Journeys in ancient and old growth forests

Interview with Sloan Watters

CRW_2784_3The White Bear Forest has one of the most interesting histories of any of Temagami’s old-growth areas. Sloan Watters, a 46-year veteran of the logging industry, named the forest in honour of Chief White Bear, who once had a cabin nearby. The story of this forest is interwoven with the story of Sloan Watters. When Sloan started working for Gillies Bros. & Co. Ltd (now Gillies Lumber Inc.) in 1946, there was a mill just across from White Bear Forest, and at that time they were still logging with crosscut saws and axes, and logs were dragged by horses and floated to the mill on lakes and rivers. Amazingly, though it was in plain view of the mill, White Bear Forest was never logged. Sloan was one of the leaders in the fight to save the White Bear Forest in the early 1990’s, but this was his second time around. He had already fought to save it once before, when he was working at the sawmill in the 1940’s. Here, in the words of Sloan Watters, is the story of the White Bear Forest.

Why was the White Bear Forest left, when everything around it was logged?

Sloan: They never got to White Bear. It was close to town, it was going to be a sensitive area to cut, and we liked to look at it. You could see it right across from the town site when we were all living there. The old man himself (D.A. Gillies), he used to enjoy looking at it, talking about the nice pine across the lake. I had quite a row with one of the camp foremen that wanted to log over there in White Bear. I said, “That shouldn’t be touched; it’s too close; it’s too beautiful; it’s right beside the town and it shouldn’t be touched.” Oh, he was mad. He was going to see to it that they started to log over there. Because it would be cheaper timber, and easier to get out. But I remember Gillies said, “No, we’re not going to do that, we’re going down to the foot of the lake.” All I can remember is being awfully glad that they changed their mind.

Fourty years later, in 1992, the Ministry of Natural Resources gave permission for Goulard Lumber, a small logging company based in Sturgeon Falls, to log the White Bear Forest. (Sloan had then been working at the Gillies’ operation near Ottawa for 30 years).

vertical white pineSloan: Goulard went in and flagged his roads, he knew where they were cutting. They were supposed to go in and start tree-marking in September, I think. We only heard about it in June. My cousin Jack Guppy told me about it. I said, “Come on Jack, that’s right beside town, that’s old pine, they shouldn’t be touching that.”

“Well,” he said, “we saved some of it.”

I said, “That’s no good Jack.” I got quite worked up about it. I got CALA behind me [the cottager’s association]. I explained it all to them, and they were very very supportive. They came right on like gangbusters. Doug Adams was fighting alone all along you know, he wouldn’t compromise anything. I said, “Here’s support for my ideas, I’ve got to go where my support is,” and we dragged the cottagers in.

So we started to fight. it wasn’t finally decided till the spring of 1997. Gee whiz, we were five years fighting for that thing. It was an awful fight. It kind of came about when Earthroots and the Wildlands League got interested in it. Dan McDermott (from Earthroots) phoned me up, and I told him, I didn’t know. “We’re fighting and all we’re doing is stalling and stalling.”

“Well,” he said, “we want to get in this too, let’s have a meeting. I’m going to get a hold of the MNR and organize a field trip. We’re going to go and have a look at this.” That sounded good. That gave us a bit of a boost. We walked into that stand of pine in the south where they were going to log. I think they were surprised by what they saw in there, some of the MNR people. There’s a good stand of pine in there.

And then we had the meeting at Doug Adams’, and gee whiz I was pleased that we had such a crowd there. We had gone around door to door, telling them, “Come on over, we’re having a meeting and I want to talk about this White Bear Forest, and it’s worth listening to.” And they came over. That was one of the turning points right there. After that a few people in town came on board. But then even after that, it kept going and arguing and arguing, and they said, “We’re trying to look after your concerns.”

I wrote up a paper on the White Bear Forest, came to a meeting, and I said, “Here’s our concerns, and there are too many concerns there by far, for you to try to look after. It shouldn’t be cut at all, there’s too much at stake.” And so they took a vote at that meeting, and said, “Did you want to cut, or not want to cut?” Goulard wanted to cut, he was there for the meeting, and the MNR wanted to cut. They were all for cutting. Everybody else said, “No cut.” That really stopped it then for sure, for a while. From then on, there were more people in town who backed us up. The Chamber of Commerce, and all sorts of groups in town backed us up – no cut.

Then, when the Comprehensive Planning Council presented their report to the Province of Ontario, they said leave the White Bear Forest as a no-cut area. And the provincial government accepted it. I think every decade it stands there it gets to be more valuable all the time, for the future.

Was there a lot of forest like White Bear around once, or has it always been a unique spot?

PA-144140Sloan: I never thought of the White Bear Forest as being better than the other stuff at one time. The main thing in my mind was, “There’s the sawmill, they started here, they logged everything there, they started up this way, and here they were coming close to it and [slapping hands together] they just stopped in time.” That’s the way I felt about it, when we started to fight all that went through my mind was, “it was never touched, it’s scarce as hell.”

That’s very important. Never been creamed off. Because they took the biggest and best ones for square timber, it had to be big. Like imagine here, come and look at the size of some of those things [he points to an old photo of a square timber raft that hangs on his wall]. Now why is it that there’s hardly any of that left? Imagine… that was big stuff for those rafts of square timber. BIG stuff. Only in the White Bear and Obabika is there anything like that left, a little pocket here and there… There must have been lots of pine in the 1850s, 150 feet high, and four feet in diameter. Lots of them. There had to be, in order to put those square timber rafts together, that’s what goes through my mind.

Fishing’s the same way. I was in Temagami and somebody caught a 20-pound trout, in our lake. There’s a hole there about 90-feet deep and somebody caught a 20-pound trout there. And a 10-pounder was caught in front of the old red barn. But the question I asked myself was, why I hadn’t heard of anybody catching a 28-pounder like was caught in the 30’s off of Diabase point. So the fishing’s like the pine too, how come there’s no more great big ones?

The White Bear Forest is now promoted as one of Temagami’s prized tourist attractions, and in 1997 a 400-year-old red pine tree was found there.

This essay is an excerpt from Ontario’s old-growth forests: a guidebook complete with history, ecology, and maps

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