The spectacular Barron Canyon

Last fall some friends and I stopped for lunch at the picnic tables beside the quietly flowing waters of the Barron River in Algonquin Park. The scenery reminded me of the 1972 movie, Deliverance.

James Dickey, the famous poet, became a best-selling novelist with an incredibly enthralling, raw-nerved novel about four men caught in a primitive and violent test of manhood on a river with high cliffs. The book was made into a beautifully filmed movie with awesome scenery.

The Barron Canyon Trail is on the east side of Algonquin Park. The walking trail itself is a 1.5 km loop leading to and along the north rim of the beautiful, 100-metre deep Barron Canyon and then returning (all downhill) to the parking lot.

What a spectacular and scary sight as you gaze down to the deep canyon and see the river on either side of you. There’s no fence or guard rails to keep you from sliding straight down the canyon wall. It’s all nature. No commercial signs. Some people prefer it to Niagara Falls because this site isn’t commercialized.

At the edge of the Barron Canyon you can look down not only at the breath-taking view but also deep into the distant past of what is now Algonquin Park. The rocks exposed in the Canyon are part of the Canadian Shield, a huge area of ancient rocks that lie under most of central and northern Canada. With trepidation, I hugged one tree close to the canyon rim and took a few snapshots of the water far below me.

Days of sound and fury

Ten thousand years ago Algonquin Park had only recently been exposed by the northward retreat of the melting glacier that had covered almost all of Canada and parts of the northern U.S. An arctic-like tundra used to cover the park, and at that time this canyon carried water from the melting glacier. To the west, Lake Algonquin, the forerunner of the modern upper Great Lakes, had formed. This huge body of water, fifty to a hundred metres higher than the present-day Great Lakes, drained south through what is now Mississippi River and later east through Lake Simcoe.

But when the ice melted past the northern boundary of Algonquin, it exposed a lower outlet at Fossmill, a stop on the same trail line which runs through Achray. Water from Lake Algonquin thundered through the new gap across the northeastern part of Algonquin and through the canyon where we stood.

We were in fact standing on the shore of a prehistoric equivalent to the present day St. Lawrence River – the drainage channel of the Great Lakes. One geologist has suggested that the Barron River at its peak 10,000 years ago must have carried as much water as a thousand Niagara Falls. The fantastic spectacle lasted at most only a few centuries because the melting glacier retreated northward past an even lower outlet than Fossmill – the Lake Nipissing-Mattawa channel. Lake Algonquin then drained through the new channel into what is now the Ottawa River, and the Barron River Canyon, deprived of its major water source, became suddenly quiet and almost empty. Its days of sound and fury were over.

I’m going back to the Canyon this summer with my nephew, who has just returned from back-packing through Europe. He wants to see it now that I’ve shown him some photos.  


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