There were five of them growing in close company, dominating a gentle slope of explosive greens and soft moss, tall and wide and straight as arrows, each tipped slightly apart as though to avoid direct competition for sunlight. One look at their tableau of co-existence would be enough, even for the layman, to tell that this ongoing compromise had played out over several centuries.
“You see the Coral lichen?” said Mike Lancaster, my guide to this strange slice of deep time. He pointed to the turquoise spindle of growth on the bark of each tree, present from ground level to as high as I could perceive. This peculiar lichen, he explained, is the clearest indicator of ancient trees we have.
And there was more. You could tell an old tree, or at least an old hemlock, from a lack of lowly branches, and from the rough and reddened appearance of old bark. These five had all that and more, a quiet majesty that seemed to bend the air around them, causing my eyes to linger and my breath to deepen. The year previous, Mike had cored one of these five, discovering it to be 413 years old, the oldest of his career and in the 13,000 hectare wilderness it was his intention to formally protect.
“It’s one of these five,” he said, consulting the GIS coordinates which had taken us this far, but which were only accurate within the several metre grove these five arboreal beasts represented. “I don’t know which.”
I dared him to core another, and after a moment’s pause he retrieved his increment borer from the waterproof pack on his back and considered his options.
“Which one?” he asked, and I pointed to the giant standing lowest on the slope, its bark so primeval that it hosted a thin film of iron grey – maybe lichen or maybe something else – looking like the overgrown stone of an Inca temple. Mike fit his six foot four frame between this tree and a shield of granite and began to core, and after a while he grimaced. The heartwood of this tree had become rotten, a healthy and natural process among hemlocks, but a bane to those who core them. He withdrew the core and the deepest few inches were indeed illegible mulch. He counted the intact portion, and I waited.
Mike Lancaster has spent the better part of a decade exploring this Nova Scotian wilderness, known better as the proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area, stretching from Panuke Lake in the west to Indian Lake in the east, bordering the Mi’kmaw Forestry Initiative in the north at the Hants County line, and reaching as far south as the St Margaret’s Bay and Highway 103. It is a titanic treasure, much of it abused by decades of forestry, the rest as lovely and lively as anything I have ever seen.
Mike himself has identified over 130 forest stands in the Ingram whose trees exceed 125 years old. Many of those exceed 200 years, and a handful exceed 300. Only two trees, after all that time and labour, have broken the 400 year barrier – one to the south of Panuke Lake, cored at 402 years old just this summer, and the 413 year old specimen hiding in this very grove.
Mike looked up from his counting and invited me to guess, but I didn’t need to guess and I told him so. He’s a reserved man in all things, outwardly unreadable to all but those who know him, yet here he was smiling, and unable to stop. I knew we had discovered something.
“424,” he said, not only the oldest tree of his career and his proposed wilderness area, but ranking among the oldest in the province. We looked again to the portion of the core which had turned to mulch, wondering how many decades of rings had been lost to decay. After some thought, Mike concluded this tree was at least 430 years old, and perhaps as old as 450 or more.
I congratulated him, assuming this discovery to be a quantum leap in his efforts to establish the Ingram River Wilderness Area, a provincial designation he and his employer, the St Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association, have sought since 2016, in order to safeguard the watershed and the natural wealth within, but instead of the unbridled enthusiasm I brought to the moment, Mike simple peered up the length of the great tree and allowed his smile to fade.
“Yeah,” he said.
I insisted he core another of the five ancient trees and he refused. When I pressed him, arguing that a higher number made for a better story, he explained that he was not trying to find the oldest tree in the province, nor compete for the grabbiest headline. He was in these woods to prove, through the careful collection of data, that the proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area deserved protection from our provincial government…that its rare Red spruce and hardwood dominant forests, its pockets of old growth, its innumerable species-at-risk, its cultural and historical treasures tangled in backcountry bush, its stupendous recreational value to off-roaders, cyclists, anglers, hunters, paddlers, hikers and all lovers of nature, and yes, even its regenerating clearcuts, filling fast with White spruce and Red maple, were worthy of whatever safeguards could be afforded them under provincial law. When managed separately, these values dwindle to nothing, but together they could endure and renew. He’s proven all this many times over, and would not disturb this grove of giants any more than was absolutely necessary just so he could prove it again.
“I don’t want to be greedy,” were his exact words.
The previous evening, which we’d passed in tents amid a stand of Red spruce, the lullaby babbling of a nearby brook mixing with his baritone, Mike said this area was the most heavily used public land in Nova Scotia outside of the national park system, and I could see he was absolutely correct. The logging roads which give easy access to this wilderness were busy the day I biked in, with cyclists and off-road vehicles, trucks and cars carrying canoes to favoured launches, and campers establishing themselves down trails to right and left.
As part of his proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area, Mike has gathered the support of several local businesses which would benefit from protection and an influx of visitors, such as the Bike and Bean, a hopelessly charming bike rental shop and cafe in Upper Tantallon from which I secured my wheels. Mike also talked about creating a Bay-to-Bay hiking trail, stretching 50-60 kilometres from St Margaret’s Bay to the Bay of Fundy, bisecting the province with enormous tourism appeal. Much of the trail already exists in the Ingram and beyond, and only needs to be connected, an effort which could begin after protection becomes official.
He’s been in conversations with the provincial government for some time now, and only this year concluded an extensive inventory of the region’s biodiversity in partnership with the relevant government departments. He expects the protection of the Ingram to be opened up for public comment this fall, and is counting on robust support from across Nova Scotia, from locals who know its value, and from those who merely want to see more of the province protected, and greater investment in wilderness as a means of economic development. To keep track or partake, visit protecttheingram.com for updates and news.
The proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area is a big place, its exact dimensions having changed dramatically with shifting discoveries and political landscapes, but Mike’s stories paint a powerful picture. The largest unprotected old growth forest he’s aware of in the province grows to the west. Far to the north on portage routes are the remains of an alligator tugboat, an amphibious vehicle last used in the logging industry perhaps a century ago. The St Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association has spent over $100,000 restoring salmon habitat along the Ingram River in the past three years alone, and even without its fish, is a waterway with rapids both inviting and fierce. And to the southeast is the frontcountry, where day-use proliferates only thirty minutes from Halifax, and where I spent the entirety of my visit with no regrets.
The old grove which yielded two ancient trees was on an unnamed island in a place called Island Lake, a paddle as haunting as it was breathtaking in the heavy fog, its surrounding trees seeming taller than they should have been, casting mountainous silhouettes in the haze and giving the impression of wilderness far removed, all accessible within an hour of Highway 103 to anyone with canoe and curiosity.
With the wisdom of government and the vocal support of Nova Scotians this special place might soon be rescued. After that, there will be plenty of time to see what waits beyond the fog.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. The writing of this article was supported in part by Tourism Nova Scotia, and originally published by Advocate Media.