Walking Through Rare Old Growth Eastern Hemlock: Catchacoma Forest

Old growth hemlock forest in Catchacoma, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Old Growth Forests

Dr. Peter Quinby, forester and scientist with Ancient Forest Exploration & Research puts old-growth forests into perspective:

“Globally, 1.5 million square kilometers of forests were lost to human activity between 2000 and 2012. In fact, the excessive exploitation of timber throughout the world has resulted in the rarity and even the extinction of some forest types (Franklin 1988, Maser 1990, Norse 1990). Noss et al. (1995) reported that old-growth and other natural forests of all types throughout the eastern USA have declined by 98% or more. Of all countries, Canada lost the greatest amount of primary, natural (old-growth) forest between 2000 and 2014 representing 20% of global primary deforestation during that time (Beaudry 2019).”

“The most valuable portions of the remaining least-disturbed forested landscapes are old-growth forests (OGFs), which are important for the ecosystem services they provide including regulating services that help to maintain natural levels for climate (Luyssaert et al. 2008), floods, disease, wastes, and water quality; cultural services that provide scientific, educational, recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits; supporting services such as soil formation, photosynthesis, and nutrient cycling; and provisioning services such as food and water (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005).”

Dr. Peter Quinby

Over 100-year hemlock stand in Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Old-Growth Hemlock Forests

The Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is a very long-lived evergreen tree that is common in many of Ontario’s old-growth forests. It’s lifespan reaches well over 300 years and can achieve 900+ years. Hemlock often grows on steep ravine slopes, on lake shores and along creek-sides where it casts very deep shade, cooling streams so that cold-water fish such as brook trout can thrive. The eastern hemlock is considered a keystone species, providing numerous ecosystem services that include supporting biodiversity, controlling erosion and temperature, and filtering air and water.

Moss-covered hemlock base showing animal dens, Catchacoma, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
The Catchacoma hemlock old growth forest supports a biodiverse community of coniferous and deciduous trees and understory (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Maple and birch trees fill niches in the hemlock old-growth Catchacoma forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In addition to bringing critical shade for cooling of waters, the hemlock provides crucial food, shelter (and nesting sites), and habitat for over 96 species of birds, including songbirds, woodpeckers, and birds of prey. Some species were found to significantly decline with the disappearance of the hemlock. These include the hermit thrush and the wood thrush, black-throated green warbler, Blackburnian warbler, oven bird, blue-headed vireo, Acadian flycatcher, yellow-bellied sapsucker, pileated woodpecker, northern goshawk, red-shouldered hawk, long-eared owl, and saw-whet owl—just to name a few and most of which live in the Catchacoma hemlock forest.

Top: hermit thrush (image by American Bird Conservancy); Bottom: wood thrush (image by All About Birds, Cornell University)

The Forest’s Heavenly Songs

The heavenly songs of the hermit thrush and wood thrush are unparalleled in their soul-stirring beauty. Both rely on hemlock forests; they like open areas in coniferous and mixed forests, such as trails, pond edges and meadows. Both thrushes occupy the understory of forests and forage on small insects in the leaf litter of the forest floor. They may also eat a small amphibian or reptile and berries. Both hermit and wood thrush are sensitive to habitat fragmentation and require undisturbed forest. The hermit thrush uses the eastern hemlock for nesting and feeding, building their nests on the ground beneath young hemlocks and thrives in the abundance of insects and invertebrates in hemlock stands. The wood thrush nests in the lower branches of a sapling or shrub. Ideal habitat for the wood thrush includes trees over 50 feet tall, a moderate understory of saplings and shrubs, an open floor with moist soil and decaying leaf litter, and water nearby.   

Louisiana water thrush feeds on bottom-dwelling insects and crustaceans in cold-water streams of southern Ontario, and was recently reassessed from Special Concern to Threatened status because of the growing threat to eastern hemlock.

Moss-covered granite erratic in hemlock Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Hemlock OGF by Catchacoma Lake, ON (image from Quinby, 2020a)

The Catchacoma Old Growth Hemlock Forest

The old-growth hemlock mixed forest next to Catchacoma Lake in the Kawartha Highlands north of Peterborough contains some hemlocks as old as 350 years; and its slated for logging.

According to The Wilderness Committee, the mature eastern hemlock forest may be the largest known of its kind in all of Canada with dominant trees 150-350 years old. “New research is showing that this is potentially a very significant forest,” said Katie Krelove of the Wilderness Committee, which is pushing the province to turn the area into a conservation reserve. “Maybe it should not be logged.” 

Old moss-covered hemlock in Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Dr. Peter Quinby with Ancient Forest Exploration & Research writes that this forest meets all criteria for an “ancient forest landscape.” Quinby reports that 226 species are found in the area, including several species-at-risk such as the Algonquin wolf, cerulean warbler, eastern wood pee-wee, rusty blackbird, wood thrush, Blanding’s turtle, hog-nosed snake, five-lined skink, monarch butterfly, and the lichen Coenogonium pineti

The Wilderness Committee writes that “the 662-hectare Catchacoma forest located on crown land north of Catchacoma Lake and west of Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park was surveyed in 2019 and 2020 by ecologists with Ancient Forest Exploration & Research who reported significant conservation values, including rare mature and old-growth hemlock forest and habitat for several endangered species.

Moss-covered base of hemlock beside red maple tree, Catchacoma forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Following a 2008 field excursion, Stantec made the following observation: the “very high proportion [90%] of native [plant] species reflects the original character of the land cover and dominance of natural, high quality habitat, such as forests, swamps, and marshes in which the native species thrive.”

 Catchacoma Forest has “important ecological, scientific, educational, carbon-storing and recreational values and should be protected.”

Trail through old hemlocks in Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Hiking the Hemlock Old Growth Forest

We reached the trailhead off Highway 507 at lunch time. The trail was wide and fairly even in elevation. It began as a gravel road and eventually continued as a rough dirt path that exposed slabs of limestone. Very soon after we started on the trail, we entered a dense forest of over 20-metre (70 ft) tall hemlocks. Hemlock trees over 40 cm wide (DBH) towered above us in a mixed forest that included a diverse mix of conifer and deciduous trees. Red and white pine, some spruce and fir, white and yellow birch, basswood, poplar, hop hornbeam, red and sugar maple, and oak, both white and red.

Hemlock forest littered with mossy boulders, Catchacoma Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I strayed off the main path to take a picture of moss-covered granite and limestone boulders. Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) poked up their mountain-backs like stray hairs on a green carpet.  My feet sank into the spongy forest floor as I gingerly stepped to my photoshoot. The soft ground was covered in leaf litter, mosses, lichens and fungi. Wood ferns thrust up toward the light. A diverse underbrush of forbes and shrubs included wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), low sweet blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), and young hemlock saplings.

Living hemlock branch off dead log (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Polytrichum moss grows beside an old hemlock on the forest floor, Catchacoma forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Polytrichum sp. moss grows next to granite boulder, Catchacoma forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Wintergreen and moss on the forest floor, Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Wintergreen flowering among mosses on forest floor, Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I also found another old friend, the wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), forming a thick ground-cover with the ground moss by the trail. Friend Merridy pointed out a ‘giant’ plantain on the trail that was close to a foot high! When we looked it up, we found that Rugel’s Plantain typically grows up to 15 inches tall with 8-inch leaves in forests and woodlands.

Red squirrel on hemlock, Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

On one photo shoot, I scared up a whole family of young red squirrels. We counted five squirrels scurrying up the nearby hemlock. The squirrels then scolded me in a loud chitter, curious and angry at the same time—just like the red squirrel is.

When we reached a rocky outcrop and clearing in the dense forest, I heard the echoing flute notes of the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus). The outpouring of heaven’s light from this tiny creature sent my own heart soaring and filled me with joy. Soon after, the red-listed wood thrush (Hylocichla muselina) added its notes into a resonating chorus of ethereal beauty. On hearing them—they were both singing nearby at the same time—my whole body relaxed into a euphoric trance and I felt like I was in an old giant cathedral filled with heavenly arias.

The hermit thrush is a reclusive indistinct brown bird; yet its song—an echoing flute-trill—celebrates the forest like no other sound. It is a prayer to beauty, stirring one’s heart into celebration. The hermit thrush song is Nature’s hymn to the beauty of all life. They are the forest’s poets.

On a walk through the red pine forest of Petroglyph Park, I heard the hermit thrush for the first time. (I’ve since had the good fortune to hear this beautiful bird in the local cedar forest of Trent Nature Sanctuary several times). My reaction upon first hearing this bird was one of reverence:

“A hermit thrush offers its tender ode to the forest. A pure song that opens from a singular note into successive waves of pure light.”

On this auspicious day in the Catchacoma hemlock forest, I heard both the hermit thrush and the wood thrush singing together for the first time! Like a heavenly duet, these two birds produced a mellifluous symphony uniquely beautiful and heart-stirring. Their song is their gift to the world and heralds the beauty of the world.

Through their song, these thrushes (and I include the robin here, for it is also a thrush with a beautiful fluting song) also fulfill the herald archetype of catalyst. They enhance whatever stirs you at the moment. If you are sad, they might stir you to tears. If you are feeling joy, they will stir you into ecstasy. If you are neutral—of little mind and emotion—their song will stir you to feel deeply alive.   

In the same clearing, I then heard an old friend who I hadn’t heard in a long while: the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). Its hypnotically sweet and haunting Oh my Canada, Canada, Canada! was a song I listened to in the forested meadows of the Eastern Townships when I was doing my master of science research, years ago. Alas, where I currently live in Peterborough, these shy birds have become very rare.  

At the first sign of logging we turned back (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We walked on until we reached an area that had been logged. Both of us were too heartbroken to continue through this area, so we turned back. I pray that this sanctuary for so many birds and wildlife and other diverse life is not further logged. Even selective logging will fractionate the ecosystem to the detriment of many of its resident wildlife.

Old growth hemlock forest and Catchacoma Lake, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Proposed Logging of the Old Growth Hemlock Forest

The Bancroft Minden Forest Company holds logging rights in the area and plans to log several large blocks of the old growth. They counter that the area is not untouched old-growth, given that portions of the forest were already logged in 1988. They went on to suggest that they would be removing less robust trees and leaving healthy hemlocks, a practice that still creates disturbance that will affect the wildlife. Ian Dunn, president and CEO of the Ontario Forest Industries Association, contended in an email to The Narwhal that since human activity is already contributing to invasive species and increased wildfires, forests need the active management that comes with logging. “Forests depend on ecological succession and disturbance (natural or human) to maintain ecological integrity, reinforcing the need for more active management, not less,” he said to The Narwhal.

As an ecologist, I find this rhetoric misleading and hubristic, particularly for what it leaves out; given its source–the CEO of a logging association with an obvious mandate–this ‘appeasing’ language fails to hide a profit-agenda. When Dunn mentions the role of humans in ecological succession & disturbance and in the same breath, “the need for more active management, not less,” he is hubristically elevating human intelligence and knowledge over Nature’s wisdom and complexity. Our track record managing forests has not been stellar, particularly given the agendas of forest companies (to create timber for market) and the governments who support them. Clearcut logging right to a water course or with unacceptable riparian buffer is one example; mismanaging sediments and causing erosion from roads and other practices is another.

Forest engineers in the 1950s coined the term “decadent forest” to proclaim the natural state of a mature climax forest as diseased, undesirable and needing to be converted to young ‘thrifty’ plantations. Foresters used the term to vindicate logging practices that maximized timber productivity and did not consider ecosystem services provided by old-growth. Such a view is not only fraught with ecological error; it ignores (and disrespects) systems knowledge, ecological integrity and holistic forest health. This 1950s term and the mindset underlying it was still being taught and used by foresters in the 1980s and 1990s–I ran across it during my limnological consulting work in British Columbia from the 1990s through 2010. The words have changed and forest companies have adopted some appeasing rhetoric, but the practices seem to remain the same, with significant government-sanctioned gaps in biodiversity protection and looming species extinctions as a result.

I have too often seen the results of a management style driven by the simplicity of profit over the complexity of ecosystem health. The bottom line is that there is no good way to log old-growth forest. Not for the forest, anyway.

Nina Munteanu

The Narwhal reports that:

In its 10-year forest management plan released in 2021, the Bancroft Minden Forest Company labelled two blocks in the Catchacoma forest as “contingency,” which means they’re less likely to be logged. And in response to pressure from environmentalists, the Ontario government protected 19 hectares of old-growth from logging last year and placed a one-year moratorium on logging in all blocks of the forest, which expires in Sept. 2022, [ecologist Katie] Krelove [with The Wilderness Committee] said. But in a broader sense, protection remains a patchwork.

The Wilderness Committee is working with local community members and ecologists to pursue protection status for this rare ecosystem and its high conservation values including habitat for several species at risk. Write today to decision-makers to support protection for Catchacoma Forest. 

To find out more about ways to get involved or to get more information on what the Wilderness Committee is doing, email the SFSC through: Katie@wildernesscommittee.org. Find the latest AFER reports at: https://www.peterborougholdgrowth.ca/research-reports. The draft Forest Management Plan and how to submit comments can be found here: https://bit.ly/3tcdLxP.

Dicranium sp. moss on granite boulder erratic, Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Hemlock needles touching moss-covered log, Catchacoma forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Young red maple tree in front of mossy boulder in Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Base of red maple tree, covered in moss, Catchacoma forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)


Conlin, B., C. Dewar and P. Quinby. 2020. Species-at-risk in the Catchacoma Old-growth Forest Region, Peterborough County, Ontario. Research ReportIn-preparation, Ancient Forest Exploration & Research, Powassan & Peterborough, Ontario.

Dewar, C. 2019. Catchacoma Old-Growth Eastern Hemlock Forest based on 1987-20013 FRI data [Map]. Ancient Forest Exploration & Research. Powassan & Peterborough, Ontario.

Hosie, R.C. 1990. Native Trees of Canada, Eighth Edition. Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd. & Canadian Forest Service. Markham, Ontario.

Little, E. L. and A. A. Knopf. 1980. Eastern Hemlock. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region. Chanticleer Press, New York, New York.

Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF). 2018. Bancroft Minden Forest: Maps: Operations: Operations 1098 00. (accessed January 6, 2020).

Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and TD Bank Group. 2017. Putting a Value on the Ecosystem Services Provided by Forests in Canada: Case Studies on Natural Capital and Conservation. Nature Conservancy of Canada, Toronto, Ontario.  

Quinby, P. 2019a. “An Inventory of Documented Old-growth Eastern Hemlock Forests in Canada.” Forest Landscape Baselines No. 35, Ancient Forest Exploration & Research, Powassan & Peterborough, Ontario.

Quinby, P. 2019b. “Rare, Threatened and Endangered Forest Ecosystems in Ontario’s Temperate Forest Region.” Forest Landscape Baselines No. 34, Ancient Forest Exploration & Research, Powassan & Peterborough, Ontario.

Quinby, P. 2020a. “The Catchacoma Ancient Forest Landscape: An Initial Inventory of Species and Habitats.” Ancient Forest Exploration & Research. Research Report No. 39. 14pp.

Quinby, P. 2020b. “Mapping Old-Growth Forests in Northern Peterborough County, Ontario.” Ancient Forest Exploration & Research. Research Report No. 40. Powassan, Ontario. 26pp.

Stantec (Stantec Consulting Ltd.). 2008. “Kawartha Highlands Signature Site Park Access Road Study: Final Environmental Study Report.” Prepared for Ontario Parks, Ministry of Natural Resources, Peterborough, Ontario.

Moss-covered old hemlock tree in Catchacoma old growth forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

2 thoughts on “Walking Through Rare Old Growth Eastern Hemlock: Catchacoma Forest

  1. A magnificent article, very wise, very caring. the profit motive again shown as so very destructive and self serving… documented here, another attack on the beleaguered commons for the benefit of a powerful few.

    Liked by 1 person

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