J. R. Dymond
One of Canada’s best known zoologists in the 1950s and 1960s, and a key figure in the conservation movement in Canada, J. R. Dymond, was for many years a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, the Director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology and one of the founding members of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists. In 1936 he took out lease on Smoke Lake and established a long lasting friendship with Frank MacDougall the then Park Superintendent. Within a few years his reputation as a wildlife expert became well known and fellow leaseholder, Jessie Northway (wife of Gar Northway owner of then popular retailer Nortway and Sons) asked him iif he’d be willing to conduct educational nature hikes for local residents. This he agreed to do and an institution was born. According to another resident, Nancy Martin, whose father James Savage was a good friend of Dymond’s and had worked at the Harkness Lab on Lake Opeongo testing the effect of DDT on birds in Algonquin Park:
‘They’d pick different spots each year and often the leaseholders meeting would be held before or after the hike. Two to three days before each event, they would blaze a trail and mark 20 or so specimens for identification. They would tie a string to the specimen and a number. The cottagers and kids would arrive for the nature hike and like a treasure hunt were each given a small pencil and paper with which to write down what they thought each specimen was (plants and trees etc) that was marked on the trail. Everyone brought a picnic lunch and then we would have the plants identified and a prize awarded (usually a chocolate bar) for the best score for the kids. It was a wonderful social event for all of the children and adults on the lake who participated.’ 1
The success of these hikes led to the formation of the ‘Smoke Lake Naturalist Club’, which was very active during the 1940’s and 1950s. In 1942 Frank MacDougall, became the DLF Deputy Minister and In 1945 asked Dymond if he would consider developing a similar framework for a public nataure interpretive program. Dymond agreed, and in the summer of 1946 set up a three-pronged program that included conducted nature hikes, public lectures and a wildlife exhibit tent. The exhibit tent was set up at Cache Lake near the Park Headquarters. It included a few mounted specimens of birds and mammals that had been donated from the Royal Ontario Museum. Later, in 1947, living amphibians and reptiles, plants and geological models were added. The program was a success and that first summer over 3,400 people signed the guest register, jumping to nearly 6,000 in 1947.
According to Allan Helmsley, who helped Dymond set up the program, the first conducted nature hikes were pretty basic. Using a mile-long existing portage and railway tracks the hike started at the Highland Inn on Cache Lake. It ran eastward along the old railway bed over one or two of the abandoned railway trestles and then immediately turned south. It then climbed to the top of Skymount ridge, and provided a fabulous lookout over the whole of Cache Lake.2 Later they also used a trail at Canisbay and established what is now the Hardwood Lookout trail. Hand printed labels containing the names and brief characteristics of trees, ferns and common wild flowers were attached to the plants. Initial advertising was a bulletin put up at the Lake Of Two Rivers campgrounds and at the various lodges in the Park. Dymond was a unique hike leader because he liked to lead hikes that resulted in meaningful discourse and questions. He loved to share his ideas about ecology and the complexities of the environment. His objective was ‘to stimulate interest, not give all the answers but create mystery and provoke thought.’3 For the first few years, hike leaders would distributed a mimeographed list of common plants and animals. When Dymond led them, he’d start at 9:30 a.m. or 10 a.m. and always included lunch. To him lunch was an important part of the whole hike, because he got to know the people a little better. He had found, over the years, that people were more relaxed and open for conversation while sitting down having a sandwich. It gave him time to talk to people and gave them time to ask questions.’4
During the programs first year, in 1946, there were 22 conducted hikes with a total attendance of 366 participants and 9 evening lectures at the Highland Inn. The early success of the program encouraged Dymond to propose that a certificate be provided for those who had obtained a certain knowledge of nature with four grades of naturalist namely; Beginning, Junior, Intermediate and Senior Naturalist. Within each grade there needed to be a target number of trees, birds and other forms of plant and animal life with which naturalists should be familiar. He also felt strong that participants also needed to grasp, what he called, ‘certain principles of behaviour in the forest. These included such things as such not killing any plants or animals without good cause, not destroying the beauty of trails and roads by defacing trees or uprooting plants or throwing paper and other litter about.5 The success of these various programs convinced Dymond that professional-looking, illustrated booklets that visitors could obtain for a small charge, needed to be prepared, so that the reader could become familiar with some of the commoner plants and animals. He also felt that a permanent Park naturalist staff was needed and a proper museum building be built. He lobbied Deputy Minister MacDougall extensively, and in 1952 the Algonquin Park Museum opened at Found Lake. Its first year of operation with completed exhibits was in 1953, during which time,attendance reached 52,000 visitors According to Helmsley:
“The first lecture in the lecture hall that could contain 100 people was standing room only. We then they added an outdoor program at the Cache Lake Rec Hall that took place in July and August. There was no set agenda and the naturalists would talk about whatever interested them. Lodge owners in the area welcomed the program and would turn over their dining rooms every other week and all the guests would come to the ‘nature’ talk.”
Today these initial efforts have spawned what is now an integral part of the Algonquin Park experience. The original museum exhibits were expanded and moved to the Algonquin Park Visitor’s Centre. Dymond’s idea for a few Park-related booklets about the natural world in Algonquin Park is now a huge collection of booklets about all aspects of the Park’s ecosystem including trees, plants, birds, insects, butterflies, mammals, mushrooms, reptiles and wildflowers as well as over a dozen technical bulletins about various aspects of Algonquin Park life managed by the Friends of Algonquin Park. His ideas about how to conduct hikes have led to the production of 17 trail guides that introduce hikers to a different theme about Algonquin's human or natural history. Each guide contains a map of the walking trail, and the text is keyed to numbered posts along the trail. During the summer months are a wide variety of guided hikes, canoe outings and a special daily program for kids at the Visitor’s Centre all of which lead back to J. R. Dymond from Smoke Lake. Dymond was later awarded the “Order of the British Empire” for his role in ‘making Canadians aware of the need to conserve their natural resources, not just the wildlife alone but the whole ecosystem of life, soil and water.
1 Recollections from Nancy Martin 2003
2 Today this original trail forms part of what is now called the Track and Tower Trail located off of Highway 60 at km 25.
3 Interview with Allan Helmsley by Ron Pittaway 1976
4 Interview with Allan Helmsley 1976 and Dymond report to Harness 1947.
5 Dymond Interpretive Program Report to Harkness 1947.