To trace the source, I decided to follow the birds north myself. I would visit boreal timber cuts and timber towns, speak with loggers, environmentalists, and locals about the future of what has been called “North America’s Amazon.” Then I’d team up with a leading boreal ornithologist; load a Twin Otter floatplane with a week’s worth of fishing gear, camping equipment, canoes, and cargo; and paddle into northern Canada’s ancient forests—starting 215 miles north-northwest of Thunder Bay.
Standing atop a towering 20-foot-high wall of carefully stacked logs in the interior of Ontario’s Kenogami Forest, north of Lake Superior, Gillian McEachern tells me she feels sick at the sight before us. This log stack extends for hundreds of yards, and miles of other stacks checkerboard a vast hole in the boreal. The farthest away look like tiny bundles of thistle seed. A black smudge marks the distant edge of upright spruce and pine. The clearcut easily stretches for several square miles.
“Nothing about logging is pretty,” says McEachern, who for the past eight years has crisscrossed Ontario as an activist. For the last two, she has campaigned as part of her job with the nonprofit group ForestEthics. “But here’s your bird and caribou habitat, just before it’s turned into catalogs and toilet paper.”
From Thunder Bay we drive miles of rain-slicked logging roads through clearcuts and young, regenerating forest. In many of the cuts, the ground is so deeply scored by log skidders that I stumble through the ruts. In others, soaring piles of treetops and branches have been bulldozed into house-sized slash heaps. I wonder what happened to the birds that once nested in these newly shorn trees. Pushed into surrounding forests, they likely had to compete with existing birds for both food and nesting sites, an exhausting process at a time when raising chicks is demanding enough.
Early the next morning I brace my feet against the floorboard of a battered Mazda pickup as Chris Walterson threads his truck through spitting drizzle in the Kenogami. Lean and sinewy, with hard-bitten fingernails and eyes the color of the dark clouds overhead, Walterson has spent 28 of his 55 years in the Ontario forestry industry—on an all-in-one tree-shearing and bundling machine known as a feller buncher, on a tractor or loader, and, most recently, in a sawmill. Currently idled due to a mill strike, Walterson was hoping to fly me over the boreal in his homemade two-seater airplane, but nasty weather scuttles our plan. Not a big problem, Walterson says. One thing commercial logging affords is roads.
Clearcuts are only the most visible of the ills of logging in the boreal. Less evident are the new roads punched into virgin forest. Plans to log the adjacent Ogoki Forest, one of the last areas of southern boreal forest with large unroaded sections, include miles of new logging byways and two bridges across the Attwood River, among the greatest wilderness waterways of the boreal north.
“We’re not talking about a couple of roads,” Walterson explains. “Every logging patch has its own road network.” In addition to the main lines large enough for logging trucks, secondary and tertiary byways branch like arteries and capillaries for miles into the forest. “And the primary roads last forever.
“Some say I’m starting to sound like an environmentalist,” Walterson adds. He chews on his upper lip, unsmiling. “But I’m just a guy who hates to see rape and pillage and waste. We need a forest industry here. But there are ways to get wood out of the forest that don’t wreck the environment.”
On that point at least there is agreement. Everyone I spoke to—from the activists who picket retailers in Seattle to the agency scientists in Thunder Bay to the local banker in the tiny timber town of Geraldton—agreed that the boreal forest can have a future that supports both wildlife and sustainable logging. For many, the way to a better boreal future includes a commitment from timber lease holders to build fewer roads, leave large blocks of uncut forest intact, and do more to ensure that logged areas grow back.
“There are some big decisions to be made here,” Alan Cheeseman tells me early one afternoon. He’s helping my pilot and me lug gear down a dock on the north shore of Lake Superior, where a floatplane is tied off with stout rope. Cheeseman owns Thunder Bay’s Wilderness North outfitters, the largest outdoor adventure company in Canada. “Does Ontario want to be known for pulp and paper and timber mills? Or do we want to be known for one of the greatest wildernesses remaining in North America?” He glances into the plane’s cargo hold, crammed with gear, and shoots me a grimace. “We can do that with timber harvest. But not by starting with a model whose foundation is: Cut it all.”
Before there’s even a chance of that, I tell myself, I want to see the boreal up close and personal. Enough of the rental cars and rough roads. Time for a paddle in hand, and a stretch of bird-rich boreal forest where a river is the only way in.
Lightning streaks the sky, then a grumble of thunder. We are only an hour into a four-day wilderness canoe trip along Ontario’s remote Albany River, and we need shelter. Now.