Ottawa’s Pinhey sand dunes

The push to rehabilitate a remarkable ecosystem at the edge of Ottawa, the little known remnants of an ancient sea

  • Published Aug 28, 2023
  • Updated Aug 29
  • 636 words
  • 3 minutes
The Piney sand dunes in the foreground with the Ottawa suburbs and, in the distance, highrises along the Ottawa River. This area was once submerged under the Champlain Sea. (Photo: Colin Rowe/Can Geo)
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Just 20 minutes from Parliament Hill, a quiet forest trail wends its way to what looks for all the world like a land-locked beach. There’s no water in sight, just a series of dunes that seem to have been randomly dumped in the woods. These are the Pinhey sand dunes.

This was seashore once, but only the dunes remember. Some 10,000 years ago, all this fine white sand was submerged under the Champlain Sea, a landlocked body of salt water left after the retreat of glaciers that covered North America. The dunes serve as a reminder of the ancient landscape that once was — and just how quickly humans can transform the landscape.

Today, four scattered dunes are vestiges of a single, much larger dune that swept over the area before city planners in the 1950s launched a tree planting program, introducing the tolerant and lumber-ready landscape. As the trees thrived, the organic matter they deposited on the sand began to transform the dunes into a pine forest.

Two hikers out for a stroll provide a sense of the scale of the dunes, which are slowly being reclaimed from the pine forests first planted in the 1950s. (Photo: Colin Rowe/Can Geo)
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Aerial photos reveal how the dune system would have once extended for kilometres, thousands of times larger than today’s remnants. Family albums show locals on daytrips to the beach, bringing towels and suntan lotion and stretching out on the sand. 

The beachy vibe seems especially misplaced this morning as the thermometer flirts with zero. Some of our group move slowly and stiffly in the cold; others proceed briskly, their pace matching the air. P.T. Dang is in the latter camp. A retired entomologist, he buzzes with the energy of the insects he studies. Dang is the co-founder of Biodiversity Conservancy International, an organization whose grandiose name belies its size but befits its lofty ambitions. Launched in 2012, its flagship initiative has been the restoration and reclamation of the dune site.

The organization has worked alongside the National Capital Commission (the federal institution that acts as steward and planner of the capital region) to restore the ecosystem hiding under the pine forest. Over the past decade, hundreds of pine trees have been removed, local species have been monitored and endemic plants encouraged. Fencing has been installed to protect the dunes from erosion and information posted to educate the public about this ecosystem and to mobilize trail users for its preservation. 

Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo
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Regular dune tours are as popular with first-graders searching for bugs as they are with university students researching how sand wasps adapt in an ecosystem where summer surface temperatures can reach 72 C.

On this day, an enthusiastic group of Girl Guides is here to take a tour and lend a hand, in this case by raking debris. They learn about the dunes’ role as a habitat for milkweed: food for the endangered monarch butterfly. They spot the ghost tiger beetle, a species well adapted to the dune system and found nowhere else within a 200-kilometre radius of this site. Most of all, they discover that remarkable places exist close to home if you take the time to find them — places with the power to surprise, to enthrall and to teach.

Dang walks over to a beech tree by the edge of the sand. He points at the trunk, and I scour the bark, not sure exactly what I’m looking for. Eventually I spot a tiny oval: Chilocorus stigma, the two-stabbed ladybug. Its colour pattern — shiny black with a crimson dot on either side of its carapace — inverts the black-on-red theme of the more common variety.

I hadn’t known that ladybugs came like this. But then, I hadn’t known before visiting the dunes that a vanished sea once covered this land, that you could cook an egg on the heated sand in this forest or that these dunes are in the process of being saved from obscurity.


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This story is from the September/October 2023 Issue

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