I’ve always felt that Canadian history gets a bad rap.
Compared to the faraway kings and castles of Europe, we sometimes dismiss and diminish Canada’s history as the story of younger country cousin, a jumble of facts and dates that glaze over students’ eyes in mandatory courses. Visiting Fort Willow Conservation Area, I reflected on the unfairness of this and considered the reasons why we should value our local heritage.
Fort Willow, located just outside Barrie in the Township of Springwater and now owned by Nottawasaga Conservation Authority, played an important role as a supply depot during the War of 1812. Notably in 1814, a relief expedition of about 200 men marched from Kingston in the chill of early February, set up camp at Fort Willow and built 29 bateaux (long boats, wider and sturdier than canoes) on the banks of the Nottawasaga River. Their work still not finished, they continued on to bring supplies to Fort Michilimackinac. This aid allowed the fort to withstand the American attack and helped to assure the borders of Canada today.
As I whined about a few mosquitoes buzzing around my head, I imagined what life must have been like then, how difficult it must have been when those rugged soldiers entered the wilderness and etched out a life for themselves. What survives of Fort Willow today is subtle; weathered logs lain on the grass outline where buildings such as a blacksmith’s shop, barracks, a cookhouse, and a stable most likely stood. Standing near the entrance is a replica of a bateau, which has made several celebrity appearances including the CBC production “Canada, A People’s History.” Costumed interpreters won’t greet you at the gates, but informative signs will guide you though the site at your own pace. For me, the simplicity of Fort Willow is part of its authentic charm. The site is still surrounded by forest, and connections to the Ganaraska Trail, the North Simcoe Rail Trail, and the Trans Canada Trail make it a hiker’s paradise.
Fort Willow also pays tribute to the area’s long history before the fort was established. Evidence of fishing in the surrounding lakes show that people first used this area 3 000 to 4 000 years ago. Villages were established about 650 years ago, mainly by the Iroquois people. Now growing within the walls of the fort is a “Three Sisters” garden with an explanation of the special significance of these three plants (corn, squash, and beans) in Native culture. Later, French explorers and fur traders also used the local transport and trade route used by the Native people, which became known as the Nine Mile Portage.
Tucked away in a corner of the fort is a natural regeneration garden, which aims to reintroduce plant species native to the area, and a butterfly garden. The milkweed growing here seeks to attract and nourish monarch butterflies, which are now a species of special concern.
Keen to explore more of the area, I took a short hike down the Ganaraska trail to the lookout point that overlooks the Minesing Wetlands. These wetlands stretch over 15 000 acres and have an abundance of diverse flora and fauna, some of which are rare or endangered. Not just locally impressive, the importance of the Minesing Wetlands received international recognition under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. A wetland is, as the information panel informed me, “nature’s kidney,” and the Minesing Wetlands play an important role in water purification by filtering water from nearby urban and rural communities. The wetlands themselves are accessible from the North Simcoe Rail Trail, or you can launch your canoe just off of George Johnston Road and explore on the water.
Looking out over the wetlands, I admit the view wasn’t spectacular since trees have grown up and partially obscured the view. Frankly, I didn’t mind. I stood up, high and strong, and wondered how many feet had already crossed this path, how many people had already stood where I was standing, and how many more would after me. In this historic and tranquil place, I felt the importance of protecting our heritage, both cultural and natural, for our children and our children’s children. As I stood thinking, a monarch butterfly flitted by. I smiled, and turned to head back down the trail.
Both Fort Willow and Minesing Wetlands Conservation Areas are owned and operated by the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority. Fort Willow Conservation Area is only one of several Conservation Areas in Ontario that offer a glimpse into the past. To find other Conservation Areas that include heritage sites, go to www.ontarioconservationareas.ca.
Melissa Rodgers is a student at Carleton University. Her passions include history, cooking, reading, and the great outdoors.