The Ancient Forest Exploration and Research group’s discovery of the existence of a stand of old-growth forest situated within a logging zone near Cayuga Lake in western Algonquin Park received publicity earlier in January. This Hemlock stand holds several veteran trees which are over 400 years old, trees which took root in the early 1600s. The news sparked some interest and comment that perhaps Park Staff should reconsider the site’s current zoning, and seek to protect the stand for future generations.
But what exactly defines an old-growth tree, and how much old-growth — if any — has survived 200 years of timber harvesting here in the Townships of Sherwood, Burns, and Jones? Foresters and forest researchers often refer to old-growth trees as veterans, trees which have survived logging passes down through the decades. Here in Renfrew County and the Algonquin Park region, trees are considered candidates for old-growth designation at an age of about 140 to 200 years, depending on species. Locally, examples of veteran trees can reach great age. In fact, in 2013 near Island Lake in Burns Township, MNRF staff identified a majestic stand of ancient Yellow Birch which was considered to be more than 500 years old. To put that in perspective, trees of this age began growing prior to Jacques Cartier’s first voyage into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the “New World” in 1534. That was a long time ago. John Hughson and Courtney Bond relate in their excellent history of the Gilmour and Hughson Timber Co., Hurling Down the Pine, that the Valley’s first timbermen encountered giant White Pines up to 250 feet high and greater than 6 feet in diameter.
Until 1820s, all Madawaska Valley forests in unceded Algonquin Territory were under the sole stewardship of the ancestors of the present day Algonquin Families who live in the region. Preceding the colonial era, forested areas were managed using traditional Algonquin silvicultural practices such as fire for managing of garden areas and forest stands to improve cultivation, trapping and hunting prospects. A controlled low-temperature fire set in the early spring and late fall was a powerful tool for clearance of under-growth, brush, and dead wood from the land. These periodic fires left dateable evidence of that tradition within annual growth rings of the trees as they continued growing and adding wood down through the centuries. In 1995 at Basin Lake in Algonquin Park, researchers from the Ontario Forest Research Institute retrieved a fire scar chronology from a Red Pine stand dating back to 1665. It is rare veteran trees like these which now provide researchers with highly detailed land use, climate, and fire history records for the Township.
Maple Sugar Bushes, called Iskigamizigan by Algonquin People — are excellent examples of such modified, culturally-founded forest niches which in rare cases have survived into present times. Sugar Maples can live to great age, up to 500 years old locally, and as a living testament — some still bear the scars from many generations of Indigenous Maple Sugar production and land use. Often these veteran trees will display broken tops, large spreading canopies, and occasionally hollow cavities and trunks that provide shelter for many wildlife species. Many times these trees tower over the surrounding younger forest. Veteran trees are the genetic engines of the forest critical to the production of hardy offspring specifically suited to withstand local conditions and forest changes.
A stand of old-growth maple (left) and a veteran maple (right) in the Madawaska Valley. Photos: Don Webb
Following the last of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 the British Empire was in critical need of timber for her expanding Naval and Merchant fleets and the pine forests of Ottawa Valley, filled with large, clear, tight-grain old-growth pines, met that need. By 1837 Canadian geographer and explorer David Thompson, surveying under contract to the government, complained bitterly of the waste of felled timber left lying in the forest and the number of massive log jams that choked the Madawaska River above Bark Lake. Thompson also recounted that the crashing of burning trees in fires sweeping through forest waste kept his crew awake through the night.
At the turn of the twentieth century the supply of virgin old-growth Pine had been pretty well exhausted and was limited to isolated remnant stands in technically inaccessible areas. As of 2019 Renfrew County’s oldest and densest populations of old-growth forest remnants occur in Burns Township, part of the Township of Madawaska Valley. Veteran tree species which had little economic value in the past such as Eastern Hemlock, White Cedar, Yellow Birch, and Bur Oak have survived to the present. Stevenson Lake White Oaks, Ignace’s Sugarbush, and Cedar Groves in Burns TWP range between 400 and 500 years old. The Island Lake Yellow Birches may even hold individual trees up to 600 years old. While these sites occur on public land, they are not protected. Let’s hope our forest planners are able to recognize this valuable resource as part of our forest diversity and history in the future planning.
About the author: Don Webb is a Field Archaeologist with Kinnikinnick Heritage Consultants and an Indigenous Environmental Science and Studies student at Trent University. Don is a life-long environmentalist and an avid tree-hugger.
Featured photo: old growth maple by Don Webb