Back to the Boreal: Reflections from an Unforgettable Canoe-venture

(2014-09-08) Canoeing almost 800 km through the heart of Canada’s pristine boreal forest is a jaw-dropping, grueling, exhilarating adventure. For me, now into my 60s, it was “epic” to go for almost four weeks this past summer from Wollaston Lake in northeastern Saskatchewan through a series of lakes and 43 portages into northwestern Manitoba, and back.
I had personal goals for my expedition. I wanted to test myself, both mentally and physically. I wanted time to think where there were no distractions from my normal, overly-busy life. Mostly, though, I wanted to experience pure, raw, humbling nature in the boreal forest day after day, week after week. I got everything I wanted - and more.
After decades of working on forest issues, focusing mostly on Canada’s boreal forest, the trip was for me both a culmination and a beginning. I was very fortunate to grow up in the boreal forests of northern Ontario where intact forest landscapes were on my doorstep. And I was fortunate to have a career studying, monitoring, analyzing and poking around in boreal forests throughout Canada. Much of this work involved recording the fragmentation, loss and degradation of these amazing forest ecosystems that is caused by the expanding juggernaut of industrial developments, mainly logging and oil and gas. Much of my fieldwork was done at the frontier edge – pristine boreal forest to the north, industrialized landscapes to the south – where the edge inexorably moved north every year. I thought a canoe trip far into the remaining pristine boreal forest, where civilization would be a long way away (that is, 10-plus hard days of paddling), would be a worthwhile culmination of my decades of boreal forest work. And I hoped the experience would be a new beginning, by psychologically putting me into a more positive mindset where the remaining opportunities for conserving these intact boreal forest landscapes would inspire a re-invigoration of my professional efforts.
What did I learn? I learned to again appreciate the small and grandiose elements of the pristine nature we have remaining here in Canada. Playful river otters in the deeper waters and mink along the shoreline. Increasing evidence of caribou as we canoed north. Plentiful fish often caught on the first cast. Seemingly endless vistas of lakes, islands, forests, peatlands, eskers, Canadian Shield rocks, and big skies. The sometimes dangerous waters whipped into frothy waves. Blistering hot days, and cold days that made my fingers go white and numb… I have been humbled and inspired by the sights and experiences, and the feelings they brought forth.
On my journey I was keenly reminded how important conservation work in Canada’s boreal forests is. I think I determine that it is actually noble work. Based on the cold facts, it is certainly critically important work. Canada’s boreal forest is one of Earth’s major ecological treasures. It is more than 14 times the size of California and features large mountain ranges and expansive plains with coniferous and mixed forests, extensive bogs and peatlands and millions of lakes, ponds and rivers. It provides mating, nesting and breeding habitat for more than half of North America’s birds, including billions of migratory songbirds and tens of millions of ducks and geese. It contains millions of caribou. It houses the world’s most extensive network of freshwater rivers, lakes, and wetlands, including some mighty river systems, and captures and stores twice as much carbon as tropical forests. Its intact forest landscapes are greater in size than any country in the world.
On my journey I experienced humility and gratitude. Humility that can only come from a thunderstorm in the heart of the boreal forest whose clap of thunder was so loud that it shook the campsite and made us cower in exhilaration and fear with our hands over our ears. Gratitude that such places still exist and such experiences are still possible. And gratitude for the individuals and organizations who work toward conserving Canada’s boreal forests. May we collectively continue to work towards solutions to preserve it!
-Peter Lee, Executive Director
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