Journeys in ancient and old growth forests

Wolf Lake

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There have always been places in the wild that stood out as exceptional – today we may call them ecologically significant areas, natural heritage sites, or endangered ecosystems, but in many cultures these areas were, and are, considered ‘sacred groves.’

Gary Snyder, writing about sacred groves, recalled a trip through the Australian outback. “There were large unique boulders, each facet a surprise. There was the sudden opening out of a hidden steep defile where two cliffs met with just a little sand bed between, and some green bushes, some parrots calling. We dropped down cliffs off a mesa into a waterhole you wouldn’t guess was there, where a thirty foot blade of rock stands on end, balancing. Each of these spots was out of the ordinary, fantastic even, and sometimes rich with life.”

This description reminds me of the Obabika stand in Temagami, but also of Wolf Lake with its turquoise waters, hidden waterfalls, and boulder slopes. These places, and many others, have made themselves known: to native peoples, to local citizens, to resource managers, sometimes (seemingly perversely) to sawmill owners – sometimes they have been marked as special, and preserved. And whatever the ecological significance of these areas once was, by virtue of their preservation they become important, because they are among the last of their kind.

The Wolf Lake forest’s ecological significance has been increasing over time as areas around it were logged. The area was originally spared from cutting at least in part by chance. A series of logging dams was built in 1901, and for reasons unknown was never used. Probably one factor was the poor growing conditions in these forests, resulting in trees that are often small for their age. The area was again slated for logging in the 1980’s, but Sudbury area forester Harry Struik made a routine visit to the area and was surprised by the age, density and extent of red pine in the forest. He recalled that “it became my decision that we weren’t going to harvest the old-growth red pine.”

A logging road had been built through the area, however, and it’s doubtful that Struik alone could have excluded logging from the area for long – but again chance intervened. Following the arrest of 344 protesters near the Obabika stand in Temagami, the new provincial government under Bob Rae (who had himself been among those arrested) took an interest in identifying and protecting old-growth forests in central Ontario. Two new reports were commissioned by the MNR, one by Norm Iles in 1990 and another by the consulting company Arbex in 1991, that identified the Wolf Lake Forest as likely the largest old-growth red pine forest in Ontario, with trees approaching 300 years old. Logging was frozen, the area entered its long status in purgatory, which was formalized in 1999 when it was designated a forest reserve. This designation allows mineral exploration and mining, but prohibits logging.

Wolf Lake missed becoming part of a provincial park because of outstanding mining claims; the intention was that as mining claims and leases expire, the area should be added to the neighbouring Chiniguchi Waterway Provincial Park. That isn’t what happened; in 2011 and 2012 Ontario renewed Wolf Lake area mining leases for another 21 year term.

CRW_9715Wolf Lake is now believed to be the largest contiguous red pine old-growth forest in North America. Several things make the Wolf Lake area unique, including very high density of pine in the canopy, uneven-aged red pine forest, and dense pine regeneration. The older trees in this forest have been aged (by tree core) at 310 years old, and many of the old red pines in this forest have survived at least 5 different fires.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that the largest remaining old-growth red pine forest should be unique in other ways. In 2013 a group of eminent ecologists wrote an article in Biodiversity & Conservation (Anand et al. 2013), looking beyond rhetoric and examining the scientific value of the Wolf Lake Forest. “The large size of the Wolf Lake Reserve increases its value for biological conservation, not simply through the link between size of areas and species diversity, but also because of implications for processes,” the article states. The most important process in red pine forests is fire. As a species, red pine is adapted to fire, and especially light surface fires that burn off leaf litter and kill shrubs. The thick puzzle-like bark of red pine bark protects the trees from the fire, allowing the trees to drop their seeds onto the newly prepared seed-bed. The Wolf Lake Forest is large enough that fires can ignite and burn in a more of less natural way, and it is one of few places where this can still happen.

No matter how much scientific evidence can be assembled, the preservation of an area often depends on the personal, emotional connection that people have with it. The undeniable appeal of Wolf Lake stems from park-like ridges, and steep cliffs from which boulders have seemingly been hewn and fallen randomly on the talus slopes below; or a series of long narrow islands resembling the humps of sea serpents, to which dwarfed trees cling like primordial barnacles. The Chiniguchi River tumbles in a series of cascades into and out of the lakes. Kay Milton, in her book Loving Nature questions distinctions between emotion and rationality; and our emotional connection to Wolf Lake does indeed seem to have rational underpinnings. The open, rocky landscape that attracts us also add heterogeneity to the landscape that increases habitat diversity. Forest openings are habitat for a distinct community of plants, and these relatively warm sunny spots may help plants migrate in the face of changing climate. Old-growth forests also have been shown to have greater plant diversity compared to younger forests.

On the north-west shore of Sylvester Lake just before the narrows to Wolf Lake, many of the mature trees are up to 200 years old, and a number have blown down in wind storms, having been weakened by heart rot caused by fire scars from long ago. They criss-cross weirdly like pick-up sticks. CRW_9739 This oddly beautiful phenomenon is a perfect hunting ground for American Marten in winter, which use the tunnels under the snow to hunt red-backed voles. In summer, the marten will be elsewhere, possibly in younger or deciduous forests that they eschew in winter – we need to become accustomed to perceiving whole landscapes as habitat, in the same way that animals and plants interact with them. Large areas such as Wolf Lake assume greater conservation importance when we take a landscape perspective.

And what of sacred groves? Wolf Lake would surely qualify. I’m uncomfortable with the term sacred taking on too much importance in the discourse, but I’ll give the last word to Gary Snyder: “There’s no rush about calling things sacred. I think we should be patient, and give the land a lot of time to tell us or the people of the future. The cry of a Flicker, the funny urgent chatter of a gray squirrel, the acorn whack on a barn roof – are signs enough.” Or perhaps we should say the call of the pileated woodpecker, the obstreperous chatter of the red squirrel, and the gentle lapping of water against a rocky shoreline- are signs enough.

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