14 October 2015
Now we had some breakfast inside us and supplies in the fridge Commando decided to go for a short run leaving me to my own devices. As I was itching to get out and explore the lake I didn’t mind one bit. Beside the row of chalets, some steep wooden steps led down a grass bank, turned to gold by the covering of pine needles, to the lake shore. At the bottom of the bank, below our balcony window, upturned canoes rested on a rough stone wall and some weathered boards. The tall pines turned the ground to a patchwork of light and shade and the air was clean and fresh.
The waters of the lake were dark and choppy. On the opposite bank I saw rocky outcrops and small houses half hidden by the dense forest of pines interspersed with splashes of red, orange and yellow. A small wooden jetty jutted out over the water topped with a table and chairs. On a warmer day this would have been an ideal place to sit and relax but it was too cold to stand still for long and I had exploring to do.
While I was surveying the landscape wondering where to go next a squirrel scrabbling under the pines caught my attention. We’d seen a couple when we set out on our search for breakfast and been surprised to find they were black. This one had his back to me so, thinking I might be able to sneak up and get a photo, I began to creep towards him. Unlike the squirrels in New York, these strange black creatures were shy and he sensed me crunching across the pines and dashed off so all I managed to get was a shot of a blurry black dot in the distance.
Although I didn’t manage to capture the squirrel, when he skittered off into the woods he led me to what looked very much like one of the trails Maggie had been telling me about in the car. It began as a wide, packed dirt path speckled with leaves in every hue but soon narrowed as the grass encroached and the soil disappeared under the fallen pine needles. Every slight breeze brought a flutter of yellow beech and oak leaves. A little mushroom caught my eye and then a flower. It looked like Himalayan Balsam but it was alone so I could be wrong, I’m not an expert on Canadian wild flowers.
The further I went the deeper the drifts of fallen leaves became and everywhere I looked there were more mushrooms in varying shades of brown, none of which I could identify. Pretty soon I was suffering little brown mushroom overload and gave up even stopping to look at them. Instead I strolled on enjoying the dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy, the smell of the leaf mould, the tang of the old pine needles and the multi hued carpet of leaves crunching beneath my feet.
After a while the trail began to climb through a rocky area and the trees thinned out. Soon I was standing on a lumpy, moss speckled granite platform in bright sunshine unsure where the trail had disappeared to. The Muskoka area, which includes the town of Gravenhurst, is located on the Canadian Shield, the oldest part of the North American crustal plate and the first part of the continent to be permanently raised above sea level. Five hundred million years ago glaciers swelling and contracting scraped the soil from the granite and gouged out a multitude of lake basins. The land here is mostly granite with a thin layer of soil where centuries of leaf fall has accumulated. You don’t have to go far to come across rock.
The trail might have disappeared but there was plenty to see amongst the moss and pine needles. In fact, when I bent for a closer look, the moss itself was a mass of little green star bursts unlike our English moss. This, I later found, is haircap moss and, half hidden amongst it, there were some beautiful fruiting lichens like nothing I’d seen before. The more I looked the more I saw and my next discovery came in fungus form. Unlike the masses of little brown mushrooms I’d seen I was pretty sure I could identify the creamy tree like structures I found dotted about, or at least their genus. These were coral fungi, or at least I think they were, and the first I’ve ever seen although I believe we have them in England.
With no clear trail to follow across the rocks I thought it was probably time to turn back. Getting lost in the woods on our first day in Canada would not be a good plan and I had no Google Maps to help me out. Besides, I was the only one with a key to our little home from home and I didn’t think Commando would take kindly to being locked out after his run. As it happened I somehow missed the trail I’d climbed up by, having wandered about on the rocks for a while. Clambering back to the lower levels I came across another feature of the Muskoka landscape, a huge, toothlike glacial erratic taller than me. These massive rocks sitting on the surface of the soil as if they’ve dropped from the sky have actually been carried by the glaciers that formed this wonderful terrain.
As any geologist will tell you, these erratics have been carried hundreds, even thousands of miles and may be completely different to the surrounding rock. I’m no geologist but the toothy rock didn’t look like granite. Trying to find my way back to the trail I stumbled upon another group of erratics, these a deep green. A bit of research tells me these were probably green carbonate and part of the Canadian Shield although they looked very different to the rocks I’d been standing on.
It was around this time that I remembered the big wooden bear statue we’d seen in Gravenhurst and wondered if there were bears in these woods? If there were how big were they and was it really wise for me to be wandering around looking at plants and leaves? What exactly should I do if I bumped into one? Feeling more than a little nervous I quickened my pace but I wasn’t certain I was going in the right direction. When I saw a thin ribbon of road between the trees I breathed a sigh of relief, if I was near a road I was probably not near any bears, probably…
Shortly after this I found a trail, whether it was the right one remained to be seen but I figured it must lead somewhere. Before long things started to look familiar and I relaxed a little, although I still had one eye on the lookout for bears. A bright red bird with a little punky crest on his head landed on a branch nearby. This, I knew, was a cardinal but, by the time I’d raised my phone, he was gone, lost amongst the bright red maple leaves. Then I saw the grass at the edge of the lake between the trees and knew I was almost back at the beginning.
As I was about to leave the trail a red dragonfly flittered past me and landed on a fallen branch in the sun. Unlike the squirrel and the cardinal he sat there and politely let me photograph him. When I straightened up I saw he’d led me to the most unusual mushroom I’ve ever seen. A good three or maybe four inches tall it had a thick white stem and a dark dome with a texture that reminded me of pumice. The really strange thing was the hole in the top, surrounded by a lip of white like some kind of organic chimney. A little orange fly was sitting on it and I wondered if this was some kind of fly trap fungi or maybe a nest.
This was probably the most bizarre fungus I have ever seen and later perusing of Maggie’s fungus book told me it was probably a stinkhorn fungus. In fact I’m pretty sure it was Phallus ravenelii, obvious really when you look at it. They do attract insects but not for quite the reason I thought. Apparently they have a strong smell, something akin to rotting flesh, although I can’t say I noticed it at the time but the pine needles and decaying leaves may have disguised it. The smell attracts insects, the spores of the mushroom stick to their legs and they carry them off to propagate the species. Isn’t nature strange?
Back on the lakeside I found a little cabin and more jetties, surrounded by small wooden boats but they looked abandoned. In the summer the lake is probably filled with people but with such low temperatures I suppose boating isn’t all that attractive. Making my way back to the steps I found a fireplace made of richly coloured stone standing on the grass, almost as if there’d been a house there. Maybe there had but it looked as though it had been recently used, perhaps for cooking.
As Commando was likely to be back at any moment I climbed the steps towards our chalet. A robin, the large skinny North American kind, was sunning himself in the small garden. He flew off as I got close. Even with the cold it was far too nice to sit inside waiting so I sat on the deck chairs outside and, within a few minutes, there was Commando running through the pine needles towards me. It was just after midday our Canadian adventure had hardly begun but I was already hopelessly in love with the place.