Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I guess I'll always be a Boreal Forest dweller

The Boreal Forest seems to go on forever, broken only by lakes and rivers. Doug Billings took this photo of the forest on the shores of Red Lake, near Bow Narrows Camp
Our cross-continent journey made me appreciate our absolutely awesome Boreal Forest.
Upon leaving the West Coast, we had left the Pacific Rain Forest behind in a matter of hours. Basically it is confined to the western side of the Rockies. The next FOUR DAYS of traveling east was done in the arid Plains where trees only grew along river courses or on certain sides of mountains and even then only sparsely.
The first trees of any significance started to appear in central Minnesota. For the first time it seemed  that these trees, oaks probably, would have made up significant stands were it not for the fields created by man. Still, you wouldn't call this a forest. "Woods" would have been a more appropriate term. They were stands of trees, not too tall or thick or wide enough to be called a forest.
An honest-to-god forest began right around Duluth and continued along the Minnesota North Shore all the way to the Canadian border. I believe this is part of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest which is also found in northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Eastern Ontario, as well as along the southern fringe of Northwestern Ontario, including Nolalu.
Here there were lots of conifers such as pine as well as red maple, birch and aspen.
From Nolalu northward, however, is the world's largest forest, the Boreal. Red Lake is enveloped by it. This immense ecosystem encircles the globe. It is the lungs of the world, breathing in and storing billions of tons of carbon dioxide and breathing out pure oxygen for the benefit of all animal life.There are few species of trees here: black spruce, white spruce, balsam fir, jackpine, white birch, quaking aspen and balsam poplar make up just about all of it.
The difference between a woods and a forest is this: you can go for a walk in the woods and, even without a compass, walk out again. Maybe you won't come out where you intended, perhaps on a different road or trail, but before too long you will see someone to ask directions and you are soon on your way home. In the Boreal Forest you can walk for hundreds, even thousands, of miles and never come across anything but Boreal Forest. It is like the ocean, going on forever and ever.
I never realized how much I loved it until this trip.
Just as a sailor doesn't feel at home without the swells under his boat and his eyes on the horizon, I am just at ease in the dense "bush" where sometimes even light cannot penetrate. It wasn't always thus. I got lost guiding for moose hunting one time and didn't think I would ever see my loved ones again. As often happens with people who despair in the bush, I panicked, and took off running in pursuit of a landmark that would tell me all was right in the world again.
Fortunately I was young at the time, 18 or 19, and my body and heart stood the test of hurtling windfalls and rocks at breakneck speeds for a couple of hours. Eventually though, even my young body was exhausted. I stood panting, my clothes wringing wet with sweat. I was in the darkest black spruce swamp imaginable. Although it was a clear day and only about three in the afternoon, I couldn't even see the sun through the dense tops of the 60-foot-tall, 200-year-old spruce trees that spread in every direction. Moss-covered hummocks and rotten stumps and little pools of water were all that existed beneath this black canopy.

Reason eventually came back to my feverish mind. There was an almost imperceptible little creek that lead from one tiny pool to the other. It suddenly occurred to me that this creek had to flow SOMEWHERE. It wouldn't go around and around in circles as I had been doing for hours. But which way to follow?
I picked up a dry leaf and gently placed it on the surface of the tiny rivulet. There wasn't a breath of wind in this place. If the leaf moved at all, it would be because there was a current carrying it downstream. It took several seconds but the leaf definitely moved in one direction. Like a shot I went running right down the creek, splashing noisily like a charging bull moose. Within minutes I could see light ahead. I came out at the back of a bay on the lake. Here the creek turned to floating muskeg which I had to skirt to avoid plunging through. As I approached the shoreline of the lake I could hear an outboard motor. I raced toward the sound and reached the lake only to see the boat and its lone driver had already gone past. The driver would be looking ahead and wouldn't see me. I took off my red shirt anyway and gave it a wave over my head.
As if in answer to my prayers, the boat instantly turned toward me. As it drew close I could see it was from camp and the driver was my friend, one of our Ojibwa guides, Jimmy Duck, who was only a few years older than myself.
"What's the matter, you lost?" laughed Jimmy.
"Well, yeah," I replied.
He proceeded to take me back to where I had left my boat tied to the shoreline, about four miles away. On the way he gave me a can of Coke he had taken with him for a snack. It was the best Coke I've ever had in my life.
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1 comment:

Neil said...

Great story Dan! If you ever write a book, I will be the first to buy a copy!