Chris Miller walks past the rustling leaves where he fell in love with nature.
And saw it almost destroyed.
A wild autumn wind whips the trees. And sunshine feathers the forest, where he stops and points to a memory: the time a snowy owl soared over his head, stopped, and stared.
Then he bends and traces a heartbreak: the rusty sludge marks left on rocks in a dried-up brook after chainsaws invaded his childhood sanctuary.
This is the place he collected bottle caps, learned the “rhythms” of seasons, walked to school about 4,000 times from primary to Grade 9, including the winter morning he was an hour late watching the owl as snowflakes danced and draped the green.
“It left an impression on me,” says the long-time conservationist about what happened in “the Buggy,” woods near his Rockingham home that construction crews partially cut down to build a ballfield.
“This was a wilderness as big as I could imagine…and then one day you hear the chainsaw and then you come back the next day and it’s closer and it’s closer and then you start to see holes in the woods and as a kid it was heartbreaking… I remember not wanting to lose this place.”
Since then, he’s watched caribou roam the wilds of Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, been almost within arm’s length of icebergs, stood in old Nova Scotian forests that felt like cathedrals.
Championed and helped save hundreds of other places, big and small. His “passion” started here, says the 41-year-old Haligonian, national conservation biologist for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), a charity dedicated to protecting public land and water. And it grew just a few kilometres away on a much larger swath of land (Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area) that he and others recently helped protect from proposed development.
In one way or another, Miller’s been involved in many of the most significant land conservation campaigns in Nova Scotia for close to two decades. He lobbied against oil exploration and pushed for national park status on Sable Island. He successfully fought a government plan to allow gold exploration on the Jim Campbells Barren in Cape Breton Highlands. He helped choose, and champion, 220 designated protected wilderness areas approved by the province.
He’s a “persistent voice” and passionate advocate for the wilderness, says Bonnie Sutherland, executive director of Nova Scotia Nature Trust. She’s sought Miller’s expertise on several projects. “Everything he does he brings that enthusiasm and passion that is just clearly a love for wild spaces that kind of infects everybody,” she says. “So [he has] this great, almost childlike-wonder-type attribute that I think makes such a big difference.”
His love for the almost 1,800-hectare Birch Cove area (“one of my favourite places”) also started in childhood.
He canoed and skated and picked blueberries there with his family when he was a boy. He camped and swam there as a teenager.
As an adult, he goes back to hike and canoe or show it off to others.
“That is one issue he has been incredibly persistent on,” says Sutherland, noting his diplomacy and savvy lobbying skills. “I can remember him taking me out on a hike there in my very first days with the nature trust probably 20 years ago. Chris was starting already to see that as a priority. So way before anyone else was talking about it, he was already saying ‘this is a really, really special place that needs to be protected.’”
Miller, the Ecology Action Centre, and many others worked together to get the province to officially designate those public lands as a protected wilderness area in 2009.
But they all had to fight, and fight fiercely, again this summer when HRM Council considered allowing a subdivision on a privately owned section it had previously promised to buy and make into a wilderness park.
As word of the plan spread, outraged advocates organized meetings or met with councillors or launched a massive letter-writing campaign that eventually stopped the development. Miller, who lobbied politicians behind the scenes, was also a persistent voice on Twitter, tweeting about it hundreds of times and at one point apologizing to his non-Nova Scotian followers for the output.
He smiles now, relieved the immediate threat is over, thanks he says to the more than 1,420 opponents who sent letters to Council—a “heartwarming” response for this “special” place of “peace and solitude” and “fun” that he loves.
“I think we’re going to have to go [there],” he says now, leaving the Buggy and sliding into his car for a quick drive to the area.
Along the way, he talks about everything from clearcutting to caribou. Miller, who has a PhD in biology, is working to preserve large stretches of land, and the endangered caribou living there, in both Newfoundland and Saskatchewan. He hopes the animals don’t disappear there as they have in Nova Scotia.
He praises Nova Scotia’s government for creating 220 new parks and protected areas—a quarter million hectares, two-thirds officially designated since 2013.
But he says it’s going backwards in its forestry policy, allowing “too much clearcutting” which is increasingly coming right up to the borders of protected areas—“lifeboats on the landscape until we figure out a way not to mess up the world so much.”
He’ll be watching the forestry issue closely, while holding the city to its promise to buy those private Birch Cove lands and create a wilderness park.
As he steps out of his car and into the woods from an obscure entrance behind Kent Building Supplies on Chain Lake Drive, he can already envision the wilderness park’s easier access to the coves, trails, lakes, and lagoons he knows so well.
“You know, I want to be an old man out here someday and just sit on a rock,” he says, moving through the thicket, up and down rugged paths to a granite platform and a “spectacular” view of Susies Lake. “Welcome to downtown Halifax,” he laughs, high above a tapestry of green and a lake of cobalt blue. “Isn’t that extraordinary? I never get tired of it. It just blows me away every time.”
A few days later, he dips his paddle in Susies Lake, which leads into eight other lakes on a continuous canoe loop. He points out the “erratics” (massive, 10,000-year-old boulders formed by glaciers). He passes rock islands. He pulls into a sheltered lagoon by a granite outcrop where he used to camp and swim.
“Safe harbour,” he smiles, pointing out the tiny asters, reindeer moss, and cranberries people pick for Thanksgiving.
The wind picks up as he moves into Quarry Lake and a rock-bordered cove that turns to ice in winter—remembering the time his father showed up at school with skates and they spent the day here.
“I find when you are canoeing, the wilderness just kind of unfolds in front of you as you go from one lake to the next or from one cove to the next,” he says. “You just see these little hidden treasures around every corner.”
White caps curl now on little waves and Miller thinks it’s time to turn back.
He carefully edges past rocks, paddles sideways, meanders backwards over shallow grasses. Paddles faster through a 50-kilometre-an-hour wind into deeper water. Then puts down his paddle and looks ahead, for a moment.
“We’ll let the wind take us.”