As I stood in the small boat on Lake Wetetnagami I was amazed at what I saw on the hillside in front of me. During this early evening in June I was witnessing the recovery of a forest that had been completely annihilated by a fire that burned hundreds of square miles in 1995. Before me stood the skeletal remains of tens of thousands of evergreen trees; weathered gray erect trunks and spindly branches each with a charcoal colored root crown-evidence of a bad fire many years ago. This cemetery of a forest was not gaunt in that it was, incredulously, full of new life. Between all of the skeletal remains was the beginning of a new forest; thousands and thousands of evergreen trees that were four to eight feet tall. The striking contrast between life and death was awe inspiring. I was witnessing the birth of a new area of boreal forest.
Lake Wetetnagami is located north and west of Lebel sur Quevillon, about and hour or two to the north of Senneterre. This remote boreal forest region is mostly wilderness; true wilderness, the kind you absolutely do not want to get lost in. I came here to do a little fishing and to see the beauty of the Quebec wilds. I did not expect to witness this rebirth, a miracle in its own right.
It is unclear how this forest fire started, but many start in these wilderness areas by lightning strikes. The locals call the boreal forest the “bush”, and when the bush gets to burning there is little other than the will of nature and God that can stop it. Most ecologists will tell you that in the big picture, as far as nature goes, fire can be a good thing. It is certainly devastating, but it sort of resets the ecological start button and a fresh, new forest reappears, over a great deal of time, of course. The most distinct improvement that fires create is new habitat for animals. Low browse is absolutely wonderful for many of the boreal species including snowshoe hare, beaver, moose, and even bear. Predators like wolves, wolverines, martens, and lynx benefit from the increased herbivore populations. New life can be found, with time, throughout the charred region.
Of course, many humans, particularly those involved with the logging industry would disagree severely about the effects of large forest fires. There is little doubt that there are very large economic considerations.
As I approached the shore in my small water craft, expertly piloted by Steve Smith (a real life character in many of my stories often referred to as the Marine), I could see that there is a lush understory that is primarily comprised of herbaceous and woody-stem ground covers. Peat moss, yellow clintonia, bunchberry, small cranberry, swamp red currant, Labrador tea, and raspberry form a solid mat of low growing vegetation wherever it is not heavily shaded by the recovering conifers. All of these plants either tolerate acidic soils or are acid soil loving plants. On this day the Labrador tea, clintonia, and bunchberry were flowering. The white and yellow flowers of these plants dashed the landscape, contrasting beautifully with the green herbaceous cover. The most striking feature was, without a doubt, the thick mat of peat moss that was crawling up the slope away from the edge of the lake. Had this mat of sphagnum gone largely unaffected by the fire 14 years ago, or did it recover that quickly, spreading across the landscape in the thin wet soil?
The boreal forest is a harsh eco-zone. Cold temperatures, short growing seasons, thin, sandy soils that rest on the bedrock, and limited soil nutrients all act as an impediment to new and old plant growth. This results in a very slow recovery and somewhat stunted plant size, particularly where the bedrock is exposed on the landscape. Despite these handicaps, before me was clear evidence that these plants were not only adapted for this climate, but they were suited particularly well for this harsh environment.
From the other end of the boat Steve observes how green everything is in the new growth under the remnants of a once mature forest. He describes all the green looking like “piles and piles of emeralds” from a distance. And that it is, green and full of life. As I stand witnessing this rebirth I am struck by this forest’s will to survive. During the winter it must endure extreme cold, very harsh weather, and almost no sunlight. Summers are exceedingly short, although the days can be very long due to the northern latitude. The soils are acidic and do not have abundant nutrients, and yet still the forest endures all of this and a fire that burned to the ground the entire mature forest over hundreds of square miles. If someone were to characterize this forest in human terms they might refer to it as rugged and determined.
While were taking all this in a snowshoe hare could be seen foraging amongst the herbaceous plants above the sandy beach and exposed areas of gray bedrock. Moose tracks were present in the white sand squeezed between the dark blue waters and the edge of the bush. Early in the morning we were fortunate to see both a cow moose and a black bear while fishing for walleye. It is clear that the wildlife is abundant, and it is likely that this is a direct result of the changes brought by this great fire about 14 years ago.
Steve and I let the boat drift along the shoreline, paralleling the rocky shoreline as the wind comes out of the north. We lazily fished off the bottom with jigs in hopes of a meal of walleye. The fish have not “turned on” this day, but we continued fishing anyways. The scenery captured our thoughts, few words were spoken. We were two woodsmen overwhelmed by nature.
The light in the sky dwindled. The sun was close to disappearing below the horizon. Tangerine, light pink, and purple skies now captured our attention. As the blackness worked its way over the sky from the east I thought about the end of that day and how night time would soon yield to the first light in the east once again. That is the way of life, darkness begets a new dawn. There is always hope.
Written for the Heath Herald in July of 2009.
For more information and photos about this topic please look at an earlier post on www.wildramblings.com entitles “Recovery of a Boreal Forest-Lac Wetetnagami” posted in late June 2009.