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Field Studies: 'Learning the Bruce'

In August 2021, EUC students and their professors, W. Steven Tufts and Richard Bello, took their learning into the field for a week long exploration of the Bruce Peninsula (aka 'the Bruce'). The Bruce Peninsula is an UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve containing the largest continuous forest in southern Ontario.

Learning the Bruce (EU/GEOG 4541) is a field course where students from different programs at York, including students in EUC's new Global Geography and Environmental Science programs, integrated into a capstone and field course experience. The course covered a wide range of environmental, economic, social and cultural challenges facing the region, including economic development issues, sustainable tourism practices, invasive species, climate change, Indigenous land claims, and nuclear versus renewable energy production. The region is ripe with opportunities for community-service learning and community-based research. 

Experience 'Learning the Bruce' through the lens of our students in this Photo Journal Series.

One of the many alvars at Bruce Alvar Nature Reserve. Despite its appearance of exposed limestone and little to no soil, these alvars are one of the most biodiverse habitats that support rare species such as the dwarf lake iris and the massasauga rattlesnake. With harsh conditions of flooding in the spring and droughts in the summer, many species here are highly specialized. For example, the moss in the photo is non-vascular and poikilohydric, allowing them to thrive in habitats that are prone to droughts and have no soil. The reason why I chose this photo is because the main topic of this field course is to study and compare these unique alvar ecosystems with forests.
This is one of the many grykes that are also located at the Bruce Alvar Nature Reserve. These grykes were formed by the flow of precipitation on top of the alvars over time, carving out deep cracks in the limestone. They are essential in these alvar habitats as they host microhabitats that are the starting points for succession here. Providing a habitat with water and relatively milder conditions to the alvar, species like the creeping juniper can break down sediment and begin developing an organic layer of soil which will support other species in the future. I chose this photo because I think that grykes are one of the most important and defining features of alvars where biomass is highly concentrated.
This photo was taken at a look-out point in Neyaashiinigmiing. Overlooking wide expanses of forested area, Sydney Bay, and a part of the Niagara Escarpment, this picture shows some of the most stunning natural features of the Bruce Peninsula. I chose this photo because it highlights the nature that the Bruce Peninsula is known for and is taken at a location with historical significance to the area.   
In this photo, physical geography students are collecting dead wood within a 5m x 5m plot at the Crane River Tract experimental site. By considering all the dead wood within a plot, it can be used in combination with other plots to estimate a representative value for the carbon that it will contribute to the organic soil layer and carbon pool when it decomposes. I chose this photo because it shows one of the many things that we did to collect samples at the research site.
The Grotto is located in the Bruce Peninsula National Park in Tobermory. Along the eastern coast of the peninsula, limestone cliff sides have been undergoing constant weathering due to the waves of Georgian Bay and over time, have carved out caves like this grotto. This stunning feature is one of the most well-known and visited tourist destinations of the Bruce Peninsula. I chose this photo because getting to explore the area around the Grotto was one of the highlights of the trip and is a representative feature of the Bruce Peninsula.
“Moss do not have stomata; thus, they depend on the moisture of the atmosphere”
This picture was taken on Monday August the 23rd, the day after our arrival to the Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre at Bruce Peninsula, and it shows the Bruce Alvar nature reserve. The moss showed in this picture is characterized for being poikilohydric, meaning that in times of drought, they become dormant. This is because they grow on limestone bedrock where there is little to no soil, indicating that they depend on the humidity available in the atmosphere. The reason I chose this picture is because the alvar is a specialized ecosystem globally uncommon with cracks separating the bedrock and seasonal plants that only grow in this habitat. I felt lucky to be able to be there.
We arrive at the research site on Monday afternoon, August 23rd, and stayed there for around 6pm every day. Professor Bello demonstrated the methodology of collecting the different data and for the next days we arrived at the research site every morning and started working. This research site became meaningful to me because this is the place where I spent 4 consecutive days working 7-8 hours with people, I now call friends. The place that has my sweat, tears, and blood; the place that heard my screams, laughs, and sighs. The place where I learned so much and enjoyed every second of it.
“Close your eyes, listen, taste, and feel the nature”
On August 27th, the human geographers as well as the physical geographers spent the morning in this nature forest sanctuary where we walked through the different scenarios of this restored land.
This picture was taken by me while I was walking behind Hayley, Rachel, and Jodi enjoying the open field. I decided to use this photo as I was fascinated with place and with what the owner did after buying and restoring this forest in the lapse of 10 years. I was not even aware that forest therapy was a thing, and the only thing I could think of, was that I wished my family was there to enjoy and connect with nature at a totally different level.
This picture shows the popular place located in northern Bruce Peninsula named The Grotto, a natural rock formation facing the Georgian Bay. We spent the afternoon taking pictures, hiking, and swimming. It was one of the best days of my life even though the waves were strong and the shoreline only had rocks (which made difficult to stand, overall painful). 
“We wouldn’t want geography students causing a fire like the one in 1908, so please don’t forget to put it out before leaving”  
The irony of geography students, particularly physical geography students, forgetting to put out the nightly campfire at the Bluewater Ed. Centre and causing a fire similar to the one in 1908 that consumed half of Bruce Peninsula. Physical geography students would set up a fire every night at the Centre causing Professor Tufts and many others to make that particular joke most of the nights. Which later was explained that it was technically impossible as the levels of humidity in the air were high making it difficult for the fire to spread. The reason I chose this picture, taken on Thursday Aug 26th, was due to my fascination for campfires, the fact that there were people enjoying them even more than I did, brought me a sense of tranquility as it represented the closure to another hardworking day.
This image is one of the areas located within the Bruce Alvar Natural Reserve. This is a 67-hectare reserve protecting a globally rare alvar ecosystem. It’s high levels of biodiversity are present in this natural reserve despite looking so barren. The vegetation present adapts to seasonal environmental extremes. For example, in the spring alvars flood, and they dry up in the summertime, reaching temperatures of up to at least 53 degrees Celsius. The reserve is home to many Ontario species, even those that are at risk such as dwarf lake iris, lakeside daisy, and the massasauga rattlesnake. I choose this image because I want to illustrate the beauty of Wiarton that is not just focused on the Bruce Peninsula. I wanted to observe and explore the different aspects of this field trip and the vegetation aspect is an example that I wanted to illustrate. I also choose this image is because of the species along with its interesting topography. The topography has such unevenness, and it also has the presence of “limestone pavement” which describes the presence of open rock and shallow soil of this ecosystem.
The image taken represents the harbor that is part of the municipality of Tobermory. It has many boat docks present and is surrounded by a river body. It’s a beautiful picture that is surrounded by the trees and the blue sky along with having stores for eating and purchasing souvenirs. It is one of the places that is a hotspot for tourism. It was also the place that was stopped on the Wednesday of our trip after the visit of the beach and before going to the Crane Tract field site. The boats present must be used for recreational purposes especially for sporting purposes where it’s used for sporting events. Tourism where people visit the locations within the Tobermory area or outside the Tobermory area specifically cobble beach. The reason that I choose this picture is to illustrate the urban geography or the human aspect of geography. Even though that is not covered in the physical aspect or some aspects of it, I wanted to illustrate how travel and tourism plays a role in Tobermory. I also wanted to depict how both the human and physical aspect of geography are interlinked especially where individuals from different places in Ontario come to see the beautiful natural aspect of this location.  
This is an image of a stone Inuksuk that I took during the visit of the Indigenous areas. I have seen these Inuksuk around the area where I took the pictures and in the rocky areas of the Bruce Peninsula. It is surrounded by the uneven rock topography and the large body of water. It has 2 stone legs, a big flat stone torso, medium stones then another medium stone torso and small stones raising up. This is an important picture symbolizing Indigenous heritage and culture. This is very important to understand indigenous history and by looking through items of indigenous heritage, one can understand the symbolisms. The other reason that I choose this image for my photo journal is because of the history behind these Inuksuk’s. The Inuksuk’s is found specifically in Inuit culture where the Inuit traditionally constructed it and is represented of Canada and the North. They were used as “helpers” to the Inuit as they were used for hunting and navigating (especially where places were located). There were also the spiritual aspect and were held in great esteem.
The Crane R. Tract is home to many species of trees present ranging from white cedar, red pine, jack pine, white pine, and balsam fir. The dominant tree species present in this picture is the Eastern White Cedar. This picture also has so many biomasses along with so many “dead” coniferous leaves on the ground. This site also had the presence of food (for lunch) and lab equipment (to perform the experiment). This picture is important, and I choose this image is because its crucial for the research project that the whole physical geography class is partaking. It is very important for exploring and data collection, especially the parameters measured which are the alvar (both the AGB and litter), soil profiles, litter forest, tree height and dbh, deadwood, root cores, tree rings, and volumetric moisture content (VMC). It took 4 days to perform the experiment and gather the data. The data would help me understand this field course and why we are performing and working on the data, which would be analyzed at the York Universities geography lab room during the scheduled lab period. One of the components of the lab deals with looking at the lines which detail the age of the trees, which the more lines, the older the tree is. This is the reason that I choose this image as I want to know how different the carbon pool is for each tree and if it has to do with the presence of the mix between “old” and “new” trees.
This picture is one of the parts of the Bruce Peninsula, and it is the heart of this whole field trip besides the physical field course work done in the 4 days. It has lots of uneven slopes of rocks and uneven growth of trees present in each of the slopes of each cliff. It is surrounded by a large body of water that is very deep. Also present in this picture are the tourists observing the site. The Bruce Peninsula has been known to be a unique place in all southern Ontario. The Bruce Peninsula is a national park, national historic site, and national marine conservation area located within near Tobermory.  I choose this image because it is so very beautiful and lovely exploring the Bruce Peninsula from the grotto to even the rocky stones. It has such an interesting topography and unevenness to this site. I was very into this site a lot and I took so many pictures of it because it had such unique landforms. I understood so much the geomorphology of the Bruce Peninsula and how it forms such features. It had such uniqueness ranging from the turquoise-colored water that I saw from the Grotto to the pale pavement under the body of water. This is what appealed to me the most and which is why I choose this image to showcase my journey on this overall trip. 


Hallendy, N., Inuksuk (Inukshuk) (2020). In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chief of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded quietly overlooks the shoreline next to the Cape Croker lighthouse. Our time at the reserve did feel brief, but maybe it was because I could have spent days looking at the landscapes along the coast. Learning about how the reserve operated was interesting, though I was saddened to hear about the rising warmth of the water as I knew that the consequences of others are directly affecting such a beautiful place and community.
The picture itself is not much, only the tools we were using for research on the first day as we got to know the site and one another. A real highlight of the field experience was the socializing I was able to have with people in the same program as me. In all my time so far at York I had not been able to communicate with students on such a relatable level before. Everyone knew professors and course codes, but I also enjoyed seeing the contrast between the physical and human geographers. The work we conducted in the research site was made all the better by the fact that we were doing it as a group, something I had missed because of the pandemic.
Our time in a former quarry that had been replenished by nature again was nothing short of interesting. Despite the trails that had become dense with the rest of my classmates, I didn’t truly appreciate the space until I had strayed away and was alone; Instead of the air being filled with people talking, laughing, shuffling… It was filled with leaves rustling and water running. In this moment I became more appreciative of the work we were doing and the time I had staying in the Bruce Peninsula.
I can not only talk about my time for this course recreationally as it was filled with field work too. My favourite method for taking samples was the tree-corer for a variety of reasons. It felt the most interactive and exciting to use, especially when we attempted to carefully remove each sample. Knowing that many of the samples had a history spanning three or more generations of my family only intrigued me more. For a few brief minutes when I would take the samples, I had almost forgotten about the mosquitoes.
Perched above The Grotto, in Tobermory, I watched the waves collide with the rocks for hours. This eternal ebb and flow had made each section of rock along the coast into a unique sculpture, carving away at the landscape over millions of years. I particularly watched a rock near the entrance of the cave that had tunnels and holes run throughout it; where each crash from the waves would flood the openings from either side and collide, splashing the water back down. I thought about my time here as a child and how much the area had changed, not physically of course, but socially. Eventually, The Grotto will succumb to the same forces that made it the tourist attraction it is today, but it will also create more places just like it.
This is an image of one of my peers, Haley Klassen, who is taking a measurement of the diameter at breast height (DBH) of the Eastern White Cedar tree. This tree is easily identifiable by the distinct pattern on the bark and the flat-leaf structure, which make a great tea. The metal instrument she is holding at approximately 1.30 meters, which measures at her armpit level, are the callipers. This measures the diameter of any tree that does not have deformities and appears uniform in width for a substantial amount of area. If the tree has any deformities, Klassen utilizes the diameter tape to acquire an accurate measurement of the tree’s diameter by wrapping the tape around the circumference of the tree. The reason I chose this image is due to the fact we, as a pair, measured approximately one hundred trees spanning two days of the trip and were able to apply this data to then perform dendrochronology and utilize the increment bore to collect tree core samples, which was one of the highlights of the trip for myself.
This is a photograph of the soil moisture meter in action, as it displays the percentage of the moisture level for the specific location. The process of taking the soil moisture level includes clearing the litter of the location one wishes to test and then “plugging” the three prongs into the ground ensuring there is no gap between the bottom of the device and the soil. This image displays 20.9% volume for the specific location, which is around the median level of moisture taken for the entire plot. I was in fact learning how to use the soil moisture metre and tested it in various locations around the rocks and moss to see the differences in moisture in the surrounding location. I chose this image as it depicts myself utilizing a novel piece of equipment that is applicable to everyday life, for example, it resembles plugging your computer into the wall.
This is a photo of two of my peers, Haley Klassen on the left and Jodie Tsui on the right, attempting to fit the tree core sample into the straw. This is done to ensure the sample remains intact in order to be able to count the rings in the tree under a microscope to determine it’s age. The sample was taken using the increment bore that is comprised of the auger that actually penetrates the tree and the extractor that pulls out the core sample from the inside of the auger. The extractor is actually what Klassen and Tsui are holding in this photo. This process was extremely tedious as the straw and the core sample were similar in size and we attempted to make sure it was intact. These core samples were collected of the largest of each species in every quadrant of twenty meters by twenty metres, which is deciphered by the diameter of each tree. I chose this image as it displayed the teamwork required to maintain a proper sample and the fact that dendrochronology is an extremely interesting science that I have previously done research on in the geomorphology class.
This is an image where the book title Teamwork Makes the Dreamwork, by John Maxwell, is extremely relevant. In this photo, three of my peers are weighing the deadwood that we all collected from one of the quadrants chosen by the random number generator in my calculator. Deadwood is defined as the wood found on the forest floor that is larger than your pinky finger or 1.5 cm. This wood was then collected and weighed, which is seen here, while the wood that is too large or too difficult to be weighed we measured the volume using a measuring tape and callipers. When this occurred we also measured the decay class, subjectively, for each piece of wood. The reason I chose this image was due to the strength and willpower we showed during this day, as a team of students who really wanted to complete the data and get to the beach. As a class, we accomplished more work on this day with the power in numbers, than we did individually all week.

This is an image of one of my peers, Haley Klassen, collecting soil samples. The process for this included placing the twenty-five by twenty-five-centimetre quadrant at every
five-meter interval down the spine (10 m line) of the area we were researching. Within this orange square, we collected the alive and dead above-ground biomass in separate bags. Then, pushed and turned the soil corer into the ground and pulled it out revealing either just the A horizon or multiple of them (A and B horizon, A, B, and C horizon). I chose this image as this was another way we collected the samples in the field. I have seen numerous instances throughout my classes of soil core samples and it was
This is a picture of my classmate Jodie holding a tree core sample pulled straight out of the tree, the process took a while to do and took about 5 trees to get the hang of. Dendrochronology was something I had been wanting to try and learn more about for some time before the course so getting to do so while taking a course towards my degree was an opportunity, I am extremely grateful for.
I chose to include this picture in my photo journal because personally this was the most challenging aspect of the data collection, so when we finally got a successful, intact sample I was very happy, excited, and proud of what we had accomplished.
This is a photo of one of my classmates Rachel gathering litter off the forest floor to prepare for the proper procedure to collect a soil sample. With Rachel and I in the image we had all the tools necessary to carry out the soil sample procedure properly; you can see a 25cm-by-25cm quadrant, a rake, a pair of garden sheers, garden gloves, and a tinfoil cooking tray that was used to contain the litter. I chose to include this picture in my photo journal because I think it accurately shows the tools used, and the preparation that went into the collection of the data throughout the field portion of the course. Also, this image is useful in depicting the consistency needed to ensure that there is a common and accurate repetition of the procedure needed each time another sample was taken.
This is another image of my classmate Rachel but in this one, instead of taking a soil sample, she is measuring the height of one of the numbered trees found at the research site. On her hip she is holding a calliper, on the ground between her feet is a measuring tape and in her hand, she is holding a clinometer up to her eye in order to tell the angle and then determine height. I chose to include this image in my photo journal because we often spent an entire day collecting one singular type of data, and this was one of those days. We repeated this process around 100 different times for around 100 different trees in a single day.
This is an image of every piece of deadwood collected from the forest floor for one of the quadrants decided by the random number generator app. As a group, we were instructed to walk around the entirety of the quadrant and pick- up every individual piece of deadwood larger than our pinky and put it onto the tarp. When each piece was picked-up and put onto the tarp we then had to weight the tarp with the deadwood on it to get the weight of the wood present in the quadrant. Then we had to take a sample from the collected deadwood to bring back to the lab for eventual processing.

I chose to include this picture in my photo journal because this was an instance where all of us students had to work together to complete the data collection because we were running low on time. This was a great experience to finally work as a team and put our pre-existing knowledge and all the new knowledge that we learned on the trip together and complete our final task as a team.
This is a picture of our main “hangout”/meet-up area out at the research site. This is where we had our debriefs, instructions, lunch breaks, and data sharing. This was a very important place for the trip because its where we found out what we had to accomplish that day, how to gather the data properly, what to do with/how to use the tools and decided who was gathering what data. Everything we did originated at the spot.
That is why I decided to include this as my final picture for the photo journal assignment, this was probably the most important location for our entire trip.