Wilderness areas have been a reality in Nova Scotia since December 3rd, 1998, when the Wilderness Areas Protection Act came into force and simultaneously designated the first 31. These areas, unlike parks which can be partially dedicated to recreation, are strictly for conservation on the ecosystem scale, protecting entire landscapes and the vital processes therein.
Where, do you think, is the most intact forest on Earth? Your mind might take you to the solid green canopy of the Amazon Rainforest or perhaps to the Congo, places being undervalued into oblivion but which are still, mercifully, vast, possessing of remoteness it seems can only be found in a good book these days. The world’s most intact forest, however, is much closer to home. In fact you’ve probably walked through it, blissfully unaware of its global significance.
The dawn chorus, as it’s known, takes place at first light particularly in spring and early summer, a consequential time for the myriad species of nesting bird across Nova Scotia. It begins timidly, with a few of the more light sensitive species piping up first, marking territories, attracting mates or carrying out any number of mysterious biological functions. Within minutes more chime in, until the air is lit with hundreds of ethereal voices.
There are precious few old growth forests left in the Maritimes, mere postage stamps surrounded by oceans of abused wilderness, altogether constituting less than 0.01 per cent of our regional landscape.
It was the 18th of August when I gained the summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier, an alpine peak of shattered stone and meager vegetation some 1,270 metres above Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. Several stones were organized into mounds marking the trail all visitors were obliged to follow, and just beyond them, lounging in no-man’s-land with a mountainous backdrop, were the very last of the Atlantic caribou. Here was the end of a very long pilgrimage, for me, but more so for them.
Us Canadians endure a distorted sense of distance when visiting the United States, doubly so for us Maritimers. Sure, I know there are 1.6 kilometres in each mile, but seeing an 8.5 mile hike on my overpriced trail map still didn’t frighten me as much as it should have. As a denizen of our flat eastern provinces, I also didn’t appreciate the 5,260 feet of elevation these miles entailed.
We live in the age of mass extinction, a harsh reality which dogs me each week. Our tactless conquest of the natural world is leaving precious little habitat for the species and ecosystems which made this planet beautiful, mysterious and, incidentally, habitable. My summer reading of authors like David R. Boyd, Lawrence Anthony, Edward O. Wilson and Frans de Waal brought this modern crisis into sharp focus for me, and the weight of my realizations left me with two choices – to implode, like so much weak sauce, or to volunteer.
There was a time when American beech commanded much of the Maritimes, growing to tremendous sizes with porcelain smooth bark, a generous abundance of seed and autumn beauty to rival any hardwood. But that’s not the American beech we’ve come to know, seeing instead a tree corrupted by black rot, its bark twisted and cankered beyond recognition, stunted and with very few seeds. In little over a century this species fell from canopy heights, now a leper among plants.
Few species are as iconically North American as the Plains bison, once numbering 30 million strong from central Alberta to northern Mexico, from the Rockies in the west to Washington City in the east.
It’s extraordinary to me that European settlement could have been so unforgiving to this magnificent ruminant, stealing away its prairie habitat and hunting them within a few dozen members of extinction. All those persevering today are descended from the 85 individuals who survived our onslaught by 1888, bred in the confines of federal protection until numerous enough for reintroduction.
My kayaking career began not with a paddle, but with a hike, through the splintering trails and crumbling buildings of the York Redoubt National Historic Site, from whose lookouts I admired the entirety of Halifax Harbour. One visit became many as this was the destination of my daily jog, nurturing, over time, my curiosity of a park visible from its peaks, quietly occupying the waters below – McNabs Island.