Northern exposure — Dale’s Column March 2010

DALE'S COLUMN by Dale GoodnerGoing south for the winter… even for only part of it, is appealing. Many retirees avoid the cold and hole up across the south from Florida to Texas to Arizona… venturing back northward only after the Vernal Equinox in March, when things start to warm up. My wife, Mary, and I decided to buck the trend. In January we migrated north to Marquette, Michigan to spend part of winter near the shore of Lake Superior.

Some friends suggested that we didn’t have to go in the direction the compass needle just happened to point. After all, even barn swallows, warblers, and whippoorwills know better, heading for more tropical climes as winter tightens its grip and snow blankets everything. There is something to be said for this.

But snow is to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) what redwoods are to California, what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona, or what country music is to Tennessee. It’s why some people go there. Long winters and snow also appeal to specific plants and animals, which you notice very quickly when driving into the U.P. The forest looks different. It is punctuated by sharp conical green spires of spruce and fir, amid a backdrop of pine and hemlock. There is a unique aspect to the northern forest, which can be found throughout the U.P., adding its deep green contrast to a soft backdrop of white.

Plants and animals that are adapted to cold and snowy conditions thrive. Along with some of the winter birds we see farther south, such as black-capped chickadees and pileated woodpeckers, there are also northern species found only here… boreal chickadees, with their brown caps, black-backed woodpeckers, and gray jays. The U.P. town of Strongs calls itself “The Black Bear Capital of Michigan,” but, of course, in winter bears are snoozing…

Winter in the U.P. lasts for a long time, but is no time to stay indoors. One could come down with a terminal case of cabin fever. Fortunately there is no shortage of places to explore. The U.P. has abundant public land. Trails lead you to numerous waterfalls, to the shores of “shining big sea water,” or to the summits of rugged rocky outcrops. While snowmobiling trails crisscross the countryside, the trails we sought out were so-called ‘quiet trails.’ Like paddle zones, these are for strictly non motorized access, such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking, and are well used. The quiet becomes a palpable presence, adding to the mystique of this incredible landscape, and re-creating a timeless sense of place.

“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”…Henry David Thoreau

There are unique special winter attractions in the U.P. For example, the U.P. 200 dog sled race is held in February and starts on Washington Street in downtown Marquette. We attended the start of this cool K9 event and were impressed at the huge crowds lining the route through town. The enthusiasm of those dogs was contagious. Each of the 35 teams was greeted with cheers and applause as they raced off, one by one, into the night heading eastward toward Munising.

Winter in the north country has some real advantages. There are no mosquitoes, and this blessing isn’t to be underestimated. We’ve camped many years in the Ottawa National Forest in summer. If your timing is bad, mosquitoes can swarm around in vast numbers, like a high pitched humming fog (particularly in early summer), finding any small amount of uncovered skin on which to dine. At times, we’ve had to take the canoe out to the middle of the lake just to eat lunch. Some mosquitoes would invariably follow us out there.

But that’s not the worst of it. For anyone who has tried to camp in the northern spring when black flies are out, maintaining a tenuous hold on sanity is an accomplishment. You can put a screen mesh around your head, but they crawl under in their desperate quest for a blood meal. They follow you everywhere, even into campfire smoke. Winter’s cold therefore is to be appreciated and enjoyed. All you have to do is trade the canoe for snowshoes and you can easily travel through any depth of snow.

Near Lake Superior, where Marquette is located, the wind is almost a constant presence. Sounds of surf mingle at the rocky shoreline with wind soughing through whispering pines. These trees speak in a soft soothing voice that echoes from antiquity. Whether in summer or winter, the interface of water, shore, and sky can transport you, if just for a little while, away from our weary world of waste and war.

The U.P. provides a surprisingly global perspective. This coniferous forest, referred to as boreal or taiga, is part of the largest forest biome in the world, covering the northern sub arctic regions. Representing twenty five percent of intact remaining forests on Earth, the boreal forest plays a crucial role in planetary health, second only to the oceans in its ability to capture and sequester carbon. It’s the dominant plant community of Canada, Siberia, and Scandinavia. In the United States, however, outside Alaska, it’s uncommon, found only along some of the northernmost forested areas nearest Canada and at high elevations in the mountains.

As one might expect, the boreal forest also represents a treasure trove of Earth’s remaining biodiversity. Predominant taiga trees are spruce, pine, fir, and tamarack, along with a considerable amount of hemlock, cedar, and juniper. They provide a nursery for over 3 billion migratory birds. Counting both migratory and year-round resident birds, over 300 species nest in Canada’s northern boreal forest.

This incredible primeval forest has survived largely because of remoteness. But now the walls are closing in. The creeping calamity of climate change is bringing two threats to the taiga. Warmer temperatures are enhancing the danger of damaging wildfires, and are already causing an influx of pest species as various invasive insects and plants are dispersing northward. These changes are particularly insidious because they are happening so quickly.

Action needs to be taken. Trouble is, short term economic interests are paralyzing political resolve. Free market economics has its place, but doesn’t take into account our total dependency on Earth’s ecosystems, or the long term implications of pollution, such as the depredations of climate change from carbon emissions. It just isn’t in the corporate lexicon. This is exactly why government regulation is increasingly needed.

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.” …Cree Indian Proverb

Along with indirect impacts of human population expansion (such as climate change), there are also direct threats. As populations continue to grow (the United States is approaching 400 million, the planet is nearing 7 billion) increasing demands for resources and room now threaten the north woods as never before. Across Canada, for example, boreal forest is being clearcut at a rate that equals the size of Prince Edward Isle each year (about twice the size of Rhode Island). In the U.P. ever present logging trucks are a constant reminder of forest mortality.

“Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper, That we may record our emptiness.” … Kahlil Gibran

All of us who depend on Planet Earth have a stake in the health of this amazing northern boreal forest. The Nature Conservancy of Canada is working to find a compromise between resource exploitation and protection. For the sake of our own futures, it is imperative that we strike a balance between consumption and sustainability. Nowhere is this more evident than in the north woods today.

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