Nature’s artwork

Autumn in Cottage Country left an indelible mark upon the spirits of the Group of Seven artists, as well as their compatriot Tom Thomson. You needn’t be an artist, however, to be spellbound by the riotous fall colours.

by Lisa Harrison

The autumn changing of leaves in the Ontario’s Cottage Country draws “leaf peepers” from around the world. Tour buses carrying international visitors mix with family vehicles in traffic jams and parking lots around key destinations such as Algonquin Park. Some areas require special signage and Ontario Provincial Police assistance in managing the high volumes.

The region attracts visitors for more than just colour change; each municipality has its own attractions. Art lovers, for example, art lovers can track the sites around Algonquin Park where Group of Seven artists painted, and the Oxtongue Lake Community Centre, just west of Algonquin Park, features an outdoor installation about the artists.

The pandemic caused day trip numbers to increase in some areas last year as restrictions lifted, but, understandably, overnight stays dropped. While pandemic management measures continue to affect some aspects of tourism, hope is on the horizon.

“Muskoka Travel Service has been essentially shut off for well over a year,” says Kent Hammond, MTS manager. “Talking to others in our industry, the general consensus seems to be that people are going to be excited to get out and start travelling very soon.”

“Due to pent-up demand we expect to have a robust and busy fall,” says Janet O’Connell, executive director, Muskoka Tourism.

“ … just now the maples are about all stripped of leaves but the birches are very rich in colour. We are all working away but the best I can do does not do the place much justice in the way of beauty.”

Tom Thomson in a letter to his patron, Dr. James MacCallum, October 1914

Paint-by-numbers economics

Leaf peeping represents serious business in Cottage Country. It’s the top industry in Haliburton County and one of the top industries in Muskoka and the City of Kawartha Lakes.

But consider the economic fragility of this business sector. To begin with, it’s seasonal, as fewer tourists are winter lovers. It’s also highly influenced by numerous factors – over the past 11 years, tourism has been interrupted by events such as 9/11, the SARS outbreak, the 2003 blackout, gasoline price hikes and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then there are the rising operating costs and numbers of competitors. 

The province’s Regional Tourism Organizations (RTO) program divides the province into 15 tourism regions and records visitor data for each full region. The most recent available data is from 2018, so it’s too early to track the pandemic’s effects, but the numbers provide a base picture.

In 2018, there were over 12.5 million visitors to Kawartha, Haliburton, Muskoka, Parry Sound and the Algonquin Highlands from Ontario alone, and they spent over $1.8 billion. Another 290,000 visitors from the rest of Canada added another $77.8 million to the local economy. And $163 million spent by American and overseas tourists.

Marketing effectively is key in the increasingly competitive tourism industry. As an example, ad campaigns by the City of Kawartha Lakes focuses on four self-driving routes and promotes the scenic drives on its tourism website, tourism social media accounts and through digital advertising, explains Ryan Cowieson, communications, advertising and marketing officer for Kawartha Lakes.

“They are also promoted as part of the regional tourism marketing campaigns for fall which are coordinated through our Regional Tourism Organization, RTO8.”

Leave no trace

Environmental tourism encourages greater regard for nature but also provides ways to disregard it, says Amy Hogue, interim content specialist for Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization (OHTO).

“As we promote the fall colours each year, we include messaging that encourages users to be respectful of the communities and the natural spaces they are visiting. We encourage visitors to ‘leave no trace,’ and we suggest they try to frequent less popular destinations to limit environmental impact.”

OUTLOOK ON LOOKOUTS

Check out these websites for the best fall tours, lookouts and events in each community, including breathtaking highlights such as waterfalls. Pandemic restrictions and high visitor volumes have affected access at some locations so it’s best to check capacity ahead of time on social media sites.

Maximize the fun of your fall colours tour by combining it with a number of exciting events and activities across the area. Studio tours, fairs, a hiking festival, ziplining, treetop canopy tours, air tours, ATVing, cycling, canoeing and golfing are just some of the activities you’ll find along the way.

City of Kawartha Lakes

Main tourism website: ExploreKawarthaLakes.com

Best fall tours, trails & lookouts: ExploreKawarthaLakes.com, KawarthaConservation.com, FallRoutes.ca

Best fall events: ExploreKawarthaLakes.com, FallRoutes.ca

County of Haliburton

Main tourism website: MyHaliburtonHighlands.com

Best fall tours, trails & lookouts: MyHaliburtonHighlands.com

Best fall events: TheStudioTour.ca, HikeHaliburton.com, AbbeyGardens.ca

District Municipality of Muskoka

Main tourism website: DiscoverMuskoka.ca

Best fall tours, trails & lookouts: DiscoverMuskoka.ca, MuskokaCranberryRoute.ca

Best fall events: DiscoverMuskoka.ca, MuskokaAutumnStudioTour.com

THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE COLOURS

Come autumn, Ontario’s Cottage Country is positively ablaze with yellows, oranges and reds, primarily because of the abundance of deciduous trees that show out in an especially spectacular way. Rolling hills stagger the trees for maximum impact and dark conifers and rock outcrops serve as stark foils to Mother Nature’s bounty.

Sugar maple is the overwhelmingly dominant fall tree here, says Shaun Watmough, director of the Trent School of the Environment at Trent University in Peterborough. A native of England, Watmough says he’s especially appreciative of the vibrant fall colours in North America.

“You get the orange from sugar maple, and red oak gives you the bright reds, but we have a lot of aspen and that gives it the yellow colours. But it’s not just the reds, it’s Canada, the interplay between the reds and the yellows and the oranges. And I just think it’s a good combination of species that creates this very picturesque colour in the fall.”

Watmough explains that the yellows and oranges are there in the summer but we don’t see them because of the green chlorophyl that reacts with sunlight to produce energy for the tree in photosynthesis. The trees don’t photosynthesize in winter, so they start breaking down the chlorophyll to get those molecules back. Yellows and oranges are revealed, and reds begin to develop to protect the plant from the impacts of sunlight.

As for predicting when we’ll see the best colour, weather conditions such as rain and frost can give some indication but there’s really no way to know for sure, says Watmough.

“There are so many factors at play, no one really knows the exact combination of weather to give you the exact beautiful colours that you see.”

Your best option is to monitor fall colours tracking and tourism websites such as DiscoverMuskoka.ca/ontario-fall-colour-report/, MyHaliburtonHighlands.com/fall-colours/ and OntarioParks.com/fallcolour.