A Walk to the Falls
It isn’t far from Minipi Lake Lodge to the Falls, but it’s a most interesting ramble. There’s a lot to see and learn here about this northern black spruce ecosystem. Just keep your eyes open and listen to your guide.
This is a landscape shaped by fire, something that becomes obvious as soon as you set off across the sandy hills by the Lodge. There are hardly any spruce here. The low-growing, bushy northern birch is the dominant plant with patches of blueberry and caribou lichen interspersed. Look for bear, wolf and moose tracks in the damper sections. A fire burned through here in 1950, the result of a plane crash visible just to the west. This wasn’t a very big burn but was large enough to create an open strip that helped as a firebreak to hold back a much larger fire in 1999.
As you climb, you enter the more recent burn. There are lots of dead standing trunks and fallen, twisted logs and stumps. Northern birch and blueberries have begun to fill in along with the white-flowered, leathery Labrador tea and Kalmia (sheep’s laurel). There are patches of an attractive little lichen called “British soldiers”, certainly a reference to the ranks of characteristic small red growths that form the plant. There are many kinds of berries too. In one sandy hollow the trail goes past several magnaberry or whiteberry plants. These red-stemmed vines spread over an area of a square meter or more, and are quite distinctive and attractive.
From the height of land through the burnt forest you can see the full extent and impact of the 1999 fire. Probably started by lightning, it came from the west and traveled more than 30 miles across the hills before dying out a few miles to the east on the shores of Minipi Lake. It took a valiant effort to save the Lodge. Water bombers, professional forest fire fighters, and Minipi guides all played a role in that. Here and there you can still find holes where they had to dig out smoldering hot spots that remained in the fire’s wake.
Though the track of the fire is evident everywhere you look, unburned stands of spruce and balsam fir can also be seen. This forest was protected in large part by its locally damper surroundings in bogs and river valleys. These stands are the source of seedlings that will eventually re-forest the burned over areas. But it takes along, long time.
The path comes into a major unburned region as you begin to descend into the Minipi River valley. The river here, the outlet of the Minipi system, has cut through a rocky ridge to form a series of strong rapids and falls that leads to the deep gorge. Sand substrate gives way to moss-covered scree. The growth is luxuriant and the forest is thick, no doubt fed by springs through the rocks from the sand above. Mind your step on the 200’ descent. Things can be slippery.
The flora here is very different. There are ferns, trout lilies, bakeapples (a tiny golden raspberry) and the ubiquitous sphagnum moss. In one small flat area we came across a patch of horsetails, an ancient plant that harks back to the Carboniferous era.
And then there’s the Falls. The entire Minipi watershed drains across this set of impressive rocky ledges. Despite the overall strength of the cataract it is possible to pick out little side channels and steps in the rock where leaping fish might ascend. But it is probably unlikely that fish from below the Falls contribute much to the populations of the lakes and short river sections of the Minipi system proper. If that happened regularly, we might expect ouananiche (landlocked Atlantic salmon) to appear in the watershed, but they never have.
Still we hardly know anything about the fauna and ecology of the river below the region of the Falls. That’s a story that will have to remain for some future time.