Quetico Park: Twelve Thousand Years in the Making – A Century of Protection

Quetico celebrated its 100th Anniversary last year. Quetico was originally set aside in 1909 as the Quetico Forest Reserve, became a Provincial Park in 1913, logging was banned in 1972 and it was declared a wilderness park in 1978. Quetico is characterized by towering cliffs, rocky islands and sandy beaches in a watery landscape of clear water lakes, rivers, creeks and bogs. These compelling attributes that attract canoeists to Quetico are primarily the results of the actions of glacial ice and glacial meltwater at the end of the last Ice Age. 

Silver Falls at dusk the day after ice-out in 2008.


Continue reading ‘Quetico Park: Twelve Thousand Years in the Making – A Century of Protection’

Excerpts from chapters in Quetico: Near to Natures Heart.

Prelude (excerpt)


In 1909, Ernest Oberholtzer, a pioneer in preserving the Quetico-Superior region, made a canoe trip in Quetico with his Ojibwa friend Billy Magee. They saw moose almost every day; they were intrigued by the pictographs they encountered; they marvelled at the beauty of Rebecca Falls and Sue Falls; and they saw large stands of old pine, including a white pine on Jean Lake that they estimated to be one and one-half metres (five feet) in diameter. This was Oberholtzer’s first extensive trip into the Quetico-Superior region and the experience inspired him to dedicate his life to preserving its wilderness character.

As Oberholtzer and Magee zigzagged across Quetico, in addition to the wondrous scenery and wildlife, they found many examples of human impact on the landscape. They saw foundations for the Hudson Bay Company post on the Pickerel Lake to Dore Lake portage, dams on the Maligne and Knife rivers, a logging camp on the Knife River, and a trading post on Basswood Lake. They also talked to rangers patrolling for poachers and putting out fires. And on numerous occasions they encountered Ojibwa people. During their journey they noticed pole structures for spearing sturgeon on the Namakan River; saw cedar strips drying for baskets and bear pelts hanging on racks at Lac La Croix; stayed on a site where birchbark canoes were made on Poohbah Lake; and came upon an Ojibwa couple in a birchbark canoe using a blanket for a sail on Kawnipi Lake.

Recalling his trip years later, Oberholtzer recalled that Quetico in 1909 was such a special place that the Indians felt “that there is a spiritual power back of it all.” He noted that “it was no wonder that they had traditions and felt spirits in there, it had a spirituality about its appearance, you felt you were in kind of a magic land.”

Native peoples have a long history in Quetico. Over twelve thousand years ago, near the end of the last ice age, Palaeo-Indians moved into the area. They were followed by a series of Native cultures culminating with the Sioux, Cree, and, finally, the Ojibwa, who inhabited the area when the first white settlers arrived. Those settlers, some of whom remained in the Quetico-Superior, were part of a diverse group of people that began traversing this terrain in the 1600s: European explorers searching for the Pacific Ocean, voyageurs transporting trade goods and furs, and surveyors and geologists paving the way for settling the area west of Lake Superior. As well, Grey Nuns travelling to Winnipeg in 1844 to set up a school; the 1870 Wolseley expedition to quell the Riel Rebellion in Manitoba; settlers heading west along the Dawson Route; and trappers, park rangers, poachers, timber cruisers, loggers, and miners all comprise just a small sample of those who have moved along Quetico’s waterways after the arrival of the Europeans.

One hundred years after Quetico was first set aside, we walk many of these same portages and pitch our tents on the same campsites where everyone from Paleo-Indians to Oberholtzer and Magee spent the night. We are fortunate that Quetico was protected early enough that its combination of a glorious, mainly undisturbed, landscape and its long and varied human history still retains the magic that Oberholtzer found in 1909.


Chapter Two (excerpt)


The first people to enter the Quetico-Superior area encountered a landscape rubbed raw by glacial ice, witnessed glaciers calving into an inland sea, and crossed a landscape devoid of trees.1 The earth was recovering from an ice age and a massive continental glacier was melting and receding northward. These first explorers, known as Palaeo-Indians, entered a landscape that had recently been populated by vigorous, cold-adapted plants and animals. They were following herds of barren-ground caribou that grazed on succulent tundra plants. In the southern part of the Quetico-Superior area, woolly mammoths and mastodons may also have been prey for these highly mobile big-game hunters who had the technology and skills to thrive in a changing and often hostile, environment.

Since the continental glacier was receding, much of the area was flooded by glacial meltwater that formed glacial Lake Agassiz. The first people to enter the Quetico-Superior region probably came into the higher elevation areas in the eastern part of the BWCAW and moved north into the eastern part of Quetico Park. As the glacier continued to recede and the water level of Lake Agassiz dropped, they then moved into the rest of the area.

The Palaeo-Indians entered this new land as members of small groups that were essentially extended families. Because their prey was mobile, they had to move quickly and often. They also had to find plants for food and medicine, build shelters, make and repair clothing, find stone for tools, and care for the young, the sick, and the elderly as they travelled. Since they were the first explorers of this region, there were no maps, no guides, and no one to ask for advice as to what lay ahead. They experienced the joys and terrors of entering a fresh, new, unexplored land. The information they needed was carried in their heads and they relied on their companions and their collective know-how for survival. They were intrepid explorers of the first magnitude, but neither their names nor the time of their arrival is known.

Exploration and Imagination

Douglas Preston, an American author who has written extensively about North America’s past,
has noted: Sometime during the last Ice Age, a seemingly trivial event took place, one that would change human history forever: a human being first set foot in the new world. We do not know where this person came from, or why, or where the first footfall landed on the New World. Unlike the first man to walk on the moon, the unknown pioneer who made this giant step for mankind was probably not aware of doing anything significant at all, perhaps just taking one more weary stride on a long tramp across the frozen tundra, searching for game. But in that moment, a Garden of Eden of vastness and splendor fell to our species. It would be the last inhabitable area of earth to be occupied by human beings. Not until we colonize the stars will an event of comparable significance take place.

The first people to enter the Quetico-Superior area were a continuation of the exploration of a part of North America just released from the glacier. Since we don’t know the time, the location, or the names of the first explorers of this magnificent part of North America, there is a tendency to minimize the significance of what they did or even ignore them completely. While we rightly celebrate the accomplishments of Pierre Radisson, Jacques de Noyen, Sieur de la Vérendrye, Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, David Thompson, and other Europeans who explored a land new to them, but one that had been inhabited for thousands of years, we overlook those who came first. I find it exhilarating to be able to travel over portages and sleep on campsites that were used by the first people to enter this area. When paddling on Pickerel Lake, imagine what it would have been like when Lake Agassiz stretched all the way to the prairies and tundra grasses grew in abundance along the shore. Curlews were flying overhead and barrenground caribou travelled along a moraine where red pine and Jack pine now flourish. Palaeo-Indians gathered around a small campfire eating arctic hare and cattail stew seasoned with wild ginger while retelling their grandfathers’ stories of woolly mammoths and huge wolves.

For thousands of years, the descendents of these Palaeo-Indians called the Quetico-Superior region home and sought plants for their medicinal value; caribou, berries, whitefish, moose, and wild rice for food; stone outcrops for tools; wood for dwellings, atlatls, and arrow shafts; and birchbark for containers and canoes. Although twelve thousand years of Native people living off the land ensures that there aren’t many places where no one has been, Quetico is still a land that invites exploration. The joy is in having such a magnificent place to explore. It is always exciting to see a moose feeding in the shallows, discover an osprey nest on a seldom-visited lake, find a calypso orchid, or gaze in wonder at pictographs that hint of an earlier and strikingly different time. Every portage leads to new possibilities. For over forty years I have marvelled at discovering places and objects in Quetico that have been seen by many others — but are new to me.


Chapter Eleven (excerpt)


While portaging my canoe across a flat, rocky portion of the Silver Falls portage between Cache Bay and Saganagons Lake, I looked down and noticed an unusual, multicoloured flower growing just inches from the edge of the trail. Although not far from the descent to Saganagons Lake, I welcomed an excuse to put the canoe down, rest for a moment, and examine the flower that had caught my attention. To my amazement it was a Calypso orchid, an elusive plant I had been searching for for many years. Having always looked in swamps and wet areas where I thought orchids should grow, I was astonished to find one growing in a dry, relatively barren area where hundreds of people must have nearly stepped on it. The combination of small size and relative rarity makes the Calypso orchid a difficult plant to find in Quetico. Distinguished by its vivid colouring and intriguing shape, it is also known as the fairy slipper orchid. The plant is only a few inches tall, but the small flower is simply stunning.

My fascination with orchids and symbiotic relationships began when I saw that Calypso orchid unexpectedly growing along the Silver Falls portage. I couldn’t help but wonder why this orchid was growing in such an unlikely place and why there was just one. Since orchids are primarily tropical plants, there had to be something special occurring to allow this plant, and orchids in general, to grow in cold northern forests.

A Bit of the Tropics in the Quetico-Superior

Orchids are not only sexy and beautiful, they are also a clear and dramatic case of plants that are totally dependent on fungi for their very survival. The symbiosis between orchids and soil fungi makes it possible for plants that are more at home in the hot, moist conditions in the tropics to grow in the Quetico-Superior.

Although orchids require fungi for seed germination, the “infection” by the fungi is apparently greater for northern orchids than for tropical ones. These plants with tiny seeds and intricate, showy blooms need all the help they can get to successfully live so far north. It is the symbiotic interaction between a plant and a fungus that makes it possible for canoeists to see the Calypso orchid, a migrant from the tropics, growing in Quetico beneath boreal trees such as black spruce and Jack pine. As the human impact on the landscape continues to increase, plants that require undisturbed habitats and have other specific needs will become more dependent on wilderness areas such as Quetico Park and the BWCAW for their continued existence.


Chapter Sixteen (excerpt)


Geothermal Heat and a Blanket of Snow

For large mammals, including humans, deep snow is a hindrance to travel and survival. When the snow is deep, animals deplete valuable energy resources finding food and avoiding predators. Occasionally, extreme winters can have devastating effects on wildlife. During the winter of 1995–96, exceptionally deep snow caused the populations of white-tailed deer to drop dramatically in both northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario. That winter, even moose, whose long, stilt-like legs make them well adapted to moving through deep drifts, were dragging their bellies in the snow.

In contrast, deep snow is beneficial for most small mammals. For chipmunks, mice, shrews, and voles, a major threat to their surviving the winter is the lack of sufficient snow rather than too much. Snow actually provides a refuge for them. The small size of these mammals makes them very susceptible to the cold. Hypothermia and freezing to death are constant threats and they have to find a way to avoid the cold if they are to survive the long winters in the Quetico-Superior region. Small mammals use leaf mold, pine needles, and other decaying vegetation as insulation when the temperature plummets. They can also utilize rotting stumps and tangles of downed limbs and branches for both insulation and protection and can burrow into the soil. Snow, however, offers the best protection for these small creatures. Living under frozen flakes seems like an unlikely way to avoid the cold, but snow is actually a very good insulator. Acting as a blanket over the earth, the snow keeps the ground level habitat of the pukak at a liveable temperature.

Fluffy, falling snow is comprised of over 90 percent air and even snow on the ground can contain as much as 70 percent air. It is the air trapped between the crystals that make snow a good insulator. The blanket of snow traps the heat radiating up from deep in the earth and also insulates the ground from the cold air above the snow. When there is no snow, or insufficient snow, the ground heat is lost into the atmosphere.

The amount of snow needed to keep the soil surface temperature near freezing even in the coldest weather — called the heimal threshold — depends on the outside temperature and how packed-down the snow has become. Researchers have found that the snow depth required to reach the heimal threshold varies from twenty to thirty centimeters (eight to twelve inches), depending on the amount of compaction. Quetico Park usually has snow of this depth by late November or early December, but in some winters that depth isn’t reached until much later. When the snow reaches this depth, the temperature of the ground layer stabilizes within a few degrees of freezing, regardless of the temperature of the outside air. The warmth that is constantly radiating from deep within the earth slowly decomposes and sublimates the snow crystals at the base of the snow pack. A latticework of ice columns and openings appears and the naturally occurring openings caused by ground vegetation and leaf litter are enlarged.

The network of openings that make up the pukak forms where there are sufficient herbs and other small plants to keep some of the snow from coming in contact with the ground. This causes small openings or cavities that are added to and enlarged by heat coming up from the ground. Pukak layers vary considerably, depending on the habitat and the conditions as the snow accumulates. A mowed lawn will have virtually no pukak, but most areas with undisturbed vegetation will have a pukak layer as long as there is at least twenty centimetres of snow. Where there is little or no vegetation, and there are many such places in Quetico, no pukak layer forms regardless of the depth of snow. Areas with bedrock at the surface, boulder-strewn shorelines, and the ice surface of ponds and lakes are examples of such places in Quetico where the pukak doesn’t form, regardless of snow depth.

The Mouse and the Moose

Large, bulky creatures, such as humans, are oblivious to the vibrant, thriving communities that live under the snow. An intact web of life — where animals are killed and new life is created — occurs in the vibrant micro-environment under a mantle of snow. In a chapter entitled “Coming of the Snow,” Sigurd Olson lyrically described the pukak world beneath his snowshoes as a “jungle of grassy roots and stems, tiny mountains of sphagnum, forests of heather, the whole interwoven with thousands of twisting burrows of meadow mice.… Theirs was a world removed, an intricate winter community, self-sufficient and well organized.”

The small mammals in the Quetico-Superior area are able to survive, and even thrive, during our long harsh winters by using snow to their advantage. They evade the extreme mid-winter cold by using snow as a blanket, and the earth as a constant source of low heat. They live in an unexpected, surreal environment and have replaced the bitter wind and extreme cold with confined spaces, dim light and constant coolness. When the snow is deep, the moose and the mouse live in the same woods but in very different worlds.


Quetico: Near to Natures Heart (cover)The book is available at many local bookstores in Ontario and Minnesota. The book is available in Canada from Chapters.Indigo online store or

In the United States, the book can be ordered from a variety of sources including Piragis Boundary Waters Catalog, and Barnes and Noble.

Also available as an ebook at


Life Under the Ice

During the winter, all life under the ice has to adapt to conditions that are strikingly different from those found in the summer. In the summer, our lakes are layered with the warmest water on top and the coldest on the bottom. As you descend, the temperature slowly decreases until you reach the thermocline where there is a sharp drop in temperature. This invisible line separates the more productive waters that contain microscopic plants called phytoplankton from the much colder, darker areas below.

Ice on a Northern Ontario lake.

ice_on_northern_lakeThe thermocline is just below the surface in the spring and fall and drops to twenty-five feet or more in midsummer. Lake trout, burbot and a few other species of fish spend almost all their time below the thermocline and just enter the warmer waters for short periods to feed. They move up and down depending on the thermocline and even come to the surface when the temperature of the lake water is the same everywhere in late fall and early spring.

In winter, the water beneath the ice is also layered, but it is the opposite of what is found in the summer. This, and the unusual properties of ice, is due to the bizarre chemistry of water. Water is the most dense at 39 Fahrenheit (4 Celsius) and consequently the water at the bottom of deep lakes is this temperature regardless of the season. This causes a topsy-turvey world where the warmest water in the winter is on the bottom (39 F.) and the coldest water is just below the ice (32 F.) at the top. Consequently, a lake trout swimming at a depth of 80 feet in the summer is in the coldest water in the lake and the same lake trout swimming at the same depth in winter is still at the same 39 temperature but is now in the warmest water in the lake.

Anyone who has forgotten to add sufficient antifreeze to a vehicle or didn’t drain the plumbing at their cabin is well aware that ice expands as it freezes. Water is highly unusual in expanding, rather than contracting, as it goes from a liquid to a solid. If it acted like most compounds, ice would sink as it formed, and ice would be continuously forming at the surface and dropping to the bottom. This would cause lakes to freeze from the bottom up. Much ice would form and sink to the bottom on a -35 night in January.

Virtually all our lakes, with the possible exception of the deepest, largest lakes, would be solid ice by March. This would obviously be devastating to life in our lakes. Since ice forms on the top of the water, it puts an insulating layer between the water and the colder air above. This greatly slows the formation of more ice. The accumulation of snow on top of the ice adds another, and better, insulating layer. Even with these insulating layers, we can still get over three feet of ice. This is a strong testimony to the severity and length of our winters.

Ice and snow protect from the cold, but they also greatly decrease the amount of light entering the water. The combination of low light levels and low temperatures causes photosynthesis to virtually stop in the winter. Phytoplankton levels drop dramatically and, therefore, the production of oxygen virtually comes to a halt. The amount of oxygen that is in the water at freeze-up has to last until the ice-cover melts in the spring.

Fortunately, the colder water is, the more oxygen it holds. Once again the chemistry of water works to the advantage of living things. Water obtains oxygen from two main sources: the photosynthetic organisms growing in it (phytoplankton, algae and photosynthetic bacteria), and from direct contact with the air. Both contact with the air and light levels are dramatically reduced at freeze-up and consequently very little oxygen is added to water during the winter. This means that for almost half the year, fish and other oxygen-using organisms, have to get by on the oxygen present when the ice forms.

Since photosynthesis virtually stops, no more food is being made and the amount of food under the ice dwindles during the winter. It’s no wonder that many organisms cope with these conditions by slowing their metabolism. Cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians that overwinter under the ice survive by hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds or shallow bays of lakes. A frog meet its oxygen requirements by simply breathing through its skin. The skin’s large surface area allows it to remain stationary and still take up enough oxygen so it can survive a sleep of half the year.

When hibernating under the ice, the heart of a painted turtle can beat as slowly as once every eight to ten minutes.

Turtles meet their oxygen needs in a different way. They are also found at the bottom of shallow bays or ponds, but take in oxygen through their cloaca, the opening to their reproductive and excretory systems. They can do this because it is lined with a rich network of blood vessels that functions as a gill. Since lungs are specialized organs for breathing air, organisms like frogs and turtles have adapted other ways of absorbing oxygen from water.

Many microscopic organisms, such protozoa and rotifers, form protective shells known as cysts and remain in an inactive state until the water warms up in the spring. Water fleas and other small crustaceans produce thick walled eggs in late autumn and these survive through the winter and hatch in the spring.

Many fish also slow their metabolism in the winter. Species that spend most of the time in the warmer parts of the lake in the summer, such as largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and walleyes, become much less active in colder water. This significantly lowers their requirements for both food and oxygen. They won’t increase their activity until the water warms in the spring.

Fish that spend most of the summer in the cold water below the thermocline continue to be active throughout the winter. Lake trout are the best-known species of fish that stays active all winter. They thrive in cold water and travel freely throughout the lake in the winter. Their metabolism remains high and they have to continue to seek out and catch minnows and small fish all winter long. Although the cold does not bother lake trout, the decreasing amounts of both its prey and oxygen levels can be a problem.

It would be interesting to know how lake trout hunt in the depths of the lake where there is little or no light. The deeper you go in the water, the less light penetrates. Even in very clear water lakes, light only penetrates to fifty feet or so, and below that it slowly fades to pitch black. Lake trout are caught by people fishing at depths where virtually no light penetrates. Even at shallow depths in winter, they have to capture prey in the very low light that penetrates through the snow and ice. How they accomplish this is one of the many unknowns concerning the winter ecology of our lakes.

Another fascinating cold-water species is the burbot. This unusual looking fish, also known as eelpout or lawyer, is a fresh water relative of the codfish. Burbot have been caught, along with lake trout, in nets at depths of over 400 feet in Lake Superior. They are active all winter and are often caught by people ice-fishing. Their eel-like shape, elongated fins and smooth skin probably account for their being discarded on the ice in spite of their excellent taste.

Whitefish and their smaller relative, ciscoes, are other fish that are active under the ice. Both are usually found below the thermocline in the summer, but often enter warmer water to feed. Ciscoes can be seen surfacing on still days in the summer, but can also be found at more than a hundred feet. Their wide-ranging travels are responsible for their being reported to be important summer food sources for both lake trout and burbot in deep water and loons near the surface.

The conditions faced by organisms beneath the ice is similar in many ways to those faced by organisms at the bottom of the snow pack, in the pukak. The temperatures are constantly just a few degrees from the freezing point, it is either pitch black or with dim, filtered light, and the food source is constantly dwindling. Just like organisms in the pukak, they have met these conditions in diverse and inovative ways.

It is a real challenge for cold blooded animals like fish, reptiles and amphibians to survive the cold conditions under the ice, but there are also a few mammals that enter the water under the ice. A thick coat is obviously needed to survive our winters and animals that enter the water need coats that are waterproof as well as exceptionally warm. Water siphons heat from the body much more rapidly than air and it is extremely difficult for mammals to maintain their body temperature in cold water.

Beavers and muskrats spend most of the winter in their lodges huddled together for warmth. The insides of beaver lodges, insulated with mud and sticks, is many degrees warmer than the outside air. They spend much time grooming and keeping their fur well oiled. They have to enter the water to retrieve food that they have stored in a food cache next to their lodge. Even short immersions in the icy-cold water are enough to put a strain on their systems.

The contrast between the somber, grey winter morning and the activity beneath the ice is captured in this combination photo/painting. Painting by Jennifer Garrett, photo by Marie Nelson.

Beaver and muskrat have an unusual metabolic tactic that increases the time that they can spend in the water under the ice. They elevate their body temperature slightly just prior to entering the water and this gives them a few more minutes before their body temperature drops too far. Researchers have also shown that muskrats obtain oxygen from air bubbles trapped under the ice and presumably beavers do the same. Beaver and muskrat also have physiological adaptions that decrease the amount of heat loss when they are in cold water. In their feet and at the base of their tails they have a network of capillaries where the arterial blood flowing toward the extremities passes in close contact with the blood in the veins returning from the extremities. The arteries give up heat to the colder blood returning from the feet and tail. This warms the blood returning to the body and cools the blood going to the extremities. This allows them to maintain a higher core body temperature and their cooler extremeties lose less heat to the water.

Land animals, such as lynx and bobcat, also have a heat exchange system in their feet. This allows them to lose less heat to the cold snow they stand and walk on. They carefully avoid, however, getting their feet wet in the winter. Most other mammals also avoid getting wet, since wet fur loses most of its insulating value. There are exceptions: both mink and otter enter the water in the winter to hunt their prey. When I snowshoe along the French River in the northeast corner of Quetico, I often see otter tracks along the river. Their tracks clearly show that they swim for stretches in the open water and come out and travel along the shore where the river is iced over. I am amazed that an animal can come out of the water in sub-freezing temperatures and travel over land in a wet fur coat. Two special adaptions enable them to do so. They have extremely dense and oily underfur that is both warm and sheds water. They also have outer guard hairs that are hollow for additional insulation, and that interlock with each other to protect the underfur.

Otters have a streamlined body that, with extremely short ears, short legs and heavily furred tail, is also designed to minimize heat loss. Because of their short legs, they have to plow through the snow on land and leave a distinctive trough in their wake. It seems appropriate that this toboggan-shaped animal sides on its belly whenever possible.

The track of an Otter along the French River in Quetico Park in January.

The late biologist Olaus Murie, in his interesting and informative book “A Field Guide to Animal Tracks” recalled that he “…was snowshoeing up a small stream when I spied movement in the snowy stream bank up ahead. I realized that it was an otter, and the next moment it slid down the bank. Another one appeared, clambered up the bank and slid down. A third appeared from the hole in the ice, and for several moments I watched these frolicsome animals, climbing, sliding, climbing, sliding, over and over again – until all disappeared under the ice. Their playtime was over, and they all went on their way beneath the ice, as so often they do.”

I have never observed otters playing in the winter but I have seen otter slides in various places in Quetico. There is usually one into the water below the rapids from Quetico to Beaverhouse Lake. Otter slide down the hill adjacent to the portage directly into the fast water that remains ice-free year around.

The docks at both the Canada Customs and the Ranger Station at Prairie Portage were always covered with otter droppings when we arrived in the spring the years we were rangers at Prairie Portage. The open water below the rapids is a prime location for otter to hunt fish and crayfish in the winter. They obviously found the docks a convenient place to come out of the water, bask in the sun and relieve themselves. Beaver and muskrat huddle together for warmth in insulated lodges when they return from the water. Otters, on the other hand, are mainly solitary creatures in the winter and don’t have a primary lodge to return to. They evidently commonly use old beaver lodges for dwellings. They must consume a great deal of food in the winter in order to maintain their active lifestyle and stay warm.

To do this they seek out prey both in open water and under the ice all winter long. They have successfully adapted to our extreme winter conditions both in and out of the water by taking an extremely active and aggressive approach to winter.

Rapids and Waterfalls in Quetico

Silver Falls at end of Saganaga Lake

The high number of rapids and waterfalls in Quetico Park is primarily due to the large amount of exposed bedrock combined with numerous creeks and rivers. Three images of these rapids and waterfalls are shown below.

A Gallery of images of waterfalls and rapids in northwestern Ontario is found in the Photography section. A number of long exposure images of water is found in the “fast water, slowly” Gallery.

Silver Falls is located at the northwest end of Saganagons Lake . Silver Falls is one of the highest and most beautiful falls in Quetico Park and can be most appreciated from along the river below the falls since the view from the portage trail is not very good. Caution should be used when approaching these falls and the portage is found to the right of the falls. The portage, like the vast majority of those in Quetico Park, is thousands of years old and existed long before the arrival of the first Europeans. The water from Cache Bay on Saganaga Lake flows over Silver Falls on its way to Sagonagons Lake. This is the route that leads to the ‘Falls chain’ between Saganagons Lake and Kawnipi Lake.

Falls at Prairie Portage on Basswood Lake

Prairie Portage is located at the east end of Basswood Lake in Quetico Park. This small rapids/falls occurs where the water enters into the east end of Basswood Lake which is located on the southern boundary of Quetico Park. It is strange that this location is called Prairie Portage since there isn’t any indication of prairie anywhere near here today. The name evidently comes from the logging days when horses were kept in cleared fields at this site. The cleared fields have now reverted to forest and Prairie Portage no longer reminds anyone of a prairie. This busy site hasthe Canadian Ranger Station on the Ontario side and the motorized portage for Basswood Lake on the Minnesota side.

French River at dusk

This image of the French River was taken at dusk. The French River enters into French Lake near the eastern boundary of Quetico Park. The French Portage, which went from Windigoostigwan Lake to French Lake, by-passed this section of the French River which has numerous rapids. This portage, which parallels what is now Highway 11, is no longer used. There is now a hiking trail which follows along the French River to French Falls. This trail is seldom used and is particularly interesting in the fall and winter.

Falls Road Falls near Thunder Bay, Ontario

Falls Road is a rural road located southwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is apparently named after a small falls that is located adjacent to the road. This photo was taken on a warm, buggy evening in late June. The long exposure, which was over a minute, gives the falls its milky appearance. The overall, blue tint to the image is due to reciprocity failure of the slide film in the long exposure.

Paddling to the McNiece Lake Pines

When I first came to the Boundary Waters I was mainly interested in going canoeing and seeing a new landscape very different from the farm country where I grew up in southern Minnesota. I kept coming back primarily because of the wildlife and it is still thrilling to see moose, wolves, otters, bald eagles, ospreys and loons. I also enjoyed seeing walleyes and lake trout, but I only sought them out when it was time to eat.

My interests expanded as I spent more time in Quetico and other people caused me to see things from a different perspective. Quetico Park has been blessed with many terrific naturalists and I was strongly influenced by Shan Walshe and Shirley Peruniak. They were both working in Quetico when Marie and I started as Park Rangers at Beaverhouse Lake in 1976. Shirley is interested in the human history of Quetico and her enthusiasm and knowledge got me hooked on wanting to learn more about Quetico’s past. Shan Walshe inspired me, along with thousands of other people with whom he came into contact, to want to learn more about plants and their role in the environment. I enjoyed learning how to identify many common plants in Quetico, but I was the most impressed with the trees, especially big, old trees. I remember being shocked to encounter cedars much larger than I thought existed on the Emerald to Plough Portage. It is also interesting to come across trees that seem out of place. The bur oak along Have A Smoke Portage and the silver maples and American elms along the levees of the Wawiag are delightfully eccentric.

Large, mature white pines on McNiece Lake.

It was, however, the sight of an entire lake surrounded by old-growth white and red pines that had the strongest impression on me. I first saw these trees about twenty years ago when I took a trip north of Prairie Portage and last summer I was determined to return to McNiece to see these trees again. That is why I was standing in line at Prairie Portage with my wife, Marie, and our friends Andy and Paula Hill waiting for the Ranger Station to open in the second week of August of last year. I recall working on the inside of that building about twenty years ago and looking out at the line forming well before 8:00. Now they open later so I guess for an August morning we were fortunate in that the line was relatively short. A light very rain was falling and we were eager to be on our way.

The paddle across Bailey Bay was hard since we were quartering into a wind that was gradually increasing. It was a nice break from paddling to do the flat, easy portage to Burke Lake. The rain increased in intensity and I could feel the water slowly wicking its way up my sleeves as I paddled. Prolonged, intense rain always finds a way down your neck and spreads out from there. I figured by the time we stopped to make camp the water moving up my arms should meet the water moving down from my neck.

We stopped for lunch at the end of the portage into North Bay at a nice protected spot where overhead trees kept most of the rain off of us. We were headed to South Lake so we were able to take advantage of the islands to provide some relief from the wind. The paddle through the lilly pads that grow in profusion in the creek leading to South Lake is always a joy. There was just enough water to allow us to keep paddling except in one place where we had to get out and walk the canoes.

One of these years I’m going to spend some time exploring West Lake but once again we just quickly passed through on our way to supper and dry clothes. Afterpaddling a short distance past the portage coming out of West Lake, Marie noticed a pair of small, pink water lilies. Don’t think I’ve ever seen a pink water lily before. We decided to find a campsite on Shade Lake and after much looking we found an unoccupied one. It hadnít stopped raining since we left Prairie Portage, so we weren’t fussy, we simply needed a site with two tent pads. Andy has guided for many years and his expertise in dealing with setting up camp and preparing supper in the rain was appreciated since I have a tendency under adverse conditions to simply eat granola bars and get in the tent. The tarp came in handy and with a fire we were able to dry ourselves and our clothes, eat a hot meal, drink hot coffee and go to bed dry and contented.

The next morning, we woke to the sound of no rain. It was a spectacular morning with blue skies, light winds and cool temperatures. I remember having trouble on a previous trip on the portage from the unnamed lake west of Shade Lake to Grey Lake. It is as confusing now as it was then. There are two beginnings and a confusing intersection about halfway across the portage. If you began on the trail farthest west then you need to take a right at the intersection. Compasses do come in handy sometimes. There are many large white pines on Grey, Armin and Yum Yum Lakes but on Shan Walshe Lake they dominate the forest. As much as Shan loved mature forests and the plants they contain he had an even greater love of wet, boggy places. I hoped that nestled in behind the pines are some interesting swamps and bogs.

The last portage to McNiece passes through large cedars and pines and some of them have very old blazes on them. On McNiece, we were fortunate to find the high rocky campsite that looks west down the lake was unoccupied. We spent two nights at this site and did some fishing and a lot of walking in the woods. After we had set up camp we talked to two people who paddled by looking for a campsite. One of them, Pat Bergman, had worked with Marie at the Outward Bound School in Ely, Minnesota in the late 1960ís.

Mature white pines are the dominant species on McNiece but there are also many mature red pines. It was heartening to see numerous younger white and red pines scattered throughout, including many just a few years old. They were especially prevalent where large trees had fallen and left an opening in the canopy that allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor. White pine seedlings need a lot of sunlight in order to prosper and they are usually out-competed by balsam fir and spruce in shaded areas. Consequently, there are many balsam fir and spruce in the understory and they dominate the understory in many places.

Paula Hill admiring a very large white white pine.

We found white pines up to 3. 5 feet in diameter and there are thousands and thousands of white pine over 2. 5 feet in diameter. We were hoping to find the mother of all white pine but, more importantly, we found a healthy old-growth stand of white and red pine.

The shoreline of McNiece Lake seen through a fog filter at sunrise.

We decided to get up early on the second morning to take photos of pines in the early morning light and were extremely lucky to wake up to thick fog. What a thrill it was to paddle around the lake and take photos of giant pines appearing out of the mist. Hundreds of years ago, much of northern Minnesota and Ontario had pines like this and it was like seeing the past through a fog filter.

We didn’t spend all our time looking at old-growth.  Andy and Paula love to fish,

Andy Hill sitting around an evening campfire.

 which is terrific since all four of us love eating fish. Our days were full and we spent three glorious bug free, August evenings drinking “Quetico cocktails”, watching the sunset and solving the major world problems. It is hard to beat sharing one of the great places in the world with good friends. 

We decided to return to Basswood via Kahshapiwi , Side and Isabella Lakes. At the beginning of the portage out of McNiece Lake  we had the pleasant experience of encountering Scott Wentzell, a son-in-law of Shan Walshe. He and his brothers had started their trip at French Lake and were on their way to Shan Walshe Lake. It was surprising to encounter two groups with people that we know on a lake that is not heavily used.

Two of the portages that we did on our return trip; McNiece to Kahshapiwi and from the bottom of Side Lake southwest to an unnamed lake, made me realize that I, like the pines on McNiece Lake, may have evolved from being mature to being slightly over-mature. The first portage is simply long and has a good hill in to make sure you understand that it is a special portage. The other one must have the most brutal hill in Quetico, or at least that is the way I felt when I finally reached the top. It was good to get back to Prairie Portage, especially after once again crossing Bailey Bay quartering into a strong wind.

Looking back, McNiece Lake seems to be in the centre of a very large stand of old-growth white and red pines since the concentration of these pines increases as you approach the lake and decreases as you move away. Cliff Ahlgren in Lob Trees in the Wilderness states that this is not an illusion and it is what remains of much larger stand of pines. “By 1890, most of the stateís remaining tall pine was limited to the Arrowhead region of northeastern Minnesota, including the border lakes country. The tall pines extended in an irregular band north, east and west of Duluth. On large finger of tall pine reached into the central portion of the present BWCA, with the fingers tip ending in the Quetico, less than ten miles north of Basswood Lake. ” The finger extends a few miles north of McNiece Lake.

The decline in numbers of eastern White Pine over the last two hundred years has been astounding. At the beginning of the 1800’s, white pine was a common, and, in many places, the dominant tree species from Newfoundland in the east to the southeast corner of Manitoba in the west; and from Georgia in the south to the shores of Lake Nipigon in northern Ontario. Dr. William Carmean, professor emeritus of forestry at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, stated that ìin the early 1800ís, someone could have travelled from the St Lawrence Valley in eastern Canada all the way to the centre of the continent and virtually never been out of sight of magnificent old pines”.

Although the numbers of mature white and red pine have decreased greatly for hundreds of years, they now have many ardent and vocal supporters. The white pine, in particular, has become a symbol of the wilderness in many people’s minds. A forester for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Thunder Bay, Ontario has stated that “to say you are going to cut a white pine these days is about the equivelent of saying you are going to murder your mother. This is not just another species with a problem”.

Numerous studies have shown that mature white and red pines also play significant and diverse ecological roles. A study by the U. S. Forest Service showed that “when female black bears go off in search of food for their cubs, they invariably leave the cubs within a few meters of an old white pine if one is available”. Evidently the deeply fissured bark of a large white pine is the easiest for the cubs to climb if they need to avoid predators. Another study in the Superior National Forest found that approximately 80% of both bald eagles and ospreys build their nests in crowns of old white pines. They obviously seek out these old pines since less than 1% of the mature trees in the Superior National Forest are pines. Even standing dead trees play an important role in the environment. The variety of insects that infest these trees are important sources of food for woodpeckers and other birds. They also serve as nesting sites for a variety of cavity-nesting birds. 

Dead trees, such as this decaying white pine on the north side of McNiece Lake, provide habitats for numerous species of decomposers and the organisms that feed on them.

Researchers investigating the canopies of large trees in the Amazon rain forest and in the mature conifers in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia have found thriving ecological communities in the canopies. They have identified new species of insects, birds, fungus and lichens. It seems inevitable that fascinating discoveries will also be found in the canopies of large stands of old-growth pines in the boreal forest also.

The pines in the McNiece Lake area survived because of their location in an area that the loggers didnít reach before the logging restrictions, and, for some reason, they havenít burned. The logging of white and red pines helped to fuel the economies of the many places, including Minnesota and Ontario, where these pines were common. Both species declined dramatically primarily because of logging but have stayed in decline for many complex reasons that include disease, silvaculture practices and disease. The dead tops on white pines are the “flag” that indicates that white pine blister rust has infected many of the white pines in Quetico and the BWCAW.

Fire can obviously destroy large stands of mature pines but it also is the force that is responsible for the success of white, red, and jack pine forests. Miron Heinselman in The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem stated that “White pine and red pine can persist without fire for up to 350 and possibly even 400 years for occasional individuals, but without a fire that creates favourable conditions for stand renewal, most stands will eventually be replaced by balsam and spruce as the old pines die.” I couldnít find any records of coring to determine the ages of the pines in the stand around McNiece. We found white pines that were over three and half feet in diameter and there are literally thousands of white pines in the stand that are over three feet in diameter. Based on ages of white pines obtained from coring data, these pines must be well over three hundred years old.

There are many red and white pines in various age classes in the understory around McNiece Lake. There are also, however, many balsam and spruce growing in the shadows of the giant pines. This appears to be a stand that is gradually becoming more diverse as the number of non-pine trees increases. On the other hand, the mature white and red pines seem to be ageing gracefully and many pines, both white and red, are in position to replace them.

It is impossible to predict how much longer the old-growth pines will dominate in the McNiece Lake area. It is a distressing to realize that in the foreseeable future, the magnificent stand of old-growth white and red pines on McNiece Lake will be gone. The trees will not be lost not to the chainsaw or the axe but to the inevitable ravages of time. I remember portaging up a long hill on the northern edge of Mack Lake on the way to Munro Lake in the eastern part of Quetico Park in 1996 and being amazed at how few trees had survived the 1995 fire. The fire raced up the hill through many old-growth white pine burning almost everything in its path. The only trees that were still alive were some of the large, old-growth white pine.

They were blackened and had fire scars along their bases but were still alive because of their thick, fire-resistant bark and branches that remained above the fire. I havenít been back since but these trees probably acted as sources of seeds to the open, nutrient rich ground below. In the past, before fire suppression was so successful, this was how a new pine forest began. William Carmean has written that “old-growth forest management involves more than merely reserving scattered old-growth forest stands. For white and red pine we must also be concerned with regenerating new pine forests, and with the recognition and protection of mid-age pine forests. These newly regenerated areas, and these mid-age forests, thus can become the old-growth forests of the future that will inevitably be naturally harvested by insects, disease and fire.” Fortunately, both Quetico and the BWCAW have stands of middle-aged white and red pines that will be the old-growth for future generations of canoeists.

In retrospect, my reasons for canoeing in Quetico haven’t changed all that much over the decades. I originally came primarily to see large birds and mammals and on the McNiece Lake trip I wanted to see large trees. What is becoming obvious, even to a slow learner like myself, is that what I am really looking for is wildlife in the larger sense: mammals, birds, amphibians, trees, orchids, lichens, and fungi in a natural setting. In Quetico we can find all of this set in a wild landscape of cliffs, waterfalls, pictographs, bogs, creeks, rivers and lakes. No wonder I keep coming back.

Lichens: Unusual Partners

It’s not hard to find lichens, you simply have to look where other forms of life find the conditions too harsh. Sheer cliff walls, the surface of large boulders, tree trunks, the branches of living and dead trees, and the shaded acidic soils under pines, are all places where lichens thrive. They have even been found on the shells of living tortoises and on exoskeletons of insects.

Lichens are able to grow in these places because they are a combination of a fungus and a photosynthetic partner. The fungus gives the lichen its overall shape and structure and produces pigments that shield its partner from ultraviolet light. These pigments are responsible for the wide variety of colors found in lichens.

The fungus also has fine but tough threads that securely attach the lichen to the surface it’s growing on. The fungus also secretes acids that break down materials into nutrients for the lichen. These acids are so strong that they break down rock into minerals that are used by the lichen.

The photosynthetic part of the lichen is usually an algae, but in some cases it is a type of photosynthetic bacteria known as cyanobacteria. The algae or cyanobacteria (the photosynthetic partners) produce the food for the lichen. Since one part of the lichen makes food by photosynthesis and the other is good at extracting nutrients, together they make a potent combination. Due to this potent combination, lichens can thrive on brances of dead trees and other unlikely places.

A variety of lichens grow on a two-inch long portion of a small branch of a dead black spruce. (Many other lichen photos can be found in the Photography section of this website)

This type of close association between two different species is known as a symbiotic relationship. Most biologists believe that both the fungus and its partner benefit from this relationship. The fungus gets food that the algae or cyanobacteria make, while the algae or cyanobacteria get a protective place to live and nutrients that the fungus extracts from its environment. Recently, biologists have discovered lichens composed of a fungus and both an algae and a cyanobacteria. A close association between two species seems unusual, but the existence of lichens composed of three different species opens up a whole new world of interactions.

Not all biologists, however, think that all the partners in these relationships benefit equally. Some propose that only the fungus benefits and that the photosynthetic partner is a captive of the fungus. Lichenologist Trevor Goward has described lichens as Afungi that have discovered agriculture.@ Many of the fungal partners appear to be unable to exist on their own, while the algae and cyanobacteria are usually able to survive by themselves. It may be that in some cases only the fungus benefits and in other cases both the fungus and its photosynthetic partner benefit.

Whatever the nature of the relationship, it is apparent that lichens can exist in places that neither of the partners can live in on their own. They are found in some of the hottest and driest places on this planet and also in some of the coldest. They are found in Antarctica where no plants or fungus exist on their own and where few bacteria can survive. These lichens simply shut down in the extreme cold of winter, but are able to start functioning again when the temperatures start to rise. Lichens are known to photosynthesize at temperatures as low as -20 Celsius (about 0 Fahrenheit).

This ability to photosynthesize at temperatures well below freezing gives lichens a huge advantage over plants in cold climates. It also allows those in areas like the Boundary Waters to begin producing food in late winter when there is still ice on the lakes and deep snow in the woods. At the other end of the growing season, lichens also extend the period for photosynthesis well into the winter.

They can also grow on a wide variety of surfaces, including man-made ones. Lichens are found on asphalt shingles, brick buildings, cement bridges and even on stained glass. A study in France showed that 16 species of lichen grew on one large old stained glass church window. The growth of lichens on stained glass is a problem on many of the old churches in Europe.

Lichens are also found in specialized natural habitats in the Boundary Waters. Those that are nitrogen-loving are found on cliff faces and boulders that regularly get splattered with bird droppings. Below bird nests and bird perches are located unusual lichens that can utilize the nutrients found in these droppings.

Vertical cliffs have many different kinds of lichens because, depending on their pitch and orientation, they have different habitats. Those lichens that require more water can be found on north-facing cliffs or areas that regularly get run-off from above. Species that can survive with very little moisture are usually found on unshaded south-facing cliffs. Only those places where rock has recently broken off, or areas of exceptional dryness, are totally devoid of lichens. Areas that have a combination of adequate light and some moisture trickling down from above are usually the richest in lichen diversity and growth.

This cliff on Ottertrack Lake is covered with a mosaic of colourful lichens.

The type of rock is also an important factor in what species of lichen grow. The cliffs on Quetico Park’s Emerald Lake are high in lime and have a very different variety of lichens than the siltstone cliffs on Knife Lake or the granite cliffs on Quetico Lake. Some of Quetico’s cliffs  have striking orange lichens, usually from the genus  Caloplaca or Xanthoria, that brighten up the lake even on the dullest of days. These bright, eye-catching lichens can be found on the Man Chain and on the high cliffs of Ottertrack Lake.

The crusty lichens that grow on cliffs, bedrock and boulders, can be found in a variety of colors. Shades of grey seem to dominate, but brown, black, white, orange, red, yellow and even blue ones can also be found. The only place I remember seeing blue lichens was on sloping bedrock at Kings Point on Basswood Lake.

The very large, scaly lichens that are commonly seen on lakeside boulders are known as “tripe desroche” or rock tripe. This lichen, like many others, can withstand long periods of hot and dry conditions. It commonly becomes dry and brittle during July and August. It then looks like large, black, lifeless, scales on the rock.

It survives these dry periods and quickly revives with the first rain. It still looks like large grey or black scabs, but is now softer to the touch. This unappealing lichen can be boiled and eaten as an emergency source of food. Survivors of airplane crashes and others who have run out of food have survived on rock tripe. The Franklin Expedition in the 1820’s subsisted for 11 days in the Canadian Arctic eating these lichens.

In addition to the crusty lichens that primarily grow on rock, there are also a wide variety of small, shrub-like lichens that grow on the ground. Some of these, known as reindeer lichens, are ash-grey in color and stand 2 to 5 inches high. They are commonly found growing in the acidic soils under black spruce and jack pine. These lichens, also known as caribou moss, are the primary source of food for caribou in the winter.

Caribou use their large hooves to dig through the snow to get to the lichens. They leave large circular depressions, known as “craters”, when they are feeding on lichens in the winter. The word caribou comes from a Micmac Indian word that means “one who digs”.

When woodland caribou occupied the Boundary Waters area they undoubtedly relied on reindeer lichens, which are fairly common in this area, for a major part of their winter diet. These caribou, who lived here just sixty years ago, were not the only large mammals to feed on lichens. Moose also eat reindeer lichens, but not nearly to the extent that caribou do.

White-tail deer also eat lichens but, like moose, apparently in relatively small amounts. The exception can be in the winter when the snow is deep and food hard to find. Deer have small hooves and, unlike caribou, are not adept at digging through snow to get at plants underneath. Some lichens, such as Old Man’s Beard, hang down from tree branches. This hair-like lichen can be well over a foot long and is commonly found on trees that are have been killed by spruce budworm.

Old Man's Beard Lichen hanging from a branch of a dead spruce tree.

Since it hangs down from branches, it is accessible even when snow is deep. Deeper snow can even make some available that the deer couldn’t reach when there was little or no snow. There is often a browse line visible, with Old Man’s Beard found only above where the deer can reach. Although important as a survival food, Old Man’s Beard is evidently not heavily utilized when other foods are available.

Years ago I was told that Old Man’s Beard made a tasty snack when walking in the bush. I found that it has a pleasant but bland taste that changed to bitter if chewed very long. Many lichens are reported to have a bitter taste, possibly because the fungus produces toxic chemicals to keep insects and animals from eating them.

Lichens are found on the same cliffs where pictographs are located and in many sites they have grown over the paintings. The location of pictographs was undoubtedly influenced by the presence or absence of lichen growth. Places that had overhangs that reduced the amount of moisture, and therefore the amount of lichen growth, were ideal locations for placing paintings.

If conditions remained the same, pictographs placed in these locations should still have very little lichen growth and still be visible today. However, cliffs also change with time and ideal locations in the past may now have thick lichen growth that totally obscures paintings underneath. Some species of lichens grow so slowly that their progress in covering a pictograph has been used to try and date pictographs.

In some places in North America, lichen was scraped away to leave an image behind. These images, known as lichenoglyphs or lichenographs obviously have a limited life span unless they are periodically renewed. They have been found on Lake Superior and Lake of the Woods, but nowhere in the Boundary Waters to my knowledge.

Although lichens are extremely hardy, they don’t stand up very well to air pollution. They obtain a lot of their moisture from rain and consequently also take up many of the pollutants that are dissolved in the rain water. For this reason, lichens were among the most radioactive organisms tested after the Chernoble nuclear disaster. Lichen diversity drops dramatically when air pollution increases. Many species that were common in urban areas are now difficult to locate.

Although much is known about many of the common lichen species, some of the lichens in our region are unknown and unnamed. Recent studies in forests in the Pacific Northwest found many new species in the canopies of old-growth trees. Undoubtedly new species also exist in the canopies of the old-growth red and white pines in our region also.

The biologist Lewis Thomas, in his book “The Lives of the Cell”, once said: “A century ago there was a consensus that evolution was a record of open warfare amongst competing species, that the fittest were the strongest aggressors. Now it begins to look different. The greatest successes in evolution, the mutants who have made it, have done so by fitting in with, and sustaining the rest of life.”

Lichens are superb examples of how organisms that cooperate can out-compete other organisms. Lichens are remarkable, they photosynthesis like a plant and at the same time they decompose like a fungus. They utilize their dual natures to survive in places where other organisms can’t. They undoubtedly were among the first organisms to grow in our area after the glacier retreated through here about 11,000 years ago. They helped to set the stage for the rich and diverse ecosystems that followed.

These tough but fragile pioneer organisms continue to thrive in the Boundary Waters. There is hardly a cliff, large boulder, patch of ground more than a few metres across, or trunk of a mature tree, that doesn’t have lichens growing on it. They are so common that they become part of the background and go unnoticed.

This summer go out of your way to paddle slowly alongside a cliff and carefully check out the variety of lichens growing on the rock. Run your hands over the cliff face and feel the variety of shapes and textures of the lichens. Cliffs are vertical mosaics with almost as many kinds of lichens as the number of plants you’d find on a similar-sized plot of ground. Lichens of the North Woods, a recent book by Joe Walewski, is an excellent source of information about identifying lichens in Quetico Park and other northern forests.

The next time you are having lunch on the rocky shore of a lake, take a good look at the lichens that you have been walking and sitting on. A small hand magnifier, like those that geologists use, will give a clearer view of these fascinating organisms. The colors and shapes are astounding. You can spend hours exploring a habitat just a few yards wide.

Ice Age Journey


Quetico Park contains a wide variety of different habitats: large stands of mature red and white pine, even-aged jack pine and poplar stands (the result of recent fires), wet areas with an understory of moss and overstory of black spruce, and open bogs composed of leather leaf, sphagnum moss and orchids. These and a variety of other habitats in Quetico are home to many different plants and animals.

These familiar habitats and the animals that inhabit them evolved out of the last ice-age, which reached its maximum about 20,000 years ago. (When I wrote this article in 2005 I used radiocarbon dates which are used by scientists but are significantly different than chronological dates. As an example, if a bone is dated to 10,000 radiocarbon years it is almost 12,000 calendar years old. On August 9, 2012 I changed the dates to chronological dates to more accurately reflect how long ago these events happened. )  At the peak of the last glacial period, called the Wisconsin, virtually all of Canada and a large portion of the northern United States were covered with ice. All of Minnesota was covered by glacial ice except for the southeast corner of the state.

When the glacier reached its maximum about 20,000 years ago it covered all of Ontario and almost all of Minnesota.

It has been estimated that this glacier may have been up to one mile thick. A glacier of this size obviously had an enormous impact on the land, both as the glacier was getting larger and as it was shrinking. As it grew, its enormous weight gouged out weak areas in the bedrock and ground up boulders and bedrock into a mixture of sand, gravel and small rocks. This glacial till is found throughout Quetico today. Boulders frozen into the ice sometimes left deep scratches called glacial straiae that are visible on the shores of many lakes, including Ottertrack, Knife and Cirrus. When the glacial advance stopped, long ridges of glacial till, called moraines, were left behind. A large terminal moraine, known as the Seep Rock Moraine, passes through the northeast corner of the park.

The slow retreat of the glacier was equally dramatic. The enormous amounts of water melting off the glacier created numerous lakes and ponds, and water levels were generally higher than they are today. A huge island-studded lake called Lake Agassiz temporarily covered half of Quetico Park. Big, fast-moving rivers deposited sand and silt into these enlarged lakes. When the lakes shrunk to their present size, they created flat, generally boggy areas from what had been shallow bays. The best example of this in Quetico is the flat, sandy area east of Kawa Bay of Kawnipi Lake. The Wawiag River now winds through silt and sand that was deposited in a shallow bay of what is now Kawnipi Lake.

The changes in vegetation that have occurred since the glacier retreated are striking. Fortunately, a record of the past plant communities that succeeded the glacier can be found in the bottom of lakes and ponds. Wind-blown pollen settles on lakes and sinks to the bottom, where it is eventually covered with more pollen. Since pollen from different types of plants is of different sizes and shapes, the pollen can be used to give an idea of past plant communities.

Pollen cores from the bottom of a variety of lakes and ponds in Northwestern Ontario and northern Minnesota have been analyzed, although no detailed pollen studies have been done from lakes in Quetico. Lake of the Clouds, a small lake in the BWCAW just south of Ottertrack Lake, has had an analysis of the pollen from the bottom of the lake, as has Rattle Lake, which is located just 100 miles northwest of Quetico Park. The pollen from both lakes shows similar trends in change in vegetation with time.

The bottom layer of pollen represents the first plants after the glacial retreat and the top layer represents plants from more recent years. In between is the pollen that represents the history of plant succession of the long intervening period. One of the many complicating factors is that some plant species produce large amounts of pollen that can be carried hundreds of miles by the wind, while others produce very little pollen. Analysis of pollen cores gives a picture, although somewhat fuzzy, of the vegetation change in a particular area.

It is currently thought that Lake of the Clouds became free of glacial ice about 13,000 years ago, and that Rattle Lake, being father north, became ice free a few hundred years later. The pollen from the oldest zone in both lakes indicates sparse vegetation that was composed mainly of lichens, herbs and shrubs. Pollen from higher lavels showed an increase in levels of spruce and birch. About 11,000 years ago at Lake of the Clouds and 10,500 years ago at Rattle Lake, the levels of spruce declined and levels of species of pine greatly increased.

The pollen from both lakes shows a strikingly similar pattern from tundra or tundra-like conditions, changing to a spruce-birch forest, which evolves into a predominantly pine and spruce forest. It apparently took over 2000 years for Quetico to make the transition from a land just freed from glacial ice to a forest mosaic similar to what is present today. Prior to the forest mosaic was a period when the vegetation was much different from today and when, consequently, the animals were not those we expect to see in Quetico.

This post-glacial period was characterized by a warming climate, large lakes produced by the melting of glacial ice, and vegetation that was a rich patchwork of herbs, grasses, mosses, fungus, shrubs and small trees that could have supported a high density of animals. This tundra-like vegetation is thought to have been unique, and no environment exists today that matches it. The tundra-like environment that was home to a variety of ice-age mammals is sometimes referred to as the mammoth steppe – named after the woolly mammoths, the largest of the ice-age mammals.

When the southern part of Quetico was first freed of glacial ice about 13,000 years ago, the land to the south contained a staggering array of large mammals known as the ice-age megafauna. They included woolly mammoths, mastodons, sabre-tooth tigers, camels, horses and woolly rhinoceroses. Some of these animals were of spectacular size, such as 500-lb. beavers, giant sloth that were 12 feet tall standing on their hind legs, and dire wolves weighing up to 200 pounds.

By 12 000 years ago, when all of Quetico was free of glacial ice, many of the large ice-age mammals were extinct or on their way to extinction. It is not known what caused their extinction, but there is no shortage of theories. The warming of the climate and the accompanying changes in vegetation may have made survival impossible for cold-adapted species like the woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros.

When the ice was retreating through Quetico, there was a Palaeoindian culture in the Americas known as the Clovis culture. The Clovis culture is characterized by large, fluted spearpoints called Clovis points. In numerous locations, Clovis points have been associated with the fossil remains of woolly mammoths. The Clovis people were successful hunters of woolly mammoths and other megafauna. Clovis points have been found in central and southern Minnesota and throughout Wisconsin, except for the northern extreme. No evidence of the Clovis culture has been found in the BWCAW or Quetico, but recently a Clovis point was reported from the Duluth area.

The extinction at the end of the last ice age left ecological niches that remain empty to this day. The warming of the climate caused a slow but steady replacement of the rich tundra-like environment, which had provided a side variety of food for grazers and browsers, with a predominantly forested environment. In North America, the mammoths, horses, camels, ground sloths, and giant beavers that once were prominent mammals disappeared with the rich post-glacial environment that they thrived in. The noted zoologist Alfred Russel Wallace once stated: “We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the largest, the fiercest, and strongest forms have disappeared.”

There are skeletal remains of these megafauna throughout the Americas. In areas with hot, dry climates, such as much of the American Southwest, there are numerous well preserved remains of ice-age mammals. The LeBrea Tar Pits in Los Angeles contain thousands of skeletons from this time period, especially of carnivores such as dire wolves, sabre-tooth tigers and the American lion. In Siberia and Alaska, virtually intact woolly mammoths have been recovered from permafrost. In 1901, portions of a woolly mammoth that had been frozen for 20,000 years were eaten by a dog team when a Russian scientist came across a woolly mammoth eroding out of the ice in northern Siberia.

The acid soils of the Canadian Shield are, however, very hard on bone and antlers, and only in unusual situations do they last a decade, yet alone thousands of years. Moose bones and antlers two or three years old are usually heavily chewed by rodents and covered with fungus, moss and bacteria that rapidly recycle the valuable nutrients. Only unusual conditions, where the remains settle into a peat bog or are quickly covered with silt at the bottom of a lake, allow for long term preservation of bone.

However, the remains of a few ice-age animals have been recovered near Quetico. A skull of an extinct form of bison was found while dredging for peat on the edge of a bog near Kenora, Ontario. The skull of this bison was picked up intact by the backhoe. The operator of the backhoe joked, “I told my friends that I dug up the Devil himself.” The presence of a bison north of Lake of the Woods was a shock, but it is consistent with the concept of a tundra-grassland environment after the retreat of the glacier.

The bones of woolly mammoths have been recovered in southern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Manitoba; and recently, the bones of a mastodon were recovered in southern Wisconsin. In a few cases, the remains of large mammals have been found in association with human artefacts. The most clear-cut correlations are a bison kill site near Lake Itasca that dates back to about 8,000 years ago and a woolly mammoth in southern Wisconsin that dates to 11,000 years ago. Both of these sites had animal bones and stone tools found close together and were apparently kill sites.

The most spectacular find, however, occurred just north of Atikokan, deep in

Charlie Brooks holding a 12,000 year old caribou antler from the bottom Steep Rock Lake.

 the silt at the bottom of a lake. Iron ore was discovered at Steep Rock Lake in 1938, and diamond drilling showed that a rich ore body was located at the bottom of the lake. The demand for iron ore was high because of World War II, so the decision was made to drain the lake to get at the ore. Huge dredges were brought in to pump out the silt that covered the ore. The dredges were able to pump the silt from the bottom of the main body of the lake, but along the lakeshore the silt had to be washed into the rapidly draining lake using high pressure hoses.

On April 16, 1957, Charlie Brooks and Dick Kaemingk were surveying the monitored area along the shore. They noticed a large antler in the silt and dug it out and set it aside. Since the goal of the operation was to remove the silt and get at the ore underneath, the exact depth of the antler in the silt was not recorded. However, at the time of discovery, it was estimated that the antler was located beneath 60 to 100 feet of silt and clay. The astounding depth of silt above the antler indicated that it was probably quite old. It is of interest that there was about 450 feet of silt in the deepest part of Steep Rock Lake. The antler was deeply buried, but there were still hundreds of feet of silt below it.

The enormous amount of silt in Steep Rock was undoubtedly due to the fact that the fast flowing Seine River dropped its glacial debris into the lake when it slowed down upon entering the lake. The antler was found less than a thousand feet from the falls where the river enters the lake. Since the antler is in such good shape, it probably did not come down the Seine River and over the falls into the lake.

The caribou antler recovered by Brooks and Kaemingk was not the only one that had been noticed. Brooks remembers seeing other antlers on top of the monitor barges, presumably put there by other workers and later discarded. It is not surprising that the presence of caribou antlers was not considered unusual since woodland caribou were common in the area until the 1930’s. What is extremely fortunate is that someone had the curiosity and foresight to set one aside. (see photo of Charlie Brooks holding the 12,000 year old caribou antler from Steep Rock Lake at beginning of article)

It is ironic that the caribou antler was found near Atikokan, since Atikokan means “caribou bones” in Ojibwa. There are other references to caribou in the area, with a Caribus Lake and Caribus Creek just south of Atikokan. There is also a Caribou Lake in the eastern BWCAW. When I first saw the antler in the mid-1970’s, it had been hanging for over a decade in the entrance to the building that houses the Atikokan Library and Museum, a log building near the main street of Atikokan.

Lawrence Jackson, an archaeologist associated with Trent University, recently had the antler carbon-dated, and it was found to be approximately 12,000 years old. Originally thought to be from a woodland caribou, it was analyzed by experts and is now thought to be from a male barren ground caribou. The presence of barren ground caribou on Steep Rock Lake 12,000 years ago seems surprising, but it is consistent with evidence from pollen studies that strongly indicate that this area was primarily a mixture of spruce, birch and tundra at that time.

Barren ground caribou migrate in large herds and shed their antlers in early winter after the completion of the rut in the fall. A male caribou probably shed his antlers on the ice surface of Steep Rock Lake after spending the summer somewhere north of Atikokan. The caribou then continued on its journey with the rest of the migrating herd to its winter range to the south.

The herd of barren ground caribou that shed their antlers on Steep Rock Lake as they began their migration to their wintering grounds to the south would have been a major food resource for Palaeoindians living in the area. Caribou are hunted during the fall migration for both their hides and for food. The location of these ancient migration routes is a mystery.

In the winter of 1983, a local trapper named Phil Sawdo discovered some rock paintings on a creekside cliff north of Montgomery Lake. At this site, there are two sets of paintings about fifty metres apart. One set portrays a caribou and human-like figures and other a moose or caribou. These paintings are unique in Quetico in that they are not located on a navigable body of water; you can paddle up to all the other known pictograph sites in the park. Phil Sawdo thought that the caribou were formerly ambushed in the narrows formed by the pictograph cliff and a high hill directly opposite. Two creeks come into the area north of Montgomery, and the small valleys associated with them could have funnelled migrating caribou into the narrows where the pictographs are located.

It is not known how old the Montgomery Lake rock paintings are, and there are no rock paintings that are known to date back to Palaeoindian times. However, it is certainly possible that the Montgomery lake rock paintings depict caribou at a spot where they were hunted during migrations thousands of years ago.

Because of the similarity between barren ground caribou and woodland caribou that were present in Quetico until the 1930’s and the unknown date of the rock paintings, it is just speculation that there is a connection between the barren ground caribou antler from Steep Rock Lake and the rock paintings on Montgomery Lake. There is, however, other evidence that caribou were in the area 10,000 years ago and that they were hunted by humans. A large Palaeoindian site near Thunder Bay produced fragments of bone that have been tentatively identified as caribou. Archaeologists have suggested that this site, which is also about 10,000 years old, and others from the same time period are evidence of caribou hunting by bands of Palaeoindians along the north shore of Lake Superior.

There are also numerous Palaeoindian sites in Quetico and BWCAW that apparently date back at least 10 000 years. The culture in the area at that time is known as the Plano and is thought to have succeeded the Clovis that ended about 11 000 years ago. Because of the lack of organic material, none of these sites have been carbon dated. They have been primarily dated by the presence of large spearpoints which are very similar to those found at dated Palaeoindian sites to the south. The large spearpoints that are characteristic of Palaeoindian sites are beautifully worked and made from a variety of stones.

By the time the Clovis culture had evolved into the Plano culture, many of the ice-age megafauna were extinct. All of the evidence for Palaeoindians in Northwestern Ontario and the BWCAW is believed to be from the Plano culture. The Clovis people, and the woolly mammoths and other megafauna they co-existed with, may never have reached Quetico. However, the area was free of glacial ice in time for people of the Clovis culture and the ice-age animals they hunted to have entered and lived in Quetico. They would have, however, had to live close to the leading edge of the glacier.

So . . . I’m still looking for a Clovis point, a faced pictograph that depicts a woolly mammoth, and the bones of a mastodon or dire wolf eroding out of the silt banks of the Wawiag River. I may never find any of them, but the thought that it is possible adds another dimension to a trip into Quetico.  (An updated and enlarged treatment of Quetico’s Ice Age legacy can be found in my book.)

A Raven’s Knowledge


I love watching ravens fly. They seem to delight in performing a wide variety of aerial acrobatics. Other birds seem to fly primarily for practical purposes: searching for food, avoiding predators, or simply moving from place to place. Ravens, however, often seem to cavort in the air with joyous abandon simply because it is fun. Since they don’t seem to rely on speed or manueverability to obtain food, it seems unusual that they would be such skillful flyers. Maybe they have found that flying can be used for play as well as for practical reasons.

A drawing of a raven in winter in the Boundary Waters area. (Mary Lambirth - Blackduck, Minnesota)

I have often seen them do a “barrel-roll”, and sometimes they even do two or three in quick succession. Ravens can even fly briefly upside down. Their most exuberant flights seem to be during their mating season in late winter and early spring. Then they can be seen chasing each other and performing acrobatic tricks in tandem.

While it is certainly understandable that their mating flights would be boastful and exuberant, they also do barrel rolls, swoops and flips at other times of year. They even seem to enjoy flying on those -30 C and -40 C winter days when no other birds can be seen in the frigid skies. Any bird that incubates eggs in April when cold nights and snow are not only possible, but very probable, has to be well adapted to the cold. Possibly their inky-black colour allows them to absorb more heat from the sun and is an adaption for winters in the north.

In the Boundary Waters area, ravens are on the southern edge of their range, but they are also found in the much colder Hudson Bay Lowlands, as well as Greenland and Siberia. They don’t go south for the winter; but stay in the north and rely on their intelligence, adaptability and omnivorous feeding habits to get through our long winters. Ravens don’t seem to merely survive the winter; they seem to thrive and even prosper in the cold.

Ravens are as at home in the Arizona desert as in the boreal forest. (photo by Marie Nelson)

Ravens are predominantly a northern bird. All northerners, no matter where in the world they live, have one bird species in common: the raven. Not only is this large black bird found all across northern North America, it is also found in Greenland, Iceland, and across northern Europe and Russia. The raven, Corvus corax, is at home in both Upsala, Ontario and Uppsala, Sweden.

In North America, ravens have extended their range even beyond the tundra, boreal forest and mixed forest. They are also found in mountainous areas and even in deserts. Consequently, ravens are in Ely, Nevada as well as Ely, Minnesota. In the mixed forests of the Boundary Waters area, the ravens range overlaps with that of its close relative, the common crow. The main difference between them is that the raven is much larger than the crow; has a larger, thicker beak; and has a wedge-shaped tail rather than the squared end of the crow’s tail. Ravens are common throughout the Boundary Waters area, but crows seem to be more plentiful in the BWCAW than in Quetico.

One biologist has said that ravens make a wider variety of sounds than any animal other than humans. The call that I have heard them make the most often is a deep call that sounds like “kraa” and is sometimes repeated many times. It seems similar to the “caw” call of the crow, but is much deeper and less strident. They also make a “clunk” or “thunk” sound that is unlike any other bird sound I have ever heard. In contrast to these one-note sounds, they can also make very soft, melodious sounds that make the raven the world’s largest songbird.

Their most striking and unusual sound is a bell-like note that I’ve heard a few times while they were flying in late winter. They also do spectacular dives and rolls during this time of year. These unusual sounds and aerial acrobatics may be related to their mating season, which also occurs in late winter. Ravens usually build their nests in trees but, when available, they nest on the side of cliffs. They apparently seek out cliff sites where they can build a nest under an overhang. A nesting site on the cliffs on the north shore of Quetico Lake has a large overhang that completely protects the nest. I first saw this wonderful Quetico Lake cliff nest in 1976 and it was still in use last year. Ravens mate as early as February and are on their nests in late March and April. Since they are on their nests when both snow and freezing rain can occur, nests with an overhang to protect both the incubating adult raven and its chicks is a huge advantage.

The raven plays a major role in the mythology of many Native American cultures. In Pacific Northwest mythology, the raven plays a central role, and is known as both a creator and a folk hero. Many Ojibwa and Cree tales from our area also feature ravens. In many of these tales ravens are “tricksters”, creatures that are capable of heroism and courage, but also of trickery and even deceit.

In early European cultures, ravens also played significant roles. In Norse mythology two ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), flew off at dawn and observed what was happening in the far-flung Norse realm. They returned in the evening, perched on the shoulders of the Norse god Odin, and whispered to him what they had learned during their day’s travels. Information received from ravens, because they could observe and understand things that were beyond the comprehension of mere humans, was considered to be extremely valuable. In Ireland, the phrase “raven’s knowledge” means to know all and to see all.

Although ravens are no longer common in England, they were so abundant in London in the late 1600’s that the King was petitioned to get rid of them. Ravens were held in high esteem by many and there was opposition to this extermination plan. According to the book Ravens in Winter, the raven extermination was not completed because a family of ravens lived in the Tower of London and a “soothsayer advised the King that if he removed all the ravens from the Tower a great disaster would befall England and his Royal Palace would crumble into dust. The King, not wanting to tempt fate, decided to keep six ravens and appoint a Keeper.” They are still there today, but their wings are clipped to ensure that they don’t leave the Tower. The Tower ravens don’t successfully breed, but whenever one dies, it is replaced by another bird. Another centuries-old tale states that a raven’s head buried at the base of London Tower protects London from invasion.

A raven incorporated into a contemporary design for a canoe club in Atikokan, Ontario. (design by Lise Sorenson)

Ravens are both predators and scavengers. As predators, they kill frogs, snakes, mice, voles, young and wounded birds, eggs, as well as a variety of insects and other invertebrates. One naturalist has labeled ravens the “bikers of the bird world” because they “dress in black, are big, and they are mean”. I’m not sure what the “mean” reference is for , but they do occasionally act as predators on surprisingly large animals.

A few years ago, farmers near Dryden, Ontario (north of Atikokan) reported that ravens were killing their sheep and cows. Ravens were seen landing on the heads of these farm animals and driving their beaks into the eyes of their prey. A few hard, well-placed blows were reported to kill the animals. Ravens are evidently capable of killing domesticated animals as large as cows.

At the other end of the food spectrum, they also eat some plant foods, and have been observed consuming large amounts of blueberries. The extremely diverse diet of a Boundary Waters raven can include large and small mammals (in any state of freshness or decay), snakes, turtles, frogs, toads, minnows, crayfish, tadpoles, worms, insects, seeds and berries. They are omnivores and opportunists of the highest magnitude.

Ravens seem, however, to get the vast majority of their food by acting as scavengers. In the winter, they rely heavily on feeding on moose and deer carcasses. They seem to have a symbiotic relationship with wolves and have been reported to follow wolf packs. There have been reports of ravens apparently signalling the location of prey to wolves by circling over moose and calling loudly. Not only do wolves kill the animals, they also open the carcass so the ravens can get at the meat and organs. Ravens also commonly arrive quickly after human hunters have killed an animal. They also take advantage of animals killed by vehicles by flying along highway corridors and feeding on the road kills.

A raven's nest on a south-facing cliff on Quetico Lake.

Ravens are known for their intelligence,

Raven's nest in a transmission tower in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

 and many biologists consider them to be the most intelligent bird of all. They exhibit their intelligence in numerous ways. They have been observed opening clam shells by dropping them on rocks or pavement. They are also excellent mimics, not only of other birds, but also of the human voice.

The late Konrad Lorenz, a renowned animal behaviourist, had a pet raven. He once fed this raven after it had brought him a piece of laundry that it had obtained from a clothes line. The raven, thinking it had been rewarded for bringing laundry, made repeated raids on neighbour’s clothes lines. The raven kept bringing wet socks and undergarments until it realized it was not going to be rewarded again.

One of the fascinating things about ravens is their ability to thrive in towns and cities as well as in wilderness areas. The same species that nests on cliffs on Quetico Lake and near the top of old-growth white pines throughout the Boundary Waters also nests on a large steel electrical tower on a busy street in Thunder Bay. I see ravens all summer in Quetico, but we also commonly have ravens in our backyard in Thunder Bay. They habitually search for animals that have died of natural causes or been preyed upon in the wilderness, but they also routinely inspect the back of hunter’s or trapper’s half ton’s looking for morsels of meat. Always the opportunist, I once saw one fly across the road at the French Lake campground with a whole sandwich in its beak.

My Norse ancestors, like many Native American cultures, not only believed they could learn from these intelligent and adaptable birds, but, also wove them into their mythology and spirituality. Since ravens have also successfully made the transition between wilderness and human-dominated landscapes, maybe we also have more in common with these intriguing creatures than we think.

Pukak: Life Under The Snow

Winter is the time of year when everything seems to slow down in the Boundary Waters area. It is much quieter in the woods since most of the birds have left for warmer climates where food is more abundant in the winter. Animals o various sizes, from black bears to least chipmunks, have retreated to their dens and are silently spending the winter in hibernation or near-hibernation. The Pukak forms along the ground and is insulated by the overlying snow.

When we have a winter like last years, with a combination of extreme cold and deep snow, the animals that remain active have trouble getting around and difficulty finding enough food, staying warm, and surviving until spring. Some animals, particularly deer, can suffer high mortality over the winter. Even animals well adapted to deep snow, like moose and snowshoe hare have difficulty getting through the winter.

When you snowshoe or ski through the woods in mid-winter, the tracks of a variety of animals are very apparent. It’s always exciting to encounter the large tracks of moose, deer and wolf. In some areas, the tracks of snowshoe hares and red squirrels leave intricate patterns in the snow. Evidence of a wide variety of predators: including mink, weasels, marten, fisher, fox and even the occasional lynx, may be seen.

What is startling is the scarcity of tracks of small mammals. Tracks small enough to belong to a mouse, vole or shrew are seldom seen. When their tracks are found, they usually skitter across the snow for a short distance and then disappear into the snow. These small mammals are the most common mammals in the Boundary Waters area. A study of the small mammals of Quetico was conducted in the mid 1970’s by David Nagorsen from the Royal Ontario Museum. His team found two species of chipmunks and thirteen species of land mammals smaller than chipmunks. They located and identified three species of mice, five of shrews, four of voles, and just one species of lemming.

It seems surprising that since at least fifteen species of chipmunks, mice, shrews, voles, and lemmings live in the BWCAW and Quetico, that evidence for them is so hard to find in the winter. The small size of these mammals makes them very susceptible to the cold, and they have to find a way to avoid the cold if they are to survive our long winters. Most of the predator tracks that we see in the winter are made by animals searching for these plentiful but elusive small mammals. Where do they go that makes finding sign of their existence so hard to find, and how do they get through the winter? Some of them simply hibernate or spend most of the winter in insulated nests. There are three known species of mice in the Boundary Waters area. Two of them, the woodland jumping mouse and meadow jumping mouse, are primarily seed eaters and they spend the winter in hibernation. The most common mouse, and the second most common small mammal in Quetico, is the deer mouse. Deer mice, and both the least chipmunk and the eastern chipmunk, store up food in the fall and spend the winter in insulated nests where they huddle together for warmth and eat their stored food. They also occasionally venture out to collect seeds and to seek out any other food they can find.

There are, however, ten species of shrews, voles and lemmings that are active throughout the winter. They have found a way to use their small size to their advantage. The snow, one of the hazards to larger animals, becomes an aid to their survival. They literally use the blanket of snow on the ground as their blanket; it is the insulation that protects them from the cold. Their winters are spent under the snow, in a weird and fascinating place known as the pukak. Pukak is an Inuit word for the complex layer of ice crystals and open space that forms at the base of the snow pack.

The formation of the pukak begins with the first snowfall that covers the ground vegetation. Herbs and other small plants keep some of the snow from coming in contact with the ground and this causes small openings or cavities to form. When the snow reaches a depth of about one foot, the temperature of the pukak layer stabilizes at just a degree or two over freezing. The snow above the pukak layer insulates it from the cold air above and traps some of the warmth that always radiates from the ground below. The warmth from below causes the formation of ice crystals and the natural small openings and tunnels formed by the vegetation are enlarged. These natural openings are joined together to form tunnels by small mammals in the pukak. The tunnels allow these animals to travel long distances under the snow. They undoubtedly use these tunnels to locate food. Seeds keep well at pukak temperatures and some herbs stay succulent and green all winter long.

The pukak forms where there is sufficient ground level vegetation to allow openings to form. Where there is little or no vegetation, such as on the ice surface of ponds and lakes, no pukak layer forms. Pukak layers vary considerably, depending on the habitat and the conditions as the snow accumulates. You can check out the pukak by taking a shovel and digging in the snow down to the ground. Make the cavity big enough so that you can crouch or lay down and see along the ground into the pukak. A flashlight will show the natural caverns and openings caused by the vegetation and heat from the ground. A mowed lawn will have virtually no pukak but most areas with undisturbed vegetation will have a pukak layer.

When the snow reaches a depth of about a foot, even the mid-day sun causes only a faint glow to reach the pukak. Because of the dark, animals in the pukak have to rely mainly on their hearing and sense of smell. It is always relatively warm in the tunnels, but it is also damp and dark.

A wide variety of insects and small mammals inhabit the pukak. Many insects overwinter in the pukak. When the snow accumulates over them, they exist in an environment just a few degrees below freezing. This would be a safe place to spend the winter except for the small mammals, primarily shrews, that eat insects and insect larvae and are active in the pukak all winter. When we think of mammals in the Boundary Waters area, shrews, mice, voles and lemmings are definitely not the first animals to come to mind. The variety of small mammals in the pukak, however, are as intriguing as they are small. The smallest mammal in our area, the pygmy shrew, is also the smallest mammal in North America and among the smallest mammals in the world. It is only 3 to 4 inches long, including the tail, and weighs less than a dime. Despite its size, this tiny mammal is a predator. It eats mainly beetles and other insects, but also preys on spiders and earthworms.

Shrews generally have the smallest bodies and the fastest metabolism of all the mammals. The pygmy shrew, being the smallest, has the highest metabolism of all. It’s heart beats at the astonishing rate of 1500 beats a minute. It has to eat almost constantly in order to maintain its high metabolic rate, and shrews can starve to death after only a few hours without food.

The short-tailed shrew is another pukak inhabitant. This large and fairly common shrew is unusual because its saliva is toxic, allowing them to kill prey that is larger than themselves. They have been known to kill garter snakes and even young rabbits in the summer.

A dead shrew found on the surface of the snow near French Lake in March. The cause of death is unknown.

The most common shrew in Quetico, and the third most common small mammal, is the masked shrew. It is found in large numbers in most habitats but seems to prefer wet meadows and acid bogs. Like all shrews in our area, it is thought to mainly eat insects, but has a varied diet that is known to include vegetation and the young of mice, voles and other shrews.

These fascinating and poorly understood animals roam the pukak all winter, preying on insects and the occasional small mammal. The pukak is an ideal place for shrews in the winter because its constant temperature is only a few degrees below freezing. The darkness of the pukak is not a problem for shrews since they have poor vision and rely to a large extent on their sense of smell.

The most common mammal in Quetico and the BWCAW is one that, in spite of their large numbers, are only occasionally seen in the spring, summer or fall. Since they inhabit the pukak layer, they are virtually never seen by humans in the winter. The redbacked vole is a plump, mouse-sized animal with a broad chestnut stripe that runs from its forehead to its rump. Like other voles, the closely related lemmings, and shrews, they are active all winter in the pukak. They are extremely important to the ecology of this area because of their abundance.

A redback vole on a Quetico campsite in September.

Although red-backed voles were just one of fifteen species of small mammals found in the Quetico study, they comprised about half of the total animals captured. These voles were found in all of the habitats studied, everywhere from wet meadows to dry upland slopes. Red-backed voles and other small mammals are near the bottom of the food chain and are the main sources of food for many predators. There are also three other species of voles in Quetico; the meadow vole, the heather vole and the rock vole. Each species is found primarily in specific habitats and they are far less common than the red-backed vole. Along with the Boundary Waters only lemming, the southern bog lemming, they are important inhabitants of the pukak.

Populations of these small mammals fluctuate greatly from year to year. They can quickly recover from low populations because they can have many litters in one year and commonly have five or six young in each litter. The females of some vole species are ready to breed when they are just six weeks old.

These high birth rates are balanced by a high mortality rate. Most shrews, mice, voles and lemmings are thought to live only about one or two years on the average. These abundant animals are an important food source for weasels, red fox, and martens, as well as for a variety of hawks and owls. The populations of these varied predators are, to a large extent, dependant on the populations of the small mammals that are their prey. Snow, especially deep snow, helps to protect pukak dwellers from large predators like lynx, red fox, and wolves. However, red fox have been observed jumping into the air and coming down on their front feet to pin mice and voles to the ground. They apparently use their acute hearing to precisely locate these small mammals below the snow and are able to capture them in the pukak even though they can’t see them.

Even smaller predators, like marten and mink, are not small enough to hunt in the pukak layer. Weasels, however, have the extremely long, slender bodies that allow them to follow their prey through the narrow runways under the snow. Unlike the small mammals they are hunting, weasels are not permanent occupants of the pukak. They can enter or leave the pukak by simply burrowing through the snow. They also use the ventilation shafts that are built by pukak dwellers in order to get fresh air down to the pukak. The weasels’ slender bodies allow them to use these shafts to gain easy access to their prey.

Some winters have very little snow, and those are the hardest on pukak dwellers. If there is only a few inches of snow, the pukak does not fully develop since the heat from the ground is lost into the air instead of being trapped in the snow by a thick insulating blanket. If there is less than a foot of snow, the full insulating value of the snow is not felt and the extreme cold of mid-winter can penetrate into the pukak. During winters of average or greater than average snow depth, the most perilous times are usually at the beginning and end of winter. Early winter, before enough snow has accumulated, and late winter, when most of the snow has melted, are times when cold is the greatest threat. An early or late winter temperature of 0 F. is much harder on pukak dwellers than -40 F. in mid-winter when the snow depth protects them.

Another dangerous time is during periods of very warm weather when the rapid melting of snow can cause flooding of the pukak. This forces animals out from under the snow and they become vulnerable to large predators like marten and red fox. Owls and hawks can also prey on animals that were previously hidden by the snow. For most of the winter, and especially during the extreme cold of mid-winter, the pukak has many attributes that are favourable for creatures small enough to take advantage of them.

The small mammals in the Boundary Waters area are able to survive our long harsh winters by using the snow to their advantage. They evade the extreme mid-winter cold by using snow as a blanket, and the earth as constant source of low heat. The animals that are small enough to live in the pukak have replaced the bitter wind and extreme cold with a constant coolness.

In an essay entittled “Coming of the Snow”, Sigurd Olson wrote that beneath the snow of the bog he was snowshoeing across was a “jungle of grassy roots and stems, tiny mountains of sphagnum, forests of heather, the whole interwoven with thousands of twisting burrows of meadow mice. … Theirs was a world removed, an intricate winter community, self-sufficient and well organized.”

The pukak, like all habitats, also has its limitations. Pukak dwellers are restricted to places where their narrow corridors under the snow can take them. The plant food available in the pukak is limited to what was there at the end of the growing season. Since no new food is being produced to replace what is consumed, the food supply declines throughout the winter. The blanket of snow that protects them from the cold also effectively blocks most of the light from entering their domain. The long winter nights above the snow are expanded and altered below the snow. In the pukak, animals are only vaguely aware of the sun and are oblivious to the stars, moon or northern lights. Although we share the same environment, their winter world is so different from ours that it is hard to even imagine.