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Slate Falls, Ontario - there's an extra unseen passenger along for the ride as I cram into a compact single- engine Caravan float plane with NOW co-owner Alice Klein and a group of environmentalists to explore Ontario's magnificent - and at-risk - ancient northern boreal forest.
The grey ghost of my long-gone hunting-and-fishing-loving Newfoundlander grandfather Harry - my dad's dad - has slipped in among the knapsacks, canned food and camera gear that overflow this plane as we head way north of Superior.
I know we've hit a cruising altitude of 3,500 feet since leaving the dock at Sioux Lookout because I'm up front in what would be the co-pilot's seat if it weren't being filled by a queasy journalist, getting too much information from the dials and gauges that blink and flash mostly meaninglessly in front of me.
I'm determined to stay calm as the pilot balances a cellphone on his thigh, occasionally steering the plane with just a few fingers as he struggles to make his call. Friends in touring rock bands have tried to spook me with tales of weather-battered planes and secret-prayer-filled flights up north.
This is a smooth ride, but the beautiful day doesn't make the scarred landscape any less tragic. Logging road gashes and the damage from stripped-away soil and trees are easy, if painful, to see from the plane.
As acres of forest, some debased, some dazzling, slip by below, I start to think of my mother's side of the family. Both her parents were journalists, and my parents met working on a newspaper; all of them were reporters for significant periods of their lives. My family and I have helped consume tons of newsprint over the years, even if NOW has been using strictly recycled since the mid-80s.
Klein and I have decided defending ancient Ontario forests and encouraging other publishers to demand new sources of paper pulp will be one of our projects for NOW's next 25 years.
As we fly past the 51st parallel, the landscape becomes truly pristine, with no roads, hydro wires or logged-out patches. We're now above the "cut line," the legal boundary beyond which forest companies cannot strip the land of trees. They want to move the line further north, which is partly why we're here.
Swooping down into Knobby's, a spartan fishing camp an hour north of Sioux Lookout with a handful of unfinished cabins that Americans will pay thousands to stay in, we are greeted by a crudely painted sign that announces - accurately, it turns out - that we are in "paradise."
Unlike the four guys from Wisconsin who have been coming here to Bamaji Lake for 18 years, I don't fish. I only borrowed a rod for this trip because it was listed with other supplies, like a sleeping bag, that I had to scrounge. The night before Knobby's, I was on Park Avenue with Gay Talese, and while I embrace all things natural - in theory - I'm more at home in Manhattan than muskeg.
As members of this enviro-entourage bargain for bunks in our cabin, it's clear the assembled veggies and vegans aren't really that committed to the "fish for our dinner" plan outlined in our pre-flight itinerary.
But I'm determined to have the full experience. I recruit another reluctant rod-and-reeler to join me on the water, and an accommodating marine biologist agrees to skipper our skiff and, more importantly, to hook our lines and unhook the fish in the unlikely event we catch any.
I've learned before this trip that nature isn't quiet and it isn't empty either, just filled with different stuff. And so despite the fact that the nearest collection of humans - 160 natives in Slate Falls - is a 45-minute boat ride away, I don't feel alone floating on the water, just smaller, crowded by the life and death that surrounds us, largely unchanged for centuries.
I declare Tracy London from Markets Initiative the "ambivalent fisher" as she holds her pole nervously, ready to grab bragging points for having "tried" to fish but unprepared for what might happen if she actually lands something.
Me too, and so, with the first tug on my line after only 30 seconds in the water, I announce meekly, "I've got something." The rod bends powerfully in a rainbow arch as my grandfather's spirit seems to pull itself from the dark water, his nicotine-stained fingers and strong hands sliding up along my line and into the boat.
As I haul in my first catch of the day, I am stunned by the adrenalin rush that grabs me. And it's not about killing, it's about being part of something bigger, something ancient, alive and in the food chain. It's something my perplexing granddad, who seemed happiest when among the fewest people and the most trees, understood.
It's a feeling that stirs and grows in me throughout the visit up north, where the chaos of the forest floor reveals an unimaginable bounty of plants and life growing from the dead and dying trees, plants and critters.
I never grasped how my grandfather could claim to love animals and also love killing them. He never killed for sport, only for dinner, and I see his spirit the next day when we head over to Slate Falls in our tiny aluminum boats and meet somebody else's grandfather, ex-chief George Bunting.
"When you want a steak or something, you guys run to the supermarket," he tells me outside the band's council house. "Not me. I run to the bush - that's my supermarket, and I don't want to lose that. Look at the beauty you're seeing around here. What right do I have to take that away from my grandchildren?"
There are no roads into Slate Falls, but it's a prosperous village because of the ecotourism bucks the lodge delivers to the band. However, moving logging into the area could change everything.
As we head back to our base, our boats now heavier with the moose meat Bunting has given us, the changing colours of the relentless waves of trees creates a white noise of wonder. But there's a hint of tension. With not a single man-made reference on the shoreline, it's easy to imagine becoming totally lost with no walkie-talkies or cellphones to summon help and no wandering cottagers on the shore to tell someone we'll be late for supper. Seems somehow like a fair deal up here - eat or be eaten and try not to fuck everything up in the meantime.
Later that night I proudly announce "surf and turf" as I brandish a fresh catch of pickerel, and even the vegans prepare to eat the moose meat so proudly offered.
The trees of the Canadian Shield are beautiful but relatively scrawny. These aren't the awe-inspiring firs of the BC rainforest, just hard-working hard- and softwoods struggling to survive a short growing season in minimal top soil. It's on the forest floor that the most beauty is revealed, where lichen and moss overwhelm the "waste" of the woods, delivering as much colour and contrast as any tropical locale.
It's like walking on a mattress - the soft forest floor seems to be constantly inviting a nap. In addition to the thousands of micro-creatures that make their homes on this terrain, the lichen and moss are the bread and butter of the shrinking bands of caribou that roam Ontario's north. Wolverines and many more live among both fallen and flourishing trees, and you don't have to be a scientist to understand that a clear-cut forest replaced with tidy lines of a single type of tree can never reproduce this. You can replant trees, but it takes centuries to remake a forest and all of its diversity.
On this good-news, bad-news trip, we crowd into the float plane to visit the legendary Grassy Narrows reserve, where mercury poisoning, unleashed by pulp and paper processing in the 70s, left dozens with deforming Minamata disease. Fittingly, it's a dark, dreary day with a low cloud ceiling. We fly over a mine and its poisonous tailing ponds, allegedly not leaching into the lake beside it. A nasty gash announcing we are no longer in the protected zone - a bleak warning of the desolation to come.
We join Andrew "Shoon" Keewatin
and other activists at a blockade near the reserve built by the local band to thwart Abitibi's efforts to further log their land. Semi-permanent structures, including a gorgeous log cabin, sit among the teepees and ceremonial circles along the road, confirming the depth of this fight and the long haul that remains ahead.
Keewatin has trapped in the Whiskey Jack Forest near Grassy Narrows for more than 40 years, longer if you count the times he worked the woods with his parents and grandparents. Not satisfied to destroy the water, Abitibi has made these woods their next target.
"The bush is just another thing they are taking from us," says Keewatin. "There used to be a lot of people who lived off the river. That's over, and now they are telling us because of the pesticide spraying we can't eat parts of the moose and deer. We can't even eat some of the plants and berries."
The government's and lumber company's claims that this environmental assault in the name of multi-ply toilet paper won't do irreparable damage just don't cut it with the locals.
"I don't think reforestation works because they all plant the same trees, spruce and jack pine. That's only good for the animals that live in those kinds of trees, not good for the animals that need poplar, birch and the rest. They don't plant non-harvestable species."
It's not just the cloudy day that cloaks this battered landscape in sadness - it's the profound feeling of what was lost, fuelled by memories of the euphoric freedom of Slate Falls and the acres of life that surrounds it. "Oh well" just doesn't feel good enough when almost 25 per cent of the remaining ancient forests on the planet remain under Canadian stewardship.
"Pass the word on," says Keewatin beside the blockade's soggy campfire. "Let them know that there is a destruction of a people going on right here. If they take the bush away like they did the other stuff, then we'll start to wonder who we are."
My grandfather knew who he was, and he didn't need bylines and headlines for that affirmation, just a good day on the lake and some fresh meat for his freezer. They'd understand him well here above the 51st parallel, better than his big-city-dwelling grandson ever did. I make a pledge to him and his great-grandchildren to help preserve this huge piece of paradise that is Canada's north.
When I get back to Toronto I promise my own sons I'll bring them up here next summer to the country their great-grandfather would have loved. And I vow to help make sure it's still around when they've got grandkids of their own.
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