Sunday, November 6, 2022
Jokers Hill is a large, forested tract located just west of Newmarket and south of Highway 9. It covers 889 acres of the Oak Ridges Moraine and has multiple hiking trails. I decided to check it out and took advantage of the free parking just off Bathurst Street. In the 1950’s this property was bought by General Churchill Mann and his wife Billie. She was the daughter of the founder of General Motors, Canada and was looking for a country retreat to house his many horses.
Churchill personally designed an equestrian course for his horses that covered a 12-mile cross country course with 50 miles of groomed trails. The property features a wide variety of habitats including wetlands, regenerating farmland and virgin forests. The picture below shows one of the sandy hills in the area near Bathurst Street.
Billie Mann named the property after her prize horse, Joker, who used to run to the top of the highest point, nearly 1,100 feet above sea level. They would eventually build their home at this spot to overlook the surrounding countryside. The Manns used to host the North York Hunting Club and allowed Olympic contestants to practice there. The 1956 Olympic medalists Elder and John Rumble attributed their bronze medal to the use of Jokers Hill.
In 1964 the Manns sold the property to Brian and Nancy Benitz who held it for about ten years. The elevation of the trail changes multiple times as you make your way through the forest. When you reach the lowest point on the trail there is a couple of small wetlands to cross. This little boardwalk has become less than ideal but if you navigate carefully, you can get through without getting mud on your pant cuffs. Better luck next time, lol.
In 1974 Murray and Marvelle Koffler, founders of Shoppers Drug Mart, bought the property. There weren’t very many fungus species to be seen this late in the season but some of the polypores could still be found on the trees. These Tinder Polypores are useful as tinder to start a campfire quickly if needed. They also have been used traditionally by indigenous people to cauterize wounds that won’t stop bleeding.
Jokers Hill hosted celebrities over the years including Prince Phillip and Princess Margaret as well as Pierre and Margaret Trudeau. In 1995 the Kofflers decided to gift the property to the University of Toronto. It is now used as the Koffler Scientific Reserve and research is conducted there in a variety of fields including climate change, ecology, migration, genetics and environmental science. As you follow the white trail you will come to a mysterious collapsed building in an open area of the woods. Upon investigation it reveals itself to be a former sugar shack where the sap of maple trees was made into maple syrup.
The area around the former sugar shack has a number of PVC collection pipes and tubes still attached to trees or lying on the ground. If you look carefully, you can also find the small round holes that are the scars left on maple trees from them being tapped over the years.
There was a distinct lack of wildlife on this day even though it is a prime spot for white-tailed deer, pileated woodpeckers and a host of other birds. The majority of people I met along the trail had dogs with them, many of them off leash. This will usually scare the wildlife away. Jokers Hill is a primary wildlife study area with up to 35 study projects going on at the same time. This suggests that there is plenty to be seen and those that visit often can likely attest to this. I saw a Hairy Woodpecker, two Blue Jays, a couple of Cabbage Butterflies and this beetle who was a lone late-season insect.
I came across a few Halloween pumpkins that had been thrown in the woods. There are many posts online encouraging people to do this to feed the wildlife. However, wildlife experts discourage this practice because it can be harmful and can encourage rats. Halloween pumpkins often have foreign objects in them such as candle wax which can cause serious health issues or death if eaten by an unsuspecting animal. They also bring groups of wildlife together which can lead to the spread of disease. Instead, people are encouraged to compost their pumpkins or take them to a drop off location.
Following the blue trail will bring you to Thornton Bales Conservation Area. If you’ve ever been to Niagara Falls and seen the impressive drop of the falls, you can hike a greater change in elevation here. The locals call this the “99 steps.”. I counted 100, but such is my ability to exaggerate.
The trail map shows the variety of loops and other trails that are available to hikers and dog walkers. I followed the red trail to the blue and white one that leads to the red oak loop and 19th sideroad and then returned the same way.
There’s lots to see on the Jokers Hill trails and I suspect that a wide variety of wildlife can be observed at various times. The variation of forest types likely presented a wonderful example of the fall colours a couple of weeks ago.
Google Maps Link: Jokers Hill Trail Parking
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