Heaven in the Valley

By Heather Sutherland, Barry's Bay this Week, Daily Observer

Wayne Campbell, Shaw Woods Outdoor Education Centre website chair, demonstrates how to use a QR code on one of the Shaw Woods west side trail’s stopping points.

Wayne Campbell, Shaw Woods Outdoor Education Centre website chair, demonstrates how to use a QR code on one of the Shaw Woods west side trail’s stopping points.

Recent improvements at the Shaw Woods are making local natural history much more accessible to the public.

The construction of boardwalks, levelling of the trails and creation of a visitor guide have made the four kilometres of free interpretive trails an educational and beautiful hike for visitors.

The Shaw Woods are located 20 minutes south of Pembroke at 2065 Bulger Road, off of Highway 41. Settled and still owned by the Shaw family, the over 600 acres of property host a variety of natural features, including 120 acres of old growth forest that have never been logged.

The Shaw Woods Outdoor Education Centre Inc. leases the woods from the family and is working to provide an opportunity for everyone – and especially youth – to come to the site and become more knowledgeable of the natural environment, says board chair Wayne Remus. He says the second part of the mandate is to have the opportunity to teach people about sustainable forestry (through the pine plantation section of the woods). “We can teach people that when forests are well managed, there is a benefit to the environment,” he says.

He explains the original stimulus for the whole project – which will eventually include an outdoor education centre – came from the Renfrew County Stewardship Council looking for a local permanent site to host the high school nature competition, Envirothon. “The idea of an education centre came out of having a centre in Renfrew County to direct the Envirothon activities,” he says.

Previously, the Shaws had an agreement with National Conservancy of Canada and the National Museum of Natural Science that allowed people access to the woods. This agreement expired a few years ago. The new interested people asked these organizations if they’d like to continue their partnership, and after they declined, Remus says they formed their own board of directors to “keep the governance local,” he says.

The board consists of many parties besides interested citizens such as representatives from all four local school boards, Algonquin College, the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, Renfrew County, the Shaw family, the Ministry of Natural Resources and others.

“It’s totally volunteer and community-based,” Remus says.

Remus notes it’s very important to the Shaw family that the property be maintained in its original state, which the group is doing through work such as the improvements.Grant Dobson, trails/site chair, says as an example, this summer workers installed about 220 feet of boardwalk through wetlands sections, which are more sensitive environments. Having the boardwalks will direct the hiker traffic and, therefore, take the stress off those sections, he says.

Money for the new improvements came partially from a Renfrew County Community Futures Development Corporation grant ($28,000) with the organization needing to contribute $39,500 on its own.

As a charitable organization that’s able to give receipts, treasurer Carol Campbell says most of the organization’s portion came from donations.

The money was divided into three sections: the hiring of an intern to work the trails this past summer; for promotion, communication and publications; and for materials.

Remus notes to start off, the Renfrew County Stewardship Council gave them $10,000, which allowed them to become incorporated and get things started.

Volunteer workers, Ontario and Stewardship Rangers and the intern helped complete the work this summer.

Now, visitors can travel the west side trails and follow the visitor’s guide that Dobson says “gives people a glimpse into what an old forest is.”

He adds, “It shows the highlights and what to look for.”

More information and the guide are also available for download to a tablet or to be printed at home on the organization’s website,

Website chair Wayne Campbell notes a great feature of the trail system is also the interactive QR codes on the stopping point markers. People with smart phones can scan the code and get access to information about that stopping point with text and videos.

Dobson points out the site is an excellent educational spot, especially for the targeted youth and school groups, due to its central location in the county as well as the wide range of biodiversity.

“The Shaw Woods have the highest biodiversity in Canada,” he says.

He says this is due to the fact the site is in the middle of two ecological zones – the Carolinian and Boreal zones – which allows for an intermixing of species. He adds the woods also have many rare species and many different features from wetlands to forests to a cliff to a river.

Once the education centre is up and running – which Dobson says he’s hopeful a curriculum-based pilot project will be ready for spring 2013 – the woods will offer even more learning opportunities, as Renfrew County does not have an outdoor centre.

Also, by the end of 2012 another 3.5 kilometres along the east side of the site (which includes about 500 acres of land) will open up another trail system for visitors. They are also working on an interpretive water trail on the Snake River. The east side trails also include an already-built lookout on the cliff overlooking Shaws Pond, which could be used by stargazers or as an outdoor classroom.

With the work that’s been done and to come, the woods are quickly becoming an excellent outdoor educational space. Remus says this is really important to the board, especially to attract young people, because people are losing touch with nature. “I think people think because we live in Renfrew County and it’s rural, that kids are automatically involved with nature,” he says. “But many aren’t.”

Dobson adds for him, it’s just an overall great experience. “I love the smells in this forest,” he says, walking along one of the trails. “It’s a sense that people don’t get to experience a lot nowadays.”

Heather Sutherland is staff reporter at Barry’s Bay This Week. 

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