by Isobel Harry
EVANSVILLE—It had been a sunny November Saturday morning but by the time the 4elements Living Arts Western Oak Savannah Orienteering and Creative Mapping excursion group met in early afternoon in the savannah near Evansville, the sky was overcast and the air chilly.

Undeterred, the intrepid all-ages group of about 12 adults exited their warm cars parked on the area’s alvars, put on jackets, hats and gloves and stuffed thermoses and water bottles into packs while Suki the dog loped around eager to set off.

In the cozy comfort of the Gore Bay Airport lounge, Sophie Edwards (holding paper) describes “creative mapping” to excursion participants.
In the cozy comfort of the Gore Bay Airport lounge, Sophie Edwards (holding paper) describes “creative mapping” to excursion participants.

Savannahs are plains covered in coarse grasses and scattered trees that are found typically in eastern Africa and South America; on the Kip Fleming Tract just east of Evansville it’s easy to imagine elephants plodding through the grass to the bur oaks’ acorns or a flock of flamingoes taking off in a pink cloud, so exotic a setting it is almost disorienting.

So, first we had to learn how to use the compasses that were passed around by Elemental Excursions Program Coordinator Heather Thoma, along with a couple of maps for each participant. Many were the blank stares as some came face to face with a compass for the first time. Roy Jeffery, however, had faced this small instrument with a dial covered in numbers, quivering arrows and a mirror since he was a young Boy Scout and so his orienteering expertise had been enlisted to help us uncover its mysteries, along with Veronika Bingaman who had travelled this land before; both are members of the Manitoulin Nordik Ski Club, a partner of 4elements. Other partners include Manitoulin Streams, Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates, Sheshegwaning First Nation and Billings Township.

We peered at the dials as Roy explained the difference between geographic and magnetic poles and how to reconcile them while plotting our course. Using a satellite image of the area, we laid our compass edges on the north-facing line of the highway then pointed them toward our destination, a wetland a couple of kilometres west. Away we went, over thick moss and around large junipers, picking the tart blue berries to eat along the way, holding the compasses in front of our faces, lining up our target through a little gap at the top of the mirror (handy, too, for periodic checks on one’s hat placement).

We were in a 420-acre parcel of land that had been purchased in the 1990s by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), a broad savannah of “rare flora and vegetation communities,” according to the NCC, scattered with many bur oaks at the edges. “Although bur oaks are relatively common, the Bur Oaks Savannahs that can be found on Manitoulin Island are very rare in Canada, and only occur in southern Ontario and in patches of southern Manitoba. The Kip Fleming Tract is part of the natural area that supports the largest grassland/bur oak savannah complex known on Manitoulin Island.”

“This type of landscape is rare in Ontario and globally,” says John Grant, NCC’s Program Director for Midwestern Ontario. “These alvars are less exposed than most, the soil is very shallow and this fact, along with hot dry summers and intermittent fires, led to the creation and perpetuation of this prairie or savannah landscape. The NCC protects the uniqueness of the landscape itself.”

Veronika Bingaman, trail guide, waves her compass as the Elemental Excursions group heads across the savannah bordered by bur oaks, a protected landscape of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
Veronika Bingaman, trail guide, waves her compass as the Elemental Excursions group heads across the savannah bordered by bur oaks, a protected landscape of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Soon we arrived at the wetland, shallow water sloshing underfoot. It was time to recalibrate the compasses as we were now going to head back to our entry point. This walk, part of 4elements’ ‘Elemental Excursions’ program, was to combine learning “ways of seeing and navigating the landscape using a compass and map” with making “artwork using creative approaches to ‘mapping’.”

For the second part of the outing, we piled back into cars for the short drive to the Gore Bay Airport, where Robbie Colwell, the airport manager, had generously offered the use of the warm lounge. Just in time, too, as the skies opened right then to unleash hail and slushy rain as we dashed for cover.

Inside, Heather Thoma guided us in imaginative play with ‘personal mapping’–first writing then drawing with crayons a ‘map’ of our lives, locating and reading signs and routes to places within ourselves. The fresh air and exercise, the beauty of this rare, protected landscape, the grappling with orienting ourselves by compass, the application of orienteering to our own creative processes, it was all very bracing (and fun!), each activity complementing the other in unforeseen ways.

Heather explains that, in programming Elemental Excursions (funded by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport), “My inclination and tendency is to create spaces for artmaking where the focus isn’t so much on developing specific techniques and skills of painting or drawing per se, but to increase awareness and seeing, both outwardly and inwardly. We always hope to stretch people’s creative thinking in new and positive ways!” She hastens to add that 4elements also offers “many sessions which do include [a] more traditional approach to artmaking, to introduce and develop the more expected techniques and skills in painting, drawing, photography, etc.”

4elements’ Executive Director Sophie Edwards emphasizes that, “Excursions and all our programs offer ‘ways-in’ to art-making, some less formal, most designed to not be intimidating, but all engage people in skills and techniques…Even the creative map making encourages people to think conceptually, which is an important step in creating ‘formal’ art.”

To view a list of 4elements’ upcoming, free, Elemental Excursions, go to

The Nature Conservancy of Canada “encourages organized groups to explore the Kip Fleming Tract, although we ask that interested parties contact NCC staff in advance so that we can make arrangements with our neighbours, who own the access laneway leading onto the property. Access during hunting season is discouraged due to use of the property by authorized hunters.”

The Manitoulin Nature Club has compiled valuable bird and plant species lists there over the years; school groups have visited and are welcome also.

To book your group’s time in the savannah, contact NCC’s Stewardship Coordinator, Mike Francis, at . For more on NCC protected properties on Manitoulin, visit