“... I soon found beauties in my woodland wanderings, in the unknown trees and plants of the forest. These things became a great resource, and every flower and shrub and forest tree awakened an interest in my mind, so that I began to thirst for a more intimate knowledge of them. They became like dear friends, soothing and cheering, by their sweet unconscious influence, hours of loneliness and hours of sorrow and suffering.” 
                                                             Catharine Parr Traill in Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885)
“We children used to scramble over the hills and ravines, delighting over the beautiful flowers and shrubs which grew so luxuriantly everywhere, and my dear mother, when able, used to accompany us. But of course, she had much to occupy her, sewing for six children and she wrote the latter part of Canadian Crusoes at Mount Ararat, as well as many short sketches for English magazines.”                                            
                                                                           Annie Traill Atwood in her Memoirs
Mount Ararat’s varied topography encompasses the diversity of the Rice Lake Plains as described by Catharine, with uplands that, historically, were tallgrass prairie, and deep ravines that feature very different species of plants and animals. The plains comprise the eastern end of Southern Ontario’s tallgrass prairies which are quite distinct from the prairies of western Canada.

The Traill family (which numbered nine as of August 9th,1848) lived in a log cabin on a rise on the uplands with panoramic views across and down Rice Lake to the east. It consisted of two rooms on the main floor with a loft and dug-out cellar.

Canadian Crusoes (later titled Lost in the Backwoods) was published in England and sold very well. It went through numerous editions, but Catharine saw little income from its continuing success because of the shortchanging and piracy of publishers. During her difficult and impoverished Rice Lake years, as well as writing constantly, she made and sold arrangements of pressed flowers in order to provide for her family.
The Hamilton Township Heritage Tour visits Mount Ararat
Michael Peterman
In 1832, Catharine first encountered the “exquisite natural beauties” of the Rice Lake Plains when she and Thomas travelled through the area on their way from Cobourg up to the bush in Douro. In The Backwoods of Canada, she described the landscape as “pleasingly broken into hill and valley, sometimes gently sloping, at other times abrupt and almost precipitous.” 

In her Forest Gleanings sketches, written twenty years later while living on the plains, Catharine depicts rambles over “steep wood-crowned heights” and “wild ravines”. She explains that, rather than level ground, “the common term plainsland seems ... to mean open partially cleared ground, and is in most instances composed of an endless variety of hill and dale.”
Sharon Keogh refers to Catharine’s writings about the Rice Lake Plains
Mount Ararat Uplands
Traill cabin site
“There were several cleared fields which gave Father more work, and a log house of 2 rooms and a loft. ... and we were cozy enough. The house stood on the edge of a lovely dell full of trees and wild flowers and ferns with water down at the bottom and in front we had a nice garden and we were then about half a mile or perhaps a little more from Gore’s Landing ...”
                                                                                    Annie Traill Atwood in her Memoirs
Today, the water source below the cabin site continues to provide moist habitat for ferns, trees and wild flowers, including Boneset, willows, cattails and Northern Willow-herb. Other wetland species include:
Typical pioneer cabin
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Catharine Parr Traill’s novel Canadian Crusoes has been acclaimed as Canada’s first fiction for young readers. In her adventure/romance, set in the very early settlement era of the late 1700s, she brought the unique topography and flora and fauna of Mount Ararat and the Rice Lake Plains  to life for many contemporary readers.

Like all settlers, Catharine was haunted by the thought of children becoming lost in the backwoods, and Canadian Crusoes is her final and most thorough treatment of the lost-child theme. Inspired by a real-life incident reported in the Cobourg Star, she tells the story of three children who become completely lost for two years in the hills and valleys of the plains as a result of searching for stray cattle. 

Prior to pioneer settlement, tribes of native people occupied the Rice lake area for thousands of years. As related in Gore’s Landing and the Rice Lake Plains, “until the first wave of mass immigration into the northern hinterlands in 1825 ... [v]ery few Europeans had penetrated the Rice lake region since Champlain’s journey in 1615 ...”. In 1832, Catharine noted that “there were not more than five or six settlers” on the plains.

(Above right) Sharon and heritage tour visitors enjoy the views from the site of an ancient Indian trail which followed the escarpment overlooking Rice Lake and the mouth of the Otonabee. The fictional children in Canadian Crusoe followed a similar route in their discovery of Mount Ararat.
Mount Ararat Ravines

The Mount Ararat ravine system was formed as the Wisconsin glacier receded from southern Ontario about 12,000 years ago. Because of their springs and seeps, rich black soil, and protection from severe weather, the ravines were cleared for farming at some point after Catharine lived at Mount Ararat. Numerous rock piles tell a story of backbreaking work. 

Because the ravines have not been farmed for a long time, nor heavily foraged by cattle as they were until ten years ago, they have rejuvenated, once again fostering a lush assortment of native flora and a range of wildlife.
Indications are that the main ravine spring (pictured below), which flows year-round to this day, was the likely the water “fit for drinking” near the site of the children’s shanty in Canadian Crusoes.

   CANADIAN CRUSOES: A Tale of The Rice Lake Plains  (1852)

In his introduction to Catharine’s sketches about the Rice Lake Plains in Forest and Other Gleanings, Traill scholar Michael Peterman writes that “the south shore of Rice Lake ... is given a prominent place among her literary landscapes,” and that the “most notable representation of it is in the novel, Canadian Crusoes (1852).”

Spotted Joe-Pye-weed

Whorled Loosestrife

Great  Blue Lobelia

Catharine’s extensive knowledge of native plants and animals plays a key role in the story in which the self-reliant children survive on a variety of berries, nuts, plants, fish and game. Like the author herself, the adolescent children are always “up and doing,” facing privation with “cheerful fortitude.”

The native history of the Rice Lake area is also featured, including a bloody conflict that took place at the mouth of the Otonabee. While seeking shelter from danger near their shanty, the children rescue a young Mohawk girl in the aftermath of a fierce battle between the Mohawks and the Chippewas. They nurse her back to health and name her Indiana, and she in turn instructs them in making clothes from animal skins and harvesting wild rice from the vast beds in the lake. 

The four children thrive in the wilds until they are found and happily reunited with their families. In the end, Hector marries Indiana while Catharine weds her cousin Louis, thereby uniting English, French and First Nations in the conclusion of an early Canadian narrative.
Hector and Catharine, siblings with Scottish roots, and their French-Canadian cousin Louis wander northwest from Cold Springs until they reach the western end of the south shore of Rice Lake. They then make their way east where they discover the ideal place to build a crude shanty as their first winter approaches.
“Following the elevated ground above this deep valley, the travellers at last halted on the extreme edge of a high and precipitous mound, that formed an abrupt termination to the deep glen. They found water not far from this spot fit for drinking, by following a deer-path a little to the southward. And there, on the borders of a little basin on a pleasant brae, where the bright silver birch waved gracefully over its sides, they decided on building a winter house. They named the spot Mount Ararat: ‘For here,‘ said they, ‘we will build us an ark of refuge, and wander no more.’ And Mount Ararat is the name which the spot still bears.’”         
                                   Catharine Parr Traill in Canadian Crusoes

White-tailed Deer

Scarlet Tanager

Wood Thrush


Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Highbush Cranberry

“These ravines form some of the most interesting natural features of the Plains, and give a singular and furrowed aspect to the shore when seen from the water.” 

Catharine Parr Traill in Forest and Other Gleanings


Northern Bobwhite


A granite erratic left by the receding glacier



White Trillium

May Apple




Yellow Violet


White Snakeroot

Blue Cohosh Berries

Wild Leek Flower

May Apple Fruit

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