The near-perfect wildness of the Canadian boreal surprises even an experienced wilderness traveler.
A late summer evening in the unbounded wild of northern Canada—low sun obscured by the mountain’s shoulder, the nearby forest exhaling cool moist air, riffles softly chanting in the river. Imbedded in the descending hush, I feel elated by the palpable abundance of secrets.
In a moment of stark and beautiful suddenness, a wolf steps into an open place among the nearby willows. He must have come from the darkening woods, and walked silently toward us over the dry riverside rocks, weaving through ribbons of scent so utterly strange they triggered no fear. Almost certainly, he has never before heard the singsong murmur of human voices, the crackle of a campfire, the tinkling of spoons in coffee cups.
The wolf halts in mid-step, showing his full profile, turns his head toward us and holds us in a protracted, unflinching stare. I am struck by the pure blackness of his fur, the lankiness of his legs and the sinewy brawn of his youthful body, which must weigh 60 or 70 pounds.
At this close range, I can look directly into the wolf’s eyes, shining like flakes of mica against the midnight of his face. I feel as if I’m staring directly at the sun, as if the bright corona of those eyes will burn in the core of my mind long after I’ve turned away.
The wolf lifts his snout to the faint, furling breeze. I imagine his nostrils flaring and narrowing, his chest rising and falling. During these moments, his presence seems to pervade our entire surrounding world—the steep-sided valley, the high, glinting peaks, the brightly overarching summer sky that never fades fully into night.
Finally, his curiosity yielding to apprehension, the wolf turns and lopes back toward the forest, flouncing like an overgrown puppy.
Amid a flurry of whispered exclamations, I ease with my camp mates toward the place where the wolf had stood, hoping to catch another glimpse, perhaps even to spot the more cautious members of his pack who must be nearby. But we see only the empty field of river-smoothed stones and the brow of forest beyond.
For me, this startling encounter with a wolf in the northern Yukon Territory was the defining moment of a three-week journey into one of the largest, most spectacular, pristine wildlands remaining on earth—the boreal forest of Canada. I was the lucky Alaskan in an otherwise all- Canadian group that included a photographer, a wildlife biologist, several artists and writers, river guides, conservation advocates and representatives of First Nations communities—13 of us in all. Our goal was to produce art, images and writing that would help raise public awareness of the great northern forest.
This remarkable trip was sponsored by the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, collaborating with the Tetlit Gwich’in and Nacho N’yak Dun indigenous communities, as part of the Canadawide Boreal Rendezvous. Through the summer, groups similar to ours would drift and paddle down rivers like the Dease, Nahanni, Churchill, Coal, Athabaska, Berens and Moisie— to immerse themselves in the soul of immaculate wilderness. Three rivers had been chosen in the northern Yukon Territory: the Snake, the Wind and our own Bonnet Plume, named for a Gwich’in Indian man who had spent much of his life hunting and prospecting along its course. Even after 40 years of travel into the remotest parts of Alaska, I was astonished by the magnitude of wildness and beauty along the Bonnet Plume, qualities that led to its recognition as a Canadian Heritage River.
The morning after the wolf’s visit, a small group of us trekked off to climb one of the mountains that rise steeply from the riverside. Laboring our way up, we paused to identify fast-blooming arctic flowers and relish the sweet, low-growing blueberries. On the summit a couple hours later, we looked out over a massive fretwork of stony peaks, shear vertiginous walls, narrow tributary valleys and tier beyond tier of jagged ridges standing into the far distance. I left the others and wandered along a grassy slope, followed the tracks of Dall sheep into a narrow cul-de-sac gorge, watched a golden eagle veer and circle in the updrafts and found a colony of rabbitlike collared pikas living amid the rocks and tundra. I had never felt a more complete absence of visible human impact and had never been more vividly aware of the earth’s inherent capacity for perfection.
From our high vantage, we could trace a long, shimmering stretch of the Bonnet Plume River, which runs almost 200 miles from its mountain headwaters northward to a confluence with the Peel River. The Peel eventually flows into the Mackenzie River not far from its broad, braided mouth on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. In the 20,000-square-mile watershed of the Peel and its tributaries, there is just one settlement, the Gwich’in Indian community of Fort McPherson. Few would imagine that such an unfettered, unhewn, uncompromised landscape still exists on this continent at the opening of the 21st century.
But this only begins to measure the wildness of the Canadian boreal. From where we stood, just below the Arctic Circle, the nearest permanent road—the Mackenzie Highway—is about 200 miles west. For comparison, in the entire continental U.S., the farthest you can get from a road is less than 25 miles, in the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. And imagine this: If you go straight east from the Bonnet Plume River, you will not find a permanent, interconnecting road across the entire 2,000-mile breadth of boreal Canada. The next road at this latitude? Beyond the Atlantic in Norway.
A more tangible vision of wildness appeared near our camp that same afternoon, when a grizzly bear swam across the river a hundred yards away, shook himself dry and lumbered off without troubling to investigate our little cluster of tents. The next morning, I found his flat-footed, longclawed tracks punched deep into the sandbar, weaving among the prints of a female grizzly and her tiny cub, four wolves with paws so large that an imprint would barely fit under my outstretched hand, and an enormous bull moose with hooves like those of a dairy cow, measuring about 11 inches from their pointed tips to the trailing dew claws.
Even more impressive were the metabolic signs left by a grizzly that had been feasting on the prolific, bitter soap berries—heaps literally as big around as a bushel basket and almost a foot deep, filled with seeds and scarlet- colored like the berries themselves. Definitely not for the squeamish, but these organic calling cards can reveal much about the animals’ sequestered lives.
Each day, the Bonnet Plume carried us past dozens of sandbars, most of them similarly inscribed with animal tracks. But often we were too busy to notice, when the clear, cold, brawling river demanded our full attention as we pitched through whitewater canyons, slalomed between giant boulders and scraped along shallow interwoven channels. Only a few groups float the Bonnet Plume each summer, and we rarely saw traces of their visits. But a fractured canoe, halfburied in gravel, reminded us of the tenuous balance between exhilarating play and serious risk, where the only rescue possibility is a very long flight by helicopter or float plane.
Most of the Yukon Territory is blissfully removed from industrial civilization. At 186,000 square miles, it’s a bit larger than California, but the total population is just 31,000 people, 21,000 of whom live in the city of Whitehorse. The rest are scattered among a dozen small towns and villages, remote homesteads and roadside outposts. East of the Yukon, in the vast Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the human population is even sparser. These three territories, with a combined area larger than India, are home to slightly over 100,000 people.
This leaves plenty of room for trees. Billions of trees—white spruce, black spruce, tamarack, jack pine, lodgepole pine, trembling aspen, white birch, balsam poplar—a sweep of billowing, sighing trees, pelagic in dimensions. In North America, the boreal forest stretches across all of subarctic Canada and interior Alaska; and in Eurasia it spans Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, where it is known as the taiga. Taken as a whole, the boreal forest is like a green banner draped around the entire northern hemisphere. It is the world’s largest expanse of intact forest, covering nearly 11 percent of our planet’s surface, far larger than the Amazonian rainforest and equally significant as an environmental treasure.
Along with the ubiquitous moose, woodland caribou may be the quintessential wild animal of the Canadian boreal. We saw them at scattered points along the Bonnet Plume, always in small numbers, always moving toward the edge of sight. One evening, a mother caribou and her calf emerged from the woods close by, peered at us for a long moment, then swam powerfully across the river. After lunging up onto the bank opposite our camp, they trotted along the gravel bar with swift, smooth, effortless grace, straight-backed, heads high and eyes wide, the rhythm of their hoofbeats ringing back to us across the water. Like all caribou, they seemed compelled to run, even without a visible reason, as if they love to feel the strength of their legs, the wind against their flanks, the chill air huffing in their throats.
Earlier we had spotted a skein of woodland caribou trekking up a mountain ridge—all prime adult bulls weighing perhaps 400 pounds, dark chocolate with sharply contrasting white on their necks and shoulders, carrying intricately tined antlers that curved several feet above their heads. They made their way toward the peak, stopping often to graze, dwindling higher and higher until they vanished beyond a ridge. As always, they seemed absolutely self-contained, unreachable, wholly taken up in a world beyond the touch of humankind.
Woodland caribou are forest animals, less known than the highly migratory barrenground caribou that favor tundra regions farther north. At most there are 50,000 woodland caribou scattered across the Canadian boreal today, living in small, dispersed groups, feeding mainly on lichens that thrive only in unbroken tracts of old-growth forest. These are animals of the deep wilderness, easily disrupted by mining, oil and gas development, logging and the roads that spider increasingly into remote woodlands.
Endangered or threatened in almost all of Canada, extinct in the northeastern U.S. and down to about 50 animals in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho, Montana and Washington, woodland caribou are a key indicator of environmental integrity—and perhaps of human integrity as well.
First Nations people have long depended on caribou for meat and hides. Where the caribou have become rare or extinct, remote indigenous communities have lost a major subsistence resource, while their cultural traditions have been undermined and their spiritually empowered world diminished. Throughout boreal North America, native people who have limited access to imported groceries still take their staple foods from the land and waters. In addition to caribou, they hunt moose, Dall sheep, mountain goat, black bear, snowshoe hare, geese, ptarmigan; they trap beaver, muskrat, lynx, marten; they catch whitefish, salmon, pike; they gather berries and edible greens; they cut logs for houses, boats, sleds. Small wonder that strong voices for protecting the forest have come from the First Nations people who live in more than 600 communities across the Canadian boreal.
Near one of our camps, I stumbled onto the ruins of a small cabin, probably built by a Nacho N’yak Dun trapper. Strewn among the moldering logs were a huge crosscut saw, enamel cook pots, a rusty cast-iron stove and oversized Hills Brothers coffee cans. Yukon law strictly protects historic remains, and it looked as if nothing had been taken away, but the relics would slowly vanish under the moss, leaving no visible evidence of the lives carried out here. I imagined the trapper standing in his cabin doorway, looking out over the forested valley and the high, ragged peaks. It was a powerful reminder that indigenous people have used the boreal land for thousands of years without substantially diminishing its richness and beauty.
Throughout the north, indigenous groups have shifted away from nomadic camps and far-flung traplines to gather in frontier communities like Fort McPherson. Swept into an era of accelerated social and economic change, they are challenged to find a balance between the old subsistence traditions and the newer cash economy— wage labor, arts and crafts, guiding and tourism. Nested among enormous tracts of forest, these communities are well situated for large-scale timber enterprises, but this presents a special challenge to First Nations communities who are intimately connected to the land. Many of them are committed to sustainable development of logging that protects wildlife habitat, keeps the waters healthy, maintains woodlands for recreation and tourism, and honors a spiritual heritage founded on respect for the natural world.
In the north country, we have the chance to accomplish what has eluded us elsewhere on the continent— to live on the land and draw from its resources while assuring that the entire living community remains intact. This often came to mind as I scanned the mountainsides, yearning to see one of the north country’s most elusive creatures—the wolverine. It is a legendary animal of the boreal forest, a predator and scavenger belonging to the weasel family, squat and thickset, weighing up to 45 pounds, dark brown with paler strips along both flanks, known for its physical power and sharp temper.
Wolverines live throughout the north, but they are widely scattered, reclusive to the point of being ghostlike, and incapable of adapting to habitat loss or industrial development. Among all the native animals of our continent, the wolverine is most emblematic of expansive, unmarred wilderness, holding to the farthest edge, shunning all contact with humankind, like an old mystic who chooses to die with his secrets rather than reveal them. In the long run, our most important gauge of successful habitation in the northern forest may be the continuing presence of wolverines; their disappearance would be a tragic signal of failure.
As we drifted down the Bonnet Plume, I was comforted to think that wolverines may have watched us from the concealing forest—but we saw no trace of them.
During one of our stops, I hiked up an easy ridge and came onto a sprawling view of mountains cloaked in velvety green tundra. Glassing the nearest peak, I saw four pure-white female Dall sheep and two half-grown lambs, all peering down from a bedrock precipice as if there might be a wolf or bear somewhere below. Making my way back to the river, I heard a lovely, garrulous chatter; and amid the boughs of a tall white spruce, I picked out a robin-sized bird, slate gray, with a conspicuous black mask and a long, hooked bill. Dave Mossop, the Yukon biologist who carefully logged bird sightings, was pleased when I told him about the bird, because he fears shrikes may be declining here.
Northern shrikes often winter in the boreal forest, along with a fairly small number of other bird species tough enough to endure temperatures of minus 50°F or colder. But the great majority of birds head for warmer climates each fall, returning north in spring to nest and raise their young, taking advantage of the protracted daylight, lush summer growth and abundant insects. Almost 30 percent of all North America’s land birds and 40 percent of our waterfowl nest in the Canadian boreal— over 230 species, including warblers, sparrows, thrushes, woodpeckers, flycatchers, longspurs, vireos, swallows, juncos, kinglets, hawks, loons, grebes, ducks, geese. The total population of land birds in Canada’s boreal forest each summer is over five billion, a number so large it is completely beyond our comprehension.
In recent years, much attention has focused on habitat destruction in the tropical areas where many northern birds winter. But there are equally important concerns about the nesting grounds, which are the source for every new generation of these bright and beautiful creatures. A report by Bird Studies Canada indicates that the populations of 40 species nesting in the boreal forest are declining. Almost certainly there are multiple causes, but protection of the birds’ nesting habitat is crucial at a time of growing pressure from petrochemical development, hydroelectric dams, mines, agriculture, roads and logging. In Ontario alone, up to 85,000 migratory birds’ nests were destroyed by timber harvests in 2001, according to a report to the North American Free Trade Agreement Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
Every spring, flocks of birds fly enormous distances across the continents and oceans to reach their home grounds in the northern forest. During their annual passage, they bring flashes of dazzling color to our backyards. They weave a chorus of song through our mornings and evenings. They reveal to us the lavishness and splendor of evolution. And they remind us about the tenuousness of life in a time of global change. One evening, we watched a pair of loons perform their ecstatic mating dance on the waters of Bonnet Plume Lake. Their protracted, tremulous, wailing voices drifted through the forest and rang up against the mountainsides, as if the whole northern world were singing to itself.
The boreal forest is also one of the few places where every species known to exist before Europeans landed on North American shores is still present, where we need not feel the heartbreaking emptiness of extinction. And the forest contributes importantly to the well-being of our own species. Every breath we take is in part a gift from this immense, earth-circling ecosystem, which exhales massive amounts of oxygen each day. The boreal regions also hold and filter 80 percent of the world’s fresh water. And by locking up huge quantities of carbon in living vegetation, the subarctic forest helps to limit the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, mitigating a major cause of global warming.
The Canadian boreal is like an elephant in the living room—we ignore it at our peril. Yet few people are aware of its existence, as worldwide attention centers on loss of tropical rainforests, air and water pollution and urban sprawl. Most importantly, the far-flung, thinly populated northern lands may be our best remaining chance to protect our natural heritage on a grand scale. We can do it while also recognizing the place of indigenous cultures, nourishing healthy land-based communities and shaping a balance between preservation and utilization of the environment.
This is exactly what is proposed by the Canadian Boreal Initiative, a Trusts-supported project of Ducks Unlimited. The Trusts’ efforts to protect the Canadian boreal forest are furthered through partnerships with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The Lenfest Foundation.
The initiative—which co-sponsored this trip, part of a series of river adventures called the Boreal Rendezvous to let people know about this invaluable resource—would protect the world’s largest tract of virgin forest through an unprecedented collaboration between First Nations people, environmental interests, scientists and industries. These groups have shaped the boldest, most ambitious, most visionary conservation plan ever created anywhere— called the Canadian Boreal Conservation Framework. It would establish a network of strictly protected, interconnecting parks encompassing about half of the 1.3-billion-acre northern forest, an area almost 10 times the combined size of all U.S. national parks. The other half of the boreal region would be open for development under ecologically sustainable guidelines yet to be defined.
This extraordinary plan avoids the divisiveness typical of many debates over land and resources, because it was developed collaboratively by the stakeholders and because it assures that people will remain intricately engaged with the land as residents, workers and stewards. Northern Canada may be the only place in the world where conservation on such a magnitude could still be achieved. Canada’s political, economic and cultural circumstances open conservation opportunities that wouldn’t be possible in the Amazon or Siberia, and, importantly, over 90 percent of Canada’s boreal land is publicly owned.
Many northern communities are witnessing an unplanned but dramatic economic change. Travelers are coming here from throughout the world, not to create extractive industries, not to build factories or cities, not to see museums or theme parks or monuments, but to absorb themselves in precisely the opposite. They are drawn by what is rapidly becoming one of the scarcest, most desired and most valuable resources of all—wild lands, wild waters, wild forests, wild animals and the peace of wildness itself.
Nearly all of the Bonnet Plume River is incredibly rich in these qualities, but along the lower reaches we came upon stark evidence that change may be impending. A short distance from the riverbanks was a huge air strip— the only visible indication of a highly speculative development that could include a coal mine, a coal-fired electrical- generating plant, power lines, coalbed methane and conventional oil and gas projects and an enormous iron mine near the adjoining Snake River, with all the accompanying road systems and settlements. It’s a staggering possibility in the midst of such an enormous, unblemished land. The Bonnet Plume’s designation as a Canadian Heritage River is purely symbolic, offering no legal protection, and this is why conservationists from the Yukon and all over Canada are working with First Nations groups to gain formal, lasting protective status for this remarkable place.
Opinions are divided about the future of Canada’s boreal country, and the pressure for a wide array of developments will intensify in coming years. At the same time, large tracts of unsettled land, abundant wildlife and spectacular scenery are attracting more and more visitors. With the exponential growth of recreation and tourism, wilderness qualities are likely to become the single most valuable economic asset for northern communities. In the Yukon and throughout the Canadian north, older industries based on resource exploitation should be balanced against the young, vigorous industries based on wildness.
As we drifted past the airfield, with its bright orange windsock dancing in the breeze, I felt the burden of a responsibility as enormous as the boreal land itself. Even if developments like this could be accomplished without displacing wildlife, without polluting the ice-clear waters, without widespread deforestation and wholesale changes in the natural environment, the fragile condition of wildness would irretrievably disappear. It would create a vast darkness at the center of the Gwich’in and Nacho N’yak Dun homeland and empty the hearts of people everywhere who love the splendor of wild places.
When our trip ended, we flew back over the Bonnet Plume in a float plane stuffed with gear. Peering down at the land from this radically different perspective, I traced each bend of the river, remembered the excitement of thrashing whitewater chutes, felt again the sweaty exhaustion of high-mountain hiking, reflected on the pleasures of traveling in good company and savored the comforting silence of an immeasurably vast forested land.
Then I imagined once more the transfixing gaze of a young black wolf. And it was as if all the wildness at the heart of the North American continent had been revealed; as if the entire history of a human presence on this land were set before us; as if we were challenged to find the humility that makes us deserving of a place here; as if this animal had emerged from the forest to confront us with a prodigious, impending, massively consequential question.
And I would trust the wolf’s answer far more than I would trust my own.
The Canadian Boreal Initiative is located at 249 McLeod Street, Ottawa, Ontario. Its telephone number is 613.230.4739, and its Web address is www.borealcanada.ca.
Richard K. Nelson, a cultural anthropologist who lives in Sitka, Alaska, has written, among other books, The Island Within, Shadow of the Hunter: Stories of Eskimo Life and Heart and Blood: Living With Deer in America. His honors include the Lannan Foundation Literary Award for Nonfiction and designation as the first “Alaska State Writer” by the Alaska State Council on the Arts.
See related information on this story: Boreal Bird Brief: Canada’s Boreal Forest Vital to North American Bird Life, a report of the Boreal Songbird Initiative (also found at www.borealbirds.org).