It was too cold even for insects, the glassy surface of Lake Superior faithfully reflecting a ruby sky as the sun rose over Pancake Bay Provincial Park, crisp beams of light cutting through the branches of old growth maple, birch, oak, spruce and pine. The mist burned away and birdsong swelled to fill the open chambers of this lakeside wood. I was alone.
It took nothing short of a billion years to craft Gros Morne National Park, its mountainous conglomerations the result of ancient continents colliding and breaking apart, of ice ages and glaciers shaving away soil and carving out fjords, and of course human beings, our contribution at times destruction, regenerative, even humane. It’s a place steeped in grandeur, infusing an Atlantic Canadian humbleness with earthen majesty. It’s enough to stagger us modest Maritimers, and yet it feels like home, a conundrum with which I grappled this past July.
It was the 3rd of June, 2018, when I drove a rental car four hours into the central wilds of Vancouver Island, searching for a single gigantic tree. Stories of this arboreal titan came to me from locals who, at least on the surface, weren’t all that excited or impressed that I was going out of my way to find it, just as a Maritimer might scoff at tourists eager to see the ocean. Who cares about one more giant tree, they seemed to say.
Your average North American can recognize 150 corporate logos without effort or preparation. Our evolutionary gifts for pattern recognition, once wielded by our ancestors to understand and embrace the complexities of nature, are now being clogged by companies from which we purchase the necessities. Most of us are incapable of missing a Tim Hortons on the highway, but are, by the same token, unable to name the vast majority of living things giving our world beauty and diversity.
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.
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.