The Forest at Pathfinder Island

Forester's Report

Recovering forest - Pathfinder and Source Lake lie in a Nature Reserve Zone in Algonquin, protected from future logging but still maturing after generations of cutting and fire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In October, former AFA forester Jack Mihell visited the Island with Algonquin Eco-Watch Director Mike Wilton. Jack's tour of the Island's forest resulted in this report. The good news: our forest is healthy and diverse. Jack recommends we continue to control foot traffic paths and set aside no-travel zones in Stalker Park. The next step will be to transplant some healthy young trees into these zones, so they can shade future generations. 

The Report by Jack Mihell

On October 11, 2002 Algonquin Ecowatch members Mike Wilton, Jack Mihell and Liz Heale visited the large island within Source Lake, Algonquin Park, hosting Camp Pathfinder. My direction, as a 36-year experienced Forester, was to evaluate and discuss on-site the general health of the forest, how it's reacting to almost 90 consecutive years of camper use, regeneration possibilities, and a prediction of what the forest will look like in the long term with and without the camp's attempts at modification.

Owner Mike Sladden and staff indicated their commitment to maintain the forest condition compatible with the natural environment, and to make improvements wherever possible for the benefit of future generations.

I'll try herewith to summarize our on-site discussion by grouping the forest into two categories; A) the area around the camp buildings/tent locations proper, and B) the rest of the island.

A) It is here, of course, where the concentrated traffic occurs, having the highest potential negative impact on young vegetation establishment and growth. It is here, also obvious, where the contour of the shoreline dips down to the lake, having the highest potential negative impact for erosion by continuous travel patterns. Thirdly, it's here where the health of each individual tree must be evaluated from the standpoint of safety to campers and camp buildings.

This area was open until the 1940's when the camp owners planted red, jack and scotch pine trees, with excellent results. Later, travelways were established with logs traversing the contours to provide terracing and erosion control. Again, with excellent results. Later still, islands were formed in a random pattern with natural rock retaining edges at the low points. These are basically no-travel zones. A few of them have been planted with small native conifers. This practical approach to restricting travel, controlling erosion and setting-up islands for regeneration is exactly what we recommended for Camp Northway last month.

A great amount of sunlight filters through red, jack and scotch pines (especially the latter two) as compared to white pine, cedar and hemlock. This is evident at Pathfinder as hardwood shrub species, such as hazel and mountain ash, are flourishing, especially in openings created by removal of danger trees. White birch adds to the overstory component and balsam regeneration is prolific in localities.

In summary, this diverse forest is healthy, the overall appearance of the area is pleasing and the organization of travel and non-travel zones is working well.

There is little I can suggest for the long term benefit other that to continue what is now being done. Applying wood chips on trails appears to be controlling erosion quite well and I encourage its continuation. There is ample material in the many rotting windfalls inland. The annual requirement for maintenance should be met if campers collect a garbage bag each during his stay.

Planting conifers within the established islands will certainly maintain the long-term appearance and protection around the camp. Larger trees, around three feet tall, could be transplanted from a nearby location in dormant seasons, mid May to leaf-out and mid September to freeze-up. Care should be taken to get a good root mass. If a ball of soil can be transplanted with the roots, survival is better. A few grains of NKP-type fertilizer placed in the hole at time of planting aids survival as well. Ample water is the key element to survival - experience persons wait until a rainy day to plant larger trees, unless a pump is available with a long garden hose to reach the planting sites.

The choice of tree for each exact location should be tailored to the amount of sunlight reaching it during the growing season (mid May to end of August, 9AM to 6PM). Hemlock will survive at low light levels down to 20%, but do best at 50-70%. White pine can grow down to 30% and is best between 50-70%. Cedar and balsam are between hemlock and white pine. Spruce likes 70% or more. Red and jack pine need almost full sunlight, as does birch. Scotch pine isn't native to Algonquin and the thinking now in the naturalist community is not to replant and perpetuate non-native species.

To transplant a tree into 50% shade, pick one already growing in 50% shade, as it will be "acclimatized" to that condition.

Campers will not be able to participate in the planting process, but could water and care for "their" tree daily. (This was also suggested for Northway, only to learn a month later that Pathfinder had already implemented this idea!)

The opening in the forest canopy near the shoreline by the canoe dock could be planted by purchased bare-root, 3 year old (14-18 inch tall) red pines. There is little expected competition here by hardwood shrubs and the pine should survive well and grow quickly. Check weekly during the first three years to make certain grasses and blackberry bushes don't crowd the young trees.

B) The rest of the island is in a natural state, other than pathways, firepits, activity areas, and sporadic locations of red pine planted some 60 years ago. All other species are in an overmature state. There does not seem to have been a wildfire or logging disturbance for at least a century or more. The island's many mature balsam were killed by spruce budworm infestation around 35 years ago and are now in the "down woody debris" category of vegetation. Many other overmature conifers are succumbing to windfall. There is no shortage of chip material for travel areas around the camp and downed cedars could replace, as needed, aging balsam logs used in terracing. An excellent diversity of forest flora exists, typical of an overmature conifer forest. Mainly balsam, red maple and hardwood shrub regeneration is succeeding. Without a major disturbance, the long term situation will probably stay the same: individual death and natural replacement by shade tolerant species. This non-manicured condition is not adverse in the camp setting. It fits nicely in with the designated wilderness zone just north of Source Lake, and is representative of the forest condition campers encounter on canoe trips just a few feet off portage trails. Compass orientation in such a forest better prepares a wildness camper than training in a manicured one.

Of top priority here is determining the health of each individual used in activities, and those along pathways and adjacent to activities. The camp staff are well aware of this. At Erik's suggestion we tested by an "increment borer" a large, healthy-looking (but center rotten) yellow birch. While it will probably remain solid for a decade or so more, Erik advised the thinking is to use man-made structures in the future replacement instead of mature/overmature trees.

In summary, I feel the forest around Camp Pathfinder is in good hands. The foresight 60 years ago is being continued now, and I have no doubt will carry on to benefit future generations of campers.

Jack Mihell, Forester

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