Chapleau, Ontario is a small community situated in the convergence zone of the Canadian Boreal Forest and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest. It is primarily a forestry-based economy, with much of the employment provided by the Tembec sawmill and contracted forestry operations such as silviculture (tree planting and maintenance) and logging. Mining and other operations are also active in the area.
Our initial invitation to engage with the region came from the Northeast Superior Regional Chiefs’ Forum, a political body comprised of the Chiefs from the region’s six resident First Nations. After the 2011 introduction of the Forest Tenure Modernization Act, which created a significant policy lever for First Nations to participate in and benefit from the use of Crown Land in that jurisdiction, the Chiefs wanted to understand whether Ecotrust Canada’s Conservation Economy approach to development was a viable model for their region and interests. There was 100% consensus in a room of municipal, aboriginal, and industry leaders.
Fast forward to today, and the local and regional bodies are still committed to this endeavor, which has continued to be championed by the hardworking souls that believe in their mission and objectives.
With the support of our Forest guru, Satnam Manhas, I made the long trek to Chapleau at the end of March to give an update on our work with the Northeast Superior Regional Chiefs’ Forum.
Three major activities happened this year under the direction of the Elders Council:
- We used spatial analysis and mapping to identify where birch trees may exist in sufficient numbers to support birch syrup production
- We verified the potential sites using Guardians from Chapleau Cree First Nation, Michipicoten First Nation, and Missanabie Cree First Nation to collect data on the number, location, size, and health of trees
- We deployed a small but nimble team of young Guardians to test tap white birch trees (Betula papyrifera) on the high potential sites
Satnam and I logged a lot of travel between us, both by plane and automobile. On the morning of our presentation, both a little groggy from travel and additional work to prepare for our day, we partook in a ceremony with Elders and Chiefs that seemed to revive us in a way that extra sleep could not achieve. It gave us a quietness of thought that is sometimes missing from our daily busy lives.
The other goal of my time in Chapleau was to check on the field work and ensure that everything was in place for setting up taps and data collection, and, if weather was cooperating, actually tap some trees. Unfortunately, the ‘polar vortex’ or some unnamed snowstorm decided to pass through and as a result lowered temperatures below the optimal range for sap flow. This meant my time in the bush was spent visiting a few sites that were more remote from home base, and required the help of a 1988 Yamaha Bravo snowmobile and my good friend and field coordinator based in Chapleau, Leo.
After considerable effort, which included driving the unplowed forest road for 40 km, manually pushing the Bravo to get it started, and wading through waist deep snow, we arrived at the sites to do our assessment. Using a GPS unit and flagging tape to navigate to our sample points, we trudged our way across a mixed forest landscape, nearly falling into what appeared to be moose tracks whose footprints left a 1 foot diameter marking.
Based on the snow pack alone, this visit confirmed some assumptions that Leo had about the differences between the northern and southern parts of the game preserve. These sites easily had over 20 cm more snow than the southern sites only 40 km away, meaning that by the time we would be ready to tap in the southern sites, sap in the northern sites may not be flowing yet, let alone accessible by a vehicle.
In the end we concluded that these sites would not be among our priority for testing this year, given the distance from the base of operations and the higher likelihood that sap from these sites would not be flowing in the time period for which we had our field data collectors. Although we learned that some not so favorable conditions existed for sap harvesting in that area, we did gain a better understanding of what to expect for future seasons if we are ever to tap there.
Despite the long hours spent travelling and working, trips to the Northeast Superior region is always an experience that recharges my batteries in a way that no vacation can; it makes me want to work even harder for the communities with whom we collaborate. This trip was no exception and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Charles Fritz is a Project Manager in our Knowledge Systems & Planning program. He joined the Ecotrust Canada Knowledge Systems team in 2014, bringing seven years of experience in the GIS field.