On Saturday September 30, over thirty people gathered at the trailhead for the Fall Nature Hike at the Catchacoma Forest just off Highway 507 south of Gooderham in Peterborough County. With many making the drive from Haliburton, another sparkling fall day greeted the group keen to learn about this unique forest dominated by some very old, Eastern Hemlock.
The Catchacoma Forest is a 662 hectare stand of old growth north of Catchacoma Lake, just west of the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park. From an ecological perspective, this forest is the largest documented old-growth hemlock stand in Canada. Very rare to find a stand this large in its natural (unlogged) state, this forest has tremendous carbon sequestering capabilities and is home to 13 species at risk.
The hike was led by Katie Krelove of the conservation advocacy group, Wilderness Committee. Katie opened the hike briefing with a sincere acknowledgement that the Catchacoma Forest is on unceded Crown land in the traditional territory of the Michi Saagiig First Nations. Haliburton Highlands Land Trust board member Sheila Ziman introduced herself, the Land Trust, and the Highlands Corridor project which includes the Catchecoma Forest.
Katie planned out some strategic stops to allow the group to experience the difference between a forest recently harvested (2019) and the intact old growth section of the Catchacoma Forest. Katie pointed out that as a shade tolerant tree, the forest cuts will result in a changed forest structure as hemlock will not do well under an open canopy.
Eventually the hike takes us into the unharvested section of forest, large trees dominate the landscape. The trail is crisp and soft, a result of decades of built-up conifer needles. Dominated by hemlock, the canopy is punctured by these magnificently tall, straight trees. Other species also grow amongst these giants including a smattering of White Pine, maples, and Yellow Birch. One huge Yellow Birch stood out; more sun loving than hemlock, this tree spread out its branches like an umbrella in the crowded canopy.
Katie took the time to explain some of the criteria that goes into assessing an old-growth forest. She explained that Eastern Hemlocks over 140 years are considered old growth. Sometimes the girth of the tree is not a good indicator, as shade tolerant trees can toil for decades in the understory until some disturbance opens the window to allow light to reach the forest floor.
But old growth forests aren’t just about old trees. Other criteria include the amount of downed woody debris and the state of decay of this material, the number of snags or dead standing trees, and the strata of the forest, meaning the number of vegetation layers including the ground layer, shrub layer, understory, and canopy. Another indicator of an old forest is the occurrence of natural pits and mounds on the forest floor the result of old trees toppling, leaving behind a pit with the root ball and trunk decomposing into vegetative mounds.
As the late afternoon light slanted through the trees, the majesty of this forest hit home. With a moratorium on logging soon to end, the future of the Catchacoma Forest remains uncertain. With the possibility of annexation into the existing Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park or the conservation reserve protection advocated by the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust Highlands Corridor initiative, the hope is the Catchacoma Forest will remain in its natural state for years to come.