One of Southern Ontario’s most unique and interesting landforms is the Wainfleet Bog. The bog once stretched from the Grand River to Willoughby Marsh, and covered more than 20,000 hectares (approximately 50,000 acres) of land. This covered what are now the cities of Wainfleet and Port Colborne right to the edge of Niagara Falls. 80 years of peat extraction has shrunk the Wainfleet Bog to only 1,460 hectares (3,607 acres). It’s still the largest, least disturbed bog in southern Ontario.
The bog has become smaller over the years because peat mining operations ran from the 1920s to the 1980s. Mining operations created ditches across the bog as a way to drain water for easier access to the peat.
A lot of agricultural land was created this way as there is farmland surrounding most of the bog and even a stone quarry that butts up against it.
During the American Prohibition of alcohol, the bog was used by booze runners. Since few people inhabited the bog, the distinctive smell of distilling alcohol went unnoticed. The stills used to create alcohol were built on wheels and simply rolled into the deep ponds in the bog to keep them hidden when not in use. Alcohol distilled in the Wainfleet bog was run out of Port Colborne across Lake Erie into the United States for sale at speakeasies.
During World War II, a Prisoner of War camp was built at the end of Erie Peat Road. It held 50 P.O.W.’s who were merchant marine sailors on German boats who were picked up in Canadian waters when war broke out. Their job was to mine peat moss.
In the year 2000 preparations began to help turn the bog back into it’s original state. This included filling of ditches to keep water on-site, and ensuring the land will be preserved.
I visited the peat bog with my team in early summer of 2013. The long, and aptly named Erie Peat Road led to a small parking area. There were no other cars. The asphalt was scorching hot and I had to keep moving in order not to get my feet burned.
Heading onto the grass, I took a brief look at the sign, there is only one, easy trail system here. A large T-shaped trail. It sounded easy enough to follow. There was little evidence of any prisoner of war camps, or gangster activity. It just looked like woods.
Stepping into the woods, We were surprised to see a young deer! We snapped a photo, and then the deer took off deep into the woods.
Examining the area, it was quick to see evidence of mining operations that had taken place here in recent history. Beside the main (and only) trail that led off into the peat bog were a series of old railroad tracks. These tracks were much smaller than conventional railroad tracks. Most likely they carried ore carts filled with freshly dug peat moss for processing.
Heading deeper into the bog, something very strange was apparent – the ground was spongy. Each time one of us took a step, the ground sunk down, and then popped up. This was especially evident with some of the heavier members of the team.
The air in the bog was thick and moist. It felt like being in a southern jungle. Although it was over 20C, the ground squished up moisture with each step.
A few hundred metres down the path, a break in the tree-line could be seen. At the base of this tree-line was a very long and narrow rail path. Out of curiosity, we headed up the rail path.
The water in the bog was thick. So thick it looked like asphalt. If I had not known it was a pool, I might have tried to take a step on it.
At some point someone had taken the time to put some planks over the rail lines to make it easier to walk on. The boards were old and weather beaten. There were quite a few old nails sticking up, and the boards were uneven. We had to pay close attention to where we stepped to avoid taking a dip.
The narrow rails took us deep into the conservation area. There was little shade, except for a few birch trees which flourish in this environment. We checked the trees for evidence of Chaga Mushrooms, but there were none to be found.
After about 1/2hr of plodding through the damp, moist ground, scortching sun, and tick infested areas, we came to the end of the trail system. What lay before us was simply more overgrown railroad tracks, and more dense, boggy woods. This would bring an end to the exploration of the bog for today.
There are many other areas of the bog to explore, including some burnt-out areas from a large fire that burned here for several weeks. There are also potentially still more hidden ruins from bygone days when the bog was an important part of the culture and industry of the area.
Be careful when traversing the bog, as straying from the railroad path can land you in some deep muck, as well as damage the slowly restoring ecosystem.
A bog is a fascinating ecosystem to explore. If you are not used to the ground squish, it’s an interesting sensation. The heat and high humidity made travelling through the bog a challenge. There are many unique species which call the Wainfleet bog home including the Massassauga Rattlesnake, turtles, and salamanders. There are also Plants like the carnivorous sun dew, Labrador tea, cotton grass, leatherleaf. sheep laurel, and blueberry.