SPRING FLOWERS IN THE MILLS BLOCK FOREST

by Edgar J. Lavoie

This is NOT Ontario’s official flower.

Saturday, June 18, 2022, 10:00 a.m. What a great day for a hike! Sunny, warm, and scarcely any flies.

Reviews of this Lakehead Region Conservation Authority preserve describe an easy hike, 4 kilometres, with gentle hills. Whoa! Half of the hike is up and over a mountain. But we octogenarians in the party aced it.

The sign at the turnoff to the preserve.
A map of the trail, courtesy of LRCA.

Leaving the Thunder Bay expressway, we had driven our vehicles 5 kilometres up John Street Road till we saw the sign on the south side. Turning left, we immediately pulled into a 10-lot parking area.

Signs at the parking area.

Bruce Childs led the excursion, assisted by Marian, wife, and Mike, son, and accompanied by eight others of the Thunder Bay Field Naturalists. About a kilometre into the trip, two in the party turned back, daunted by some muddy stretches. The rest of the party trod on, managing to leave no shoes in the bog. Ninety-eight percent of the trail is on dry ground.

As for flies? Some of us slathered our exposed skin with dope, but I was menaced by only one or two blackflies and one flock of non-biting mosquitoes. Some reviews cautioned that the flies at this season were vicious. The flies we encountered were friendly.

At the parking lot, I had deposited, as the sign requested, a five-dollar bill in the robbery-proof box, and proceeded southward on an ATV trail. Mind you, the Conservation Authority permits only hikers and bicycles, but the maintenance people obviously use machines. In the first one and a half klicks, all the windfall had been cut, but not all removed. Then we had to clamber up, under, or around multiple windfall on the mountain. But, with a little oil in our knee joints, we managed.

From the parking lot, the trail ran due south, smooth as a baby’s bum. In less than half a kilometre, I turned right into a narrow side trail. I had been alerted to the location of a quartz mine. Marian followed me to make sure I didn’t tumble into a pit. A few metres up the trail I came to the rim of a ravine. Apparently, this was the quartz mine. I tumbled gently down to the bottom. I had neglected to bring my bear stick (i.e., walking staff), so I clung to slim branches going down and going up. I found a jumble of jagged rocks which exhibited lots of quartz.

Images of the quartz mine. Marian suggested that this might have been a silver mine at one time.
They are members of the buttercup family, but don’t try to spread them on toast. Marsh Marigolds love wet areas, as in this damp spot below the beaver dam. They often bloom till September. The leaves and roots are edible when cooked. Google for recipes.

Back on the main trail, I found myself crossing a beaver dam. Yes, I said dam. The trail, actually an old logging road, crossed the bog on a beaver dam. To the left was an expanse of slough. The slough was choked with reeds and swampy hummocks. And there was a beaver lodge. Yes, I said lodge. I didn’t swear that time. According to the Authority, it is an active lodge.

Marian pauses when traversing duck boards. She has spotted a Wild Calla flower. I snap its picture on the return trip.
The beaver lodge in the slough. No fresh branches that I could see.
A high-angle view of the slough, the trail, and duck boards spanning one of the outlet channels. Photo LRCA.

The trail on the beaver dam runs for 650 metres. According to Guinness World Records, the longest dam is located in Alberta with 850 metres. Surely the Mills Block Forest dam qualifies for an honourable mention.

To the right of the dam was the native forest. Several channels drained the slough through the dam. The Authority had constructed duck boards over the channels. I call them duck boards to show off my knowledge of World War Two trench warfare. You may, if you wish, call them segments of board walks. Water coursed through the channels westward into the forest.

In three-quarters of a kilometre, we met the loop trail turnoff on the left (east). A flat wooden bridge, much like a wide board walk, crossed a narrow channel. We continued south. There were a couple of smaller sloughs, more duck boards, and mud. At this point, two of our party turned back. I managed to tread through the muddy patches without losing a shoe.

The Northern White Violet is quite tiny, found in damp woods. Hard to distinguish from other white violets, but Bruce was confident in his identification.
The White Trillium is Ontario’s official provincial flower, but this is not it. The White Trillium is a showy three-petalled flower mounted above a whorl of three leaves. This is Nodding Trillium, so named because the single flower droops or nods below the leaves. It’s still a thrill to find this close relative.
Canada Anemone. Despite its white colour, it belongs to the buttercup family. The heart of the flower is the sepals that yield a yellow tinge. Also called Windflower.

Okay. Where were the wildflowers? you ask. This hike was advertised as an opportunity to view spring wildflowers. Well, we saw flowers. All of them wild. Lots and lots of wildflowers. This article documents in images some of the wildflowers we met. All of them pretty tame. And pretty. Many of the hikers took pictures. And oohed and aahed.

Wild Ginger seems to be ubiquitous is the woodland. It loves shady spots in the understory. It has twin, broad heart-shaped leaves. Unless you know where to took, the flower itself is secretive, lying on the ground out of sight. Early European settlers used the plant as a substitute for ginger.
Rarely does one see a clump of orchids. Bruce showed us one location with dozens of clumps. The Ram’s Head Lady’s Slipper displays small flowers. It loves light shade. It is a rare species and a threatened species.

We climbed a gentle hill or two and, after one and a half kilometres, arrived at the other end of the loop trail. Some of us took advantage of the picnic table  ̶  constructed of concrete slabs. They were very easy on our butts.

Bruce Childs knew where some of the more interesting flowers loitered. Ofttimes he led interested parties in forays off the beaten path. We found several varieties of orchids. The most interesting and perhaps the most rare was the Fairy Slipper Orchid. Beside a clump of them, one variety of rectum had left a gouge in the forest floor. Quite obviously, this rectum had scooped out an orchid and carted it off.

Bruce called this orchid a rare species. According to guidebooks, it is not rare or even threatened except in the northern areas of the U.S.A. In some states, it is listed as threatened and is legally protected. The Fairy Slipper Orchid grows on a solitary stalk from Newfoundland and Labrador to the Yukon. Apparently, some species of rectum thought it was valuable because he/she stole one. Guidebooks extoll this flower for its fragrance, but I neglected to smell it.
The Wild Violet is usually a blue-purple. Some are white or yellow. Guidebooks tell us the flower and leaves of this violet are edible raw. If you find a plethora of violets, Google a recipe to make honey violet.

A sign back at the parking lot had warned against removal of any vegetable matter from the forest preserve. At one point, I snapped a photo of spruce cones which littered the trail. Someone suggested I take one home. I declined. Some warnings are to be taken seriously. Most days, I am not a rectum of any variety.

Soon after we entered the loop trail, I came upon the famous wreck. Veteran hikers in the party had advised me that it was one of the feature attractions of the hike. Kids, apparently, love clambering in and out of it. Judging by the graffiti scrawled on the doors, grown-up kids find it fascinating, too. Looks like it was once a convertible.

The Wreck. A rare species in Mills Block Forest. Easily spotted from the trail.
Bunchberry, or Dwarf Cornel, often blankets the forest floor. It spreads by runners. The flower develops a raceme of bright red berries. The berry is edible but has a seed. Unripe berries can cause stomach cramps. The Bunchberry is a candidate in the search for a national flower, being found in all provinces and territories.
We found a patch of Pale Corydalis at the top of the mountain in a clearing near the bench. The thin soil disguised the underlying broken rocks. The petals range from pale to deep pink. The lips of the tube are bright yellow. The long slender stem features deeply cleft compound leaves.

The mountain got serious. It looked like an impossible climb for an octogenarian. But I aced it. Obviously, the trail maintenance crew had turned around, because we encountered plenty of windfall. The trail narrowed. Roots of agèd trees were exposed for hikers with heavy feet to trip over. At the top of the mountain, in a clearing, sat a lonely bench. Veterans of this hike said it was once a rear car seat, amply upholstered. What remains now is a steel frame and wooden planks.

The Bench. Another rare species. Note the huge exposed root of this jack pine.

It was pointed out that once the bench had provided a view of Pie Island in Lake Superior. The native forest now obscures this view. A few of us paused for thirty minutes or so until the rest of the group caught us up.

Fungi are busy night and day recycling once living trees.

We did not fail to note the differences in vegetation encountered at different elevations. Lower down the mountain, the ferns stood with starkly bare stems and tiny curly leaves. Higher up, they were fully fledged. We noted the harsh blazes on some trailside trees. These blazes looked ancient. Hopefully, no one from the Authority was responsible for these arboreal mutilations.

Starflower. A little gleam in a shady forest. Usually has seven petals.

This article does not pretend to record all the wildflowers the group examined. I do not, for example, mention the Wild Strawberry plants and the flowerless Blue-Eyed Grass and the Wild Coral Roots nor the Wild Sarsaparilla. But the article does record all the most interesting non-flower features.

Some of the spruce have littered the trail with cones. Please do not remove the litter. The same caution applies to the jack pine cones.

We began the descent. It was a leisurely descent. Sometimes individuals were ahead and out of sight; other times these individuals became stragglers. And other times, everyone regrouped. People lingered to take pictures or simply to engage in intense conversations.

On one stretch, poplar fluff congregated in clumps on the trail. Near the bottom of the mountain, we encountered a long stretch of board walk. It crossed a boggy patch.

At the wooden bridge we regrouped one last time. Then it was three-quarters of a kilometre in the home stretch without a bend in the trail.

Back at the beaver dam, I snapped this Wild Calla after Marian had earlier pointed it out. She called it a Calla Lily. The plant grows in bogs and ponds. It has round to heart-shaped leaves. Wild Calla is known by several different names including Swamp Lily.

We had met only one new hiker in three and a half hours. Back at the parking lot, as we drove off, the one car remained.

Some hikers had spotted butterflies; others were attuned to bird song. The only other wildlife I saw was a jackrabbit. It pretended we were chasing it for half a kilometre.

Can you see the flower of the Nodding Trillium now? Drooping below the leaf just right of centre.

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