Wolf Lake Red PinesViki Mather June 1, 2012
I first travelled through the Wolf Lake area more than 30 years ago. We travelled by canoe, paddling and portaging through clear lakes and cool forests. We travelled upstream along the Chiniguchi River, carrying our canoe and gear along a steep and narrow portage that has been in use for the past 6,000 years.
The sound of waterfalls sang through the air as we walked. We could feel the spirit of the land strengthen as we ascended through the rich moist air. For you see, by the time we got to the broad, smooth bedrock at the end of the portage, we were on the threshold of a landscape unchanged by modern man.
I don’t know why the loggers stopped at the north end of the lake we just left behind. We could see just a little of their efforts from the old log-drive days. They tried to tame the waterfalls in preparation to cut the shores of Sylvester Lake. A few metal artifacts are still set among the remains of timbers they used to try to dam the river. Perhaps the market demand had dropped, perhaps the company went bankrupt, or perhaps they found an easier forest to cut than in the rugged hills here.
We set up camp by the narrows, just a stone’s throw away from the top of the falls. It was a cosy little campsite. A beautiful flat spot allowed us to pitch the tent just a few metres away from where the water flowed swiftly over the bedrock channel. We cooked our dinner over a small fire, then slept with the sound of the wind in the trees above, and a faint rush of water from the falls.
The next morning we paddled north a couple of kilometers through long and skinny Sylvester Lake. High cliffs rose on the eastern shore, deep green and very tall red pines to the west. We didn’t know back then that we were approaching the heart of the largest area of undisturbed red pine forest in the world. We did know that we were entering a quiet landscape where we would see no one, unless they also traversed the lakes in a canoe.
Swift water flows between Sylvester and Wolf Lake. A few minutes of determined paddling took us from one lake to the next. We rounded a bend in the river, and all of Wolf Lake spread out before us. High quartzite mountains to the east were dotted with pines. Red pine to the west, to the south, to the north. A few big white pines mingled in between.
From the middle of the lake, we could see a super-storey of pines at the top of all the hills. These would be the grandmother trees, rising above the younger generations.
We found a path leading up to the top of a white stone ledge. A perfect place to rest, and to dream. Huge red pines stood above a miniature forest of tiny seedlings. The great trees bore scars from a recent fire, yet they lived, and thrived on the thin soil.
I later learned that red and white pines nearly always survive natural fires that would race through the forest every 30 years or so. The thick bark of the mature trees repels the fire. But in the lee of the wind, sometimes the fire would linger long enough to kill a bit of the bark at ground level. When the next fire came through a few decades later, this spot could get burnt again, and a scar would form. As the trees continue to grow, they cover up this scarred area, until the next fire comes along and opens the wound again.
Some of the trees on this lofty ridge bear three and four fire scars, yet stand tall and healthy above the little ones that came when the seeds fell after the last fire. The little ones brought a sense of joy as I walked through them, their sheer abundance a testimony to the resilience of the natural forest.
We continued our journey north, through another narrow portage, along another set of waterfalls, to another clear and beautiful lake, surrounded by more tall and stately red pines. We found the oldest of the trees on the southern edge of Dewdney Lake. The centuries old history of the area is spelled out in the trees as I hug each one. My arms reach not quite all the way around the ancient ones. The red pines are not as big around as the oldest white pines we see here and there, some of which Allan and I together could not reach all around. The red pines are thinner than their white pine neighbours, but all are well into their third century or more.
From Dewdney the next portage took us to Chiniguchi Lake, the headwaters of the river we travelled. In a narrow passage to the southern bay called Shed Lake we found more red pine, pure stands of majestic trees all around. The warm smell of pine needles in the sun filled the air as I walked among them. Red pines. Old ones. Lots of them.