The sound of waves slowly fills up the space around me to the point where nothing else can fit in. I feel my eyelids get heavy under the sun’s gentle kisses. My body sinks into a tree trunk, slowly adjusting to bumps and cracks like a memory-foam mattress, until it merges with the driftwood, polished and white like a bone of a giant prehistoric animal. The sound of waves seeps into my skin, fills up my brain, overflows my body. I imagine myself one of the sand grains tucked into cracks in the wood. After what feels like eternity, I finally open my eyes. Gulls pierce the air with their impossible screeches, clouds of birds covering the sky. I sit up and notice a woman watching me intently not too far away.
This story could go several different ways from here. It could be a start of a horror story, for instance. Sorry, it’s Halloween season and I’ve been watching too many horror movies. That’s where the title of this post comes from – Stephen King’s novella, now a movie on Netflix. But no, nothing dramatic happens. I smile at the woman to reassure her that I am okay. She smiles back and walks away clearly relieved that she won’t have to deal with my seemingly lifeless body. So no, this story won’t be a thriller. Although there is a bit of getting lost in the tall grass, because, as I later learned from the above mentioned movie, grass can move things around (oops, spoiler alert). I will get to that shortly. First things first, why Windsor?
Riverfront Trail in Windsor is perfect for a relaxing stroll
I had a bunch of work-related events and meetings to attend. Three day filled with non-stop talking and interacting with people – my own version of a horror story. Don’t get me wrong, visiting member organizations is one of my favourite parts of the job. Those visits ground me and remind me why I do what I do. But I get “peopled out” rather quickly. That’s why I always plan nature outings into any work trip, either by staying longer for a few days and going on a hike, booking a yurt at a nearby park instead of a hotel or, like in the case of my Windsor trip, allocating an hour or two every day to explore local parks.
If you are not from here, Windsor is a city in south-west Ontario, on the traditional territory of the Three Fires Confederacy of First Nations, comprised of the Ojibway, the Odawa, and the Potawatomie. It is tucked away in Ontario’s southernmost part, right across the river from Detroit. In fact, I had a fabulous view of Detroit River and the city of Detroit from my hotel window.
View from my hotel room in Windsor: Detroit River with Detroit on the other side and Ambassador Bridge connecting the two cities
Known as the “automotive capital of Canada,” Windsor is as urban as it gets. But it is also home to Ojibway Prairie Complex, a protected area of five parks, all in close proximity to each other and located within city limits. Four of these parks – Ojibway Park, Tallgrass Prairie Heritage Park, Black Oak Heritage Park and Spring Garden Natural Area – are managed by Windsor’s Department of Parks and Recreation, while the nearby Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve is owned by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
I first read about the Ojibway Prairie Complex in a book I got from my friend – 100 Nature Hot Spots in Ontario, a clickbait title that relegates nature to disparate areas scattered around rather than treating it like a living world that includes us. Nonetheless, it’s been helpful in learning about places like Ojibway Prairie Centre, an important conservation endeavour, which wouldn’t have been necessary if we (and by “we” I mean settlers in North America) were responsible stewards of the land. But that’s what we do – contain nature in hot spots where we can come and visit occasionally pretending we have nothing to do with it.
Whenever we talk about typical Ontario landscapes, we usually imagine deep forests dotted with lakes. Prairies is what lies to the west – in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the land of grass seas and open skies. What many people don’t realize, including myself before I started researching for this post, is that prior to colonization southern Ontario was home to a wide variety of natural habitats: meadows, alvars, tallgrass prairies, oak savannas, oak woodlands, open and closed forests, swamps, marshes, bogs and fens.
Southern Ontario used to be a mosaic of diverse habitats: from oak savanna…
…to open and closed forests…
…and tallgrass prairies
Over the years, all this glorious diversity has been squeezed out by industrial developments and monoculture farming. Today, less than 0.5% of original prairies and savanna remain in southwestern Ontario. That’s why places like Ojibway Prairie Complex is so important. There is also Pinery Provincial Park, home to one of the largest remaining oak savannas. Closer to home, there is High Park in Toronto. The largest tracts of prairie and savanna, however, are on the lands controlled by Indigenous people, like tallgrass prairie on Walpole Island First Nation reserve. Not surprising, considering Indigenous people have been living here and managing the land in a respectful way for more than ten thousand years. It’s also in line with global trends: a recent study found that in Canada, Australia and Brazil lands managed by Indigenous peoples had higher levels of biodiversity than protected areas.
Less than 0.5% of original prairies and savanna remain in southwestern Ontario
So after reading about Ojibway Prairie in my 100 Hot Spots book, I’ve always wanted to go there. But with Windsor a four-hour drive away from Toronto, it’s not exactly a place we can just pop by for a quick microadventure. That’s why staying in Windsor for a few days was a great opportunity to finally see this place.
I began at Ojibway Park because that’s where my GPS took me. Turns out it is the best starting point to explore the complex because it includes a visitor cenre and lots of accessible, colour-coded and interconnected trails. I didn’t have a particular destination in mind, just wandered around through an oak forest merging into savanna merging into a tallgrass prairie, transitioning from one trail to another until I ended up back at the parking lot, right before the clouds that had been desperately trying to hold in tears for most of the day finally let them flow.
Ojibway Park has a number of well-marked, accessible trails
Trees reach up for the sky as if it’s their job to prop it
Grasses at Ojibway Prairie rival the trees
The biggest highlight of the day was 200-year-old oaks reaching up high, their bronze leaves blotting out the grey of the sky. As I stood there humbled in their presence, I also thought that they still remember this land before the diversity of colours was wiped from its surface to be replaced by neatly uniform patches of farm land. Before Detroit River was cut in the middle by an imaginary line. These oaks don’t care about borders or countries or arbitrary lines humans use to decide who’s out, who’s in. They keep pushing upwards to prop up the sky and connect it to the land.
These oaks have been around for over 200 years
On my second day, I headed to Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve. Unlike Ojibway Park, this place is more of a freestyle adventure. There are no trail markers, no interpretive panels and only one map. The only trail on the map looked fairly simple – a straight line that ended in a loop. I studied the map, then took a picture, just in case, before diving into the sea of grasses.
The beginning of my hike at Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve was easy and straightforward
The sunset was approaching, trees and grasses bathed in its golden light as if King Midas had just passed here. I listened to the rustling and whispering of the blades, watched the golden orb roll across the grass like a ball bobbing on waves. It was all so peaceful and glorious.
The prairie was bathed in gold as if King Midas had just passed here
Tall grass indeed
The golden orb of the sun rolled across grasses like a ball bobbing on waves
Once I reached the loop, I turned right and continued until I got to another split, which I took to be the end of the loop. It felt a little too early and I didn’t recognize the surroundings but since there were no other trails on the map, I decided to trust the map and take the path to the right. I am usually pretty good at orienting myself in space but here I felt confused and lost. The fact that it was getting dark didn’t help. I decided to stick with this new path convinced it should take me to the road sooner or later. It did. Well, almost. I ended up in someone’s backyard, on the opposite side of the park. There was a kid playing in the yard. He eyed me suspiciously as I emerged from the grass. I smiled at him in a way that was meant to convey “I mean no harm,” then quickly slipped past him. After that, it was only a 45-minute walk back to the car along the side of the road, in complete darkness with cars whizzing by. Microadventure indeed.
Even when I was lost, I knew everything would be okay because I had this deer following me around to keep me company
Now some of you, at least those who have stuck around through all my ramblings and are still paying attention, might be going: Wait a minute, what about that bit at the beginning? That whole thing about waves – was it actual water or was it grass? If water, how did I ended up by the lake? And where did the gulls and the woman come from? Well, that was my stop at Point Pelee National Park on the way back to Toronto for a complete brain reboot. After wondering through the marsh and more tall grass, I headed to the tip – what is known as the southernmost point of mainland Canada. Here, water and land are locked in an eternal tango, constantly moving back and forth reshaping the shoreline. Every time we come here, the spot is overflowing with people. This time I had it mostly to myself. Except for the gulls. And one concerned woman.
Marsh board walk at Point Pelee National Park is magical any time of year
The tip, the southernmost point of mainland Canada, wasn’t very pointy
My last stop on the way back home
Can you spot a bald eagle?
If you want to learn more about tallgrass prairie, various restoration projects and what you can do to support them, visit Tallgrass Ontario. And, as always, support for Indigenous rights is key to any environmental undertakings.