Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site of Canada
The Attikamek Trail
South St. Marys Island.© Parks Canada / George Vandervlugt, Summer 2000
One of the northshore islands, anchored in the churning rapids which once drew many Ojibwa to its rich fishery, South St. Marys Island today reveals two faces: the intricate system of nature and the revolutionary engineering work created by the human mind.
Along the Attikamek Trail, evidence of the builders, operators, and protectors of the Sault Canal lies hidden among the trees and underbrush to which the island is returning.
South St. Marys Island, layered with tons of rock and debris during canal construction, has since developed a thin cover of soil where plant life has become re-established. A cement foundation and other remains of military encampments can be seen. During The First World War the new 51st Infantry Regiment guarded the canal from possible sabotage while ships, forwarding vital war supplies, continued through the locks. During The Second World War, American servicemen joined the defensive efforts and a military camp was constructed to accommodate them.
Change can produce unexpected results. Where the landscape has been disturbed, different plants better adapted to the new light, moisture and soil conditions moved in. They bring with them a range of animals and insects that favour these plants for food, shelter or protection.
The umbrella-shaped blooms of small white flowers identify the Yarrow plant, once used by the Ojibwa as a medicinal poultice. Thrown upon coals to produce smoke, it was also inhaled to break a fever. Close to the ground, the Common Strawberry flourishes, providing summer snacks for a host of small animals. On the wind, you'll catch the sweet and soothing scent of the Balsam Poplar trees that are the favourite harvest of the local beaver population.
Rise and Fall
10,000 Years ago
The red Jacobsville sandstone bedrock underlying the St. Marys River is still rebounding gradually upwards, released from the overwhelming weight of the ice of the last glaciation. The huge boulders called "erratics" in the stream below were left behind as the glaciers melted. The streamlet was dammed in 1888 and the dike upon which the trail rests was raised to provide the necessary headwater for power generation.
Whitefish© Parks Canada
Whitefish Channel, now a fish sanctuary, offers ideal spawning grounds for smelt in the spring, and salmon and whitefish in the fall. This stream duplicates in miniature the conditions, which have made the St. Marys rapids such a favoured fish habitat. The cold water becomes oxygenated as it tumbles around the rocks of the stream bed.
Further along the trail, a man-made stream bed was created in an attempt to encourage fish spawning: contrast its sterility with the varied plant and animal life of this natural watercourse.
Dipping for whitefish in the rapids - 1907.© Parks Canada / 1907
"Attikamek" for which this trail is named is the Ojibwa word for whitefish and means "caribou of the waters." Ojibwa fishermen came from miles around to harvest this bountiful food source. Fishing was done by dipping nets in the rushing waters while skilfully manoeuvring birchbark canoes among the eddies and pools of the rapids.
Chockecherries© Parks Canada
The cranberry, chokecherry, hawthorn and other fruit-bearing shrubs which border the trail, provide food and protection for the birds, small animals and insects which thrive in this rural oasis. Bristling with 2.8 cm thorns, the hawthorns often conceal the nests of birds taking advantage of the natural armament to discourage predation of their eggs and young.
Wasteland or Wetland
As Canada's natural areas are developed, harvested or plowed under, wetlands are too often major casualties. Our wetlands support a rich diversity of plant and animal life and play a role in filtering pollutants from the water. Common garter snakes and American toads can be found making their way among the Spotted Joe Pye weed and blue flag iris.
Wildlife© Parks Canada / George Vandervlugt, Summer 2000
Beaver can alter the environment to suit their needs. Here in the channel, beavers built a dam to raise the water level to a depth sufficient for the construction of their lodge, and for the caching of a winter food supply below the frozen surface of the water. The beaver have now moved farther upstream. An active lodge, food cache and evidence of their handiwork in the felled trees in the surrounding woods can be seen.
Edge of the St. Marys
Canada Geese© Parks Canada / Richard Draycott, June 1982
Wildlife benefits from the natural habitats protected on this island. Its southern shoreline and adjacent waters support a variety of birds and animals.
A blue kingfisher waits patiently on an overhanging branch, searching for a glint of fin or scale below the water's surface to launch it on a lightning-quick plunge for a tasty meal of fish. Mink patrol the shoreline and shallows hunting for frogs, snakes, mice and muskrat.
Expert swimmers, mink often take up residence in abandoned beaver dens or muskrat burrows. In and near the rapids, the unpredictable dives and magical re-appearances of common mergansers, as they hunt for fish below the surface, keep watchers from the shore guessing where they'll pop up next!
The St. Marys River is the water link between Lake Superior to the west and Lake Huron to the east.© Parks Canada / Richard Draycott, August 1978
Early explorers and fur traders were forced to portage their supply-laden canoes around these turbulent waters. The St. Marys River Rapids remained an obstacle for vessels entering and returning from Lake Superior until the construction of the first canals.
The shallow oxygenated waters of the rapids make this a productive aquatic ecosystem. The native whitefish, trout, perch and pike, along with the more recently introduced species of salmon, feed on the larvae of caddisflies and mayflies.