If a Tree Falls in the Temagami Forest…

By: Tierney Angus
November 28, 2016

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View of the White Bear Forest from the Caribou Mountain fire tower, Temagami ON

That night there came a storm, crashing down from the mountains; and in the tempest the lonely Tree moaned and wailed, and shook wildly on its foundations, and silhouetted against the white glare of the lightning it seemed to writhe, and be contorted into shapes of agony.

And the mountains looked on in stony calmness; for they knew that trees must die and so must men, but that they live on forever.  

-Archie Belaney, a.k.a. Grey Owl, “Tales of an Empty Cabin”

The Temagami Wilderness area is a vast, 16,000 square kilometre tract of land in Northeastern Ontario. Its boundaries are loosely defined by the town of Sudbury to the southwest, the town of North Bay to the southeast, the Ottawa River to the east, the Montreal River and the hamlet of Matchewan to the north, and the Wanipitei River to the west.

Temagami, meaning “Deep-Water-By-The-Shore,” has been inhabited by the Anishinaabe people for 10,000 years and features portage trails, known as Nastawgan, that have been in continuous use for the past 5,000 years – older than Egypt’s pyramids. It contains the last remaining old-growth red and white pine forest in the world, about 1% of its original coverage. Despite this, only 15% of the Temagami area is currently protected within 16 provincial parks and 26 conservation reserves.Ontario’s old growth was first identified by Ancient Forest Exploration & Research, a non-profit organization created in 1992 as a continuation of the Tall Pines Project started by Dr. Peter Quimby. The research by Dr. Quimby was instrumental in protecting one of Temagami’s old-growth red and white pine forests, the Wakimika Triangle, in the late 1980s. As far as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry was concerned, old growth forests simply did not exist in Ontario. The work of the Temagami Wilderness Society and hundreds of environmental activists, in partnership with the Tall Pines Project, effectively put a stop to the logging of the Wakimika Triangle through the use of blockades and media outreach in 1989. [For more history about environmental activism in Temagami, check out this timeline.]

So how do these forests survive? What makes old-growth pine so special? To find out, I’m taking a closer look at the life and death of one tree in particular, located in the White Bear Forest just outside the town of Temagami.

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Gillies Lumber Mill, 1950s. Photo from ontarioabandonedplaces.com

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Old-growth red pine in the White Bear Forest

The White Bear Forest was initially spared the logger’s axe by, ironically, a lumber company. The Gillies Bros. lumber company won the rights to log 500 square kilometres of forest surrounding the town of Temagami in 1928, yet decided to keep 2000 acres in its natural state for the enjoyment of the company’s employees. It probably didn’t hurt that the White Bear Forest was directly situated across from the home of the mill owner, who liked the view. The Ministry of Natural Resources drafted another logging plan for the area in the 1980s, which was opposed by environmentalists and locals alike. In 1996, the White Bear Forest was designated as a conservation reserve.

Left in its natural state, the White Bear Forest has been quietly regenerating for thousands of years. The oldest known pine tree is approximately 400 years old, which means it would have been a sapling when Samuel de Champlain first made contact with the local Aboriginal groups near Lake Nipissing.

One of these ancient trees, a giant white pine over 350 years old, was toppled by a windstorm on September 10, 2016. A Facebook post by White Bear Forest Hikes, a tour operation located in Temagami, first announced the death of this tree:

https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1636913679933575&id=1488327974792147

I wanted to learn more about the life and death of this giant, so following the Friends of Temagami Annual General Meeting on October 16, 2016, I set out on a hike through the White Bear Forest to see the carnage for myself.

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White Bear Forest trail map from Ontario Trails Council

The ancient fallen white pine is located a short walk down the White Bear trail, past a steep section that requires the use of rope handholds to access. At the bottom of the hill, the toppled giant comes into view.

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Rope railing on the White Bear trail

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The author in front of the giant. Photo by Andrew Bell

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Weakened by heart rot, the tree came down in a windstorm, taking out several others as it fell to the forest floor

According to Michael Henry of Ancient Forest Exploration & Research, this tree was approximately three quarters of the way to its natural life expectancy.

“At some point it will die of something. I’ve noticed a lot of the older pines in White Bear have heart rot and sometimes snap in big windstorms. I think it’s because surface fires have historically been very frequent there – so the trees have fire scars, which are an entry point for the rot,” Henry said. “The oldest tree we cored in White Bear was a 400-year-old red pine. This tree could have been part of the same cohort.”

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The top of the tree, now resting at ground level

At over 100′ tall and 10’5″ circumference at “hugging height”, this pine knocked out several smaller trees as it crashed to the ground.

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Carnage and debris along the White Bear trail

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“Caribou Moss” isn’t actually a moss at all. It’s a species of boreal forest lichen

Although it seems sad to lose such a large, old tree, this is but one of the natural processes that contribute to an old-growth forest ecosystem. A self-regenerating old-growth forest can contain fallen logs that have been decomposing for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The retreat of the glaciers after the last Ice Age left behind large areas of scarred, barren rock. The first plants to colonize this rock were lichens, whose acids broke down the rock to create a thin layer of soil. In this soil, other plants were able to grow, until the ecosystem could support large trees. Ancient Forest Exploration & Research defines an old-growth forest as one wherein the “existing ecosystem is capable of creating the conditions needed to perpetuate itself”. Other characteristics of old-growth forest include:

[from Ancient Forest Exploration and Research, 2015]

So what does this mean for our dearly departed tree? What happens now?

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Fungi break down organic compounds on the forest floor

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A thick, lush carpet of moss begins to colonize an old stump

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Seedlings take advantage of openings in the forest canopy

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The author hugs a giant white pine that still stands in the White Bear Forest

Because the White Bear Forest is left to regenerate, the tree will remain where it fell. It will be colonized by fungi, lichens, and mosses. It will provide habitat to insects, birds, and mammals. The wood fibres will slowly break down over hundreds of years, adding nutrients to the soil. The clearing of the canopy caused by the tree’s fall will open up the forest floor to more sunlight, allowing smaller trees to grow. If left alone, perhaps 400 years from now another giant white pine will take its place and the cycle will begin anew.

Old-growth forests are about more than just big trees. Fallen trees can remain on the forest floor for centuries, adding to the rich ecosystem of these self-sustaining forests. The death of this tree will help to nurture generations of red and white pines, as long as humans can resist the urge to cut them down.

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The author’s canoe/adventure/life partner next to an old-growth pine in the Wakimika Triangle, or Spirit Forest, Temagami ON

About the author: Tierney Angus is a first-year journalism student at Humber College in Toronto. She is an avid canoeist, tree-hugger and adventurer. She recently spent 17 days travelling through Temagami by paddle and portage in August, 2016, with her canoe and life partner Andrew Bell. She is an active member and on the board of directors of the Friends of Temagami, a non-profit, 100% volunteer-based organization that aims to protect, preserve, and promote eco-tourism in the Temagami wilderness area. If you would like to learn more about the Friends of Temagami and their efforts to conserve the old-growth forests of Ontario, please visit their website at friendsoftemagami.org, or follow Tierney on her blog at thehappyadventure.com or on Instagram (@tear_knee and @friendsoftemagami). Unless otherwise noted, all photos, videos, and multimedia elements are the author’s own.