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Travel Diary
Boreal or Bust
To write “Paper Chase,” about the future of Canada’s vast boreal forest, contributing editor T. Edward Nickens and ornithologist Jeff Wells spent six days in June paddling through Ontario’s back and beyond. To get a sense of their trip to this true wilderness, take a peek at Nickens’s travel journal. 

Day One/Wednesday

Gillian McEachern.

Before heading into the Ontario backcountry via floatplane and canoe, I spend two days talking about boreal forest conservation with activists, loggers, locals, and scientists. Here, Gillian McEachern stands in a canyon of towering timbers, deep in the Kenogami Forest. McEachern has spent eight years fighting for boreal forests, from the backcountry to the boardroom. Just a few months earlier she’d purchased a single share of Sears stock, attended the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Chicago, and asked corporate officials what they planned to do to preserve Canada’s vast boreal treasures.


Day Two/Thursday

Chris Walterson.

I didn’t want to overlook the human element of boreal forest conservation. I drove through the Ontario town of Geraldton, so tiny it has a downtown only three blocks long. There I met a laid-off mill worker, Chris Walterson, who gave me a rough-road tour of the timber cuts around Kenogami. From there I headed to an abandoned sawmill just outside town, where an overgrown lot now serves as a sort of repossession yard for the Greenstone Economic Development Corporation, a local community-based nonprofit organization. Dina Quenneville walked me through a virtual graveyard of logging machines, repossessed after their owners—mostly one- and two-person operations—could no longer make payments.

Clearcuts in the Ogoki Forest.

During the last days of the public comment period for the Ogoki Forest—one of the only remaining southern boreal forest units with large chunks of virgin timber—hundreds of e-mails and phone calls poured into Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources. Callers pleaded against widespread road construction and timber harvest. A slowdown in logging followed, according to Quenneville. And that, she says, was a gut blow to the local timber industry, already reeling from mill closures and labor unrest.

Quenneville was dwarfed by the hulking machines—skidders, slashers, delimbers, trailers for workers. She apologized for the dark shadows under her eyes, but it had been a rough year. “It’s easy to sit in a Toronto cafe and breathe a sigh of relief that this yard is full of repossessed machines,” she said, the words catching in her throat. “But the paper you’re writing on, the diapers your kids wore—those things come from the forest. Not long ago I had a 65-year-old man weeping in my office, because he’d lost everything he ever had. These are not greedy people. They are just people who want to make a living in the only place they have ever known. And the last thing they want to do is destroy it.”


Day Three/Friday

Twin Otter floatplane.

My ticket to the boreal backcountry was a Twin Otter floatplane. Wilderness North outfitters runs five backcountry lodges and eight remote fly-in outpost camps. We made a stop at Miminiski Lodge, on the Albany River, where a First Nations guide pointed out the rapids and rough spots on our planned Albany River route. Then we were off . . .

My view of Jeff Wells, hour after hour!

…but not without a bit of nervousness. My companion was Jeff Wells, a senior scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. He’s an affable, even-keeled fellow, with a blocky face highlighted with dark brows and graying locks, yet there’s a residual youthfulness about him. Despite his status as one of the continent’s most knowledgeable boreal ornithologists, the notion of a new bird or unconsidered insight into breeding grounds ecology brings about a flush of boyish wonder. But I must admit, he gave me pause. Jeff showed up dressed for a remote wilderness trip in denim jeans, tennis shoes, and a blue cotton button-down shirt. Thankfully, he more than held up his end of the bargain, dragging boats, carrying heavy portage packs, and paddling like crazy.


Day Four/Saturday

Sample of a rapid like those we portaged.

We paddled waters that ranged from wide-open, wind-whipped lakes to protected channels through tiny, forested islets. Cliffs rose around us. The horizon was studded with an endless chasm of trees. At least for now.

Wilderness tripping is a time-honored Canadian tradition, and we did it the old way: We carried boats, gear, and canoes around the bigger rapids, a process called “portaging.” Our roughest portage took hours, and we wound up bushwhacking down a rocky chasm.

“I can’t help but think of the people who came across the Bering land bridge,” Jeff said, exhausted. “They’d hit something like this, and just keep going, with no idea at all of what lay ahead. At least we had a map. We knew the open water couldn’t be too far.”

It wasn’t. Thankfully.


Day Five/Sunday

The campsite.

Headed east along Kawitos Lake, I couldn’t help but keep a hopeful eye out for a glimpse of brown hide half-hidden in a stand of black spruce, or a glint of sunshine on a polished antler. We paddled through the heart of woodland caribou range in Ontario, which is in the crosshairs of the debate over boreal forest management. A major part of Ontario’s plan to manage the future for these embattled creatures—and by extension for songbirds, waterfowl, pine martens, wolves, wolverines, walleye, and northern pike—is to cut nearly every acre of standing southern boreal forest outside of the province’s delineated parks.

Known as the “caribou mosaic,” the plan is overseen by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Designed to “emulate” the scale and patterns of fire disturbance, the mosaic calls for timber clearcuts up to 115 square miles in size, on a schedule that will allow for blocks of older-aged forests required by woodland caribou to come “online” over five staggered 20-year harvest periods.

I had seen woodland caribou once before, in a far corner of Ontario, on a nine-day trip through Wabakimi Provincial Park. When I first saw the bull woodland caribou, he was striking a pose by the water’s edge, blood-red antlers glistening. A mere few minutes passed before I beached the canoe and took up the trail, but already the forest gave little indication that a 400-pound animal had passed through. There was a mossy rock turned upside down. A broken stick. I picked up a clump of moss and pressed it to my cheek: moist, cool, freshly turned. But it was rutting season for woodland caribou, and the thought of suddenly confronting a sex-crazed creature with four-foot-long antlers gave me second thoughts. I turned back to the river. It was difficult to believe that such a huge animal could move so quickly—and vanish so completely—in these dense woods.


Day Six/Monday

Reception at Eabametoong.

On our last full day on the water, we loaded up on bird recordings before meeting our floatplane pickup. Before leaving the wilderness we stopped in at the diminutive First Nation village of Eabametoong. You can see the village dock in the photograph above. A crowd of young children were diving and swimming. It was quite the reception.

At the village council headquarters, I spoke with Xavier Sagutch, a tribal council member. With one hand shoved in a black fleece coat and the other gesturing strongly, he pointed out the details on large “values maps” taped to his office wall. The tribe had been marking moose hunting areas, spiritual sites, burial sites, trapper trails, sturgeon spawning areas, patches of wild rice, pictographs, and other sites significant to the Eabametoong Nation. The purpose? “The logging is coming, we know this,” Sagutch told me. “We have to think now about our special places.”

I know what he means.

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Related links: “Paper Chase” and “Audio: Sounds of the Boreal Forest