February 18, 2016 – The icy grasp of winter has been relatively mild this year – but even in the mildest of years, the snows and cold temperatures are still sure to make themselves known. The temptation to stay cozy and warm indoors with a hot cup of coffee is very strong – but take that coffee to go, cover yourself properly in warm winter clothing, and throw on those thick socks and boots! There is a winter wonderland awaiting you outdoors, and its name is Sixteen Mile Creek.
Click here to be directed to the main page, with a list and map of ideal parking areas and bus stops.
If you live in Oakville, chances are you have spent at least some time visiting or admiring Sixteen Mile Creek, even if you didn’t know it by its name. The creek and its massive valley stretch through rural, suburban and urban Oakville, from where Fourth Line meets Highway 407, wrapping around west and south through Glenorchy Conservation Area, down through Lions Valley Park between Proudfoot Trail and Neyagawa Boulevard, careening past several golf courses along the way south (Oakville Executive Golf Course, Rattlesnake Point Golf Club, Glen Abbey Golf Club, and Oakville Golf Club), flowing around the bend past the Oakville GO Station and out the Oakville waterfront between Tannery Park and Lakeside Park. Sixteen Mile Creek is widely appreciated and very accessible, no matter what the season!
If you can make it up to Lions Valley Park – whether by car, bus, or on-foot – you will find an extensive trail system to hike, trailing a beautiful, surprisingly natural valley that shuts out the surrounding world. A great many plants, birds, fish, insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals live in and around this valley system. One of the first wildlife signs you will likely clue in on are a unique reward to the winter adventurer: snow tracks! Scattered across the trails, trailsides and the creek itself are a profusion of boot, paw, foot and feather marks, each holding tell-tale secrets about its owner – if you have a keen eye!
In Oakville, we are lucky to be able to share our nature sanctuaries with a wide variety of animals. However, the vast majority of animals have a healthy fear of humans – a vitally important instinct that keeps them safely glued to their valley home, preventing them from getting hit on roads, and stopping them from becoming a nuisance to nearby residents. Many are also crepuscular (active during twilight) or nocturnal (active at night), beginning their nightly activities long after visitors have left the trails, which works out to be another safety feature for them. When walking alongside the creek from the Lions Valley Park trailhead after a fresh snow, you can see traces of the secret lives of our animals – from the trudging of Muskrats along the frozen shoreline, to the bounding of Grey Squirrels and Eastern Cottontail rabbits, to the tiny scampering trails of a Deermouse and the dignified trot of a Red Fox. With a sharp eye, the vital signs of the winter forest come alive, hinting at the secret dynamics of forest life in a way is impossible to see during the summer.
On a sunny winter’s day, perhaps the easiest way to find live animals is to keep quiet and listen closely to the sounds around you. Even if you cannot identify them, the songs, calls and chatter of birds and squirrels will show you where to look. With practice (and helpful binoculars), you’ll be able to home in on these cheerful day-active animals. The best strategy is to just enjoy the walk while staying aware of the sights and sounds around you. 9 times out of 10, the most interesting sightings on a hike happen when you were least expecting them!
The trail system connected throughout Lions Valley Park extends south to Upper Middle Road West on both sides of the creek, but the experience on each side is very different. Where the northeast side spends a lot of time down low, following close to the creek channel amid the lowland moist forests and swampy and marshy fringes of the creek, the southwest side mostly follows the upper valley ridge. This diversity of habitat regions makes for a fascinating walk – but more importantly, showcases some of the crucial habitat that makes the valley so important on our landscape.
If you look beside the rushing waters fringed with ice sheets, the tan, brown and straw-coloured tufts and thickets of creek-side marsh, meadow marsh, swamp and floodplain forest stick out haphazardly amongst the carpet of snow. Their drab winter colours bely the massive importance they have on the landscape. The wetlands and lowland forests in a creek’s floodplain are, in some ways, more important to the regional ecology than the creek itself. Marshes (dominated by non-woody plants) and swamps (dominated by shrubs and trees) are some of our most diverse and productive ecosystems, housing huge numbers of plants and providing necessary habitat and breeding areas for insects, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, all while filtering water and moderating water flow and retention. Winter is a low-activity time for most plants, as well as animals like turtles and frogs that go dormant for the winter, but don’t think that the winter stops everything! Even under the ice, aquatic insects and even small fish continue to live out their lives – as evidenced by the Belted Kingfishers who raid open-water sections of stream even in February. Above the ice, birds and mammals like the Muskrat and American Mink follow the shores and ice sheets as they search for food. Life around the frigid February waters doesn’t stop because of a little chill! Nature has a way of making the most out of all seasons.
Rising out of the lowlands, there are some breathtaking views as you reach the trails that follow the top ridges of the valley, especially northeast side of the valley. Here, among the hilltop White Pines, the rushing creek is framed by a cradle of trees, shale and snow on all sides, apparently oblivious to the neighbouring human landscape.
The blanket of snow coating the forest floor is not only scenic, but functional; snow is a natural insulator, protecting dormant plants and tunneling animals from the full chill of winter. Under a thick layer of snow, temperatures at the soil surface are not just more stable, but they can be very close 0°C even when air temperatures plummet far below that mark. Furthermore, for small animals like mice, tunneling under snow is the perfect way to get around without being seen by predators. These advantages of snow make winter much easier on plants, small mammals and insects, even though thicker snow gives us more work to do with shoveling, snow-blowing and plowing.
The hilltop trails wind around the top of the valley ridge before dipping down to give the option of crossing the river, and continuing up the southwest side. From here, the valley trail is often set-back onto the tops of small ravine ridges that feed down into the valley more gradually than some of the cliffs they face on the opposing side. The forests on the slopes that are strongly north-facing are great places to find dense patches of slow-growing Eastern Hemlock trees, which love slightly-cooler slopes. Although guilty of occasionally “blocking the view” through the bare deciduous trees, dense patches of these evergreens are important shelter (especially in winter) for animals like owls.
At the end of the day, no matter what side you come from, Sixteen Mile Creek is sure to provide a breath of fresh air, and a relaxing break from the stresses and congestion of city life. Make sure to put those trails to good use – Sixteen Mile Creek valley is naturally yours, at all times of the year!