The morning mist that has settled over Minesing Swamp makes it difficult to see much beyond the bow of my cedarstrip canoe, but I can hear a red-winged blackbird singing somewhere to my left, a bull frog croaking somewhere to my right, and, up ahead, I think I catch a glimpse of a beaver. Dipping my paddle into the murky waters, I propel myself deeper into southern Ontario’s largest intact wetland, navigating through a flooded maze of ash and silver maple trees, spooking carp and pike in the shallow water. Lulled into a reverie by birdsong and the wild surroundings I feel as if I’ve paddled back into time, which isn’t far off the truth.
I’m retracing the route British and Canadian troops took through the swamp 200 years earlier on a notorious portage — a crucial episode in an almost forgotten chapter of the War of 1812 — and I half expect that at any moment a weary redcoat will emerge like a phantom from the haze, musket in hand.
It’s easy to believe that the swamp — today dubbed “Ontario’s Everglades” — hasn’t changed much in the nearly two centuries that have passed since that epic journey. In spring, when it floods, it’s still a trackless morass, far better suited to the array of wildlife that call it home than any soldier or modern-day explorer. Indeed, this 6,000-hectare wetland just south of Georgian Bay is a reminder that during the War of 1812 the harshest adversary for both sides was often the land itself.
With control of Lake Erie lost to the Americans after a decisive naval battle in 1813, the British were forced to seek an alternative route that linked York (Toronto) to their warships on Lake Huron and Fort Mackinac, where the garrison was running desperately low on supplies. In 1814, the last and bloodiest year of the war, they found it, dispatching nearly 200 men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and a small party of sailors to deliver the badly needed provisions. The expedition would take them north from York into the forests of Upper Canada, across Lake Simcoe, then over a gruelling 14.5-kilometre portage into the depths of the Minesing Swamp. Deep in this eerie wetland, the soldiers constructed 29 large rowboats, called bateaux. The exhausting portage finally ended at the banks of Willow Creek. Here, the sailors and soldiers loaded the precious supplies into the bateaux, navigated through the rest of the swamp and down the Nottawasaga River into Georgian Bay, eventually reaching Fort Mackinac.
The swamp’s strategic location prompted the British to establish a supply depot, Fort Willow, deep within its shadowy recesses. “Fort Willow was a very important link in the chain to the interior,” says Peter Monahan, chair of the Friends of Historic Fort Willow. “While it may be the less glamorous side of the conflict, you can’t fight a war without food, bullets, and supplies.”
Local high school teacher and licensed archaeologist Trevor Carter has been leading excavations at the partially reconstructed site of Fort Willow each summer for the past seven years. To date, more than 15,000 artifacts have been recovered, including musket balls, grape shot, regimental buttons, pistol and musket flints, all of which are processed and delivered to the Simcoe County Museum.
As fascinating as these historical relics are, the real thrill for many visitors lies in the chance of spotting wildlife in what Byron Wesson, director of Land Operations and Stewardship Services for the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority, calls a “world-class wetland.” At least 23 different types of mammals (including otters, beavers, muskrats, porcupines, and occasionally moose and black bears), more than 30 species of fish and 400-plus species of flora call Minesing home. The swamp is also an ornithologist’s paradise, with at least 206 bird species frequenting the wetland; on my paddle I spotted bald eagles, sandhill cranes and great blue herons. And it’s this avian diversity, along with the amphibians, that really bring the place to life. “The chorus of birds and amphibians chirping, singing, and croaking makes the swamp at dawn sound like downtown Toronto,” says Wesson.
In the summer, visitors can hear these sounds for themselves by exploring the area on any number of hiking trails that wind through the wetlands. Meanwhile, special events at Fort Willow, such as the annual Nine Mile Portage Festival held each September, help bring to life the swamp’s human history.
But the best time to experience Minesing is in spring, when the floodwaters are at their highest. Taking to the water and paddling a canoe through the heart of this vast wetland is an unmatched experience, especially when your only companions are birds, bullfrogs, beavers — and the ghosts of 1812.