We are nearing the end of Isabel East Side Trail at Hockley Valley Provincial Nature Reserve when vigorous splashing coming from the creek stops us in our tracks. This is not our first time on this trail. In fact, this park just north of Orangeville has become a bit of a fall-back microadventure destination for those times when I fail to do research and find a new place to visit. This is one of those times.
The surroundings are familiar by now. A trek down the hill lined with chains to hold on too, which come in useful in the winter, then a bridge over a creek. After that the trail meanders through a cedar grove following a narrow strip of water until it starts climbing up and eventually spills onto a spacious meadow drowning in the chatter of crickets. It then dives into the tunnel of sumacs and gets swallowed by the forest again reuniting with the creek. All that’s left up ahead is a short walk through red pines and we are done. We know how it’ll unfold so aren’t expecting anything new. After almost four hours in the park, we are actually looking forward to some fish and chips at one of our favourite spots. And then comes the sound.
The creek at Hockley Valley is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s pretty, I’ll give it that, especially when patches of light manage to break through the dense foliage and bounce off the surface of the water. Further into the park, it splits into several smaller streams so Bruce Trail that runs through this section becomes a succession of bridges and boardwalks. In early spring, the creek rumbles through the park with a formidable force smashing the ice cover imposed by winter. But for the most part, the waters are shallow so you wouldn’t expect a particularly robust wildlife scene. That’s why all the splashing captures our attention.
We dash to the stream prepared to meet this mystery beast and come face to face (face to snout? foot to fin?) with fish. That’s right, the creek is teeming with fish, but not just any fish –trout on their way upstream to lay eggs. Not that we know it’s trout yet. Our knowledge of fish living in Ontario isn’t that in depth. On the contrary, it’s as shallow as the creek bubbling at our feet. We debate if it’s salmon because we know of salmon migration but then it doesn’t really look like salmon, we know that much. We pull together whatever facts we’ve gleaned about its reproductive behaviour until a mother and a son show up and inform us that it is, in fact, trout.
When we get home, we do some research. We learn that there are several species in Ontario that go to all that trouble to reproduce (I mean those kids better appreciate it). Brook trout, Atlantic salmon and Lake trout are native to southern Ontario while Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, Pink salmon (together considered Pacific salmon) and Rainbow trout were introduced from the west coast of North America in 1960s. There is also Brown trout brought here from Europe. We learn that not all fish die after spawning, only the Pacific salmon species do, so not all trout and salmon babies have to live with the guilt of killing their parents. We also learn that before European colonization, Atlantic salmon were so plentiful that during the fall run it was impossible to walk through a stream without stepping on them. By the end of the 19th century, due to pollution, deforestation, dams and overfishing, Atlantic salmon was gone from Lake Ontario. Hence, the need to stock all those other species. Atlantic salmon has since been reintroduced and seems to be settling in well.
It takes me a while to figure out which trout we met that day. After reading through a few identification guides, I start leaning toward Brook trout but if I am wrong, please correct me. The main point of this post, however, is not to share our slightly expanded fish knowledge or practice species identification skills. That will take more than a couple of hours of Internet research. If there is one thing we bring back from this microadventure (and no, it’s not fish although it looked like we could have caught them with our bare hands), it’s that nature has limitless capacity to captivate and amaze. Even the most familiar of places, trails that can by now recognize the footprints of our hiking boots, creeks that look like all the other streams out there reveal new surprises at every turn if only we take the time to listen with our ears, our eyes, the soles of our feet, the tips of our fingers. Because sometimes nature speaks in loud splashes. At other times, there’s nothing but a barely audible rustle of its brush as it quietly repaints all the leaves, one by one, in anticipation of fall. And maybe, just maybe, if we listened more, we’d be less inclined to destroy it.