Binoculars swinging off her neck with each step, Katie Krelove leads a small group uphill past the log pile of large hemlock trees into the Catchacoma Forest. The clouds are giving shade to the canopy above; the forecasted thunderstorms are looking as though they’ll hold off until late afternoon.
As the group walks, one of the joining hikers asks a question that comes up a lot when discussing the Wilderness Committee Ontario’s Catchacoma campaign led by Krelove, “Why are you concerned [about current logging practices], because this [the Catchacoma forest] has been harvested before.”
Krelove pulls out her map of the surrounding area, “the red is where we’ve figured out through the mapping system where there’s been logging in 1988 and ‘89. You can see it’s not that much actually.”
The Catchacoma Forest falls under the Bancroft Minden Forest Company’s Forest (BMFC) management unit: a specified area of crown land leased to the private company from the provincial government for logging and forest management. The area that Krelove and the Wilderness Committee Ontario are trying to have removed from the forest management unit, and placed under conservation status, is mostly pristine forest including the small portion that was logged in the late 80s.
“Even talking to the logger whose father would have done the logging,” Krelove continues, “he said ‘oh they would have been logging for pine.’ As far as we can tell it’s never been logged for hemlock before.”
Marie Windover, a local historian and member of the Catchacoma Forest Stewardship committee (CFSC), nods her head at Krelove’s claims.
The Hemlock that Krelove is referring to is the 662ha Eastern Hemlock dominant forest that Ancient Forest & Exploration (AFER), an organization dedicated to the identification of previously unidentified old-growth forests in Ontario, recognized in 2019 as the largest known stand of old-growth Eastern Hemlock in Canada, a significant find.
Since its discovery, AFER chief scientist Dr. Peter Quinby has teamed up with Krelove to form the CFSC and advocate on behalf of gaining protective status for the forest to the BMFC, the Ministry of National Resources and Forestry, and the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks.
Krelove pauses and begins to speak again. “It’s rare to have this dominant hemlock old growth because hemlock [trees] don’t respond very well to big disturbances...ultimately the kind of logging [selective harvest] they’re doing, it will turn it into more of a mixed hardwood forest.”
Suddenly, one of the hikers stops and points to something on the trail. It’s white, furry, and a bit dusty. Wolf Scat.
Krelove bends down to take a closer look. “I think I can even see some bones in there.”
After some discussion, Krelove hypothesizes that it likely came from an Algonquin Wolf, a threatened species in the province of Ontario that’s been documented in the Catchacoma Forest. Walking past the next log pile, Krelove leads the group
deeper into the forest.
Something catches her eye and both Krelove and Windover begin bushwacking off the trail towards a section of large trees. Krelove stops at the largest Eastern Hemlock tree and puts her arms around it.
“If I can’t reach all the way around it then it’s worth measuring it to see if it has the minimum circumference to be worth coring it to see if it’s old-growth.”
She takes a long red measuring tape out of her bag to get a rough idea of the circumference of the tree. Holding one side, Windover takes the other and begins to walk around the tree. They try their best to connect the two ends, but the tree’s circumference is too large.
“That means it’s more than 150cm in circumference, which means it’s more than 40cm in diameter, which would make it a candidate for potential old-growth,” Krelove says to Windover.
“A Saver!” Windover exclaims.
Size can be an indicator to identify an old-growth tree, but age is ultimately the determining factor. The most effective way to determine the age of a tree is by taking a coring sample using a tool called an increment borer and count its rings. From there you can determine how old the tree is. Eastern Hemlock are considered old-growth once they reach 140-years-old.
The clouds begin to disperse and the sun announces itself, a rarity in a Hemlock forest accustomed to shade due to a thick canopy. The canopy here isn’t as thick as it once was. Open spaces are frequent due to the selection logging that’s occurred since early 2020.
Krelove wipes her brow, the heat of the sun strong on her face as she looks for more interesting features of the once dense forest to share with the group. Around the bend and uphill, there’s a large opening filled with stumps and debris from logging that’s taken place over the last few years. Pushing through the brush and snags, Krelove points to a specific tree (what’s left of it) in an open area without much around it.
Tripping over the layers of debris, she finds her way to the tree marked with blue circles and an orange line. The blue circles mean that that specific tree was not supposed to be logged.
Krelove arrives at the tree and realizes what happened.
“This one wasn’t cut! It fell in the wind,” she exclaims sadly. “‘Cause it wasn’t protected anymore...thanks so much for keeping it for us guys,” she says sarcastically.
The density of a forest protects individual trees from the elements. Disturbances such as wind don’t have a drastic effect on individual trees when they’re surrounded by others for protection. When they’re out in the open without a dense forest coverage to protect them, these disturbances can prove disastrous.
Krelove makes her way back to the trail from the brush and reclaims her position as the leader of the hike. Eventually, the group reaches Pencil Creek, announced by the growing roar of the water flowing over the rocks. Following a small trail on the shore line, Krelove leads the group to a clearing of exposed rock. A peculiar rock sits on top, but upon closer inspection, Krelove realizes it’s not a rock at all; it’s a shell.
Krelove and Windover inspect it further and determine that it’s the shell of a Blanding’s Turtle; a threatened species in Ontario also known to inhabit the Catchacoma Forest. Another rare find. Along the path Krelove and Windover recognize signs of turtle eggs and nests that have been destroyed by predators; a serious threat to the continuation of the species.
The clouds have since blocked out the sun and grown heavy. The forecasted storm looks as though it’s closing in. It’s time to head back to the parking lot.
On the way out, Krelove’s remarks, pitstops, and fun-facts make her love for the Catchacoma Forest clear.
“I think the old-growth Catchacoma Forest should be protected and should have conservation status because of its rare and unique old-growth characteristics. It’s got ecological and conservation values. It’s got recreational values, and it’s got research and educational values as well...I fell in love with it. I’ve never been in a forest like this before.”