The Boreal Forest: Why EVERYPLACE is Fascinating (or, How to Never Be Bored in a Work Camp)

Poplars 01Autumn Poplar Grove

One thing that my northern experience taught me is how interesting anyplace is if you just look under the surface.  I have seen a lot of comments from northern workers about boredom.  I found the northlands and the camps to be one of the most fascinating experiences of my life, and I firmly believe that learning about your environment – and just being curious –  is one of the most important survival tools of all.


In Posters and Internet Radio, I talked about making yourself comfortable and like the coyote, building yourself a den that feels like a bit of home, even when you’re just south of the Arctic Circle.  But even more importantly, your work assignment should be interesting and, if at all possible, FUN, at least some of the time.  I believe that the secret to achieving this is curiosity and never stopping learning – particularly about every new place in which you find yourself, and every person that you meet there.  Everyone’s way of doing this will be different, but here’s how it happened for me through four seasons in the north.

Compared to my coastal homeland, with its drama of mountains, enormous Western cedars, plunging waterfalls,and miles of ever-changing beaches, Alberta’s northern boreal forest seemed uninteresting.  Miles upon miles of rolling trackless wilderness, with the occasional hill, creek, or gently moving river.  Much of it, flat and boggy muskeg swarming with mosquitoes in summer, is impossible to explore.  In between ridges of black spruce, tamarack and poplar, fields of waving grass and reeds conceal four inches of water over six inches of boggy sphagnum moss.  Underneath all lies two inches of muck waiting to entrap the incautious boot. Yet having lived in the boreal woods through a full year’s seasons, I am beginning to see it as a land of subtle beauty and decorous changes from place to place, with a marsh here, a meadow there, and patches of poplar alternating with forests of spruce, tamarack and larch.

Boreal Forest Poplar Glade

The northern boreal forest, or taiga, constitutes the earth’s large land ecosystem, consisting of a broad band of mixed forest surrounding the globe in the high northern latitudes, and encompassing much of Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.  Plant species vary, but in northern Alberta, this forest includes primarily black spruce, tamarack, and larch, with patches of poplar and birch.  Despite low annual precipitation (8-30 inches/year), cool temperatures and abundant fog limit sunshine, minimizing evaporation and supporting a damp and boggy environment.  Much of European and North American taiga was recently glaciated; receding glaciers have left depressions in the

Muskeg with Marsh and Ponds

topography that have filled with water, creating vast areas of lake and bog throughout the taiga.  As a consequence of the recent glaciation, these forests are young and biodiversity is low, with limited number of species in each plant family. Soils are heavily leached, nutrient-poor, and acidic, favoring the growth of mosses and lichen on the forest floor.  Wide temperature variations are the norm, with long, cold winters and short, warm summers.

Travelling the highways and muddy service roads around Fort McMurray, I struggled to capture the spirit of this land.  Many pictures of low hills, sunset lakes and megamachinery left me unsatisfied.  Fort McMurray was dusty and uninspiring.  My vintage cameras languished in the closet, and I snapped pictures with my Droid and little point-and-shoot, not wanting to waste film.

Larch Grove

All changed when fall arrived, and the dowdy forest donned her party dress and went dancing on the October wind.  Suddenly, poplars painted the hills with broad swathes of brilliant yellow and gold.  Late afternoons became luminous as the setting sun turned glades of poplar to flame-topped candles poised above the darkening forest floor.  Only slightly less brilliant, larch groves, hidden coyly among the spruce, flared into golden prominence.

As October  progressed, the magnificence of the treetops slowly dimmed, and I sadly took my last pictures of the sunlit poplar – only to see the forest floor come to life as it became the humble forest carpet’s chance to party.  As the cascade of color slowly fell from the treetops, the dull carpet of leaves  became a kaleidoscopic array contrasting with the clean gray of fallen logs and complementing the color palette of the low-growing forest

Bunchberry, Linnaeus, and Moss

plants.  The oranges and reds of fall bunchberry blazed against the greens of moss and twin-flower (Linnaea borealis).  The greys of lichen became an important part of the color

Alpine (Bog) Blueberry and Lichen, Engstrom lake, Alberta.

palette, highlighting the orange splashes of alpine blueberry.

Browsing even a limited part of this forest floor, it was difficult to find a bad picture.  Moving close to the ground brought into focus the curved, serrated edges of two leaves sitting

Two Leaves

atop the lines of a cracked grey poplar log.  Moving away to examine the broader scene revealed the mottled silver of  a birch trunk lying beneath a carpet of multicolored leaves.

Fallen Birch and Leaves

The most wondrous part of the boreal forest, however, lies invisible beneath the forest floor.  Mushrooms and other fungi form a prominent part of the forest community, and are frequently seen poking up between the leaves and jutting out of decaying logs and stumps.

Yet mushrooms are only the surface manifestation of an enormous, complex organism living in symbiosis with, and essential to the survival of, each spruce, larch, or poplar.  Each tiny root hair intertwines with complex meshwork of fungal filaments giving the tree

Mushrooms and Moss

enhanced access to water and nutrients:   “… fungal filaments or hyphae have an intimate association with the outside of small roots of trees and greatly assist water and nutrient uptake into the roots of these host plants. ….the fungal hyphae surround the root tips and

Puffballs and Leaves

invade between cells inside roots. These mycorrhizal hyphae are much finer than the root hairs, and greatly increase the surface area available for absorption of nutrients and water from the nutrient-poor soil. In addition, the glove-like covering of mycelium provides

Shelf Fungus on Stump, Fort McMurray Area

physical protection for the delicate root tips and also a barrier to the entry of soil microorganisms. In return, tree roots …. supply essential carbohydrates and amino acids … necessary for growth of the fungal mycelium and production of fungal fruiting bodies, the mushrooms…” (see “The Boreal Forest Ecosystem).  My spare hours are filled with walks, images of the forest floor, and learning about this new world.

Falls slips into winter, snow covers the palette of leaf colours, and I bring back my snowshoes for evening excursions into the forest.  Temperatures drop, and auroras paint the sky (if you can get away from the glare of camp lights).  After a few days of intense cold, the trees are dressed in a rainment of ice crystals that sparkle in my headlamp. On clear nights when the moon is out, I turn off my headlamp and snowshoe by moonlight.

Wapasu, Winter NightWapasu from Snowshoe Trail

Unfortunately, of the thousands of people in the camp, only I and five others experience these evening miracles.  Out on our snowshoes and skis, our lights bob up and down in the distance as we tramp down a gridwork of trails across frozen muskeg.  I regret that so many spend their winter in institutional ugliness while this frozen wonderland waits patiently only a few hundred yards away.  In how many places in the world could I go snowshoeing every evening after work?

Late May brings the beginnings of spring – and that one month that no-one in the north enjoys: breakup.  The snow becomes rotten and wet, and will no longer support my weight.  Water and sloppy slush are everywhere, my snowshoes go home, and roads turn into avenues of clingy clay muck that adds pounds to each foot.

But there is beauty even in this slimy season.  The forest act swiftly as temperatures climb, and soon spots of brilliant yellow appear in the swampy muskeg.  Staff and workers venture out of the building to walk the stark perimeter road and listen to their iPods, but no-one ventures the extra fifty feet to experience what is happening in the surrounding forest.  Patches of yellow quickly grow into huge mounds of sunny yellow marsh marigolds dotting the swamps and marshy poplar groves.  Willow catkins appear, and rushes send up exploratory nubs into the warming air.


In my second year at Beaver River and Syncrude, I get to stand at the edge of the mighty Athabasca River as the ice breaks, and the river’s surface is clogged with ice floes that grind against each other as they slide majestically by the toes of my boots.  Unfortunately, as the flowers come out, so do the bugs, and I am soon fighting off clouds of mosquitoes as I go anywhere near the marshes or forests.

Athabasca River at Break-up, North of Fort McMurray

With summer’s heat, the muskeg slowly dries out enough that it can be explored with a good pair of rubbers.  I marvel as a parade of color moves through the marshes:  alpine blueberries, tiny spikes of white orchids, little white flowers that I never do identify and, later in the

SUNDEWS 01Sundews

summer, tiny succulent strawberries spreading across ugly gravel slopes.  With up to four feet of sphagnum moss as its base and multiple species of moss in mounds between slender spruce spires,, the summer muskeg has more shades of green than I can describe.  This mossy bog is a cidic and nutrient-poor, so patches of carnivorous sundews trap and devour a portion of the abundance of insects.  Between mossy mounds are tiny miniponds, each with its resident frog that has somehow survived the frigid winter months.

BOREAL POND 01Tiny Boreal Muskeg Pond

With my Gortex fedora and tripods, I become a somewhat eccentric character, prowling the marshy edges of the camp.  Security staff question me, but realizing that I am harmless, wave as they go by, stopping occasionally to warn me of a wandering bear and share some of my images.  Fortunately, the head of security is a photographer, he understands my wanderings, and I stop in his office to share my latest images, and occasionally drop off a few prints to decorate their bulletin board.

As summer’s heat intensifies, limestone-topped roads dry out, and dust is everywhere.  Bus drivers inhale clouds of particles as they follow one another through plumes of brown dust, dust masks (largely of cheap and mostly useless type) cover the faces of some drivers, and I begin to research the respiratory effects of limestone dust.  Fortunately, the stuff has a low silica content, and, though definitely not good for the lungs, the sparse data that I find suggests that has a low risk of causing pulmonary fibrosis.  However, one day as I am sitting at my desk, a thought flashes into my mind: “Limestone!  Limestone is a sedimentary rock!  Limestone has fossils!”

FOSSILS 01Crinoid Ossicles and Brachiopod Shells in Roadside Rock

Summer has brought long sunny evenings, and hordes of mosquitoes discourage even brief forays into the woods, so this is timely.  Research acquaints me with the Moosebar Tongue, a huge arm of the prehistoric Arctic Ocean that cut far into North America 100 million years ago, covering Alberta and the prairie provinces with a shallow sea.  The mucky organic ooze and decaying bodies of countless sea creatures created the rich oily deposits that power Alberta’s petroleum industry.  Roads are coated with crushed limestone from the nearby Albian quarry, and my walks soon bring home pocketloads of rocks filled with fossils.  The ocean floor was covered with clam-like brachiopods and the wavy branches of crinoids (sea fans), their delicate arms formed from rows of bobbin-like bony ossicles held together by soft tissue.  These tiny bobbins are scattered plentifully among the brachiopod shells’ delicate wings in the fossils that I find along the roadsides.



When I see heads begin to nod, eyelids droop, and eyes go glassy somewhere between “Risk Assessment” and “Respiratory Safety”,  and even double-bagged coffee loses its effect, I say, “OK, guys and gals!”  “Let’s change subjects for a minute.  What can you tell me about the Moosebar Tongue?”  Blank looks.  “Did you know that the Moosebar Tongue pays your salary?”  Now they know I’ve spent too much time alone in the trailer.  “So let me tell you about the Moosebar Tongue…”  And an image of ancient North America flashes on the screen, and heads come up…

Ten minutes later, we are back on N-95 and N-100 filter masks, but they are awake.

In all of these explorations, I do my best to share my discoveries with my co-workers and students, sending bog flower images to the busy staff who book my flights.  As I work though the orientation material with my classes, I tell my students, “Everybody thinks Wapasu is a boring place.  Listen, you just have to look!  Here’s what’s out there…”  Pretty soon, you can tell my students – they are the ones wandering around the site, looking at the ground and picking up rocks.  When a young ironworker I meet on the road begins to look about and finds a lovely pyrite nodule, I share his delight and go to bed gratified that night.  Not only have I taught them safety and how to know their way around site, I think that I have taught at least one of them to see.


Wapasu Sunset

This is what I found in an ugly camp in the frozen north.  It does not even include the colourful and fascinating people that I met, or the towering tanks that I saw assembled plate by plate, or the giant cranes, or all that I learned of working safely in this harsh and dangerous environment.  I didn’t have time to be depressed – there was too much to learn, and too much to see.  I had a television in every room.  I don’t know if they worked; I never had time to turn them on.

Think about this when you go away to a new site.  What grows just beyond the gravel road?  What can you learn? What’s down that road?  If you really look, there’s no time to be bored.


Cripps, C. C.  “Mycorrhiza.” PNW Plant Disease Management Handbook.

Riesco, I. L. “Root Seeks Fungus For Long-Term Relationship.”  Taiga Rescue network.

University of Alaska, Fairbanks (Fungal Metagenomics Program).  “The Boreal Forest Ecosystem.”

University of Wisconsin, Madison.  “Boreal Forests, Alpine, and Tundra Biomes.”  Online course notes, Department of Botany.

Wikipedia article, “Boreal Forest of Canada.”

Wikipedia article, “Taiga.”