A very Canadian Place, Two Worlds, The Land Between represents the chaotic collision of the St. Lawrence Lowlands and the Canadian Shield.
It sounds like the title to a long lost novel by Tolkien, but in fact it is the name used to describe a space in Ontario that is both real and imaginary. The Land Between is a term used to describe a large swath of south central Ontario that runs from Georgian Bay in the west to Kingston in the east. It is a “contact zone”, a place where the rolling hills and flat plains of the fertile St. Lawrence Lowlands butt up against the hard rock and conifers of the southern edge of the Canadian Shield.
Unlike the clean lines we draw on maps to show the edges of these two different ecosystems, the Land Between is a corridor that is a jumble of rock and plant and soil and water that is a mixture of both landforms. This complex recipe of geology, biology and hydrology has resulted in a unique place rich in natural and human history.
There are geological oddities found all along this area that arcs across central Ontario. The hinterland of Kingston was once considered a mineral treasure chest that sent hundreds of explorers seeking fortune along the southern extension of the pre-Cambrian Shield known as the Frontenac Arch. Sadly, mostly trace amounts of minerals like gold, silver and uranium were discovered, dashing the dreams of most prospectors. Modern day rock hounds still poke about trying to add to their collections which are celebrated every year during Bancroft’s annual “Gemboree”.
Pockets of limestone add to the experience of this area. The seven caves found at Warsaw Caves Conservation Area near Peterborough provide a chance to examine some strange features carved by a massive flood that happened at the end of the last ice age. The Carden Plain, located near Kirkfield, is a world renowned “alvar”, or limestone plain, that is home to 230 different bird species (some rare and endangered), over 400 plants (some unique to this rare type of landscape) and 130 species of butterflies and dragonflies. Years of lobbying has resulted in the creation of the Carden Alvar Provincial Park in a bid to preserve this bird watching paradise.
Local First Nations have inhabited this area for thousands of years. The abundant flora and fauna helped indigenous people flourish in this region, leaving behind a legacy that includes at least nine sites of archaeological significance in and around The Land Between. Visitors can experience some of these sites at places like Bon Echo and Petroglyphs Provincial Parks, or visit First Nations communities like the Curve Lake Reserve north of Peterborough to appreciate the rich culture that emerged in this district.
Non-indigenous settlement followed the construction of the “colonization roads” surveyed and built in the mid-1800’s by the various counties that wanted to tap into the wealth afforded by the forest and mineral resources. Lured by the prospect of cheap land, the poor of Upper Canada came to build the roads and get rich trying to farm the region. Mill towns like Bobcaygeon and Fenelon Falls were built as the land was cleared of trees – the mill owners pocketed fortunes while those who stayed and tried to farm this unforgiving land were often doomed to poverty.
Many of these fields – testament to years of back breaking labour and dreams crushed by false promises and sparse land – can still be found on the northern reaches of roads like Frontenac, Addington or Victoria Roads. Some of the old mill towns are trying to repurpose themselves as retirement and tourist destinations, successfully attracting boomers and trippers to revitalize their economies. More of these pioneer villages are fading away, slowly being reclaimed by the plants and landscapes they hoped would sustain them.
The construction of the Trent Canal, originally built to link Lake Ontario with Lake Huron, traced some of the ancient indigenous waterways that flowed along The Land Between. Originally designed to provide a means to move troops and military supplies while avoiding potentially hostile forces to the south, this important piece of pioneer infrastructure is now a popular means of exploring the region. Thousands of recreational boaters make their way along this historic structure, enjoying the lakes and rivers in the comfort of their vessels. For the more adventurous, there are also rivers, creeks and parks like the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park for those who prefer to paddle their way around.
Railways sliced their way throughout this area – moving lumber, aggregates and farm products from this rich hinterland to the markets further south. Like so many parts of Canada, most of these lines were abandoned in the middle of the last century, providing the foundation for an increasingly sophisticated network of recreational trails that give hikers, cyclists and snowmobilers plenty of opportunities to explore the “back yard” of this corridor. Whether it be the backcountry trek of the Ganaraska Trail, the portion of the Trans Canada trail that makes its way through the region or the K&P Trail that can be found north of Kingston, there are literally hundreds of kilometers of off road pathways to be explored.
There are dozens of parks, preserves and conservation areas scattered all along the contact zone. If you have an interest in the stars, you can go to Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve near Bala and enjoy a light free view of the night sky. The Prairie Smoke Nature Reserve near Dalrymple is a 700 acre reserve protecting a portion of a limestone forest and alvar landscape. Hardy Lake Provincial Park protects rare habitats like a displaced section of the Georgian Bay shoreline. These are only a few of the many protected areas just waiting to be discovered.
Like the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine, this critical zone that defines the ‘end’ of the St. Lawrence Lowlands and the ‘beginning’ of the Canadian Shield has captured the imagination and attention of a dedicated group of people who are doing their best to advocate on behalf of this special space. A quick visit to The Land Between website, or a viewing of the excellent three part documentary about the region produced by the Ontario Visual Heritage Project will provide loads of information to anyone interested in exploring this part of Ontario. This group has even produced a “Tour the Land Between” App that is available to help people navigate road tours around the area. The efforts of this group of people help provide a context for a part of Ontario that deserves some attention and recognition, not to mention some visiting as well.
I have spent a good portion of my life studying, working, living and playing on the southern edge of The Land Between – not knowing that such a concept existed until I stumbled upon the idea while preparing some lessons for my geography students. Though the place has obviously existed long before anyone coined a phrase to describe this unique part of Ontario; it is an idea, an organization and a region worthy of exploring for anyone living in or visiting Ontario.