How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Boreal Forest

I’m a prairie girl, born and bred. Where the horizon is down around my knees, maybe even my ankles. Where there’s nothing between me and that horizon. Where I can see yesterday leaving and tomorrow coming. Where the only trees are those planted around farmsteads.

So why was I sitting on a dock in northern Manitoba, surrounded by nothing but trees and water, watching the Twin Otter that had deposited me and my crew slowly disappear into nothingness?

The answer: I’d been hired to lead one of the crews conducting archaeological excavations as part of Manitoba Hydro’s Churchill River diversion project of the early 1970s. I had no experience with boreal forest archaeology. I had no experience leading a crew. I didn’t know how to operate an outboard motor. I didn’t know how to read a topographic map. I didn’t know how to use a transit to survey excavation grids.

Boy, was I qualified!

My only previous encounter with the boreal forest had been in 1969 when I was an assistant at a camp just south of Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan. I hated it, the boreal forest, that is. I couldn’t see anywhere. I couldn’t see the weather coming. Driving down the highway felt like driving down a tunnel. I didn’t feel claustrophobic but I certainly felt boxed in.

Yet, here I was, in 1973, at Lake Opachuanau on the Churchill River, fly-in only, for two whole months. Egads! How would I survive?

By the end of the first week, I had learned how to operate an outboard motor, although I had yet to finesse docking it. I had learned how to read topographic maps which is why I now hate highway maps – they don’t have enough detail. I had even learned the rudiments of using a transit and stadia rod. And I was getting intrigued by the archaeology, the geology and the natural history of the boreal forest.

But most importantly, I was falling in love with the boreal forest. Driving a boat down the river or across the lake was completely different from driving down a highway cut through “The Bush.” Those mornings when the wind was perfectly calm and the lake was perfectly still, the boat seemed to be floating in space between the forest and its perfect reflection. I could see the forest in all its complexity – alders and birch and poplars and quaking aspen lining the shore, White Spruce and Black Spruce behind. The shoreline varied from sand to mud to low rocky outcrops to rock cliffs. Inland, the ground was soft and spongy, covered with bunchberry and raspberries and strawberries and Labrador Tea and Sphagnum moss in which you could sink up to your knees.

Since then, I’ve spent a fair number of summers working in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan. A summer just didn’t feel complete if I wasn’t cruising down a river or lake in a boat, slogging through The Bush, digging test pits or excavating sites.

It isn’t just the forest itself I’ve come to love. It’s also the people who live there. Especially the people who live there. Interested and interesting, genuinely concerned about their history and its preservation, willing to share their knowledge and their stories, and more than willing to work with us (and I wouldn’t have it any other way). They have enriched my life and my work in ways that cannot be measured.

But, aren’t there black flies there, you ask? How can you love working in a place lousy with black flies?

Oh, them. Well, that’s another story.

#BorealForest #RetiredArchaeologist #ArchaeologicalMemories #ChurchillRiver #NorthernManitoba #NorthernSaskatchewan #MargaretGHanna #NonFiction