Traveling Back in Time on the Trent River

Most people visit the Trent River looking for fossils, and with good reason. The Trent River cuts deep through the marine shale of the 80 million year old Haslam Formation and the layers of sedimentary rock make for good fossil hunting. I was more interested in visiting the Trent to search for photographic opportunities created by the work of water on stone. August is an ideal time of year to explore the river because the water flow is so low that walking up the water-sculpted rock is easy.

Trent River Shale Cliffs
The Trent River cuts deep into the marine shale of the 85 million year old Haslam Formation.

The Trent River is a popular local destination, so getting there early is a good idea if you want the river to yourself for a while. When I arrived there was one truck parked at the pull-off just north of the bridge on the Inland Island Highway. From the parking area I headed upstream to shale cliffs and beyond to the upper falls. The other option is to head downstream to check out the lower falls (haven’t done that yet, but it looks pretty cool).

I took my time trying out different compositions. Most of the river is in shadow early in the morning because of the high cliffs so a tripod is a good idea. I tried several long exposures to get a bit of a milky effect in the moving water, but I think that perhaps the water was moving too slowly or I didn’t use a slow enough shutter speed—I’m still learning how to photograph landscapes effectively and capturing water well has been a struggle.

Marine Shale on the Trent River
Geological abstract of marine shale and other harder rock.

Walking up the Trent River in the early morning is a surreal experience. For awhile my only companion was a solitary American dipper who was working the slow flow of the river and moved upriver ahead of me. It was very peaceful with the sound of water flowing over boulder and shale.

Eventually I met the owner of the truck. Around a bend in the river I could hear the ring of hammer on stone. A man, who I later figured was probably Skippy of The Fossil Freak Show, was busy working away at the shale. We talked briefly and then I carried on upstream, working my way along the bottom of the steep, crumbling, shale cliffs. The rock formations were gorgeous but hard to capture—I had better luck with the light on my return through this section of the Trent.

Crumbling Cliffs on the Trent River
Bands of harder rock crisscross through the softer marine shale to create interesting patterns and places for plants like silverback luina (Luina hypoleuca) to grow.

A little further upriver of the cliffs were the upper falls, a sheet of smooth rock which the water had worked into bowls, channels and potholes.

Channel Below Upper Falls
The main channel of the river below the upper falls – in August, the water flow is very low.

At this time of year, not much water was flowing over the stone so it was possible to explore the falls and find some natural sculptures. I carried on a bit further, but turned around when the riverbed became choked with larger boulders and downed trees.

Pool Above Upper Falls
The rock above the upper falls on the Trent River is carved and smoothed into pools and channels.

On my way out I started to meet a few people making their way upriver. However, judging from the number of the vehicles in the pullout when I got back to my car I think that most people headed toward the more dramatic lower falls. If you’re looking for a bit more solitude, head up the Trent River and enjoy the trip back in geological time to the Upper Cretaceous. Take some time to photograph the rock formations and keep an eye open for fossils. You never know what you might find!

Getting There:

Head south from the Courtenay/Cumberland interchange (Exit 117) approximately 3 km on the Inland Island Highway 19 until you reach the bridge over the Trent River (just after the CPFP Road overpass). Park on the north side of the bridge (look for parked vehicles). Head down under the bridge and look for the trail that follows alongside the river—it eventually comes out onto the river bank where you access the river bed during low water flows. Trail access to the lower falls is via a trail on the north bound lane of Inland Island Highway. Some scrambling down a steep slope with a rope is required. Zoom in for more details.