Bare gnarled branches of stunted Eastern Larch in a bog on French Mountain along the Cabot Trail

We were on the Cabot Trail up in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Nova Scotia. Creeping along the road in dense cloud cover, we saw a sign to “The Bog”. A German couple at the Mackenzie Mountain lookout had told us they had just seen a female moose and her calf at the Bog. We hoped we would be lucky with a sighting too.

This wetland on French Mountain is typical of the highland plateau at 419 metres (1350 feet) above sea level where the drainage is poor and the climate is cool and wet. Strictly speaking it isn’t a bog but a slope fen. The difference being that a bog only receives water directly from rain, snow, and fog; whereas the water for a slope fen is supplemented by groundwater or streams. Nonetheless, the area had many bog features.

It was probably not the best of times to visit since the snow may have only recently disappeared and spring was late in coming. There were signs of life when you got up close but it was far too early to enjoy the thousands of small delicate pink and white orchids said to flower in early summer. A boardwalk meandered around the area making the site accessible to all. Signboards explained what we were looking at and are the sole source of the information in this post.

It all looked pretty desolate at first: a barren expanse of rough low vegetation with numerous pools and small skeletonised trees, surrounded by coniferous forest. Initial appearances were deceptive. Looking closer at the twisted branches of the stunted trees (Eastern Larch), I could see that small tufts of tightly packed green needles were opening. The Black Spruce (like Christmas trees) were further advanced. Few of these dwarf trees were taller than a metre yet some were apparently more than a hundred years old. The poor soils and cold climate slows growth; and ice-laden winds can destroy branches above the snow cover. The same species of trees in the surrounding forest, a less exposed part of the plateau, are much bigger.

The dark still pools hosted the delicate stems and fuzzy white flowers of the Bog Buckbean plant. (The frilliness of the petals makes them very difficult to photograph). Its life cycle is radically shortened because of the restricted growing season at this altitude. The flowers of late May become yellow fruits in early July that shrivel by mid-summer before frosts return in early September. I loved the effect of masses of Bog Buckbean with their reflections in the still water.

The dried, yellowing, grass-like plants that covered the bog in dense tufts, turn out to be Tufted Rushes and Cotton Grass – not grasses at all. Kneeling on the boardwalk to examine the plants in more detail, I could see new spikes of green were thrusting through the old growth and bearing flowers already. There was also abundant sphagnum moss which is a main component of bogs. It is a tough plant and can survive in a poor nutrient environment, and extremes of temperature, exposure, and water availability. After death it becomes the major component of the peat that builds up layer on layer. Peat from sphagnum and rushes becomes compressed as it accumulates and slowly decays and erodes so that it rarely achieves a depth greater than a metre. Ecologically, the downside of sphagnum is the way it produces acids that limit the growth of other plant species, it keeps the ground waterlogged, and permanently locks up nutrients that cannot be released even after death. The upside of sphagnum is the way it soaks up and stores water in times of plenty and releases it slowly in drier conditions – meaning that it helps control flooding and also feeds streams in drier times.

Some plants on the bog compensate for the lack of nitrogen nutrients in the peaty soil by capturing and digesting insects. We saw lots of insectivorous jug-like Pitcher Plants. Insects that land on the plant often slip down into the vessel. They are trapped and cannot climb out again because of downward-pointing hairs on the inside surface. They drown in rainwater that has collected in the plant, and their soft parts are digested by secreted enzymes. We did not think at the time to look right inside the Pitcher plants to see if we could find the exoskeleton remains of the insects at the bottom. I think that some of the white, five-petalled flowers on long delicate stalks might have belonged to insectivorous Sundew plants hidden beneath the sphagnum moss.

Bogs and fens can be hot and dry as well as cold and wet. If peat does build up to levels above the waterline, then the colonising plants need to withstand the exposure and have features for preventing water loss. For this reason, many low-growing shrubs like the Bog Rosemary and Leather Leaf have tough thickened leaves; and Labrador Tea has a covering of ferruginous woolly hairs on the underside of its leaves.

We never did spot any moose roaming on the bog although we did see their footprints in the soft ground and droppings among the tufted rushes, but we had a great time discovering new things about this high plateau environment.

7 Replies to “The Bog at French Mountain”

  1. That’s very kind of you to say. I have been on holiday in Nova Scotia and brought back lots of photographs to share something of the experience over the coming months on my blogs.


  2. We didn’t hear any of the music because we were visiting out of season. All the music events are scheduled for their very short summer season of July and August when almost every possible venue holds either French or Gaelic Breton music concerts, and every village church hall holds lobster suppers.


  3. Such beautiful photos Jessica – I’m listening to some music from Lord of the Rings as I look through – these images suit the atmosphere of such a journey – such an ancient landscape. The fallen larch over the water is superb.


  4. It was very atmospheric. We had driven through low cloud cover to get there and a cold mist still hung around. If it hadn’t been well signposted we would not have discovered it. We had the place entirely to ourselves and we’re constantly torn between peering into the pools and bog to find their natural treasures and secrets and looking over our shoulders for angry moose or coyotes!

    Liked by 1 person

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