On August, I did a canoeing & hiking trip to Ontario. My first destination was Quetico Provincial Park, adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the latter being a place where Lee Frelich has done much research. Like its U.S. counterpart, Quetico is known as a canoeist’s paradise: 1838 square miles total area, clean-water lakes, lovely small rivers, no motorboats, no cottages, no logging or hunting (but hunting allowed in the BWCAW) – and 600–800 sq mi of virgin forest. As many members likely know the region better than I, and Lee has often written about it, I will not describe the park in detail but tell about my experiences. I also have two possible record trees to report.
After flying to Thunder Bay through Toronto, I stayed a night in a motel and headed immediately to the bus station and towards Atikokan, which is one of the main entry points into Quetico. I knew that in the area there are a lot of people of Finnish origin, but I was still surprised to see Finnish names from bus window: Ilkka Drive, Oikonen Road, Teitto Road, Wiljala Drive, etc. Rolling hills, bogs, low forest: tamarack, spruces, jack pine, aspen…
Jim Clark from Canoe Canada Outfitters met me at the bus stop. He had already prepared everything for my canoeing trip. After checking the gear he took me to Stanton Bay and I started to paddle toward the central parts of the park. In addition to paddling, my goal was, of course, to do some hiking in virgin forest. Unfortunately, there is no map of the virgin forest areas of Quetico, the earlier logged areas being apparently not documented well enough, but a 375 sq mi tract known as Hunter Island (not a true island) should be almost totally untouched. There are also other sizable unlogged areas but their location was unclear to me. I also planned to check some old-growth white and red pine stands described in “Ontario’s Old-Growth Forests” by Henry & Quinby.
The first part went through Pickerel Lake, where there had been big fires some years ago. These areas were now covered with incredibly dense young jack pine – “dense like dog-hair” as books describe it.
On the second day I reached the first of Henry & Quinby’s old-growth stands between Dore and Twin Lakes and at the northern end of Sturgeon Lake. I had expected cathedral like dense groves of tall pines with sparse understory. I was a bit disappointed to see that the groves were not that dense, the trees not particularly big and, above all, the understory was dense with balsam fir saplings & seedlings and shrubs like beaked hazel and mountain maple. Near these stands I saw the last human beings for many days.
I had quite a strong headwind and paddling was slow. I saw forests that were apparently logged in the past (logging ceased in 1973), forests that had burned recently and forests that had apparently burned a long time ago now having more or less even-aged jack pine and black spruce. Red and white pines were also common near shorelines. Many books tell that because they often grow on the shorelines they appear to be more abundant than is actually the case. Now they comprise about 8% of the forested areas but about 25% prior to logging and fire suppression (the best white and red pine forests were logged first).
I reached Hunter Island on the third day. Jack pine and black spruce everywhere. The characteristic crown of tall white pine emerging from the canopy here and there.
The park is in the transitional zone between the temperate deciduous forests to the south and the boreal forests to the north but so close to the northern limit of the zone that the vegetation is overwhelmingly boreal in nature. However, there are southern elements, more or less rare, which point to the temperate zone, like maples, oaks, red ash, large-tooth aspen and yellow birch. Jack pine is the most important tree, followed by black spruce. Quaking aspen and paper birch are very abundant, too. Due to the scarcity of wildfires in recent decades, balsam fir is now very common in the understory. The conifer diversity is remarkable, at least from the European perspective; there are 10 conifer species altogether (3 pines, 2 spruces, fir, larch, white-cedar, juniper and yew) and I sometimes saw 8 species at one glance around me – I wonder if it is possible to see more conifers even in the Sierra Nevada in one place? (Of course, there are more conifer species in the Sierra but they are located in different altitudes.) In the majority of Quetico, the bedrock is granitic and soils low in nutrients; consequently, the productivity is low. There are small areas of metamorphic, sedimentary and volcanic rocks; forests on these bedrocks are more productive and diverse.
As off-trail hiking is easy in Finland, I was surprised how hard it was in Quetico. In older forests there is dense balsam fir regeneration almost everywhere, fallen trunks derived from post-fire dense jack pine and black spruce regeneration are numerous and bogs are common, too. Presence/absence of conifers with serotinous cones (jack pine and black spruce) is a remarkable difference between the North American and European boreal forests. If a fire burns all the trees in European boreal forest, broadleaf trees with light seeds occupy it (if left to itself), but in North America the serotinous cones result in impenetrable conifer thickets. There is a fir species in boreal European Russia (Siberian fir, A. sibirica
) but I don’t know if it too forms as dense regeneration under other trees. There is no equivalent for short-lived and shade-tolerant balsam fir in Finland and Scandinavia. As a landscape, there is a similar large lake-land in eastern Finland but the climate is a bit different, more oceanic. The climatic European equivalent for the Quetico-Superior forest region could be in European Russia, somewhere between southern Finland and the Ural Mountains.
I returned by another route because there were further old-growth stands of Henry & Quinby. This route had very nice lakes and creeks but more portages.
The wind had turned, so I had headwind again. I saw many red pine groves, even forests. At Walter Lake I saw the first canoeists after many days. Along the portage between Walter and Elizabeth Lakes, I encountered a jack pine
that looked remarkably tall for the species. It was growing in fertile-looking ground and was surrounded by red pines, quaking aspens and some red maples, black spruces and balsam fir saplings. My measurement gave 26.4 m (86.6 ft)
and 125 cm (49”). I am not sure if that is exceptionally tall for the species. Most identification guides I possess say jack pine is up to 20 m. Wikipedia says up to 22 m. “Michigan Trees” says up to 25 m. “Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota” even says up to 31 m. Anyway, if you don’t have laser measurements yet, you can write my measurement in your records.
Two of the old-growth stands of Henry & Quinby are located at Elizabeth Lake. I paddled the north shore searching for an old-growth red pine grove. There were red pines but not anything that would surpass the red pine forests I had seen in regions not described in the book. After paddling along the shore forth and back I became convinced that this was the grove Henry & Quinby meant. Red pines here and there and very dense bush between.
At the next portage, between Elizabeth and Jesse Lakes, I measured a few tall-looking black spruces
. The tallest may be the tallest laser-measured so far. It was 25.5 m (83.7 ft)
and 95 cm (37”). It was surrounded by black spruces, jack pines and quaking aspens.
Jesse Lake had clearly been logged in the past. There were a lot of white pines but all were relatively young. I had still one day to paddle towards Nym Lake where my outfitter picked me up. As I came closer to the park boundary there were more and more paddlers.
I must say that I did very little tree measuring. There are probably taller black spruces and jack pines in the park, maybe even remarkably taller. The purpose of this trip was simply to enjoy wild lake-land, study forests, take photos etc., not to measure trees.
I would like to thank Lee Frelich who, as I prepared my trip, answered my every
question, which I consider rather noteworthy as I am only an amateur and he a first class professional.
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