Paddling through the boreal forest

Published on August 31, 2013

By Martin Zeilig

Special to The Telegram

A report by an international panel of leading scientists says old views that as little as “10 percent of a region need to be conserved are false, and at least 50 per cent is needed,” with strict controls on development in the remainder if Canada’s vast boreal forest is to be protected.

The report, “Conserving the World’s Last Great Forest Is Possible,” was released in July in Baltimore, Md., at the opening symposium of the annual meeting of the International Congress for Conservation Biology, which brings together hundreds of scientists from around the world.

The scientists say that while the Canadian boreal is currently still largely intact, time is starting to run out.

“In Canada, more than 526,000 square kilometers (130 million acres) of protected areas are in place in the boreal forest region,” says the report’s authors — an interdisciplinary team of scientists.

But, they note, woodland caribou have disappeared from the southern tier of the boreal, and that most healthy wild Atlantic salmon populations now are found only in the undammed rivers of the boreal regions of Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.

“There are also concerns about the potential effects on the global climate from the release of carbon stored in the boreal forest’s soils and plants,” the report states.

That need to protect the boreal forest was brought home to me in a very tangible way during a recent nine day canoe trip in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park in Northwestern Ontario.

This area is a vast expanse of boreal wilderness that is relatively easily accessed from Northwestern Ontario, Manitoba and the Midwestern United States.

There were three other people — all very experienced canoeists and fellow Nature Manitoba members — on this trip: our leader Jerry Ameis, a University of Winnipeg mathematics education professor, who has canoed in this region for the past 40 years; Todd Bjarnason, an engineer with a Winnipeg aerospace firm; and biologist Monica Reid, an employee with Manitoba Conservation Forestry Branch.

Woodland Caribou adjoins Nopiming and Atikaki Provincial Parks in Manitoba.

Together, Woodland Caribou and Atikaki protect the length of the Bloodvein River which was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1987 (Manitoba) and in 1998 (Ontario).

Woodland Caribou is located within the southern boreal forest region of northern Ontario which is characterized by coniferous forest comprised of black spruce, jack pine, balsam fir, birch and trembling aspen.

 After driving up to the small gold mining community of Bissett, Man., some three hours by road northeast of Winnipeg, we took a single engine Otter turbo float plane operated by Blue Water Aviation, with the two 16-foot Kevlar canoes strapped securely to either pontoon, to our starting point at Artery Lake a 20-minute flight east.

Our route took us upstream on Bloodvein (east) up to where Simeon Lake comes in, south on Simeon system to Dunstan Lake, south on Wanda lake system to Carroll Lake, south on Haggart River to where it zig zags (just before Bulging lake) west on a series of small lakes to Broken Arrow lake, and then north to Crystal lake (on the Wanipigow River system).

We then paddled directly west on the Wanipigow River to Siderock Lake and then to Wallace Lake in Nopiming Provincial Park, Man.

We paddled, portaged and water-walked our canoes a distance of some 160 kilometres through that rough and rugged Canadian Shield country.

Apart from some recreational fishermen, tourists from the U.S., on the first two days, we encountered nary a soul, except for a family out for the August long weekend on the final day of our journey.

We observed imposing bald eagles soaring overhead or perched high on tree tops, a few osprey, merlins, song birds such as Connecticut warblers and boreal chickadees, and, of course, the iconic common loon with its lingering, warbling cry, among other avian species.

See BOREAL, page B13

The park also supports moose and caribou (hence its name), and furbearers such as beaver, otter, muskrat, mink, weasel, lynx, fox and timber wolf. We only spotted one moose from a distance feeding among the reeds near the shore.

At one point, we came upon faded prehistoric paleo pictograph sites, some 1,000 years old (or maybe more), painted on the side of billion, or more, year old rock.

I was awestruck.

“Who were these people,” I wondered to myself, as we paddled closer to get better photographs.

We were paddling part of the Bloodvein River historic fur trade route, the secondary path used in previous centuries by the Hudson Bay Company and rival Northwest Company between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Superior.

First Nations people call it Nishwawbe-Aski — “Land of the Original People.”

Early French fur traders referred to it as Le Petit Nord, as distinguished from Le Grand Nord — the vast area west and north of Lake Winnipeg.

Despite its name, the Little North, which includes Woodland Caribou, encompasses more than 20 major lake and river systems within more than 500,000 square miles, says the remarkable book, “Canoe Atlas of the Little North,” by Jonathan Berger & Thomas Terry (Boston Mills Press/Firefly).

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the boreal forest is approximately 380,000 square kilometres in size — larger than Germany, according to information available from Natural Resources Canada.

“It comprises seven per cent of Canada’s Boreal Forest,” says the material.

“It is home to 14 aboriginal communities, and stores 21 billion tonnes of carbon in its soils, peat and forests — an amount equivalent to 107 years of Canada’s annual carbon emissions.

“It’s the breeding ground for 70 million to 200 million birds of more than 150 bird species, including harlequin duck, olive-sided flycatcher, bay-breasted warbler and rusty blackbird, and supports more than 3,000, or nine per cent of Canada’s threatened boreal woodland caribou population.”

This includes the world’s largest tundra-dwelling caribou herd — one that has seen declining numbers over the past few years — in Labrador’s George River region.

 “With mounting pressures on boreal regions of Canada, it is clear that maintaining the region’s globally important conservation values will require very large protected areas,” writes biologist Dr. Dr. Jeff Wells, co-author of “Conserving the World’s Last Great Forest Is Possible” and science adviser to Pew’s international boreal conservation campaign.

“Ensuring that the identification and management of these areas is led by Aboriginal communities must be a priorty.”

Canada’s boreal forest expanse is one of the world’s great ecological treasures. Large and connected portions of it must be preserved for future generations.