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Feature Story
Who Owns This River?
Page 2

On our first night we drive about three hours northeast from Winnipeg to an old gold-mining town called Bissett. It is an isolated outpost in the forest and the farthest in you can get by car, a jumping-off point for the roadless primary wilderness. Our headlights shine into the blazing orange eyes of a great gray owl standing right near the road -- the largest owl and one of the most elusive in North America: a lucky sighting. I'd love to see a merlin, too, but those little falcons are as furtive as the wolves and foxes, the pine martens, lynx, wolverines, and fishers, the abundant moose and black bear that roam the proposed World Heritage site. The largest remaining herd of woodland caribou, 500 strong, is scattered in the depths of this forest as well. There are only 7,000 of these animals, a different species from the caribou up in the tundra, and the transmission lines would traverse their migratory routes, setting the stage for their possible demise.

In the morning we fly in shifts to a lake 55 miles up the Bloodvein. Pancoe lashes the canoes to the pontoons of our float plane. Ollie and I are in the last group, and as we wait for the plane to come back, he casts a Mepps spinner into the water off the dock and ties into a thrashing 26-inch pike -- or jack, as they are known in these parts -- and then another. They are like freshwater barracuda, long and thin with big eyes and lots of retrorse teeth.

From the window of the float plane an ocean of trees, spattered with lakes and riddled with rivers, spreads east to the hazy vanishing point. Low granite domes, bristling with jack pine and balsam fir, offer the only visual relief. These domes are surrounded, wherever there is enough soil, by pure stands of trembling aspen, and by sinuous brown bands of muskeg with clumps of sedge, dwarf birches, and stunted tamaracks. After 20 minutes we reach the Bloodvein.

We can see that the river meanders a lot and has long stretches of quiet water. Every few miles, where it steps down another five or ten feet on its leisurely 200-mile westward journey to Lake Winnipeg, there is a rapid. Pancoe takes Ollie and me with him in the 18-footer, the largest of the six canoes, and hands me a beautiful wooden paddle, a modified beavertail made by a friend of his. Its blade widens at the top, where you grab the most water. Pancoe's blade is short and broad, better for the quick maneuvering that will be called for in the rapids. For five miles the river weaves serenely through marshes and muskeg. There is a lot of wild rice standing in the shallow water along its banks, and each time we round a bend, we scare up a gaggle of Canada geese that have been flattening it with their floating bellies and gobbling up the kernels, fueling up for the long trip south they will soon be taking.

We glide past bulrushes, tall cranberry bushes sagging with fruit, eutrophicated ponds that have become shimmering green meadows of equisetum, water lilies with chalices of luminous white petals like small artichokes. It is so peaceful that after a few hours I realize my head has been cleared of all the mental spam that I came here with. I feel a calm that in the days to come will only deepen.

By the end of the afternoon the river is sliding quietly and darkly between 10-foot-high walls of pinkish granite. It has entered the trough that it will stay in for the rest of its course, an east-west fault line in the glacier-scraped, half-a-billion-year-old bedrock known as the Canadian Shield. This Precambrian rock, which underlies 1.6 million square miles of boreal forest, is some of the oldest on the planet. Eons of winter freeze-ups and thaws and torrential spring runoffs have fractured and prized it, shearing off sharp-pointed boulders that stand in the water like miniature mountain peaks. Some of the rock is encrusted with rubbery brown rock tripe, which Pancoe says is edible in a pinch -- after you've eaten your shoelaces. He steers us into a side channel that the canoe can barely squeeze through, to an alcove where barn swallows have plastered a nest on a little ledge. The rock below it is covered with a bright orange lichen that he calls poop lichen. It grows only where swallow droppings streak down the rock, because it needs the enzymes in them -- a very specialized lichen.

Ancient, twisting jack pines are growing in the narrowest cracks and leaning out over the river; 50 feet back from the banks are thickets of close-packed jack pine, but ramrod-straight. It is hard to believe that all these trees, so variable in their physiognomy, are the same species. The boreal has been described as the Amazon of the north. Both forests are vast and teeming with life, but the boreal teems for only half the year, and there are far fewer species. They have been edited by cold. Where there are five models of kingfisher in the Amazon, here there is only one, and only during the summertime. Where there may be 200 species of trees per acre in that mind-boggling rain forest, some of them perhaps not even identified yet, here there are half a dozen or fewer. Only plants and animals that can handle a 110-degree temperature swing live here, and this sparsity of life forms makes each of them stand out. Everything in this pageant of flux that we are paddling through, each bizarre cleavage of the granite, each tortuous branch pattern of a pine, has a luminous singularity, a distilled, heightened purity. It is a Zen landscape, sculpted by chance and the laws of cause and effect, by processes that have been going on for millions of years in which we are nothing. There is little conversation among the 13 of us. We are in awe.

We pull the canoes ashore and pitch our tents on a granite dome that is covered with blueberry bushes. Ollie and the three other hard-core fishermen go off to catch supper -- seven chunky, succulent walleyes. They also catch a 20-inch dusky-brown black catfish and a moonfish: discoid, with enormous milky eyes. The river is choked with fish. It has the sort of pullulating abundance that was once everywhere and is now found in only a few places on earth.

I wander down into the elfin forest on the back side of the dome. Half the trees are dead, and there is a flourishing community of detritivores: pallid, saprophytic Indian pipes and many kinds of mushroom. I nibble a bright crimson russula, and it is very peppery. Not one of the good russulas. There are several kinds of lactarius, and a yellow boletus that is partial to the caribou lichen, but its porous undersurface bruises blue when I press my thumb into it. Not a good one either. But I find three species of boletus that are, including the delectable Boletus edulis, and two kinds of chanterelle. This will be my gastronomical contribution to the expedition: to provide mushrooms to be sautéed with the walleye, which Louis Young deftly fillets. We wash it down with Labrador tea that Young has picked and brewed. Dessert is blueberries, and as we sit around the crackling fire, agreeing that this was one of the best meals any of us has ever eaten, the clear, liquid fluting of a hermit thrush, close at hand but hidden in the trees, pierces the gathering dusk. It is a song of the most exquisite purity, its sustained tonic embroidered with brilliantly improvised rising and falling arpeggios.

Europe's Black Triangle Blooms
Europe's Black Triangle Blooms
Alexander's Marvelous Machine

Click to enlarge

Where the Action Is

These groups are involved in the campaign for Manitoba's proposed World Heritage site:

Manitoba Wildlands
Boreal Forest Network

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Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council