The Piney sand dunes in the foreground with the Ottawa suburbs and, in the distance, highrises along the Ottawa River. This area was once submerged under the Champlain Sea. (Photo: Colin Rowe/Can Geo)
Just 20 minutes from Parliament Hill, a quiet forest trail wends its way to what looks for all the world like a land-locked beach. There’s no water in sight, just a series of dunes that seem to have been randomly dumped in the woods. These are the Pinhey sand dunes.
This was seashore once, but only the dunes remember. Some 10,000 years ago, all this fine white sand was submerged under the Champlain Sea, a landlocked body of salt water left after the retreat of glaciers that covered North America. The dunes serve as a reminder of the ancient landscape that once was — and just how quickly humans can transform the landscape.
Today, four scattered dunes are vestiges of a single, much larger dune that swept over the area before city planners in the 1950s launched a tree planting program, introducing the tolerant and lumber-ready landscape. As the trees thrived, the organic matter they deposited on the sand began to transform the dunes into a pine forest.