The Fight to Keep the Wilderness Wild


The Fight to Keep the Wilderness Wild


The Fight to Keep the Wilderness Wild


In Quetico Park a canoeist can sometimes slap a moose on the rump with his paddle. And deep in its lake-and-forest fastness he can forget the civilized world and its worries. Trying to keel) this piece of nature in the raw, an ardent band of wilderness lovers are fighting off the speedboats, (lance halls and hamburger stands


LAST August a millionaire manufacturer and family from Wichita, Kan., drove into the backwoods hamlet of Winton in northern Minnesota, unloaded several battered packsacks into canoes, and sent their chauffeur and Cadillac home. Then they disappeared for a month in the rugged and picturesque lakeland of northwestern Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, a hop skip across the border.

They packed canoes, tents, sleeping bags and a thirty-day grub supply across scores of portages snarled with boulders and fallen trees. They came out calloused, shaggy and browner than the hermit thrushes that sing from Quetico’s spruce tangles.

“It’s the only way I can have a real vacation,” the industrialist told me. “Even aircraft can’t find me once I get in there. No newspapers or summer cottages closer than fifty miles; just lakes and trout and canoes. It’s the last real wilderness canoe country on the continent that is easily accessible. I sure hope it stays that way.”

Hundreds of others like him who travel every sum/ner on Quetico’s network of canoe routes are concerned, too, fearing that the primitive, unscarred Quetico they love will be invaded by juke

boxes, hot-dog stands, summer cottages, super highways and gasoline pumps.

Established as a provincial park in 1909, Quetico’s two thousand square miles of nature in the raw, perched on the international boundary one hundred miles west of Fort William, are now being held under lock and key by Ontario’s Department of Lands and Forests. Resorts and cottages are kept out. Hydro power developers are shooed away. Some logging is permitted, but the department insists that timber on shorelines and islands be left untouched. These restrictions, however, exist only on a temporary basis through an order-in-council which has to be renewed each year. Wilderness lovers like myself want Quetico to stay untouched forever and we are trying to get permanent protective legislation passed.

Today Quetico is still isolated. On the Canadian side there isn’t a road closer than fifty miles. Yet this has not prevented the resort and summer cottage planners from casting covetous glances at the park’s trout-filled lakes and majestic stands of 300-year-old pines. Each year the number of applications for Quetico building sites mounts higher. The applications are refused and filed,

the applicants notified that Quetico, for the time being, is closed to any commercial or summer home development.

Will the Ontario authorities be able to stave off the pressure when highways get closer? We may soon know for the Department of Highways is now planning a road from Fort William to Fort Frances that will either pass through Quetico Park or skirt its northern boundary. This will bring the world of tourist lodges, dance halls and speedboats to Quetico’s doorstep.

Several times the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce, representing Kenora, Fort William, Port Arthur, Fort Frances and a number of other adjacent towns, have passed resolutions urging the government to give first consideration to war veterans when Quetico is opened to resort leases. They take it for granted that when the park becomes accessible by highway it will be opened to tourist development.

“It will make the finest resort country on the continent,” Bert Forsberg, president of the Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce, told me last summer. And it would. That’s what has us wilderness lovers worried.

I have paddled Quetico’s shimmering waterways and slogged across its rocky tangled portages. I’ve slept on the pine-needle mat of its forest floor beside rumbling waterfalls. I have experienced the restful soul-cleansing sense of escape that only the wilderness traveler can know. I love Quetico —the raw and rough Quetico that far-sighted authorities have so far seen fit to preserve. I hope my grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will be able to know and love the wild untracked Quetico which I can know today. We owe them at least one unspoiled fragment of the primitive midcontinental America that is now all but gone.

Political Guns Are Blazing

But others don’t see it that way. Willard Price, secretary of the Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce, says: “Everyone is not strong enough to lug canoes and tents across half a dozen portages to reach their fishing. Yet they have just as much right to fish in Quetico as anyone else. They can’t do it unless we provide them with roads and lodges for accommodation.”

I’d like to point out in answer that there are thousands of lakes with roads and lodges. There are few accessible unspoiled wilderness sections remaining where the true lover of wild country can see the Canada which the first explorers saw.

A 25-year war to keep Quetico as our last untouched wilderness is entering its final battle. Spearheading a hands-off-Quetico crusade is a group which calls itself the Canadian QueticoSuperior Committee (chairman: Vincent Massey), and backing it up are agencies like the Izaak Walton League, Canadian and American Legions, Federation of Ontario Naturalists, Wilderness Society, and others. Political guns are blazing in Washington and Ottawa as well as on the doorsteps of Toronto’s Queen’s Park, for the Quetico battle has become the deciding bout of a much grander campaign to establish an international wilderness forest straddling both sides of the border as a living memorial to Canadians and Americans who fought side by side in two world wars, and are now fighting side by side again.

It all started 40 years ago when W. A. Preston, MP for Ontario’s Rainy Lake, worked himself and a lot of others into a huff over the inroads of American poachers in northwestern Ontario’s border country. They stamped out the poaching by turning the most vulnerable area into a provincial park. They called it “Quetico”—backwoods French for “quest for the coast”—since it was this picturesque country through which explorers paddled in their quest for the western sea.

Woods-wise President Theodore Roosevelt recognized that Quetico was only half a loaf until the U. S. chipped in and set aside a corresponding area on its side. So he established the Superior National Forest, roughly corresponding in size to Quetico, in adjoining northern Minnesota.

Then the battle for their preservation began.

When the Model T came rattling into the lives of millions of Americans there was a great cry for more roads. U. S. state and federal highway departments plotted a network of highways for the Superior forest. But the wilderness defenders protested to Washington and road-builders were told to lay off. The Quetico-Superior country had weathered its first storm.

In 1925 Minnesota’s power and timber tycoon, E. W. Backus, laid before the Canadian and U. S. governments a gigantic power-development scheme which would include seven great dams along the Quetico-Superior’s border lakes and rivers. The project would have raised levels of some lakes eighty feet, submerged scores of islands and waterfalls, left thousands of miles of shoreline a morass of stagnant water and stark dead trees. An angry team of objectors, led by Arthur Hawkes, Winnipeg and Toronto newspaperman, and Ernest Ober-

holtzer, of Rainy Lake, fought the powerful Backus, finally right through to the International Joint Commission.

Before the commission. Backus talked eloquently of towns and great industries his project would create. He pleaded, almost in tears, for permission to crown a lifetime of industry-building with this last great enterprise. Then the wilderness-lovers testified. Men like Hawkes talked quietly of 300-year-old pines, of portages, the pungent scent of campfires and of moose that came down to lonely boggy bays in the crimson light of evening. The commission turned down +he Backus application.

Hawkes and his victorious pals knew the QueticoSuperior wilderness would continue to be threatened with commercial exploitation until governments in Canada and U. S. agreed to a permanent joint plan of preservation. They began a campaign urging that the whole area

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The Fight to Keep the Wilderness Wild

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be set aside as an internationally controlled forest for the recreation of future Canadians and Americans. The idea quickly won support in both countries.

In 1929 the Canadian Legion suggested it be a monument to Canadians and Americans who fought in World War I. The American Legion immediately endorsed the plan. Awaiting government sanction that would make it a reality, it became named the International Peace Memorial Forest.

Lumber and pulp magnates and resort owners could see no sense to padlocking the area as permanent wilderness—“Just because,” as Backus put it, “a lot of wiry young bucks like to get in there and paddle canoes.” They fought the proposal. It became a political football. But the U. S. Forest Service and the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests agreed tentatively to keep resorts and roads out and restrict logging. But none of the governments involved would commit itself to a permanent policy.

Then, before the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the Quetico-Superior Committee to work with government agencies toward realization of the old international forest ideal. And, at the end of the war, a Canadian Quetico - Superior Committee was organized to promote the international wilderness idea here (among its members: Leonard W.

Brockington, Gen. H. D. G. Crerar, Prof. J. R. Dymond, B. K. Sandwell, Maj. Clifford Sifton, E. P. Taylor).

In 1944 the Ontario and Minnesota Regions again endorsed the peace forest plan, in the names of veterans of the two wars. In 1948 the national convention of the American Legion passed a resolution urging that the present temporary policy be made permanent through an international treaty. That year the Canadian and U. S. Quetico-Superior Committees drafted a proposed treaty which has been approved by the U. S. State Department. Copies were requested and obtained by Canada’s Department of External Affairs and Ontario’s Department of Lands and Forests, but neither federal nor provincial government has yet said definitely what it thinks of the idea.

We Were Foreigners in Canada

Meanwhile the wilderness status of the area, particularly in Quetico, the Canadian half, hangs by a thread.

The treaty, its supporters say, would not bottle up the area’s natural resources. It would merely require that the resources be used under a plan which would preserve recreational values. Logging, for instance, would not be allowed along waterways where it would be an eyesore to canoeists seeking wilderness terrain, but logging could still go on in vast sections away from canoe routes.

From municipal officials in northwestern Ontario I have heard complaints that Americans are getting too much free use of Quetico Park now; an international agreement, they fear, might open it even more to Americans. There are roads and a dozen outfitting points in Minnesota within a few hours’ canoe paddle of Quetico’s southern border. Canadians, on the other hand, can now reach the park only by a rail line which skirts its northern edge. Only three Canadian outfitters derive revenue by renting canoes and camping equipment for use in the park.

District Forester George Delahey at Fort Frances told me that about six thousand campers per summer get travel permits to enter Quetico, that ninety-five per cent of these are Americans who spend all their outfitting costs in Minnesota, then cross the border and spend two weeks in Quetico. For which Canada receives a $5.50 fishing license fee from each.

Last summer I traveled in Quetico with three other Canadians, Dr. Carl Atwood, of the University of Toronto, John Mitchele, secretary of Toronto Anglers’ and Hunters’ Association, and Peter Fessenden, ardent Toronto angler. When our guide introduced us to passing canoe parties as Canadians, invariably eyebrows were raised. We were Canadians on Canadian soil, yet in Quetico we were the foreigners.

The Quetico-Superior country, roughly comprising the Rainy River watershed, is by nature and geography a unit. The international boundary which cuts it in half is a political accident. Yet, if either side lets its wilderness area go, the recreational value of the other remaining wilderness would be seriously affected. For this reason the treaty, approved now in the U. S. and awaiting either rejection or approval from Canada, asks each country to guarantee the preservation of its half for the benefit of the other. Each country would still be boss in its own half; the treaty would merely be a bulwark for all time against those who would sacrifice one of the last fragments of primitive North America for dollars.

No-Man Was The Fourth

The wilderness lovers, when they defend their case, are at a disadvantage. Lumbermen and tourist promoters can talk a language of dollars and cents. We can talk only of intangible things, of ancient pines which saw the first explorers pass, of portage trails where I have thrilled at the thought that my feet are scuffing the same rocks scuffed by the moccasins of fur-trade voyageurs 200 years ago. For these borderland lakes and rivers were the highway down which came the first wealth of the continent to the fur markets of the east. Here, unchanged, are portages trod by explorers La Verendrye, Alexander Henry, Alexander Mackenzie. America’s pathfinders. Here on rock cliffs I have seen ancient Indian paintings— no one knows how old—and a power dam or two could submerge them all. To the modern canoeist paddling and portaging these same trails, living the strenuous life of the voyageur again, comes a thrill that money cannot measure.

Geologically, this land is the ridge pole of the continent. Its Precambrian rock, worn smooth by ice-age glaciers, cracked by frosts of a million winters, are the oldest things on earth man’s eyes can look upon. The last glacier receded, leaving it so gouged and wrinkled that at least forty per cent of its surface is covered by lakes and connecting streams. There are heights of land here where a camper throwing out his dishwater might see it trickle off in three directions—one stream heading for the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, another for Hudson Bay and the Arctic, the third for Lake Superior and the Atlantic. I heard one guide boast he could stand in one spot and spit into the Caribbean, the Arctic and Atlantic.

This maze of waterways makes Quetico-Superior the canoeist’s paradise. I paddled through it last summer for two weeks, averaging four or five portages a day, but not once did we portage farther than a mile before another lake or river appeared through

the tangle of trees and rocks ahead.

Flying over Quetico in a government plane, Chief Ranger Bert Parker drew my attention to a chain of four lakes in the southeast corner. “They named the first two Thatman and Thisman Lakes,” Parker said. “They came to the third one and named it Otherman Lake. The fourth one had them stumped. Finally they had to call it No-Man Lake.” In Minnesota, mapmakers showed more imagination: Flowing into Lake Superior is a Prohibition Creek—it’s usually dry; and a Temperance River—the only one without a bar at its mouth.

The international boundary zigs and zags around so many islands and promontories that half the time no one is sure where it is supposed to be. One Minnesota lumber man paid taxes for twenty years—more than $300,000— on a point of land along the border. Ontario officials discovered the area didn’t belong to him or Minnesota either; it was Ontario crown land. He sued Minnesota to get his tax money back, couldn’t collect because he had never disputed the state tax bills.

Waterways so twisted that even forest assessors get lost on their own maps mean only one thing, we wilderness lovers claim. This country was custom-built for canoes. It’s not only the most beautiful canoe country left, it’s practically the last. If the QueticoSuperior wilderness is lost it will not be possible to move northward and find another.

As our pancakes sizzled on the griddle one morning Sig Olson, Izaak Walton League forest ecologist, explained: “People think Canada still has plenty of untouched wilderness in the north. In a way, it has; but it is sub-arctic wilderness of endless muskeg and stunted trees. Quetico is big-timber country. This is the typical midcontinental wilderness, and there’s precious little of it left.”

No Dance Tunes for the Deer

Who are the wilderness lovers? I’ll try to explain this way:

To many resort builders and industrialists it is a criminal waste to fence off' forest land and keep all forms of mechanical travel out. “Only a handful of poets and naturalists who have gone off the deep end in their nature-loving will then make use of it,” one argued. In answer, we say that more and more vacationers are growing sick of plush resorts with indoor plumbing and phony fireplaces. They are heading for wilderness solitudes where fish come big, where a man can experience the bracing lift that comes when one is thrown on one’s own resources with only a canoe, a box of matches and a few packets of simple foods. Young Canada especially, we feel, is returning to the canoe.

Ontario’s Lands and Forests Department now has 65 commercial youth camps registered. All of them sponsor canoe trips and teach canoeing as a main part of their woodcraft program. Appreciation of the outdoors is growing like a rolling snowball. Associations like the Federation of Ontario Naturalists and Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters have trebled their memberships in the years since the war.

Advocates of commercialization sometimes say they cannot understand why the canoeing fraternity gets so disturbed over the prospect of a few roads and tourist lodges. Put in roads and lodges, they suggest, let more people in—the country will still be as beautiful as ever. We agree the superficial beauty would remain, but that’s all. Resorts would mean concentrations of fishermen, outboard motors, aircraft, a portable radio on every

beach where now only deer come down to drink. The fish would soon disappear —in iced cartons by air express. The moose, wolf and beaver would leave. Only the trees would remain—if the loggers could be kept out.

The canoeist, like the Indian before him, fishes only for his cooking fire. You don’t carry boxes of ice across portages. The resort patron rarely sees more of a moose than its head and antlers on a lodge wall. The wilderness camper, slipping silently along by canoe, sometimes gets close enough to a browsing bull whose head is under water to give him a cordial whack on the rump with his sprucewood paddle. The tourist lodge roomer may have a bearskin rug beside his bed. The canoeist will hear bear grunting about his tent at night and he will remember with relief that he hung his food packs safe and high before he wormed into his sleeping bag. These things spell the difference between just another picturesque backwoods resort area and real wilderness.

Ever Been to Kahshahpiwi?

When you reach the end of the day’s sixth or eighth portage with a pack so heavy you swear you must be leaving tracks an inch deep in the rocks behind, there is no kidding yourself that it isn’t hard work. Yet with it, too, is a peculiar rest and peace. You have recaptured the joy of simple living. Suddenly a thing like the last egg you are saving for breakfast pancakes becomes more important than all the shoe polish and neckties in Canada.

Some people go to art galleries and symphonies to satisfy their cultural appetites. Others of us get the same thing by throwing our sleeping bags on the duff beneath the trees in some distant spot that man has left alone.

Far back in Quetico Park is a hidden emerald lake where the only sound is the slap of a beaver’s tail and the whistle of circling osprey. Maps call it Lake Kahshahpiwi. There is a campsite there, roofed by plumelike branches of red pines which were already sturdy trees 200 years ago when red-toqued coureur de bois paddled past. On a log table stands a coffee tin containing ten notes left there during the past three years by passing campers. The notes are all practically the same -—tributes to the campsite’s beauty, please that it be left clean for campers who follow. They indicate that probably fewer than fifty persons have looked upon Lake Kahshahpiwi in the last three years.

Should we push a road through and put half a dozen lodges on Lake Kahshahpiwi so that more people can make use of it, as we have done with thousands of other wilderness lakes that are wilderness lakes no longer?

Gus Walski, a Quetico bush guide, isn’t often articulate but sometimes when he talks of canoe trails, camps and fishing his backwoods philosophy sprouts a sound idea. Says Gus: “If they do that to Lake Kahshahpiwi we should make ’em burn down all the art galleries and put dance halls in their place. I ask you now—ain’t it just the same?” -k


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