There were five hemlocks growing in close company, dominating a gentle slope of explosive greens and soft moss: tall and wide and straight as arrows, each tipped slightly apart as though to avoid direct competition for sunlight.

One look at their tableau of coexistence would be enough for even a novice to tell that this ongoing compromise had played out over several centuries.

“You see the Coral lichen?” said Mike Lancaster, my guide to this strange slice of deep time. He pointed to the turquoise spindle of growth on the bark of each tree, present from ground level to as high as I could perceive. This peculiar lichen, he explained, is the clearest indicator of ancient trees we have.

And there was more. You could tell an old tree, or at least an old hemlock, from a lack of lowly branches, and from the rough and reddened appearance of old bark. These five had all that and more, a quiet majesty that seemed to bend the air around them, causing my eyes to linger and my breath to deepen. The year previous, Lancaster had cored one of these five, discovering it to be 413 years old, the oldest of his career and in the 13,000-hectare wilderness it was his intention to formally protect.

“It’s one of these five,” he said, consulting the coordinates that had taken us this far, but which were only accurate within the several metre grove these five arboreal beasts represented. “I don’t know which.”

I dared him to core another and after a moment’s pause he retrieved the bore from his waterproof pack and considered his options.

I pointed to the giant standing lowest on the slope, its bark so primeval that it hosted a thin film of iron grey—maybe lichen or maybe something else—looking like the overgrown stone of an Inca temple. Lancaster fit his 6’4″ frame between this tree and a shield of granite and began to core. After a while he grimaced. The heartwood of this tree had become rotten, a healthy and natural process among hemlocks, but a bane to those who core them. He withdrew the core and the deepest few inches were indeed illegible mulch. He counted the intact portion, and I waited.

Mike Lancaster examines a core. Photo: Zack Metcalfe

Mike Lancaster has spent the better part of a decade exploring this Nova Scotian wilderness, known better as the proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area, stretching from Panuke Lake in the west to Big Indian Lake in the east, bordering the Mi’kmaw Forestry Initiative in the north at the Hants County line, and reaching as far south as the St. Margaret’s Bay and Hwy. 103. It is a titanic treasure, much of it abused by decades of forestry, the rest as lovely and lively as anything I have ever seen.

Lancaster has identified over 130 forest stands in the area whose trees exceed 125 years old. Many of those exceed 200 years, a handful exceed 300. Only two trees, after all that time and labour, have broken the 400-year barrier: one to the south of Panuke Lake, cored at 402 years old just this summer and the 413-year-old specimen hiding in this very grove.

He looked up from his counting and invited me to guess. He’s a reserved man in all things, outwardly unreadable, yet here he was smiling, and unable to stop. I knew we had discovered something.

“424,” he said, among the oldest trees in the province. We looked again to the portion of the core which had turned to mulch, wondering how many decades of rings had been lost to decay. After some thought, Mike concluded this tree was at least 430 years old and perhaps 450 or more.

I congratulated him, assuming this discovery to be a quantum leap in his efforts to establish the Ingram River Wilderness Area, a provincial designation he and his employer, the St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association, have sought since 2016 to safeguard the watershed and the natural wealth within.

I insisted he core another of the five ancient trees and he refused. When I pressed him, arguing that a higher number made for a better story, he explained that he was not trying to find the oldest tree in the province, nor compete for the grabbiest headline.

He was in these woods to prove through the careful collection of data that the proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area deserved protection from our provincial government. Its rare Red spruce and hardwood dominant forests, pockets of old growth, innumerable species-at-risk, cultural and historical treasures tangled in backcountry bush, stupendous recreational value to all lovers of nature, and even its regenerating clear cut (filling fast with White spruce and Red maple), are worthy of whatever safeguards are available under provincial law.

When managed separately, these values dwindle to nothing, but together they could endure and renew. He’s proven all this many times over, and would not disturb this grove of giants any more than was absolutely necessary just so he could prove it again.

“I don’t want to be greedy,” he explained

The previous evening, which we’d passed in tents amid a stand of Red spruce, the lullaby babbling of a nearby brook mixing with his baritone, Lancaster said this area was the most heavily used public land in Nova Scotia outside of the national park system. The logging roads which give easy access to this wilderness were busy the day I biked in, with cyclists and off-road vehicles, trucks and cars carrying canoes to favoured launches, and campers aplenty.

Photo: Zack Metcalfe

As part of his efforts to create the Ingram River Wilderness Area, Lancaster has gathered the support of several local businesses that would benefit from protection and an influx of visitors, such as the Bike and Bean, a hopelessly charming bike rental shop and cafe in Upper Tantallon where I secured my wheels.

He also talked about creating a bay-to-bay hiking trail, stretching some 60 km from St. Margaret’s Bay to the Bay of Fundy, bisecting the province. Much of the trail already exists in the Ingram and beyond, and only needs to be connected, an effort which could begin after protection becomes official.

He’s been in conversations with the provincial government for ages and only this year concluded an extensive inventory of the region’s biodiversity in partnership with the relevant government departments. He expects the protection of the Ingram to be opened up for public comment this fall (for updates, see his website), and is counting on robust support from across Nova Scotia.

The proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area is a big place, its exact dimensions having changed dramatically with shifting discoveries and political landscapes. The largest unprotected old growth forest Lancaster is aware of in the province grows to the west. Far to the north on portage routes are the remains of an alligator tugboat, an amphibious vehicle last used in the logging industry perhaps a century ago.

Source: St Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association

The St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association has spent over $100,000 restoring salmon habitat along the Ingram River in the past three years alone, and even without its fish, is a waterway with rapids both inviting and fierce. And to the southeast is the front country, where day-use proliferates only a 30-minute drive from Halifax, and where I spent the entirety of my visit.

The old grove that yielded two ancient trees was on an unnamed island in a place called Island Lake, a paddle as haunting as it was breathtaking in the heavy fog, its surrounding trees seeming taller than they should have been, casting mountainous silhouettes in the haze and giving the impression of wilderness far removed, all accessible within an hour of Hwy. 103 to anyone with canoe and curiosity.

With the wisdom of government and the vocal support of Nova Scotians this special place might soon be rescued. After that, there will be plenty of time to see for yourself what waits beyond the fog.

Update: Public consultation for protection of the proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area is now underway. Learn more here.

Editor’s Note: Tourism Nova Scotia financially supported the writing of this post; it did not select the topic or approve the article’s content.

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