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The Pinhey sand dunes. Photo: National Capital Commission.

613 Geotours: The Beach In the Forest

By Bruce Burwell on June 29, 2020

Last week we introduced 613 Geotours – places that will give you a chance to take a staycation day trip to a place of local geological or geographic interest. This week we’re on the Ottawa side of the river.

Let’s say your entourage can’t make up its collective mind about what kind of natural area you’d like to visit on your geotour. Some want to go for a hike down a trail in a forest. Some want to go and play in the sand at a local beach. Some would rather just stock up at a Costco. Well, this week’s geotour destination may just satisfy all those desires!

Learn about the dunes before you go exploring. Photo: National Capital Commission.

Just south and a little west of the big box stores of Merivale and Hunt Club lie the Pinhey Forest Dunes. So after you’ve hit the stores, you can hit the trails and dunes.

Once you’ve parked at NCC lot P15 on Slack Road, you’ll see a red pine plantation over top of sandy soil. The dunes are a short stroll away. Walk down Trail 32, take off your sandals, and run your tootsies through the cool sand.

So why is there a beach in suburban Ottawa? Like a lot of local geography, the answer goes back to the most recent glaciation, about 10,000 to 13,000 years ago. At the height of the glaciation, this area was covered in about two kilometres of ice. That much ice weighs a lot and it actually compressed the underlying rocks down to below sea level. All that ice kept the ocean from covering the area, but when the ice began to melt, the ocean started to rush in and the rocks slowly began to rise. The influx of water formed a temporary salty “sea” that covered a huge part of what today are the Ottawa and St. Lawrence river valleys. And, as happens in a lot of seas, wind and wave action formed beaches and sand dunes. Eventually the land rose up to its current level of about 70 meters above sea level and the salt water was replaced by fresh water from the melting glaciers. But the dunes remained.

The dunes. Photo: National Capital Commission.

Fast-forward to the 1950s and there was a good-sized area of sand dunes here. If it had been preserved as it was then, it could have been an absolutely amazing local park or reserve. But sadly, most of the area was planted with pines and the dunes disappeared below the trees and needles.

An area being restored. Photo: quietfish / Instagram.

More recently though, a very small section (about 2 per cent) of the original dunes has been restored to its 1950s condition. Apart from history and aesthetics, the goal was to provide an environment where plants and animals that were native to the dunes could survive. During your visit to the dunes, you may see roped-off areas that are protecting those plants and animals.

After your dune visit, make sure to hike around Trail 32 and try to imagine what this whole area could have looked like if it had been preserved in its pre-’50s state.

Trail 32. Photo: ottawaonoutdoors / Instagram.

Any suggestions for future geological or geographical day trips around the 613? Let us know in the comments. Come on back next week for another 613 Geotour.