Where the King of Hemlocks grows

Alain Belliveau. Photo: Zack Metcalfe

The necessities of outdoor life filled our canoe. Our boots fairly sloshed (soaked every time we were leapt overboard to portage over rocks, beaver dams, and the simple shallows of August). The intense afternoon sun scattered the clouds, spotlighting Sporting Lake, southeast of Weymouth in the backwoods of Digby County.

Ahead of us was the easiest paddling of the day, its depths presenting few if any hazardous boulders in the red tinted water. In this lake I saw an island, drawing my eyes with supernatural sureness and speaking to a deeply spiritual segment of my rigidly rational mind.

“Is that it?” I asked to the man in the rear of our canoe, pointing.

“That’s it,” he said.

In some ways, this quest was doomed from the start. Finding the oldest tree in the Maritimes is a goal I set in 2015, before the dynamic and complicated nature of our beleaguered woods became clear to me.

None of our trees grow older than the Eastern hemlock, so it stands to reason that our oldest tree would be hiding in those hemlock groves that have dodged the destructive indiscretions of European settlement, and the unrepentant hungers of modern forestry. Precious few still exist, typically lost in webs of regenerating clear-cuts or else deep in the road-free reaches of regional wilderness. Even if you could find such pockets of forest, determining the trees’ ages is tricky.

You need a coring device. When burrowing into a hemlock with the slender shaft of a coring device, it is industry standard to begin 1.3 metres up from the base, roughly chest height. But hemlocks are patient creatures, growing slowly in the shade for 50–100 years, before reaching 1.3 metres tall. So, the first century of a hemlock’s life might not be represented in a core taken 1.3 metres from the ground. What’s more, the heartwood of most hemlocks decays over time. This is an entirely natural and healthy process for the tree but it does mean that decades, even centuries worth of rings disappear in most specimens.

But even with this imperfect data, we’ve discovered astounding seniority. In 2017, I muscled through a regenerating clear-cut near Coolen Lake, Lunenburg County, before stumbling into a hemlock stand as open and stupefying as the Sistine Chapel. There, researcher Colin Gray of the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute cored a tree 422 years old (now 425), which predates European settlement.

Other hemlocks across the province have struggled into the 450 range, and about 10 years ago, botanist Alain Belliveau of Acadia University cored an Eastern hemlock on North Bingay Lake Island (deep in the Tobeatic Wilderness Area), at 466 years (now 476). In all my research, this appears the oldest confirmed core in all the Maritimes. He had two witnesses.

It was Alain who shattered my dreams of finding our oldest tree. Given the inaccuracies of coring, he said, it’s impossible to identify a winner. While visiting an old growth stand in Cape Breton only this July, for example, he had to core seven hemlocks before getting a readable result.

“As much as we want to focus on the age of individual trees, there’s as much to say about the age of forests themselves,” explained Alain.

In his view, the oldest tree in the Maritimes could only be found in forests that have never been logged, burned, or forced to migrate by shifts in climate or ecology. Find our oldest continuous forest, he said, and you can be fairly confident our oldest single tree is somewhere inside. I asked which forest he would nominate and he pointed to the island at the heart of Sporting Lake.

The Sporting Lake Nature Reserve is a small, regulatory entity embedded in the much larger Tobeatic Wilderness Area in southwest Nova Scotia. The island at its centre is a mere 20 hectares, surrounded by 300–400 metres of water on all sides and, by some miracle, spared the intense logging and fires that have ravaged surrounding shores.

Sporting Lake

When we landed that first afternoon, a cathedral of hemlocks confronted us, each a tall, straight, and slender pillar supporting the arboreal architecture of the canopy, arching and spreading in friendly competition for the sunlight that cut through and shocked the forest floor with reds, oranges, and pinks.

When imagining old growth we are conditioned to expect the West Coast, with trees as fat as they are ancient, but Eastern hemlock are different. The oldest are quite often of everyday width, blending in with the masses and cautiously approaching the heavens. There are exceptions, but truly old hemlocks are difficult to spot by size alone. There are more subtle signs of a forest’s age that an expert can spot. For us laymen, they manifest as an undercurrent of awe that swells like a chorus the longer we hold still. The heavy silence of ancient forests is unsettling; your voice very nearly echoes.

Alain has surveyed such hemlock groves for over a decade, professionally and recreationally, and has a keen eye for their eldest trees, even without his coring device. I found the island’s peak, atop one of its many boulders, and watched as Alain scrutinized several of these trees. Some, he said later, were truly old—a few perhaps in excess of 500 years. The forest itself, he explained, has probably persisted on this island, relatively undisturbed, for some 5,000–6,000 years.

“Sporting Lake is a miracle,” he said.

Matt Smith joined us there. He’s head ecologist of Kejimkujik National Park. As we walked he grabbed the branches of young hemlocks and checked the underside of their needles, finding small, white balls of cotton consistently, a sure sign of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA).

This invasive insect was accidentally introduced to Virginia from Asia sometime in the 1950s, and has since killed many billions of hemlocks across the eastern United States. Mortality is very nearly 100%, and the insect is indiscriminate. HWA was found to have infested southern Nova Scotia in 2017, and was discovered more recently on Sporting Lake Island, threatening to do what loggers and fires and climatic change had failed to do for thousands of years: scour this sacred place clean.

Matt Smith

Alain and Matt have both watched hemlock forests die of this affliction, destined perhaps to infest the totality of Nova Scotia, and in a mere decade, take away all of our ancient hemlocks. Matt spoke briefly about the work underway to ready our forests for the assault of HWA, and the remedies being considered to protect special stands like that in Sporting Lake, but optimism is difficult.

“It really does pull on your heartstrings,” said Alain. “Not only is it right in your face, but you feel like you’re losing a part of yourself, too.”

You can’t camp on Sporting Lake Island, so we took to the surrounding shores dominated instead by young maples and pines, pitching our tents under a dark sky preserve, the air clear as a bell and the Milky Way at the top of its form, shooting stars burning across its ebony canvas and reflecting faithfully in the glassy surface of Sporting Lake. We watched on our backs, lying on the frigid white sand of a granite beach. It was difficult not to be grateful for our place in time.

The next morning I returned to Sporting Lake Island alone. By the golden hour light, I admired these hemlocks one last time, knowing that any one of them might be the tree I’d been searching for since 2015, growing here since William Shakespeare was alive, perhaps soon to expire for no good reason. The chorus swelled in me again, the magic of this place playing on my biochemistry, and my mounting grief.

Maybe we will beat back HWA for a while. Maybe we’ll defeat it outright. Maybe we’ll create the conservation conditions necessary for trees to become this old elsewhere.

And maybe we won’t. Maybe in a few years the pilgrimages to Sporting Lake, which stretch at least as far back as the written record, will end, and maybe this place will become just another island, robbed of the riches of natural history.

Paddling here was a privilege. It was hard to leave, knowing that if I ever came back, there may not nothing left to see.

Ira Reinhart-Smith, reclining on a dangling hemlock root.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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