Committed to Wild Ways
by Charles Wilkins
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection
The boat is a 25-foot Boston Whaler, well-suited to the savagery of Lake Superior, but as you station yourself on deck and embark from Hattie Cove in the northeast corner of Pukaskwa National Park, heavy weather is the furthest thing from your mind. For a minute or two, you might almost believe that the 10-kilometre ride to the mouth of the White River will be as gentle as the complexion of this serene natural harbour.
As you clear the rocky point that separates the cove from the open waters of the lake, a truthtelling wind blindsides you from the west, and by the time you're a hundred metres offshore you're scaling three-metre swells, clinging tightly to the roofline of the tiny cabin that covers the wheelhouse. If you don't let go, you won't get tossed overboard, although it is impossible to prevent yourself from being lifted from your feet as each wave crests then falls abruptly away beneath you.
And so it goes, for 25 minutes, as you squint into the spray, your face and hair soaked, your waterproof coveralls a sculpture of cascading rivulets.
If there is sustenance in this enervating natural roller-coaster ride, it lies most vividly in the primitive thrill of being out on Lake Superior on a bright blue morning in early October, perhaps the last such morning before the park boats are hauled ashore for the winter. But it exists, too, in the scenery of the Pukaskwa coast. To the west stretches an expanse of open water that for centuries the Anishnabe people have referred to as Chegaming, "the Great Spirit"; to the south and east, an unbroken line of granite headlands, pebble beaches, and uninhabited boreal forest.
Our captain for the morning is biologist Frank Burrows of Pukaskwa, while beside me on deck, holding as tight to the rail as I am, stands Robin Heron Promaine, the director of Pukaskwa's interpretive program. One of Promaine's roles at Pukaskwa is to relate the park's history, ecology and ideals to outsiders such as myself, and although conditions aboard the lurching Boston Whaler are far from ideal for interpretive work, she goes about her business in effective fits and starts.
Pukaskwa, she explains above the roar of the engine, is one of Ontario's last significant areas of boreal forest untouched by human development or industry. The 1878 sq. kms. of wilderness within its boundaries represent uninterrupted forest succession dating to the melting of the last glacier 10,000 some years ago. The park was designated in 1978, and, like all national parks, preserves what Heron Promaine calls "a unique aspect of Canada's landscape and natural history."
While woodland Anishnabe are known to have inhabited the area for thousands of years, one might well ask how such a sprawling area of wilderness remained unvisited by the mining and logging industries during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when almost all similar areas were being consumed by progress. According to Heron Promaine, the mining companies bypassed the territory because of the absence of exploitable minerals in its billion-year-old rock. Where logging is concerned, a limited harvesting of white pine occurred in the extreme southern corner of the park during the early 1900s; however, the park at large was simply too hilly and remote for the cutting and removal of pulp wood or timber. When the railway came through during the late 1800s, it bypassed Pukaskwa to the north, as did the Trans-Canada Highway during the 1950s.
Heron Promaine points out that the park's fabled remoteness and climate have nurtured animal and plant populations that add significantly to its character and reputation. Because of the cooling effects of Lake Superior, for example, arctic plants left behind by the ice age have been able to survive alongshore in "arctic" microhabitats, hundreds of kilometres south of their normal range. One of these, the encrusted saxifrage, produces white clusters of flowers in late June, along the Southern Headlands Trail, easily accessible at Hattie Cove.
A relic population of woodland caribou has also survived in the park, despite ongoing threats to its existence. Unlike the more common moose, which arrived on the shores of Lake Superior less than a century ago, caribou have existed in the area since the departure of the last glacier, when their company on Superior's shores included the wooly mammoth.
Pukaskwa's caribou are such a mysterious and exotic presence that Heron Promaine admits to not having seen one during her first several years at the park. "I always told visitors that they were unlikely to see one, but that if they did, it would be way down in the southern part of the park, a long way from the campgrounds at the north end. Then when I did see one," she smiles, "it was on the beach near Hattie Cove in the extreme north end, right where I said nobody'd ever see one."
Lake Superior itself is a large part of Pukaskwa's uniqueness. At 82,100 sq. km., it is the world's largest lake by surface area, has more shoreline than the west coast of the United States (4,400 km.), and holds about a tenth of the world's surface fresh water.
©Parks Canada / PNP Collection
With some 800 streams and rivers entering the lake from its drainage basin, and with a daily fallout of pollutants encroaching on it from the air, Superior is also one of the most vulnerable of Pukaskwa's concerns. It is still the cleanest of the Great Lakes, due in part to the low population along its shores (some 500,000 people, compared to the nearly 40 million who inhabit the shores of the other Great Lakes combined). "But that could change pretty quickly, as it did with, say, Lake Erie or Ontario," says Heron Promaine. "It's a fragile ecosystem, and we need all the help we can get to protect it -- from governments, from industry, from individuals."
At a point on our southward journey, Frank Burrows eyes the shoreline, fixes his location, and begins edging the boat eastward across the swells. Five minutes later we are luxuriating on the waters of the White River. We purr upstream between steep banks of spruce and birch, until our path is blocked by river-wide rapids, and we angle ashore and disembark.
On an outcrop of of well-scoured granite, Frank Burrows explains that a quiet revolution is taking place in the way Pukaskwa and other national parks are managing their waters, forests and wildlife. Their newly-evolved approach calls for abandonment of the old-style focus on ecological fragments (sometimes as small as an individual species) and concentration instead on whole ecosystems, the relationships between animals, plants, water, soil and air -- and of course human beings.
The catch phrase for the new approach is 'ecosystem management.' "Too often in the past," says Burrows, "management decisions were based on emotion, or were made in haste, without research or adequate knowledge. Now we're basing our decisions and planning on science." As a comparative example, Burrows describes how, in the old days, park biologists might have studied, say, wolves or moose or caribou, individually. Today, Burrows is involved in a research project examining the relationship between the three large mammals, both inside and outside the park's boundaries.
As a means of gauging the state of Pukaskwa's health, park biologists have selected ten ecological "indicators" -- including song birds, several rare plants, caribou, water, forest health and air quality -- the status of which they monitor regularly. "If we find, for instance, that numbers of a certain warbler are down in the park, and we know they're okay everywhere else, we're pretty safe to assume that some ecological imbalance has developed, and we have to try to figure out what it is," explains biologist and park warden Andrew Promaine.
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection / K.Wade
What complicates matters is that, for Pukaskwa to protect its woods and waters -- which, as a national park, it is committed to doing -- it must attempt to influence factors beyond its boundaries.
"We can't just say, Okay, we've got our park in order, everything's fine now," says park biologist Frank Burrows, "because so much of what goes on miles away affects us. You put sulfurous wastes in the air in Ohio, they eventually land on Pukaskwa. Pollute a river a hundred kilometres upstream, and it eventually kills trout in the park, or in Lake Superior." Logging on lands adjacent to the park has been shown to have significant influence on animal populations within the park. "We have to manage for ecological, not political, boundaries," says Robin Heron Promaine. "Moose, wolves, ravens, microorganisms, soil leachings, ground water -- they just don't recognize park boundaries."
© Parks Canada / PNP Collection / F.Burrows
In a mid-90s effort to promote cooperation between the park and its industrial and political neighbors, Pukaskwa organized a meeting of representatives from the region's foremost corporate and governmental stakeholders, including Domtar Forest Products, James River Marathon (pulp and paper), the Pic River First Nation, the Town of Marathon, the Ministry of Natural Resources, and the Ministry of Northern Mines and Development. "The premise of the workshop," says Andrew Promaine, "was that we all had an interest in the area, and that there were a lot of potential partnerships among the people there. One of the big tenets of ecosystem management is inter-agency cooperation, and one thing we wanted to do was identify what was preventing us from working together."
An earlier workshop had created discord when park spokespersons told a similar gathering about the direction the park was taking, about its accumulated expertise, and about its willingness to advise its neighbors on how the lands around the park might be managed.
"Even though our intentions were good," says Heron Promaine, "our approach must have seemed heavy-handed, because they more or less said, 'If you're going to tell us how to run things on our side of the boundary, we should be able to do the same and extend our scope into your park.'"
For reasons both practical and diplomatic, the second workshop emphasized cooperation -- listening as opposed to advising. "There are always going to be differences in perspective," says Robin Heron Promaine. "But we felt at this point that if we could begin to build trust, we'd be better able to deal with those differences. The old attitude, 'We're right, and you're wrong,' is still too common in environmental relations. We respect that the bottom line of, say, the forest industries is to make a profit, and in return we want them to respect that our bottom line is the protection of nearly 2000 square kilometres of park land."
During the course of the two-day gathering, each participant was called upon to describe the work that his or her organization was doing in the area, and what their objectives were. "This was interesting," says Heron Promaine. "It meant we had to open up to one another, expose ourselves a bit, and I think in doing that we took a step toward the sort of understanding that's really important if a partnership like this is going to work."
One of the outcomes of the workshop was a commitment to better communication between agencies. "The result is that we've set up a newsletter to which we all contribute material on what we're up to," says Heron Promaine. "We'll tell the others about our collared moose, ask them please not to shoot them, and Northern Mines and Development, for example, will tell us about increased geological activity in the area. It may not sound like much, but, basically, we're just happy to be creating trust and building a foundation. Even the fact that we're talking constructively is progress."
Small practical measures are also being taken, or at least discussed. "Pukaskwa has done research in a variety of areas that the logging companies might be able to use," says Heron Promaine, "and we've talked about sharing helicopter time, which would save money." At the park's suggestion, Domtar foresters recently agreed to increase "uncut" zones around canoe routes that enter the park.
©Parks Canada / PNP Collection / A.Forshner / #17
In the interest of ecotourism, the park and the Town of Marathon have established a joint strategy to promote both wilderness visits (including sound ecological principles) and use of the town's amenities and services.
On the larger stage, Pukaskwa recently established an official partnership with Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the south shore of Lake Superior, in Michigan. "It's another small step," says the park interpreter. "We exchange information and pamphlets, and we've had an exchange of interpreters and displays. The American side seems so remote at times, but it's not far away and it makes good sense to work with them -- their mandate is so similar to ours."
As we begin our journey back to Hattie Cove, a bald eagle soars out above the tree line, does an elegant loop above the river and drifts into the forest. The sighting is a well-omened symbol of ecologists' best efforts to create concern for the environment and promote its health. "Ten fifteen years ago, you probably wouldn't have seen an eagle here," says Heron Promaine, the reason being that extensive use of DDT had all but eliminated the eagle from the northern Ontario wilderness. But with the banning of the chemical in 1976, the fabled bird began its comeback.
Heron Promaine is partial to the notion that everything connects, whether social, economic or ecological. "Sometimes the connections can be destructive, as they often have been in the past," she says. "But they can be constructive, too, provided we work together... which is what we're trying to do."
(...Charles Wilkins is a writer living and working in Thunder Bay. He prepared this article in cooperation with the staff of Pukaskwa National Park...)