likely to last.
Touch-me-nots (also known as Jewelweed) have colonized this prey
Beavers move to an area because it has an abundant food supply. Beavers feed on branches, twigs and tree buds. They especially enjoy aspen species such as aspen, shrub species such as spotted alder, and even white birch.
The Beaver is one of the few animals that alters its habitat
Beavers cut down tall trees near the water’s edge by chewing them with their sharp front teeth, then take the branches and store them underwater, like their refrigerator. When these food sources become scarce, beavers move to other bodies of water. Once the beavers are gone, their dams will eventually collapse.
An abandoned beaver lodge sits on the edge of the pond along the trail
Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve (GBBR)
Six Mile Lake Provincial Park is not only located on the edge of the Canadian Shield; It is at the southeastern end of Georgian Bay. Eastern Georgian Bay is the largest freshwater archipelago (chain of islands) in the world.
In 2004, the area was designated a world biosphere reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Biosphere Reserve designation recognizes the exceptional natural and cultural characteristics of the region.
Amazing GBBR Places
To get people outside, GBBR staff adopted the Amazing Places program developed by the Fundy Biosphere Reserve in New Brunswick.
Amazing Places promotes locations in GBBR that are accessible to the public and tell a story about the physical, biological and historical features of the reserve. These places present opportunities to explore, connect and be inspired. They capture the range of natural and cultural values contained in the biosphere region. Seven amazing places in the GBBR are located within provincial parks.
The Living Edge Trail in Six Mile Lake Provincial Park is one of those places. Learn more about GBBR and other amazing places along Georgian Bay.
Visiting Six Mile Lake
Located on the shores of scenic Six Mile Lake, the park is just a couple of hours north of the GTA and an hour north of Barrie, providing a great introduction to the North Country if you haven’t visited before or haven’t. I have time for a long trip.
There are 200 car camping areas, 53 of which have hydro. The park has a comfort station with hot showers, flushing toilets, and laundry facilities. There is an off-leash dog beach and two other sandy beaches. Kayaks, canoes and rowboats are available for rent.
The park store is well stocked with camper supplies and park souvenirs. Park staff run the Park Ambassador program and Learn to Fish programs for beginners, as well as drop-in Discovery programs for families with children.
Six Mile Lake is close to great Huronia attractions like Discovery Harbor, Ste. Marie Among-the-Huron Historical Park, and the SS Keewatin steamship.
The nearby Big Chute Marine Railway is a unique lock on the Trent-Severn Canal
Nearby is the Trent-Severn Canal and the Big Chute Marine Railway at Lock 44.