Windigo Lake - As the province plans for a logging invasion of the fragile boreal north, a team of ecologists paddle remote Windigo Lake to catalogue the effects of the southern clear-cutting that's already messing with the weave of life in one of the largest original forests on earth.
Some 530 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, the asphalt runs out at Pickle Lake, a small air depot town just beyond the advancing line of clear-cuts in Ontario's distant boreal domain. Driving another three hours through the bush on a lonely gravel road, we reach the real end of the line, Windigo Lake, deep in the second-largest intact original forest on earth. Covering almost half the country and 70 per cent of Ontario, Canada's boreal forest accounts for one-quarter of the planet's surviving original wooded cover.
But the vastness of the landscape belies its fragility. Its brief growing seasons, smaller diversity of species and slimmer survival margins than forests farther south mean it's much more vulnerable to human interference. And the boreal is certainly facing major intrusion. Besides mineral exploration fired by soaring Asian economies and pressures for hydroelectric plants, the $19-billion forest industry with a dwindling southern wood supply is hungrily casting its eyes north.
Over the next few years, the provincial government will be charting a strategy for lumbering this pristine wilderness, which together with its Siberian and northern Europeon flanks store more carbon and hold more free-flowing and standing fresh water than any other region in the world. Ecologists are on high alert.
Under gathering August clouds, four red canoes push off into the Windigo waves carrying four members of the Wildlands League, a Cree guide, a University of Toronto microbiologist, myself and This Hour Has 22 Minutes' Cathy Jones, lending the 80-kilometre paddle some publicity panache. On the first morning, I get a reminder of logging's casualties. The far northwest has become the last refuge for many creatures driven out of logged-out areas, and our guide, Samuel Wasakimik, recently saw one of the refugees, a wolverine, nearby. It's a significant spotting - there are currently only a small number of these threatened, famously ferocious and intelligent members of the weasel family left in Ontario. The more incursions made in the forest, the worse for the wolverine. To survive, each male needs a range of 1,000 to 3,000 square kilometres of undisturbed habitat.
Wasakimik was born on Windigo Lake 67 years ago, when a Hudson's Bay trading post occupied one of its islands. Most of his people now live in the Weagamow Lake First Nation 40 kilometres to the north. The Wildlands League is here at the invitation of the community, which has asked for assistance mapping the now uninhabited Windigo River's rapids, portages and other features to promote ecotourism.
The remote region is best appreciated from the air or water. From several thousand feet up in a float plane, the boreal spreads out in a boundless mosaic of black spruce and balsam fir mixed with open expanses of bright green or yellow muskeg, stands of white-trunked aspen and birch, rocky clearings, jack pine ridges and wide stretches of dense of regeneration coming back from forest fires.
Through this varied, roadless landscape, the Windigo River churns into two dozen sets of cascading rapids that we must run or portage around. Ultimately, like all the wild rivers flowing through most of Ontario, its pure, rushing waters spill downstream into frigid Hudson Bay.
As it begins to rain, Wasakimik locates the Windigo's first portage, impossibly hidden in a dense alder thicket rising out of the muddy shallows. While the rain makes the going all the more slippery, it brightens the forest interior's vibrant lime-green carpet of moss bejewelled with glistening red mushrooms and clusters of scarlet bunchberries, overhung by long, pale wisps of old man's beard lichen draped from branches above.
The boreal's abundance of lichens, especially ground-growing varieties, is key to the survival of the region's iconic, threatened woodland caribou, the only large mammals able to stomach the acidic roughage that makes up 60 to 70 per cent of their diet.
Wandering widely, alone or in loose groups of up to a few dozen, the extremely elusive "grey ghosts" of the north woods require large tracts of dense, mature evergreen forest and muskeg, where extremely slow-growing lichen colonies are expansive enough to get them through hard winters. "Caribou are indicative of how well we take care of the forests, because they need large areas and are very sensitive to disturbance," says Anna Baggio, the Wildland's director of conservation land use planning.
Regeneration after logging usually yields large areas of birch, aspen and balsam poplar favoured by moose and deer, which are followed by wolves and a deer-borne disease that nails caribou. Though woodland caribou once lived as far south as Algonquin Park, only an estimated 5,000 remain in Ontario's boreal forest, confined to the regions logging hasn't reached.
Research by Trent University's James Schaefer indicates the big ungulates featured on the Canadian quarter will disappear from Ontario in less than 80 years if logging and development continues at present rates, often called a slow-motion extinction.
The 62,000 kilometres of logging roads that slice through the southern half of Ontario's boreal forest are particularly devastating to caribou and other wildlife. Fly-in camps "can fish a lake forever," says Pickle Lake outfitter Lynn Cox, who's also a member of the Ontario Parks board of directors. "But as soon as they push logging roads in, it's all over. A lot of people follow those roads in and fish a lake steady. The fish populations just can't take it."
Cox sees the needs of remote tourism operators being overlooked in favour of logging . Low commodity prices and mechanization that has raised the volume of timber cut by 14 per cent between 1990 and 2002 have led to a decline in jobs in the industry. "Mill workers' jobs are so immediate and visible," she notes.
Plans for forestry operations beyond the present legal logging limit were set down five years ago by Queen's Park in the Northern Boreal Initiative, which covers a 30- to 180-kilometre-wide band running across the province. The NBI aims to give native communities the lead role in planning and, if they choose, undertaking logging and other economic activities, and in setting aside parks on their traditional lands, says Roy Sidders, the Ministry of Natural Resources area supervisor in the Red Lake District in northwestern Ontario.
Sidders represents the MNR in the most developed of the community-based NBI plans so far, the Whitefeather Forest Initiative being undertaken by the Pikangikum First Nation, covering about 12,000 square kilometres. He expects the planning process and environmental assessment to take another five years before any cutting can actually begin in the area.
"It's a terrific planning process, very open-dialogue and consensus-based," says Sidders. "It looks at all resources. It looks at a balance of the traditional uses [native people] had for the land, conservation and economic development." If other First Nations aren't ready to enter the process, he adds, then development won't proceed.
Many native and enviro groups, however, take a much dimmer view. They argue that the NBI's ad hoc and limited approach is designed more to secure access to resources than to meet the needs of northerners and conservation. David Peerla, mining coordinator for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 communities, charges that the process is not holistic enough to protect the area. It focuses primarily on forestry, he says, and doesn't take mineral exploitation into consideration. "Land use planning can't just be an experiment in one community. It has to be over the whole landscape.'
All development plans should be frozen, he says, until the courts can affirm that the 1905 treaty covering the Nishnawbe Aski lands was one of friendship, not a surrender of territory and resources. "It's an unfair struggle because we're talking about the poorest folks in Canada,' Peerla adds. "Money [for planning] comes from the government with strings attached."
Indeed, pressure from logging companies has already won government commitments allowing them to cut on lands adjacent to the Whitefeather forest and in other areas covered by the NBI, says Baggio. The Wildlands League wants a moratorium on all proposed developments until more comprehensive safeguards and land use planning are completed for the entire area. It's urging that at least half the region be set aside in a network of interconnected parks, wildlife refuges and other protected areas, with resource extraction restricted to smaller, specially designated zones, the reverse of the southern model.
"We want nodes of development in a sea of protection," explains Baggio.
Chris Henschel, the Wildlands League's manager of forest certification and one of two whitewater experts piloting us through the Windigo's rapids, warns that without protection, logging companies may cherry pick prime stands in the north, where the forests dwindle in size and stature. "They pay particular attention to jack pine ridges. The most productive areas [for logging] tend to be the most ecologically diverse sites. They're often areas of high caribou value," says Henschel.
On the Windigo, caribou remain unseen, but a moose and otters swim by. A rarely spotted fisher scrambles by at one portage, and a claw-scarred spruce trunk testifies to a recent visit by a bear at another. Bald eagles are everywhere, soaring, perching or circling.
During the latter part of our journey, we paddle through several extensive areas where fires had raged on both sides of the river some years before. While disembarking to portage around a long, furious set of rapids though one of these burns, we hear the distant ominous rumble of thunder, like God dragging a canoe over massive rocks. It hails briefly before we begin thrashing through alternating tangles of alder, willow, young spruce, poplar and jack pine,and open patches of Labrador tea, pink fireweed flowers and bountiful blueberries.
In comparison, we find no blueberries in the clear-cuts on the road to Pickle Lake. The ground there, pulverized by huge chain-wheeled harvesting machines and bulldozers, is dry, bare dirt, without moss or lichen. With the best trees taken, the few scattered, scraggly birch, aspen and evergreens that companies are required to leave behind look like sad survivors.
Roberta Fulthorpe, the expedition's U of T microbiologist, notes that clear-cuts lack the layer of organic crust present in the burn sites. Her mission on the trip is to collect soil samples to determine the capacity of the boreal soil's bacteria to break down persistent air-borne toxins such as PCBs, dioxin and DDT. According to one estimate, boreal forest vegetation, peat and soil may intercept 50 per cent of the industrial chemicals from the atmosphere that would otherwise reach the Arctic ecosystem and food chain.
"The boreal zone would provide better protection for the Arctic if [bacteria] degrade as well as absorb. If they just absorb, [toxins] can be re-released by fire or cutting," explains Fulthorpe.
Ecologists also worry that expanded logging, mining and road-building could accelerate global warming by releasing the region's enormous stores of carbon, especially from its thick layers of organic material accumulated in bogs and muskeg since the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago.
De Beers recently received federal enviro assessment approval for its Victor Diamond Project near Attawapiskat and the James Bay coast. It will cover 50 square kilometres and drain a sweep of muskeg and forest four times the size of the Greater Toronto Area.
Northeast of Pickle Lake, Placer Dome's Musselwhite gold mine sprawls in the middle of the wilderness, a complex of buildings, parking lots, an open pit and tailing heaps. We pass over it in the turbo Otter float plane that picks us up on the shores of Nikip Lake at the end of our journey.
Heading back to Pickle Lake, we make an emergency detour to pick up an injured worker at a fly-in camp being used by a mineral exploration company drilling for diamonds. As the plane takes off again, the Wildlands Leaguers wearily eye what could become the next Musselwhite or Victor Mine and another battle in the long fight to save a vast but little-pondered realm many hundreds of kilometres from southern Ontario.