Journeys in ancient and old growth forests

A good place to pick blueberries

How science and local support achieved recognition for a diverse old-growth forest in Temagami

Earlier this fall I was sitting at the top an escarpment on the shores of Blueberry Lake, looking out over pine-crested hilltops receding in blue shades of green towards the Temagami fire tower. With a can of barely cool beer in my hand I watched the late season insects and mused on the irony that Blueberry Lake, the native name of which translates as “a good place to pick blueberries,” is generally a terrible place to pick blueberries. I was also thinking about how a handful of people can sometimes make a difference in conservation.

Red pine forest near the end of the Blueberry Lookout Trail

Red pine forests have a particular smell – in the afternoon sun on that autumn day the scent was resinous, with a hint of charcoal, it smelled like the heat of summer. The sun cut through the open canopy of red pines, falling on a dry carpet of pine needles and mats of reindeer lichen – the forest felt flammable, needing only a spark, perhaps lightning, to set the forest floor alight. Then the fire might spread rapidly, burning shrubs and saplings, opening up the forest but leaving the trees intact and relatively unharmed.

Red pines are adapted to forest fires. Their distinctive puzzle-piece bark is both beautiful and fire resistant, and their fallen needles are particularly flammable. Forest fires sweep through the understory as frequently as every few decades, and often leave a distinctive scar left on one side of the trees (generally the downwind or the uphill side), where fire curls around the trunk and burns a little hotter and longer, killing a section of the inner bark.

This red pine has survived at least two forest fires, which left distinctive fire scars

After the fire passes the red pines rain seeds down on the awaiting mineral soil to start a next generation. The abundant blueberry bushes also resprout and fruit prolifically for a few years, before settling back to patiently wait for the next conflagration. This is the answer to the apparent contradictions of Blueberry Lake – it’s a great place to pick Blueberries, but only every few decades. The steep rocky slopes and dry ridge tops, where red pines tend to dominate in Temagami, also make for beautiful but intense hikes, and they made much of the lake shore inaccessible to logging when timber operations passed through in the 1940s. Consequently the hills on the south-eastern shore of Blueberry lake are crowned with tall white and red pines that exceed 265 years of age, and the north shore is dominated by open red pine stands where trees reach 150 to 200 years. The end of the east bay is beautiful old cedar and yellow birch forest.

The first time we noticed these forests, it was merely as coloured blobs on a land use map produced by the Temagami Comprehensive Planning Council (CPC) in 1997. The forests around Blueberry Lake had been identified as old growth forest that should be made available for logging. We were curious, but couldn’t imagine that an area so close to town could be top quality old growth forest, and remain unknown. The land use planning maps were based on Forest Resource Inventory (FRI) maps, which aren’t always accurate. We expected to find some old trees scattered among stumps from past logging operations, or perhaps a young to middle aged pine stand that barely qualified as old-growth forest. But we nevertheless agreed it merited a scouting mission.

When we landed at the portage to Blueberry Lake, a 250-year-old red pine overhung the stream draining into Cassels Lake – a good sign, but the portage itself was an old winter lumber trail, where logs had been sledded down from the watershed above. A residual pile of sand remained, which had been used five decades before to slow the runners of sleds as they came down the steep hill laden with pine logs. It wan’t looking hopeful.

So we were surprised to see a stand of tall pines on the south-east shoreline, and even more surprised the first time we walked the portage trail to Dalton Lake – the trees were old, reaching 250 years. The stand stretched along the shoreline, and when we first started climbing the steep hill adjacent to Dalton Lake, it was clearly a very special forest. Tree cores showed us that white and red pine were commonly 250 years old, but the forest was a mosaic. In one area old-growth aspen was transitioning to sugar maple, in another jack pine was being replaced by white pine, and there were significant tracts of dense old red pine forest.

IMG_7109_2The lake itself was special, with chains of islands linked by rocky glacial deposits, dramatic cliffs and talus slopes, as well as several spectacular viewpoints. At the time it was virtually unknown to canoeists, and most of the human footprint came from the occasional fisherman, or the lone cottage on the lake. Just to make our visit slightly more surreal, the resident of the cottage at the time boated over and served us strawberry daquiris.

Over time a clearer picture has emerged of the recent history of the lake. Some of the west shore of Blueberry was logged in the 1940s, but the other shores were extremely steep and difficult to log with the technology of the day – and there was plenty of forest around that was easier to get at. The cedar and yellow birch at the end of the bay would have been easy to access, but had little value at the time. Therefore much of Blueberry Lake is surrounded by pristine forest today.

The old-growth trail winds through 265-year-old pine forests

We established scientific research plots in the area and after two seasons of studies decided it was important to establish a trail system to make the area known – with no public support, and no protection, the future of the forest was bleak. Being young and idealistic I spent some two months volunteer trail building, either on my own or with friends, establishing a system of trails that captured the diversity of the forests we had come to love. North Bay artist Liz Lott came out and painted some beautiful paintings of the lake and its forests.

As autumn came on, one day was so windy that even this small lake had two foot waves cresting into white caps, and the red pines waved in the wind like grass. I holed up in my tent and tried not to wonder how sturdy the pines were. None snapped that day, despite fire scars that weakened the trunks of many. The new trails that we built often meandered along existing wildlife trails, and today moose use their old trails and our new ones to get around, and leave piles of poo periodically as if to stake their claim – undeniably they were here first.

By late November 1998, my canoe was breaking through ice to get into the Blueberry portage, and I knew that trail work was done for the year. I posted the final trail signs, and headed home until spring.

Shortly afterwards I learned that modern logging operations were scheduled to come very close to Blueberry within the next few years. Our trails turned out to be more controversial than we had anticipated, and fortunately Temagami resident Bob Olajos heard about them. Olajos, now living in North Bay, is president of the Friends of Temagami, but was then a member of the Local Citizens Committee (a stakeholders group that participates in forest management planning). Olajos recognized the same thing we had. “Blueberry Lake is a beautiful example of old-growth forest, and very easy to access from Temagami,” he tells me. “It’s accessible, but it feels remote.” It was a rare combination, and in 1999 Olajos organized a group of MNR staff, forest industry representatives, and conservationists to visit the lake; they hiked and recorded GPS points for the trails and the viewpoints, and officially recognized the viewpoints, which will lead to at least a softening of any future forest management practices, to the extent that management would affect the view from these lookouts.

Painting by Liz Lott

Other than this concession, and the voluntary withdrawal from a small allocation along the shore of Blueberry Lake by Goulard Lumber, the future of the area remains very uncertain. In 1999 we (AFER) produced a guidebook to the trails, and Blueberry Lake now sees regular use by canoeists despite being on the less popular east side of Temagami. Hundreds of people have hiked the trails, though trail maintenance has been inconsistent. In 2008 Friends of Temagami reopened portages leading to Sunrise Lake, making it possible for canoeists to visit Blueberry as part of a loop.

This year AFER, in partnership with Friends of Temagami, started a reinvigoration of the trail system, with financial support from Nadurra Wood Corporation. We’ll be back in there this spring to finish trail work, replace ageing flagging tape with permanent trail markers, and install thunder boxes at the campsites.

Will Blueberry Lake one day achieve status as a conservation reserve or a park? It’s possible. This seemed nearly unthinkable at one time; the odds are still stacked against it, but I think it is only a matter of time. To know Blueberry Lake is to love it, and as more people visit the area the likelihood of protection increases with each passing year.


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