Monday, October 29, 2012

Fall Canoeing, Camping; Giving Thanks

On the Sunday following Canadian Thanksgiving, my paddle pal David and I embarked on our tenth annual Fall canoeing and camping trip. After two trips each to Algonquin, Temagami, Massasauga, and Killarney, we chose to take on our second visit to Kawartha Highlands, an hour north of our homes. Serpentine Lake was our destination, four portages up Anstruther Lake, via Rathbun and Copper Lakes to the recommended island campsite greeting us as we entered Serpentine.

New rules of this newly-designated provincial park demanded that we book our exact campsite in advance, even though we were the only campers in the park this late in the season. It is a glorious time of year to get out there in Nature, with fall colours resplendent and the weather constantly changing, with sunshine, showers, wind gusts and calm, warmth and nippy cold. And nobody but ourselves and the wildlife to enjoy it… or so we had assumed.

The Park had recommended renting our canoe direct at the put-in at Anstruther Marina. Of course, with several portages to negotiate up a height of 150 feet and piles of essential sustenance, cooking materials, shelter, and clothing, we would like to have had a nice light preferably Kevlar canoe to carry and be carried by, as was our custom. Instead, we were landed with a short heavy fibreglass beast which we cursed as we plodded lugging it from lake to lake not four (as per the map) but five portages. (Beavers had created extra work for us as we manoeuvred around their dam). At the top of the first portage, we encountered two hunters visible from afar as they approached from their camp in their day-glo orange jackets and caps. Uh-huh, it’s moose-hunting season. Not only were we not forewarned by the Park when we booked our campsite for four nights, but we were unaware that our route is in the thick of moose country. In thirty years of living in Ontario and many trips out in wild country, I had never encountered one of these majestic beasts. The two smokes-and-beer-toting hunters sneered at our lack of day-glo orange garb and warned that there would be hunting going on all around us up on Serpentine Lake.

The headwind whipped up Copper Lake and we were happy to enter the calm of the river winding through the wetland leading to our final portage (see photo above). After all, we had been paddling and mostly portaging for six hours or so, and we were eager to set up camp. Tired, I took a wrong turn with my first load at the final portage. I returned to pick up the packs, to be rewarded by the late-afternoon sight of a large moose rooting around in the adjacent wetland basin surrounded by forest. 

I was awestruck as I always have been when sighting white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, grey wolves, coyotes, red foxes, black bears at home in and around the fields below our house. This was special to me as the moose looked dark and primeval in its grandeur against the pallor of the faded grasses midst which he or she grazes and roams.

After our reconnaissance around our temporary home and set-up of camp, we went for a wander around the island. Lo, and behold, there was another moose grazing in another wetland opposite us. Another breathtaking sight to behold, I christened him George.


We spent our first full day just bumbling around, resting up after the exertions of getting up here to this high lake in these Kawartha Highlands. Serpentine is pretty, with lots of bays, rocks, and mixed trees. By no means as dramatic as the white quartzite ranges and pink rock of Killarney or the old growth forests of Temagami or the Barron Canyon in Algonquin or the weathered pink rock of Georgian Bay off Massasauga, the landscape is softer, more subtle, but the wetland basins and winding rivers provide a pleasant foil to the mixed woodlands and lakes. And it provides rich habitat for the moose, the largest and grandest of all the wildlife we have encountered on these ten trips.

By the roaring campfire after our grilled steak and red wine dinner, we toasted George and gave thanks for all that these forays out to experience the feral bring us – a humble sense of place in this world, an awe of the wild earth and the blazing night sky heavens above, a joy in being temporarily and spacially one stage removed from the hubbub of humanity, a simple gratitude to be here and now. Nature is the perfect host.

And yet… Nature is under constant threat, and George is under imminent threat. As we breakfasted on bacon and eggs, the first of the day’s day-glo orange-populated motor boats sped down the lake from one hunt camp to the next. We made ourselves visible as they blew past us. In mid-afternoon, my heart sank as another motor-boat approached and docked opposite our island. Two day-glo hunters disembarked and headed with their long-guns toward George’s wetland. After an hour or so, David could bear the tension no longer and bellowed out GEORGE. Not once, but twice. We heard no gunshots and were happy to see the two hunters emerge from the forest a while later, fire up their motor and leave. George lives another day. And the next day, as we paddled casually around the lake, lunching, collecting firewood, clambering up the rocks to lap up the sun and the view over our island, no hunters disturbed the peace, George was free to graze, and a day on this particular piece of Earth unfolded as it should.

On our final morning before heading back to commitments, duties and eking out a living, we breakfasted in bright sunshine and began to pack up camp. The distant drone of motor-boats heralded the arrival of the big guns and the launch of a hunting operation conducted with military-style precision. Nine day-glo hunters in three boats motored in at speed, all fully armed and accompanied by two dogs, whistles, and radio communication devices. David stopped one boat to ensure our safety in negotiating the trail we would be taking back, directly through their hunting territory. We heard dogs barking in the distance, then a few loud echoing shots, then nothing. Six hunters emerged from the wood, and a boatload of them left. We headed out onto the trail, warning loudly CAMPERS COMING THROUGH, all the while hoping that George and his kin were alive and safe.

As David Suzuki wrote about hunting in this particular park: “While I don’t hunt (although I love fishing), I’m not opposed to sustainable hunting and fishing for subsistence and even commercial purposes. But we should be clear: the Ontario government’s proposed hunting rules for Kawartha Highlands Park are not about putting venison on the table. This is about expanding the human footprint within a protected area. Doing so is hardly consistent with the park’s stated mandate to “preserve, protect and enhance the natural composition and abundance of native species, biological communities and ecological processes in the Park.” I’d bet it’s also at odds with the values of most citizens in Ontario, who believe that parks should provide a safe haven for wildlife - especially considering that more than 90 percent of Ontario is already open for hunting.”        

The park’s website notes: “Large wilderness areas, such as the northern portion of the Kawartha Highlands, may provide refuge for species that are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance or which deliberately avoid areas with human activity.” This is especially applicable to moose. “Refuge” is not provided by the sanctioned hunting.

We go on our trips into Nature precisely so that we can witness a safe haven for wildlife, and a safe haven for all the wild in all its wonder. We do not go to witness hunting, shooting, culling, mining, logging, which are all at odds in parks with conservation and with the Ontario public’s right to quiet peaceful relaxation in Nature. As David Suzuki concludes: “Wildlife species in Canada are already under enormous pressure, due mainly to habitat loss and fragmentation. We need to act in a precautionary way now to minimize our actions that affect the ability of species to survive and evolve.”

Next year we will be forced to find our little piece of wild Nature elsewhere.