MHC Heritage Diary - Episode 10 - North Bay's Natural Landscape

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In this episode, MHC Chair, Peter Handley speaks with Roy Summers about North Bay’s natural landscape. Summers is skilled in geology, geomorphology and geographic information systems and he shares his work in all three fields with Handley. Summers and Handley discuss the Ottawa Bonnechere Graben, the two fault lines in North Bay as well as other prominent natural features in the area. For copies of the maps that Summers and Handley address in the podcast, head to www.cityofnorthbay.ca/heritage

Peter Handley:
During this Roy Summers Podcast discussing the geology and geomorphology of the city of North Bay, Roy refers to a number of mops and we talk about them, and these maps are available at www.cityofnorthbay.ca/heritage.

Hi there and good day! Welcome to North Bay's Heritage Diary. Listen up and we shall weave for you days of times gone by, which can inform today and show the way to tomorrow. This Municipal Heritage Committee podcast looks at our town, our people and our stories. This time we open the diary of our shared past and take a look at a gentleman by the name of Roy Summers who was with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and Road Design for 35 years. He’s skilled in geology, geomorphology (we’ll talk about that) maps, old roads, the outdoors, canoeing the Lavase and so on and so forth. It's never ending. Roy, one of North-based most prominent landscape features as the escarpment. Can you give us up a very brief idea of the geological history of this particular area?

Roy Summers:
Sure.

Peter Handley:
Roy’s got a bunch of maps with him. You’re interested in maps. Do you make maps yourself?

Roy Summers:
I do. I have my own GIS system.

Peter Handley:
What’s a GIS system?

Roy Summers:
GIS - geographical information system. It’s relatively new. I became very knowledgeable computers and did programming for them and I knew how to make maps and take maps from 1883 and make it come to today’s coordinates. By the time I’m finished I can pretty much guarantee that I’m within ten metres.

Peter Handley:
Wow. That’s skill. Okay. What about this whole escarpment business… was it part of the last Ice Age?

Roy Summers:
It was part of it. This I got off GeoTours put on by the Federal government and one of them is in Perry Sound.

Peter Handley:
What’s a GeoTour, Roy?

Roy Summers:
A GeoTour is something that was put on by the Ontario and Federal Government and they did Perry Sound. Somehow they skipped North Bay. But North Bay and Perry Sound are in the same geographical area. It’s called a gneiss belt.

Peter Handley:
Spelt G-N-E-I-S-S?

Roy Summers:
Yes. So this is the Canadian Shield. It shows us more related to what we’re talking about – cottage country. Okay we’re talking North of Barrie, south of here. Okay, so what you mentioned was Bill Steer’s blurb about me talking about fantastic rocks.

Peter Handley:
Yes, that’s the one right outside of City Hall here.

Roy Summers:
Okay, here's what happened: the gneiss that covers Muskoka also covers North Bay. It’s contorted into folds because the mountain valley building began 1.1 billion years ago. So this rock here is old. It’s between 4.5 and 3 billion years old at this point. This mountain building was called the Grenville Orogeny. Those mountains were 30 km deep over here. When you get rock riding over us which actually was Africa, tremendous heat and pressure pushes ground and fractures everything. There’s tectonic power that’s moving these things in the internal core and takes stuff like plasticine or pudding and you can actually see down below here. All of North Bay is like that.

So this is what it looks like today.

Peter Handley:
It's fairly flat in terms of how it used to be. Is that any reason why around North Bay we don't have any valuable minerals? I mean north of here we’ve silver, we’ve got gold, but around here. There never was much mining was there?

Roy Summers: No, because it wasn’t commercially desired. Gold, silver – that’s typical of the Canadian Shield but not in large enough quantities. The Manitous over there was mined for Uranium. Nothing really came of it. But, it was good for me, because I knew how to survey so I put myself through school by staking the claims for people.

Peter Handley:
Okay now the last Ice Age then wore all that down right?

Roy Summers:
Yes, 35 kilometres down. But, there’s still parts of it left. I brought this here.

Peter Handley:
This is a map of the present-day Great Lakes 14,000 years ago and the glacier…‘Imagining an Ice Age.’ 14,000 years – that’s just a mere flick in time.

Roy Summers:
It is for me, I just learned what 81 years is like.

Peter Handley:
Okay, so the Ice Age basically eroded everything here right?

Roy Summers:
Ice Ages are really funny.

Peter Handley:
We could go into another Ice Age could we? We’re talking about really warming up now, but the earth has always done that hasn't it Roy?

Roy Summers:
Yes it has and we’re overdue. So, enjoy the hot weather while you have a chance.

Peter Handley:
But were talking millions of years now.

Roy Summers:
Yes and we’re overdue by about 10,000 years.

Peter Handley:
For what?

Roy Summers:
The next Ice Age.

Peter Handley:
Oh you’re talking Ice Age!

Roy Summers:
The Ice Age actually, there have been four distinct ones. The last one we had was Laurentide.

Peter Handley:
That’s the one that was 10-14,000 years ago.

Roy Summers:
When ice comes it goes ahead and starts piling up. It piled up at the head of Hudson’s Bay. It piled up 3 km there. Now when Ice gets more than 30 metres up, it flows just like water even though its frozen.

Peter Handley:
On top or underneath?

Roy Summers:
Underneath. There’s pressure and it flows. Then it’s moving as much as half a kilometer. So it picks up rocks and becomes a great piece of sandpaper. It starts bulldozing and as it’s going, it bulldozes the back of the hill and that becomes fairly smooth, but then, it picks up rocks and grinds everything off. As it comes over the hill, it reaches the next set of rocks, freezes on them and then pushes them down. That’s when you’d get blocks and you can see how this advances. Anyway, we can’t imagine. We have no idea. Anyway, it stopped 18,000 years ago, that’s when it started to retreat. It started to leave Lake Nipissing itself about 12,000 years ago. At that time, the water over North Bay was about 600 feet deep.

Peter Handley:
So you’re telling me that where we’re sitting now was six hundred feet below? That's hard to believe. I can’t even put my mind to it. Although you had all these other maps which showed what was ground down by the Ice Age.

Roy Summers:
That one was 35 kilometres deep. The one that pushed us down 655 feet was only 200 kilometres deep. Okay, now if you take a look at where you and Pam live (Cedar Heights) I’d say you’re about 220 metres in elevation. On top of Laurentian Ski Hill is probably about 30. Just beyond the airport is about 328 metres. That is very deep. So, there was fresh water in that, it was called Lake Algonquin and the other side of it was on the other side of Wisconsin.

Peter Handley:
Okay, so we sit in a huge in-land freshwater sea?

Roy Summers:
That’s correct. The sea was full of Rock Flour. There is no cohesion to it, so it sinks with all this water. So the very first thing that settles down here is called quick clay and you can actually sink in it like quicksand. All that comes down like a big rainfall as the icebergs cap. Sometimes there are great big bunches of rocks that gather but mostly its all that.

Peter Handley:
So that’s where the clay belt came from?

Roy Summers:
No, we haven’t got that far yet.

Peter Handley:
Oh, okay.

Roy Summers:
So if we’re talking the clay belt here in North Bay, the one in North Bay has a particular problem. The problem is due to our clay. It has no cohesion.

Peter Handley:
It doesn’t stick together.

Roy Summers:
That’s the first thing. Now, when it was doing that, it all flowed out down the Petawawa River. Petawawa at that time was actually ocean.

Peter Handley:
Let me distract you, just for a second. This is what I was told years and years and years ago: We’re on a fault line here in North Bay right? Two of them. Is that the result of all the stuff that you're talking about?

Roy Summers:
Partially. See, like Parry Sound, which also had a Grenville Orogeny that had been ground down over a million years. It also had a graben. Graben is the German word for ‘big ditch’.

Peter Handley:
Okay, so when you say rift valley we think of South Africa. The Great Rift Valley in South Africa. So, the same kind of thing on a smaller scale?

Roy Summers:
It’s the same thing. Here’s a picture of where the Ottawa Graben is. So, all of a sudden we go to Parry Sound and have this. We have a Grenville Orogeny. It was about 1.1 billion years ago. 500 million years ago or half a billion years ago, this thing came across. This thing is 40 to 50 km wide. This is the Ottawa Bonnechere Graben – Nipissing is dead in the middle of it and North Bay is here at the top.

Peter Handley:
Okay so you’ve got what you call a Mattawa Fault and the Petawawa Fault.

Roy Summers:
The Mattawa Fault goes right there on the corner. Okay. This area dropped down 1 kilometre. It has since been filled up so now it’s about 400 metres deep.

Peter Handley:
And what about the Petawawa Fault? And what’s this in the middle? That’s the graben? The rift valley you’re talking about?

Roy Summers:
So this is where it dropped the stuff and this is actually the Champlain Sea. The Champlain Sea was the Atlantic Ocean because everything that was pushed down flowed in there. This became salt water. This is not – this is the ground.

Peter Handley:
Okay.

Roy Summers:
Okay so 175,000 years ago, it went up the Ottawa River. Now we have the Petawawa Fault here. Our water first flowed through here. That dropped the water from about 600 feet to about 400 feet. If we come up here to Lake Nipissing, at that point it was nothing more than a bay. So, about 452 million years ago it provided the spillway for glacial mountain waters. These glacial mountain waters actually started on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains, if you can believe it.

Peter Handley:
Good Lord.

Roy Summers:
So at this point, there were two ice dams. One right at Mattawa and the other here. That let go. All of a sudden, on Lake Algonquin, the ice dams gave out. All of a sudden the water here dropped 400 feet and sorted all the water in the Great Lakes leaving six little lakes.

Peter Handley:
Leaving the Great Lakes.

Roy Summers:
Yes.

Peter Handley:
And Lake Nipissing too?

Roy Summers:
No, Lake Nipissing was part of it. Lake Nipissing was always a thing. Until between 10,000 years ago and 4700 years ago, all the water Great Lakes and all the Prairie Provinces flowed through here.

Peter Handley:
So is Lake Nipissing then older than the Great Lakes?

Roy Summers:
Oh yes.

Peter Handley:
Okay.

Roy Summers:
It was there. Lake Nipissing was just a shore of the Great Lakes.

Peter Handley:
Okay, so we don't have much seismic activity along these two faults anymore?

Roy Summers:
There’s still seismic activity.

Peter Handley:
But what? I mean we recently had one in California - 6.2 or something like that. What would ours be like?

Roy Summers:
The last one we had was in 2000.

Peter Handley:
Okay and what would it be roughly? Would it be a 3 or 4?

Roy Summers:
I think it was a 5.

Peter Handley:
5? Okay. That’s scary.

Roy Summers:
Well it happens every day. We just don’t feel it. Most of it happens where the old rock is still satisfied. Like over on the Ottawa River. In ‘35 there was another one. We actually had one last year which was 3.5. That one was caused by blasting in Sudbury.

Peter Handley:
Really?

Roy Summers:
Yes, it was in the paper.

Peter Handley:
Wow. Okay, so what you’ve got Roy on this Mattawa-Petawawa Fault map it shows basically on the shores around Lake Nipissing you’ve got what you’re calling volcanic pipes.

Roy Summers:
Yes, they were volcanic and they actually came right out. Callander Bay is one. It’s a full pipe and it goes right down to the surface. Manitoulin Island is one. Actually, Manitoulin Island is a caldera. Now, a caldera is…

Peter Handley:
A volcano right?

Roy Summers:
Yes, a volcano but a volcano that has blown its top and winds up with five islands. There is one around here. The one that they show here is the Goose Islands and that’s another caldera. On top of that, we have five batholiths. A batholith is a volcano that never reached the surface.

Peter Handley:
Okay so it’s deep underground?

Roy Summers:
No, now they’re at the surface and they came up about 25 miles. We have five of them here. That’s very unique.

Peter Handley:
Tell me where one of them would be.

Roy Summers:
You’re sitting on one of them. There are five of them. Powassan, Bonfield, West Ferris, the one north of the City is called Atomico. To be a batholith is a volcano and it winds up being granite.

Peter Handley:
So it’s hard rock.

Roy Summers:
That’s the hardest you can get.

Peter Handley:
So we have five of these hard granite rock areas in the city?

Roy Summers:
Yes. Five of them just around North Bay.

Peter Handley:
That’s why if you want to build anything around here you often have to blast because of the bedrock. Is what you’re talking about part of the bedrock?

Roy Summers:
Yes part of it. The gneiss is part of it too because gneiss is both hard and soft. The soft part is actually called saprolite. In engineering terms we called it ‘rotten rock’. What happens with it is when carbon dioxide hits it, it turns to sand. It takes its binders out of it and it just goes. Right at the top Airport hill, we blew the rock to put the highway through and it was straight and what we thought was solid bedrock. But within 20 years, you could drive a pick through it and all the sand coming out of it.

Peter Handley:
Oh it disintegrates?

Roy Summers:
Yes, it disintegrates into them. So at one point I contacted the engineers and said ‘hey, you’re doing that one at the top – watch out, there’s saprolite there.’ Another place you can see it right now is at the hospital. When you look at the parking area where it first comes in there’s saprolite there. Then, in the middle you will see the hard rock all cracked and contorted – that’s the gneiss. Then you’ll see another one that goes right up by your place. Okay, that's the way it is.

This is where we are now. This is a resistant gneiss layer. Gneiss is almost as hard as granite. Okay, but in between there’s soft layers – that’s the rotten rock.

Peter Handley:
Okay.

Roy Summers:
Okay, now what happened with that and why there are so many things and why there are so many wetlands. I mean some of these wetlands are 200 feet deep.

Peter Handley:
Are they in this soft gneiss layer?

Roy Summers:
They are in the soft gneiss layer which is rotten rock. Okay, remember the first thing is with these soft gneiss layers that they would be the first ones to be gouged out. Not only were they gouged out, but they would be refilled with this clay with no cohesion.

Peter Handley:
Okay.

Roy Summers:
And the next thing that would come would be the sand and that’s another story.

Peter Handley:
How many years have you been studying this sort of thing. I mean, geology was…

Roy Summers:
I retired 26 years ago.

Peter Handley:
So you started after you left work.

Roy Summers:
Yeah, so the first two years, my daughter and her friends were at the house one day and I said ‘do you want jobs’ and they said ‘yes’ – I was working with the local one, so I bought my own GIS system and those kids put together the topology for Ste. Marie, Parry Sound, East Ferris etc. and that’s when I started to get into this whole thing.

Peter Handley:
What’s the most unusual land feature in your estimation in around North Bay?

Roy Summers:
The Ottawa Bonnechere Graben. Period. There is nothing like it anywhere else in Ontario. It’s also the only thing in Ontario you can actually get to.

Peter Handley:
What do you mean?

Roy Summers:
Well, you can drive to it. Everywhere else you can’t. The only other graben that is in there is the Saginaw River and half of that is now called a fjord because it’s sinking. But this thing is completely and utterly unique. It’s a world class tourist destination.

Peter Handley:
But what do you have to show people? I mean you’ve got your maps you got the Mattawa Fault and the Petawawa Fault and the rift valley in between which you’re calling a graben. I mean you say it’s a great tourist attraction. But what can people see? If they drive to Mattawa what can you show them to tell the story?

Roy Summers:
Well they can see the hill on the other side with the three crosses. They were put in by the Jesuits. Way up in the air but if you come down there’s a great huge valley in there. You can’t see it because you’d go to Trout Lake but Trout Lake because of that big outflow is almost 100 metres deep.

Peter Handley:
And that’s the source of our water supply.

Roy Summers:
That’s the source of our water supply.

Roy Summers:
But it was because when that dam went out, the water did a hydraulic jump and picked all the bottom of that out. It gouged it out so much. When you get to the far end, you get to what is called the stepping stones. The stepping stones are much bigger than cars and houses and they were all gouged out from the bottom of Trout Lake. Now, North Bay used to have 5 or 6 outlook, maybe 8, where you could drive. One was near your house, it became the monastery.

Peter Handley:
High points of land sort of.

Roy Summers:
One was on Thibeault Hill, one was on Airport Hill, one was on top of what we called Stubble’s Hill.

Peter Handley:
I’ve never heard that one.

Roy Summers:
It was right behind Widdifield.

Peter Handley:
Okay.

Roy Summers:
Okay, now you can’t see it because all the houses are built there. The other one, which we used to drive to was the top of the ski hill. The other was behind Trout Lake and you could go up and see that all of this is graben. You could see the little lakes and channels. There are all kinds of channels here. There were over 20 channels. That's why I was so interested in the Lavase – it was all part of my discovering. When when I was working in Laurier Woods, sometimes I’d go in there with a shovel or got a little soft-track backhoe. So all the time I was trying to figure out what happened here and it became an obsession. My wife calls it an obsession.

Peter Handley:
Well, when you’ve got 50 maps. Yes.

Roy Summers:
Anyways I did come to the city once to talk to Lawlor and Mike Burke.

Peter Handley:
That’s former Mayor Stan Lawlor and former City Solicitor Mike Burke.

Roy Summers:
So, I got them in there and said ‘you know, you’re right on the verge of the biggest thing you’ve ever run across. No other place on this earth like this.’

Peter Handley:
Why is it like no other place on earth? Is it because her two faults?

Roy Summers:
Two grabens that have two faults side by side and those grabens go right through the mountains.

Peter Handley:
See that’s unique in itself. What’s the distance between the two fault lines?

40 km.

Peter Handley:
Okay, just for a nice Valley.

Roy Summers:
What’s really unusual was that this was all glacial spillway.

Peter Handley:
Now, let me ask you something. Fort Laronde - did you do some studies in that area?

Roy Summers:
Sure did.

Peter Handley:
In Champlain Park right? There were architects mucking around there and of course Murray Leatherdale’s book and all the rest of it. I know you're laughing because they did call it Fort Laronde but it was really just house.

Roy Summers:
It was just a house. I’m glad you knew that. It was a house and the Lavase Portages were built by the NorthWest Company.

Peter Handley:
Alright.

Roy Summers:
And they were built as canals.

Peter Handley:
Did they actually build some of them?

Roy Summers:
Oh yes. They built the dams. So that’s what that was. You see, after all the stuff comes off the hill, Lake Nipisisng forms a big foreshore. So at the end, these foreshores kept closing up. So they dug the canals to keep it open so they could get these canoes through.

Peter Handley:
Voyager canoes?

Roy Summers:
Yes. Some of these things were 6 feet wide and 40 feet wide. They drew 4 foot of water.

Peter Handley:
I thought the Lavase Portage was all natural.

Roy Summers:
The only natural part is the first portage. The next portage was dammed. The next portage which is right at Nipissing Junction was really dammed and where it joined to the marsh there was only 25 feet wide. On top, where Drainy Lake is, there was a whole series of lakes and wetlands that were put together and in the spring time they could kind of count on all the water to get these big canoes through. But, they would come back in August loaded with furs and they had to have some way of putting the water in. So they would go back into what is now known as the Lavase-Drainy Lake Provincially Significant Wetland.

Peter Handley:
It’s basically a heritage site now?

Roy Summers:
Oh yes. So be causally the wetland didn’t have a square kilometer. Very tiny streams. You’re putting through a canoe that’s half the size of the Chief Commanda. So, Cliff Boulder, Fred McNutt and I all grew up in that area and we’ve come to the conclusion that wasn’t the original portage. The original main portage was the one that went from Trout Lake to Nipissing right beside my house. Everything points to that. Lavase River was the people at Dugas who had a tourist camp and they were pushing for it. People down on Lakeshore Drive had a tourist camp.

Peter Handley:
There were a lot of them.

Roy Summers:
They actually kind of bent history a lot.

Peter Handley:
Roy, I’d like to get you back sometime in the future to talk about more subjects because there's a lot of a lot of stuff. Like the Ferguson Highway and all sorts of different things.

Thank you Roy and thank you for spending some time with us and listening to our stories. These productions are put together by the Municipal Heritage Committee not only to retell old tales but hopefully to kindle interest in area history. Local lore is important to any community and we shouldn’t let it go unremarked and unremembered. Views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of the Corporation of the City of North Bay or its employees. Join us next time when we flip another page of the diary of our shared past. You can reach us at peter.carrello@cityofnorthbay.ca. Production – Kealey Ducharme. Pete Handley speaking.

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