It is early in the morning on September 27, 2007 and I am sitting on a fallen poplar tree that spans a brook with my feet, clad in insulated rubber boots, planted firmly on a gravel stream bed. The nearest town is about 200 miles to the southwest and I am alone on this day in the northern Quebec wilderness. The warm weather is breaking all known records for this area, although I cannot say at this moment I am not enjoying the warm sun on my face that offsets the cool brook that runs over my feet.
The moose hunting has been slow due to the unusual weather and so I find I have a lot of time on my hands while waiting for lady luck to show her face in this deep wilderness. The Quebec bush is impenetrable; a maize and mesh of low conifers, fallen trees, and underbrush that is almost impossible to navigate. I am left to exploring stream beds, lake edges, and wide open wetlands if I am to traverse these territories at all. Up here in the north, conifer trees are stunted, and peat moss dominates the open landscape. Earlier frosts have turned the few hardwood leaves to gold and red colors, while the carpets of frosted ruby red peat moss that blanket the wetlands contrast sharply against the deep green spruce and fir trees that grow sparsely throughout the open water swamps. Slow hunting means time for observing, reflecting, and absorbing my surroundings. In any case, I feel very fortunate to be here.
There are two little pools, created by fallen fir branches, near my feet in the stream. Here the current slows for a moment as the water searches for a path through the needles on the branches. Downstream there are more riffles and pools, all glistening as the sun rises higher in the sky. The stream drains to the east, so there are no shadows present at this time. Looking into the clear water is like looking into a long, flat aquarium. Rocks, water logged branches and logs, elongated bars of sand, along with the occasional trout can all be seen. In one pool, near my feet, there are a dozen or so whirlygigs. The tiny water beetles move about randomly, turning at crazy angles suddenly and without caution or end. Their movement creates a sense of chaos within the boundary of the pool. I watch these little guys for quite a while, convinced that there must be purpose to their outrageous patterns of motion. I study their unpredictable movements so long that I have myself convinced, for a moment, that if I stare at the whilygigs long enough I will crack the code and find meaning to their short, random, wanderings. Are they defending territory? Are they competing for food? Perhaps, I reason, their movements are meant as a distraction to predators, thereby increasing the odds of survival for the group at the expense of an individual. A long gob of time goes by as I watch them at my feet in the quiet water, and I am reminded of John Forbes Nash the famous mathematician whose life was portrayed in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”. John Nash the winner of the 1994 Nobel prize in Economics for his mathematical ideas regarding gaming and random theory. For a long period of time (some say he was suffering from schizophrenia) Nash thought that he could see mathematical patterns in everything; leaves falling off trees, people in transition at a busy bus station, even rain falling from the sky. Perhaps he could, but most of the rest of the world perceived that he was mentally ill. Given this thought, I decide it would be best if I halted my fixation on the whirlygigs movements and pursue other thoughts.
I come to the Quebec wilderness at least once a year. Few people understand how vast it is. Quebec is about 600,000 square miles in size. As a way of comparison the great wilderness of Alaska is just over 650,000 square miles in area. Almost the entire population of Quebec is found in the south along the St. Lawrence River. To the north there are simply miles, and miles, and miles of wilderness. It is a wilderness full of boreal forest, tundra, and wide open spaces, but very, very few people. Although I am a descendant of Quebec born ancestors, both of native and European extraction, that is not my only reason to explore this vast region. The fact is that I can get to a very far away place in only about 12 to 15 hours of driving from my home.
Wild areas, or wilderness, are as different from rural landscapes, as rural landscapes are from urban landscapes. Urban areas have landscapes dominated and designed for the sole convenience of human use. Rural landscapes have many natural features, but large areas of landscape managed for human endeavors. Wilderness is primarily just wild. Here there are enormous areas with few human impacts, although it must be recognized that the logging industry impacts large areas of the far north. Over the years, I have come to realize that it is here that I am most at peace, and although I am probably going to be a lifetime New England resident, I am hopeful that I will always find the time and wisdom to come here so that I can be reminded of what wild really is.
My thoughts are interrupted by two bronze black birds that land in the shallow riffles of the stream. This resident of northern conifer forests takes great joy in kicking over dead leaves for hours at a time in search of small little benthic insects on which the birds can feast. I have never watched them work a shallow stream bottom before, but I realize that they do this with great efficiency. One bird, presumably the female, works the north side of the stream. The other bird, a brilliantly bronzed male works the south side of the stream. Almost every submerged leaf is scratched and turned over and about a third of the leaves yield food. The pair seems to work in unison, slowly migrating up the stream on each side until they are both about a yard from my boots, still firmly planted on the stream bottom. Both birds stop, look at my boots and raise their heads slowly as if they are examining every inch of my large frame until they both look me squarely in the eye. I expect them to fly off in fright as we stare at each other, but they are not alarmed. Both turn inward towards the stream center, do an about face and continue there foraging activities, now in a downstream direction. The birds work about a 30 yard section of the stream over and over for about 2 hours. They never look at me again.
Most animals, birds and mammals alike, have never seen a human in these parts. The nearest road (a 200 mile long dirt logging road) is about 20 miles away and so their contact with humans is extremely limited. There is no learned fear of people, although most animals are still cautious with humans as an unknown form of life. Yesterday, Steve my hunting partner came across two beavers pulling a long branch in the water along the edge of a clear, quiet lake. The beavers noticed him standing there and stopped what they were doing and swam to the edge of the lake. There, without hesitation, they crawled out of the water and marched up to him as if he were an old friend. From a distance of only five or six feet they looked at him up and down, and then they looked at each other, at which time they turned about and marched right back into the water from where they came. Steve, a Marine Corps veteran, told me that the incident made him feel as if he failed inspection and that was the end of that.
The angle of the sun is at it’s highest point for the day, which means it is nearly noon. It is time to wander slowly back to my camp for our noon meal where my buddy, who has been exploring a different part of the watershed, will meet me. Our shared observations and thoughts may be as random as the whirlygigs navigating the same stream pool over and over again, but like the bronze blackbirds we will likely leave no leaf unturned in our search to understand the ways of the wild as we share our morning observations.
Originally written in November of 2006
William (2006). Movement In The Stream Of Conscience Heath Herald