Imagine yourself wandering among trees 20 metres above ground. You look down on treetops, feel the wind brush through the canopy, watch birds fly from one perch to another at eye level. This happens only in your dreams, or in Haliburton Forest.
For years Nature Walks has taken you on trails through forests to grasslands and meadows to wetlands, but never among the treetops. In Haliburton Forest, the half-kilometre Walk in the Clouds offers a rare opportunity to see the forest as the birds do. It's also the only place in Canada to have this experience. This perspective of a forest is unique. The walk is magical.
Reaching this unique trail is a trip in itself. A van takes you to the Pelaw River, where a kilometre walk ends at Marsh Lake. From here a short paddle in a voyageur canoe ends at an old-growth white pine stand where you step on shore for canopy walk instructions. The canopy itself is like a suspension bridge: a series of hemlock boards cradled in rope. Strapped in a climbing harness, you move your carabiner along the safety line with a steel-cable handrail acting as a balancing support. These bridges, 17 in total, lead from ground level to 20 metres above the forest floor before looping back again. Midway is a wooden platform with a panoramic overlook of Marsh Lake and the surrounding landscape.
From above, balsam fir branches spread out like a snowflake. In the wind, trees move around each other like a dance, swaying far beyond their pivotal point on the ground. From its perch, a red-eyed vireo calls, a canopy bird now in plain view, its song a direct conversation. Even the air is different at 20 metres. On a summer day, when the temperature is hot and humid, trees reach into the canopy with long breaths, perspiring through their leaves and needles. As the water evaporates, the canopy becomes moist and cool.
Haliburton Forest is 20,000 hectares of rolling hardwood forest including 50 lakes and numerous ponds, streams and creeks. The privately owned property offers a variety of outdoor experiences with a series of walking and cycling trails, canoe routes and wilderness campsites, and the renowned Wolf Centre, which is included in the cost of the tour.
The six-hectare wolf enclosure is one of the largest natural settings for a captive wolf pack and visitors can watch them through large one-way viewing windows. Although the Haliburton forest is logged, it is certified for its sustainable forest management by the Forest Stewardship Council through the Smartwood Rainforest Alliance. By limiting their selective cuts to 800-hectare tracts, Haliburton Forest reduces the impact on the land. It also insists on strict wildlife considerations during a cut. If a tree has indications of a nesting site, a natural buffer is left. As a result, you'll detect many signs of wildlife before reaching the canopy walk, such as moose scrapes along trees, deer tracks, loons calling. The forest also supports two wild wolf packs. Even more remarkable for wildlife sightings are the hundreds of insects that inhabit the forest canopy. Dragonflies sun themselves on the boardwalk. Spiders spin delicate webs among tree branches. And those that don't feed on warm blood -- spittlebugs, moths, wasps and the like -- congregate at this level. In fact, Haliburton Forest is conducting ground-breaking research on the forest canopy in conjunction with the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Toronto and Trent University. Small mammals that prey on insects are also quite common in the canopy. Chipmunks and squirrels use the boardwalk like a superhighway. Even mice have climbed to such heights. If a mouse can climb to such extremes, certainly those with acrophobia can tempt the walk. Our eye-level vision of a forest is limited. We miss life underground, where roots spread and interact with fungi and insects. We also miss life above our line of vision, where the trees reach for the sky. The canopy is where real activity happens in forest growth, photosynthesis and wildlife. Here 20 metres above ground, the forest seems different. It's where treetops spread to reach a spot of sunlight in the canopy. It's where dragonflies and chipmunks meet. It's where I walk, my shadow moving along the forest floor, my hands reaching for the sky. Katherine Jacob is author of the Canadian bestseller trail book series published by the Conservation Lands of Ontario, which includes the recently published The Best of the Bruce Trail.
Directions: From the 401 West, take Hwy. 400 north towards Barrie. Continue on Hwy 11 north and turn right on Hwy. 118 in Bracebridge. At West Guilford, turn left onto Hwy. 7 and follow signs for the Haliburton Forest (approximately 20 km). Trail surface: Hard-packed earth, suspension bridge. Facilities: Picnic areas and washroom facilities at base camp area. Admission: A Walk in the Clouds canopy tour costs $65 adult, $45 10-18 years of age (includes day use of the forest and wolf centre admission). Time: Trips leave at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Trail management: Haliburton Forest, RR#1 Haliburton, Ont. K0M 1S0, (705) 754-2198, fax (705) 754-1179, email: , Web site: Recommended reading: Trees in Canada, by John Farrar (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, hardcover, $45); Wolf Almanac, by Robert Busch (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, softcover, $22.95); Brother Wolf, by Jim Brandenburg (Northword, softcover, $34.95)