Journeys in ancient and old growth forests

Past Earthwatch Expeditions

Ontario’s Ancient Forests: View from an Earthwatch Expedition Team Memberby Isis D’hossche

campfirerock01When I start writing this report, I feel it will be a difficult task- describing the beauty of the forest, the competence of the field staff and the perfection of the project is almost impossible.



The day before the start of the project I arrived in Canada without luggage. The Air Canada hostess in North Bay hoped my luggage would be there by noon the next day. Our rendezvous place was at the airport at 12 O’clock so I planned to collect it then.

The next day the field staff, Sue, Eric, Michael and Tom met us, the Earthwatch volunteers, at the airport and drove us to the field center. Still no sign of my luggage.

At the field center, Peter Quinby, the Principal Investigator and his wife Marie gave us a warm welcome by offering us a wonderful meal. Then the group was split in two for the training sessions. Michael and Eric taught us the characteristics of the trees and shrubs near the field center. Sue and Tom drove us to a nearby lake to teach us the basics of canoeing.


The next norning we all felt excited to leave for lake Temagami. A 3 hour drive a nd 1 hour of canoe paddling took us to the basecamp. By the time the tents had been set up it was already dinner time. Time flies in Canada.

It wasn’t until the 3rd day of the project that we could start doing the real work. Our first research site was near Blueberry lake- The Earthwatch volunteers were split up into 4 groups each accompanied by a staff member. The sampling work had 4 different aspects so each group did research on one aspect. The place where we did our research was a 20x20m randomly located plot representing a particular slope position.

Sue was the “trees and snags” teacher. Trees of more than 10 cm diameter at breast height were measured and identified. The location of each tree was also registered on a map representing the 20x20m plot. For the snags in the plot we followed the same research and registration procedure but the snags were also assessed for decay class and for woodpecker activity.

The 2 biggest trees in the 20×20 m plot were bored with a tree bore corer. On the small sample of the inside tree, the age-rings were counted.

Late in the afternoon, while we were still at the field doing research, Eric left for North Bay to collect my luggage. I was already asleep by the time he returned to the base-camp.

The next morning I was happy to find my tent set up. Despite the clouded sky and the expected rain my day couldn’t be better.

At the field Tom was the “logs” professor. Calling him a teacher would be an understatement of his knowledge, he was a real log expert. Within the 20x20m plot all the logs that bad minimum 15 cm at the large end and a minimum length of 1 m were identified, measured for length, measured for diameter at each end and assessed for decay rank. The identification was very difficult. Sometimes they were covered by mosses and lichens, the inside of the log was pulp, the branches and the bark were missing. They seemed to me like a “moss and lichen tree”.

Tom wasn’t satisfied with the “moss and lichentree” name and always challenged me to find the correct name.

The “Shrubs and Habitat” group was led by Eric. Percentage cover of all plants taller than 0.5 m and with a diameter less than 10 cm were determined by species within 2,5×2,5m sub-plots that were located within the larger 20x20m plot such that four of them are positioned in the corners and one is positioned in the center.

Habitat conditions and other relevant information were described and recorded for each sample plot.

Despite the rain we did 2 plots that day.

After a very rainy day and night almost all tents started leaking. Everyone was cold and wearing moist clothes. When you got one set of wet clothes you had to wear them during the day. This way you still had warm and dry clothes when returning to the basecamp in the evening. If you put on your dry clothes during the day, you risked having 2 sets of wet clothes by the end of the day. When the sky cleared I was happy to leave the basecamp to do some research. Paddling, bushwacking and doing research kept me busy and warm.

Our understory expert was Michael. Being a botanist, Michael was the perfect man to teach us the names of the small plants. All understory trees and shrubs under 0.5m height and all other vascular plants were assessed for percentage cover by species in 15 1x1m quadrats that were located along each side of the 20x20m plot and down the middle. At first I didn’t like the understory research, because most of the plants were typical of Canada and unknown in Belgium. Not only the English names but also the plants were new to me.

After a few days I got more confident and ended loving this research part most. Due to the late start caused by the morning rain we did only one plot that day.

The next day was a beautiful but long day. Besides paddling we had to “portage” the canoes as well. At the field the group of 15 Earthwatchers was split in two. It took us a days to gather basic experience about each research aspect and now the time had come to do the job more independently.

By splitting the groups up we managed to do four plots a day.

In the days that followed we even broke the record by doing a 6-plot day.


During the project I developed a special interest in mooses. Before I came to Canada I had hoped to see a black bear (not too close if possible) when I heard peter Quinby was the only staff member who had seen a bear (in Temagami) I put my hopes on the moose. As I live in Belgium I had never seen one before. During my time in Canada I did absolutely everything to see one. On our day off I went on moosehunt from 5 am till 7 pm. I saw tonnes of moose excrements, moose footprints but unfortunately the animal wasn’t interested in seeing me.

I hope peter Quinby, Tom Lee and Michael Henry will be able to use the data we’ve collected to convince the Canadian government to put an end to the logging in this unique area.



To me the project was a wonderful experience. Although I have always loved nature the project developed in me a special interest in trees. Back in Belgium I can’t help calling all the names of the native trees I see during my early morning jog.

As a biology and geography teacher I benefit from the experience in several ways. My pupils are very interested in hearing about the project and we successfully used some of the sampling methods on our last walk in a nearby wood.

Not only the knowledge of vegetation but also the similarities and the differences between people from different countries and even different continents interests them a lot. Transferring the knowledge about plants and people isn’t the only thing that’s important to me. Going into nature, experiencing nature in a responsible way is essential too. I hope I manage to develop an interest in nature and make them aware of the importance of our environment.

The experience of waking up in the middle of the night and hearing the loon call, of seeing the fog rise from the lake in the morning, of being in an old-growth white and red-pine stand, and smelling the resin, is unique. The sound of the woodpecker picking holes into the trees, the peaceful and satisfied feeling of paddling back to the base-camp on a sunlit lake in the evening defies description. You have to experience it yourself to understand fully what I mean.



Taking part in this project, being in virgin woods, meeting people from all over the world is a wonderful experience. The project was interesting and of great importance for our planet. The staff were very qualified and professional as well in the field work as regards leading a team. I never felt bored or had the feeling I had to do too much. I never felt any pressure and although sometimes we were in the middle of a forest I never felt unsafe.

Not only the crew were excellent but also the Earthwatch volunteers were wonderful. The differences in age, the varied backgrounds and experiences made us a diverse but very tight TEAM.

I make an appeal to Earthwatch. Please keep sponsoring this Ancient Forest project. Having only 1% of old-growth white- and red- pine forest left in the world this project is an essential investment in our planet. The Principal Investigator, Peter Quinby, and the field staff Tom Lee, Mike Henry, Sue Hewitson and Eric Davies are very enthusiastic and enormously qualified people to lead successfully Earthwatch expeditions. They can make every expedition work.

To ARCO CHEMICAL. Thank you for giving me this great opportunity. I hope Arco will give many teachers the chance to go on Earthwatch expeditions. If all expeditions are as professionally led the sponsoring is worth every penny. Thank you.

Special thanks to Sue, Eric, Michael and Tom who helped me with clothes, blankets, and a sleeping bag while my luggage was missing. Thank you Eric for collecting my luggage at the North Bay airport almost 4 hours driving from the base-camp. Last but not least I want to thank Constance who was so kind to share her tent with me.


Harambee –by Tom Goodridge

Harambee is a Swahili word meaning unity. I learned the word and its meaning this summer when I joined an Earthwatch expedition in Northern Ontario. As a NYC school teacher I received a John Edward Noble Foundation grant to participate. We were there to document the rich habitat which the last remaining stands of virgin red and white pine forest provides in making a case for its preservation.

On this day we had completed three sites on a steep incline, with heavy undergrowth. So we were tired as we entered out canoes and started for base camp, four kilometeres away. Our leader Mike, a Canadian naturalist, must have sensed our mood, for af ter an hour’s paddling he had us gather our five canoes at mid-lake. We shared the food that was left-over from lunch and conversation.

The togetherness felt good so we tried paddling as we held the canoes together. We made progress. We got out some cord and bound the canoes together. Mike sat up on the rear deck cap of his middle canoe, like a gondolier, using his paddle as a rudd er. “Now starboard now port,” he sang out to his green crew. How far we could make it, together? There were two points in the return home that seemed impassable. One was a beaver dam built in a narrow shoal which connected two lakes. Anothe r bottleneck was a shallow inlet where dead cedar still stood upright creating a slalom canoe course.

The wind picked up to our back. Could we catch it? We got a plastic tarp we had stashed for boggy sites. Sue, a semi-retired teacher from England, and Jessie, another of our spirited young Canadian leaders, sat on the front deck caps of two middle ca noes holding the sail. It filled out nicely and moved us along, swelling our spirits as well.

Then the wind died and the sail fell. Jessie wore it like a regal blue cloak. She went into her pack for the abandoned wasps-nest-on-a-stick she had found on our site and held it up as her scepter. It gave us our symbol but without the wind we neede d more power, kipchirchir, my tent-mate fresh from Kenya, broke his reserve to offer the Harambee chant. Harambee has helped Kenya forge one nation from many distinct peoples and is written on their flag. “Harambee, Harambee, tujengee pamoja.” These words, new to us, began to flow into a familiar rhythm.. We moved our vessel more like one great organism.

We approached the beaver dam. Mike had a strategy. He had those of us in the outer boats move to the inner ones. Those in back were to paddle in the narrow space where the canoes taper. At full speed, under his piloting, we hurtled toward the narrow n eck in their darn. Our outer canoes were like pontoons barely touching the water. Could we fly over? We crashed. Once again we failed. The third time we lodged ourselves almost half-way up the beaver’s mound. Josh, a bold young camper from New Jersey, got out of the canoe and onto the beaver’s wigwam to push us off. He wasn’t able to balance getting back in so we sailed off, waving good-bye, before returning to rescue him.

I really don’t know how we managed to thread our girthy contraption through the cedar snags considering we had trouble doing this with individual canoes. But the spirit of harambee is powerful. In triumph we sailed home singing our chant to alert the folks back in camp of our return. Mike, now drunk with success, fell off his canoe in a graceful arc. We laughed at our leader’s dunking, releasing a lot off adrenaline. Success was not his or hers, it was ours. Many had become one in the launching of our dream.

How do I bring this experience back to my classroom? Isn’t harambee the key? What happened on that lake was not preconceived by anyone, we hatched an idea from the midst or the group. Each of us played a part in the whole whose value was only discov ered as we gave ourselves over to it. We accomplished something we thought impossible. This is transformative education. Harambee.




man-coverYou are about to embark on an exciting adventure in studies of ancient forests in Ontario. This manual provides a brief introduction to general aspects of this research expedition. Topics such as daily duties, schedules, useful tips for living in the wilderness and tree identification are addressed.

This project would not be possible without your support. And, accordingly, the quality of the research and of your experience depends in large part on you. Teamwork is the most important ingredient for a successful and safe wilderness research expedition.

Remember, there is no such thing as a dumb question so feel free to ask. The staff are always ready and willing to assist you.

Working in the field for ten days in all types of weather conditions requires team effort. We will all perform duties to ensure that our camp runs smoothly. A duty roster will be posted in the commons area and should be checked daily to ensure that all tasks are performed.. Usually two people will be assigned to a task.



Three meals per day are scheduled, rationed and packed before each expedition:

  • Persons assigned to breakfast preparation should rise by 6:45 a.m. Breakfast is usually served by 7:30a.m.. The cleanup crew should help clean up and wash any dishes which were used.
  • Lunch food will be gathered in the morning just after breakfast so that it can be distributed in everyone’s day packs. Most other lunch preparation will be performed in the field by everyone in the group.
  • Dinner preparation should begin soon after returning to camp (around 5:00-5:30pm.). A wash basin should be placed out before dinner preparation begins so that anyone helping with the dinner can wash up before doing so. There will be a menu plan in the kitchen.


All food can be found in marked containers in the camp pantry.



Each day a crew will clean up and wash dishes after dinner, and bury the compost. In order to preserve water quality and maintain a tidy camp-site, keep the following guidelines in mind:


  • Do not rinse or wash dishes in the lake.
  • Dish water should be disposed of in a small hole dug more than 30 m (100 ft) from open water.
  • Food scraps will be composted at least 30 m from the campsite in a designated compost pit
  • Dishes will be washed with heated lake water and rinsed a with bleached water (1 tablespoon / dish tub).
  • Everything which is not compostable will be carried out from the campsite.
  • We will be recycling paper, plastic and metal – please separate waste from recycling, and wash things before recycling them.


To prevent the ingestion of giardiasis (a nasty parasite), which is transmitted by beaver and may cause severe intestinal upset, water from lakes will be chlorinated for drinking purposes. A water filter will also be available for those who prefer to use it over chlorination. The filter functions by pumping water by hand through a purifying system and into a container.

Water purification duty involves filling the 20 L blue water jug with lake water and treating it with chlorine. Lake water should be collected away from shore – If you find it difficult to lift a full water jug into a canoe, you may wish to use a scoop to fill it in the canoe. Use 40 drops of chlorine bleach to treat 20 L of water.


Swimming in the many lakes of an ancient forested landscape is an enchanting experience, enjoyed not only by expedition members but also by loons, beavers, and many fish and other species. A few things to keep in mind when swimming:

  • Always swim with a buddy, or have someone keep an eye on you.
  • Be sure to check for rocks before jumping in or diving. Never dive deep!
  • Put shoes back on as soon as you get out of the water; even a small cut on your foot can be a real nuisance.
  • Shoes are recommended when walking in water in case of sharp rocks or glass.
  • If you bathe in the lake you should be using biodegradable soap. Try to use modest amounts of soap or rinse on land, since even biodegradable soap can affect the lake.


For general cooking we will use portable propane stoves. Fires may be built in the evenings using existing fire pits. Only dead wood should be used for these fires. A pail of water should be kept by the fire in case it gets out of control. After use, the fire should be thoroughly drowned out.


A box latrine will be provided near the campsite at least 30 m away from the water. Soil will then act as a filter for nutrients and bacteria to protect the lake from pollution by human waste. The path to the latrine will be marked with flagging tape. When in use, the path should be blocked off with a flagging tape “door” to indicate that the latrine is occupied. There will be a water bag with sprinkler hanging by the latrine and we ask that after you finish your business that you wash you hands so that we can maintain the hygiene of the camp. The person on latrine duty will be responsible for filling the water bag and assuring that there is sufficient toilet paper. If a new hole needs to be dug we’ll be taking volunteers.

If you get caught away from base-camp, nothing could be simpler! We will be carrying a trowel and toilet paper. For solid waste and toilet paper, dig a hole, and keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Dig a hole which is 6-8 inches deep (deeper is not better).
  • For solid waste (“shit”) try to locate at least 30m (~100 ft.) away from bodies of water.
  • Beware of areas which may have a lot of run-off in heavy rain or in spring thaw, and avoid very steep or well-drained slopes. Also avoid saturated soils.

Because the areas we’re in generally receive low use, we don’t recommend “packing out” toilet paper.

Useful tips

Wet set, dry set: working in the field, you are guaranteed to get wet. Use your wet set of clothes for working in the field and save your dry set to change into at night. If this means getting into soggy clothes in the morning, do it.

    • Because weather and events are unpredictable, day packs should always include the following items:
      • rain-gear
      • water bottles (at least 1.5 L)
      • sun protection
      • extra clothing (wool shirt/sweater)

Other items your day pack should include are:

  • lunch
  • bug repellent/bug hat
  • gloves
  • sampling equipment
  • matches
  • knife
  • map and compass


  • Know where you are! Use your map! If you are exploring, use the buddy system and inform a staff member of where you are going and how long you plan to be.
  • If you get lost, stay in one place and call out periodically until help arrives.
  • Don’t walk directly behind people – branches may snap back in your face.
  • The forest floor can be treacherous when walking. The following situations may be particularly hazardous:
    • walking on wet logs and rocks,
    • walking around the base of big trees – there may be duff-covered gaps between roots, or in old streambeds where rocks pose the same danger.
    • walking on rocky and boggy ground, it’s especially difficult to judge where a solid foothold is,
    • loose hand and footholds on steep hill-sides
    • listen to your body, drink plenty of fluids and walk at your own pace, and
    • be careful of snags when walking underneath them – they are often very unstable.


If you encounter large animals such as bear or moose, remain calm and stay clear. If you are approached, drop your pack and slowly back away. Never keep food in your tent, as this may attract animals.


Prevent problems before they start

We will always be at least an hour or two from any kind of assistance, sometimes much more. The best way to deal with any medical problem is to avoid it. Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Many accidents happen when people are tired – take a break when you need one, and alert your leader if the pace is too fast (they will thank you for it!).
  • Again, drink lots of liquids – poor hydration is a source of many other problems!
  • Deal with blisters by preventing them; open blisters are a pain! Alert a staff member as soon as feel a spot rubbing. You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to treat a blister which is just forming.
  • Report any problem, no matter how unimportant it may seem .


The wilderness experience

Going to a remote place is an opportunity to grow alongside others, and to know yourself better. The environment we will be in offers the opportunity for inward contemplation, and to share wonderfull experiences and form bonds with others. Also, one’s respect and love of all life grows as we come to know other lifeforms better. These two things will help to protect and heal the earth. Again, thank you for your participation in this Earthwatch project, and remember to walk softly.