New Surroundings

It was cloudy that morning.  A thick fog stuck within the deep forest made travelling difficult.  Cool air off the Hudson Bay tried to creep under the unusually warm weather that had been pasted onto this wilderness area in northern Quebec.  I was in search of moose, but they were not moving.  The most powerful of all the deer family, often weighing in at 1200 pounds, does not do well, with its wooly coat designed to survive temperatures of 50 degrees below zero, in seventy degree weather.  Think of yourself wearing long johns, street clothes, and a heavy fur coat in a 110 degree sauna.  It doesn’t sound like much fun does it?

I thought I might be able to locate a moose if I could find a bog that was near the top of a large hill to our north.  I had seen the bog on a topographical map. The cool, spring fed swamp coupled with the shade, provided by the thick conifer forest, might easily provide a cooler environment in this steamy weather.  This required that I bushwack a short distance through the underbrush off of a main trail.  My buddy, the Marine, was travelling along the edge of a mountain top pond about a mile from my present position.  He hoped the wind blowing over the cool pond would produce cooler air, perhaps enticing the moose to move about for food.

On this occasion I used a GPS to mark the trail and my travel route through the dense underbrush.  I could only mark my position when there was a small clearing, usually created by a tree that had been blown over by the wind.  It is easy to loose one’s sense of direction in this territory.  The trees and underbrush are so thick you loose all perspective.  A compass would have sufficed, but these new hand held location devices sure made things easy.

As I weaved my way through the nearly impenetrable woods I wondered how long it would take me to reach my destination.  Climbing over some fallen trees, under others, and removing your loose boot laces from a tangle at your feet can really slow a guy down.  I was glad I had the time and the patience to move forward in search of this wetland.

The bush in this area is primarily made up of a conifer forest.  There are occasional poplars, white birch, and red maple trees, but without a doubt most trees are those that bear cones.  The understory in this forest was amazing.  Peat moss hugging the forest floor brought to a crimson color by earlier hard frosts stood in sharp contrast to the deep green boughs hanging from the black spruce.  Short, red-leaved blueberry shrubs tried eek out survival in a corner where light penetrated to near ground level.  A few remaining red bunchberries still graced the ground where birds and mammals had not yet found them for food.  Labrador tea, the leaves still green, seemed to grown in any available light.

My distant view was limited to but a few yards by the nearly impenetrable brush.  This lessened my confidence of finding the bog given it could be only a few yards away and I might not see it.  There is always a little bit of a gamble involved in traipsing through the northern bush.  It goes with the territory.

After about 60 minutes I thought I might have missed my destination.  I realized I was moving very slowly, trying not to make noise, and so it was difficult to determine just how far I had travelled.  Just as I was growing impatient I could see a large opening.  No doubt the bog was where it was supposed to be.

As I stood on the edge of the bog the exquisite scenery put me into a delightful mood.  Bright red peat-moss, spread out over the entire cleared area of ten acres or so, nearly brought tears to my eyes.  Tamarack trees, in their regal yellow color phase, grew in dotted patches throughout this remarkable wetland.  A light fog, pushed by the cool wind, danced over this nearly perfect landscape.  The gray, overcast day somehow made the colors seem more saturated and intense.

I approached one of the tamarack trees.  It stood alone surrounded by peat moss.  The soft deciduous needles, golden in color, but still clasping a knob of bark brought back an old memory.  A memory that had been locked in some deep recess of my mind and had not surfaced for decades.

It was the memory of my first encounter with a tamarack in my hometown in New England.  As a young boy I used to seek refuge in the forest.  I found safety in the woods.  Things were not right with my family.  The forest made sense to me.  Everything had a purpose; every tree, shrub, plant, animal, fungi, and even the soil were linked together.  Even at the age of nine years old the forested landscape resonated with my spirit.  It just felt good, right, and safe.  There is no other way of describing it.  I spent so much time in those woods I began to believe that I knew every single tree and plant in my place of refuge.  I felt as if I was intimately familiar with the character of those woods.

And then one day I ventured just a little farther into the woods.  I stood there looking around.  At first every thing seemed familiar.  I looked to my immediate left and there stood something completely unfamiliar; a tree that I did not recognize.  It looked like a conifer, but the needles were in bunches perched on a woody bract.  From a short distance it almost looked like it was a fake tree.  I saw it as a great mystery; a true marvel, and for moments I wondered in my boy-like mind if I had wandered into something prehistoric.  I was completely enamored with this tree.  I broke off a small branch and brushed the soft needles over my smooth skin. It felt so good.

The form of the tree was perfectly conical pointing to the heavens like the steeple on a church.  I decided that this was the place where I would settle in for the next few hours.  I reached into my small day pack, extracted a book, and began to read as I often did during those days.  Reading in the forest, completely by myself, brought me great comfort.  Every once in a while I looked up from my reading, marveled at my new found tree, and wondered why I had never seen another like this before.

That evening, at home, I was able to identify the tree using a forest guide.  I learned that it was an eastern larch also called a tamarack tree or hackmatack tree.  I learned that it mostly grew in the far north, lost its needles in the winter, and could withstand temperatures to minus sixty five degrees.  The concept of a pine tree losing its needles was completely new to me.  In my young mind I tried to picture a bare pine tree in the woods.  It sounded so lonely.

I suppose one could say I formed an unusual attachment to the tamarack tree.  I learned how my Native American relatives used this tree of the north.  They used the inner bark to treat wounds, especially burns.  They used to wood for snowshoes, ribbing in canoes, and to fashion goose decoys for hunting.  They dried the inner bark and turned it into meal to be mixed with other natural flours made from plants. Native Americans even chewed the sap and enjoyed its sweet taste.

On one particular camping trip in northern Maine at the sweet age of 13 I found my first tamarack stand.  Acres and acres of this beautiful tree; from that moment on I knew that I would be bound to travel further north to the outer reaches of our greatest neighbor, Canada.

And somewhere, sometime between then and now that memory slipped away like rain off of a water lily.  It was most likely attached to a group of memories that were filed deep in my brain under “do not disturb”.

I stood there on the edge of the bog.  The memories were clear and reverberating.  There was a certain discomfort.  They were bittersweet. I was glad to have the memory of my earliest experiences with the tamarack tree return and perhaps I was afraid of the other memories that were attached to this experience.

After a few moments I relaxed, took a few breaths, and revisited the beauty that stood before me.  Golden trees hovered over the scarlet moss.  Soon they would appear naked; withstanding the bitter north winds.  It takes a tough tree to survive these coldest of winters.  Perhaps it takes a tough man to relive the past.

Written for www.wildramblings in April 2010

  • Ratty

    Every story you write keeps my attention riveted to my computer screen. I feel like I am there experiencing these things myself. I use the forest as a place to escape too. But my escape is just from the stress of the busy city. And I also think I like being in the forest because of a few short experiences from childhood when I was free to wander the forest.

  • Sandy

    Hey Bill, I love tamarack trees, too. We have a few in the woods behind the house, but not like I have seen in other areas of the state. Isn’t it strange how places leave their prints in our memory? With me, it is usually the scent of a place that sends me back there.

    By the way, my husband and I drove up to Jackman, Me last May. He spent his teen years there, and we both love the area. Anyway, we had to stop four times for moose between The Forks and Jackman. I don’t know how it is this year, but I can tell you the black flies are out, so do bet the moose are coming out of the woods.

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