Pukaskwa National Park

20160626_155631Recently I visited Pukaskwa National Park, the only wilderness national Park in Ontario.  The Park features a small campground and 1878 square km of wonderful Northern Ontario natural heritage.

I had a wonderful time camping, exploring, and learning about the landscape at Pukaskwa.  We were there prior to the official start of their interpretation season (July and August) but still managed to take in some activities and many of their trails have great interpretive signage that can be used without a guide.

Anishinaabe Camp Construction

The first morning at Pukaskwa we joined in a walk to the Anishinaabe Camp that was currently under construction.  We were the only ones to participate in the walk that morning but it was worth the half hour to talk with the people building an interpretive space based on traditional knowledge. Our guide was from Pic River First Nation and works as at the park as a cultural interpreter and programmer and the builders were a combination of local and visiting people with knowledge of traditional structures.  As an added bonus our guide took us into the Visitor Centre despite it not being officially open for the season so we could take a look at some of their other programming spaces and some of the other birch bark items that were made at the Park.  I loved that the park integrates traditional knowledge keepers into interpretive programming.

Beach Trail

20160625_085744Pukaskwa has a number of short hikes that can all be completed in a hour or two from the campground.  This was perfect for us given that we were traveling with a small child.  The first hike we did was the “Beach Trail” which visits driftwood filled beaches in three different areas of shoreline – Horseshoe Bay, middle beach, and north beach.  The views of Lake Superior and the huge amounts of driftwood were amazing to look at.  This trail was a fairly easy hike though there were a few spots that could have used better signage and required some hunting to pick up the trail again. In addition to the natural beauty Horseshoe Bay also featured an easel which explored the Group of Seven’s paintings inspired by the landscape contained in Pukaskwa.  I loved this integration of history, culture, and natural heritage.

Bimose Kinoomagewnan

Bimose Kinoomagewnan signage at start of trail.
Bimose Kinoomagewnan signage at start of trail.

The second trail we explored was the Bimose Kinoomagewnan trail or the “Walk of Teachings”.  This trail may have been my favourite of the many hikes we did at Pukaskwa.  It didn’t have Lake Superior views but the views around Halfway Lake and the interpretive signage focusing on the Seven Grandfather Teachings was extremely well done.

Wisdom teaching signage.

Each teaching had a sign placed at scenic points on the trail and the signage contained stories of Elders’ experiences in the park, their thoughts on the teachings, and their memories of the land.  Each of these written experiences was paired with artwork by local youth.  The signage was in three languages (English, French, Ojibway) and extremely well done and added to the trail significantly.  On the natural heritage side of things I loved the variety of this trail which includes forested land, huge rock faces, hills, a beaver lodge, and fantastic views.

Southern Headland Trail

Red Chairs as part of the "Share the Chair" Parks Canada program.
Red Chairs as part of the “Share the Chair” Parks Canada program.

This was probably the most popular trail we explored – at least judging by the number of people we saw exploring the views.  On many of the other hikes we didn’t see anyone else.  The Southern Headland trail has breath taking Lake Superior views and overlooks Hattie Cove, Pulpwood Harbour, and Horseshoe Bay.

This walk provides visitors with glimpses of the power of Superior and there is some signage talking about the impact the lake has on the landscape and flora/fauna in the region.  This trail also featured the “red chair experience” a Parks Canada national initiative which places red Muskoka style chairs at places with breathtaking views and spots which highlight some of the best spots in national parks.  I love the idea of making destination points within parks that are points of connection, shared experience, and social media opportunities.

Manito Miikana

Outlook over Lake Superior on Manito Miikana
Outlooking Lake Superior on Manito Miikana

Also known as “the Spirit Trail”, Manito Miikana is a predominately forested trail leading to two viewing platforms with panoramic views of Lake Superior.  This was by far the most difficult trail we hiked, it has a lot of changing elevations, a ton of tree roots, uneven ground, and it was very wet the day we walked it.  The views were similar to that of the Southern Headland Trail but overlooked different portions of the lake and also allowed for a look at the Pic River Dunes in the distance.  It wasn’t a bad hike and we probably would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t rained so much prior to our walk.


I really enjoyed Pukaskwa National Park, exploring the natural history and learning a bit more about the landscape of the North Shore.  I was also pleasantly surprised by a lot of the interpretation programming and signage in the park.  The interpretation I engaged with was really well done and the Park has made an effort to engage local Indigenous communities in programming and include traditional knowledge in their signage.

Public History and Environmental Engagement: Scotland’s Coastal Heritage

The recent special issue of The Public Historian focused on public history and environmental sustainability.  This issue builds on the sustainable public history theme that was the focus of the 2014 National Council on Public History conference and the digital collection Public History in a Changing Climate which appeared on the Public History Commons.  The special journal issue contains a number of interesting articles on the desire to engage the public with environmental history and a changing environmental landscape. 

The article “A View from Scotland’s Coast” by Tom Dawson which looks at coastal erosion and the impact of erosion of heritage sites provides a glimpse into the potential of engaging the public in issues of heritage, climate change, and natural heritage. 

Dawson’s writing focuses on the work of the Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion Trust (SCAPE Trust) and highlights examples of coastal erosion’s impact of heritage sites in Scotland.  For example, in Bora, a small coastal town in Northern Scotland, industrial buildings from the sixteenth century were uncovered on the coast.  Beginning in 2004 SCAPE worked with the local community and organizations to excavate buildings and begin to document the site.  However in 2012 a winter storm destroyed the sixteenth-century salt pans that had been uncovered.  All that remained were piles of ruble on a beach below.

This and other examples of heritage sites endangered by coastal erosion reminded me a lot of my trip to Ireland.  While touring the Dingle Peninsula there were a number of site that had been partially destroyed be erosion or were at risk because of the changing shoreline.  I remember thinking at the time about what could be done to save such sites, particularly in a country that is filled with similar heritage structures.

Dawson argues that “being able to demonstrate the value of an asset is key to getting the item preserved, or at least recorded before it is destroyed.”  Heritage sites need to advocate for the value of their existence and preservation, especially if an economic advantage to preserving the site isn’t immediately apparent. 

SCAPE believes that involving communities and local populations in archaeological and preservation projects is key, “working directly with heritage gives people a greater understanding of its importance, and this appreciation spreads through the community and beyond”  Additionally local residents often hold valuable knowledge which has been passed down through generations about local heritage sites, landscape changes, and past events. 

SCAPE’s development of the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project (SCHARP) highlights a collaborative effort to engage communities in preservation.  The project relies on the public to update and correct information collected via coastal surveys and report any changes to the sites.  The SCHARP project website includes data for 12,000 coastal sites and invites the public to update information based on local knowledge.  The site is relatively user friendly and interesting to explore even for those without a local connection to Scotland.

SCAPE also asks community members to nominate sites for preservation.  Though the ShoreDig project SCAPE works with communities to facilitate community excavation and to encourage engagement with threatened local heritage. 

Dawson’s work highlights the crucial role the public has to play in the preservation of coastal heritage.  Community engagement is essential to assessment of local heritage sites and working with the public can help preserve information and sites which would otherwise be lost in changing landscapes.

A Quick Look At Northern Ireland

The bulk of the time I was in Ireland was spent in the Republic of Ireland.  I did a day trip to Northern Ireland as part of an organized group.  It was a really long day but it was nice to be able to see a couple of sites in Northern Ireland. The tour included a visit to the Carrick-a-Rede island rope bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, and short stop in downtown Belfast.

The Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge wasn’t anything spectacular.  However, the views of the coastal region at the site and on the drive to the site were nice.  The rope bridge itself crosses a 20 meter gap, and is located in the spot that was traditionally used by salmon fishermen to cross to the island.  The original rope bridge used by the fisherman was much more rustic with only a single hand rail.  The bridge used today is fairly sturdy and wide.  The island and the pathway to the rope bridge have great views of the ocean and on a clear day you can see a portion of Scotland.

The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO world heritage site made up of unique basalt rock formations which were created during an ancient volcanic eruption. There are a number of folk stories and legends surrounding the site and how it was formed.  One of the more well known stories suggests that the causeway is the remains of a bridge that a giant named Finn McCool built to cross from Ireland to Scotland.   The intersection of folk lore, natural heritage, and scientific explanations is interesting on this site, however very little signage is located near the actual site.

There is a formal visitors centre on site, however if you walk around the centre you can access the

causeway without paying a fee.  This resulting in missing out on some of the interpretative aspects but if you’re on a budget or a time limit it might be the way to go. 

The Giant’s Causeway is an extremely popular natural heritage site.  There are also very few restrictions on where visitors can explore.  There are a couple of different walking paths which approach the site and a number of shoots which climb up the surrounding rocks and hills.  Visitors are able to sit on the rock formations, climb up the honeycomb looking rock clusters, and walk freely along the rocky shore. 

Given how busy the site is and how unrestricted access is to the site I wonder about the long term impacts of turning the Giant’s Causeway into a tourism destination.  The human element inevitably has some impact on the condition and maintenance of the site.  The Giant’s Causeway is a beautiful piece of natural heritage tucked on the coast of Northern Ireland.  I could have easily spent a multiple hours walking around and exploring the site and the surrounding area.

The Cliffs of Moher and the Burren Region

The Cliffs of Moher located in County Clare are one of the most popular natural landscapes in Ireland with more than a million visitors visiting each year.  The cliffs are 8km long along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and are 214m at their highest points.  The rock formation that makes up the cliffs is almost 320 million years old.  The coastal location makes the area highly susceptible to erosion and there are numerous signs warning visitors to stay inside marked paths away from unstable edges. 

The visitor centre on the site explains the historical geography of the area, explore native wildlife, and

talks about the human history on the site.  There are a couple of educational videos included in the exhibit that are worth watching for the historical images and seaside vantages of the cliffs.  The Centre itself is an interesting structure, as it is an eco-structure that is built into a hillside.  It reminded me of a large hobbit house. 

Despite being late in the season the Cliffs were still one of the busiest sites we visited during our trip. It was also extremely windy and a bit on a chilly side.  However, it was also a clear day so you could see a number of the surrounding bays and islands.  The views of the rocky shore are wonderful however it is worth taking a longer walk on one of the walking paths to get away from the masses of people.  There is also an free audio-tour app that visitors can download (there is free wifi at the main visitors centre) that describes the landscape. 

Burren in the distance.

Following my visit to the Cliffs of Moher we drove through the Burren region to reach Galway.  The change in landscape was remarkable in this region.  The vibrant greens that had been almost everywhere were replaced by vast areas of limestone rock that is devoid of soil coverage. This area is one of the largest karst landscapes in Europe.  The views on this portion of the drive were unusual and memorable in their distinctive appearance.

Photographs by Andrew Mackay

Natrual Landscape of the Conor Pass

The Conor Pass is the highest mountain pass in Ireland and is located on the North side of the Dingle Peninsula.  The drive through the Conor Pass was breathtaking, beautiful views and very narrow twisty roads on the side of a mountain. The Mountain Pass runs through the Brandon Mountains which is the second highest peak in Ireland at 3127 ft.

There is a great lookout point at the top of the pass which allows you to overlook Dingle, the valley and lakes below, and Brandon Bay.  There are some educational panels at the lookout the explain the geographical historical of the area and talk about how ice ages and natural changes to the area shaped the landscape.

I was lucky to visit the pass on a clear day, as a few locals indicated that if the weather is foggy it is nearly impossible to see anything from the lookout or on the road.  After reaching the top of the Pass the road becomes much more rustic.  The road is for two way traffic however the width of the road can only accommodate one car at a time — so if you meet another car one of you needs to back up along the twisty to a spot that has a wide shoulder.  The driving experience was a tad hair raising but the views of the area were well worth it.

Natural Landscape and Monastic Ruins in Glendalough

On the way to Kinsale, in Cork County I stopped at the Glendalough Monastic Settlement in Wicklow County.  The Glendalough monastic site is located in the Wicklow Mountains National Park.  I imagine the drive towards Glendalough from Dublin would be beautiful on a clear day as it takes you through the mountains.  It was foggy during my drive so the views were mostly of mist and a few sheep.

It was pouring rain during my visit to Glendalough but there were still a number of visitors exploring the 6th century Christian monastic site. There is a small visitors center located at the site with an attached exhibition space.  I didn’t go into the museum space during my visit but I did go into the center to get maps of the site which outlined the monastic ruins as well as the walking trails on the site.  Having a description of the monastic ruins was helpful as there is very little signage near the ruins themselves. 

There are a number of monastic ruins on the site including: an arched gateway, a round tower, cathedral, church, and smaller out buildings.  The round tower is the most visible from a distance  and is still in surprisingly good shaping considering portions of the other buildings have collapsed.  The tower is around 30 meters high and served as a landmark, a storehouse, and a safe space during times of pillaging.  The monastic ruins are surrounded by graves and memorials to the brethren who occupied the site.

After exploring the monastic ruins I walked towards the upper lake on one of the walking paths.   The walk was nice though probably would have been more enjoyable in better weather.  The walk did provide a nice glimpse at some of the natural landscape encompassed by the National Park and extensive efforts that have gone into creating trails, walking paths, and nature walks. 

Misery Loves Company: Misery Bay Provincial Park

Misery Bay Provincial Park located on the south shore of Manitoulin Island, is having a celebration this Friday to kick of the 2012 season at the Park.  This celebration will also mark the transition of Misery Bay moving from “non-operating” to “operating” park status under the Provincial Parks legislation.  This transition is significant as it means more funding and support from the provincial government.  This designation and support has the potential to be a huge boon to the largely volunteer and community operated Park.

Misery Bay Park is 1005-hectares in size and is classified as a nature reserve.  There are a number of  short (under 5 km) walking trails on the park which allow visitors to explore the landscape.  Perhaps the most well known feature of the park are the alvars that make up a large portion of the landscape. Alvars are a rare natural feature which consist of a limestone plain, with thin or no soil on top.  This unique rock based formation support prairie type flora and a one of a kind ecosystem.

The Misery Bay Park is also one of the few areas along the south shore of Manitoulin Island that is accessible to the general public.  The majority of the shoreline is privately owned.  A small visitors center welcomes visitors to the park and facilitates a number of walking tours, lectures, and educational presentations.  Weekly educational and interpretive events occur at the park throughout the summer to help educate the general public about the unique landscape and ecosystem which exists within the Misery Bay Park. The park is an excellent example of the unique natural heritage that exists throughout Ontario and would be well worth a visit if you are visiting Manitoulin Island or taking the Chi-Cheemaun across Lake Huron.

Teaching with Historic Places

The December 2011 issue of Public History News contained an article entitled “Teaching Teachers the Power of Place”, which focused on the Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program established by the United States National Park Service.

The TwHP program aims to provide resources for teachers based on the properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Flexible lesson plans, powerpoints, case study examples, and other media tools have been developed by historians and teachers to provide support for any school looking to examine history, geography, or social studies from a place based perspective.

What benefits does place based instruction have? Rooting history or social studies firmly in a place helps make the topic more relevant.  If possible focusing a lesson on a local site helps students create a stronger connection with their community’s past.  The use of historic photographs, artifacts, and documents can make even a far away place seem real and assist in making the past relevant to students.

Overall, the TwHP sounds like a great resource for educators both in and outside of formal education institutions.  Has anyone used a similar resource or been exposed to a Canadian equivalent?

Photo Credit: edebell

French River Visitor’s Centre

Despite having driven by the French River rest stop and Visitor’s Centre on Hwy 69 dozens of time, I hadn’t been inside the facility until this past week. I was thoroughly surprised by Centre’s content — it has more interactive displays than most small museum curators dream of –one of the benefits of Provincial funding I suppose.

The current exhibits showcase the history of the French River area, the natural heritage of the area, and the stories of First Nations, French, and English explorers who came to French River.  The displays highlight the unique architecture style of the building and features like the section of glass floor showcase the natural landscape of the area. 

In addition to the centre, the rest stop includes great walking trails that follow the French River.  There is also a walking bridge that crosses the river and provides and excellent view of the surrounding landscape.   The French River Provincial Park also includes 290 campsites, canoeing routes, and fishing areas.

Natural Heritage: Kootenay National Park

 This is the third post in a series focusing on Canada’s natural heritage, and more specifically the preservation of this natural heritage through the Canadian Parks System.   The first two posts can be seen here and here.

The Kootenay National Park, located in southwestern British Columbia, encompasses a portion of the rich natural heritage region of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Kootenay contains a variety of landscapes  and well known landmarks- thrust-faulted mountains, landscapes sculptured by glaciers and water, hot springs, Marble Canyon, Sinclair Canyon and the Paint Pots.

Kootenay is also home to a range of plants and animals.  The preservation of diverse nature of Kootenay’s landscape is in part responsible for the success of so many different ecosystems within the park – plants from the alpine, subalpine and montane ecological zones can all be found within Kooteny.

In addition to the great natural landscape Kootenay is home to the only landmark in the parks system named after James Bernard Harkin.  Harkin was a Canadian civil servant who is seen as the main advocate for the establishment of the Canadian Parks system.  Mount Harkin in Kootenay National Park is named after Harkin and his contribution to Parks throughout Canada.  A great article focusing on Harking by E.J. Hart appeared in the June-July 2011 issue of Canada’s History.