Ontario park preserves forest, critters, hyperbole

By Stephen Jermanok, Globe Correspondent | May 6, 2007

WABAKIMI PROVINCIAL PARK, Ontario — It wasn’t until the canoes were strapped to a float plane and we started to rise above the water, that I finally understood the extent of the wilderness here.

Sure, I had heard the hyperbole: that this thumbprint in northwestern Ontario was more than twice the size of those beloved canoeing routes Ontario’s Quetico and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters combined; that it encompasses almost 5 million acres, a number few can grasp until they’re peering out a plane window onto uninterrupted forest for the duration of an hour long flight; that there are no roads, no houses, no boats, no humans, no signs of civilization.

That is, until we land in the frontier town of Armstrong, where timber trucks careen down logging roads and clear-cutting is ubiquitous. The smoke billowing from the pulp mills that border Lake Superior in the region’s largest city, Thunder Bay, remind you that paper rules this roost. Yet, in something of a miracle, a former Yank named Bruce Hyer has kept the number one industry away from Wabakimi these past three decades and helped preserve this mega-slice of greenery.

Within minutes of picking up me and my buddy Jeff Katz at Thunder Bay International Airport , Hyer, 58, starts telling us about his life and it is a long story that continues until we run out of road in Armstrong three hours later. The man bubbles over with confidence, and as we pass a brown bear rambling down the road, I begin to think that Hyer, a born outdoorsman, resembles the animal with his girth, grit, and unwavering sensibility.

At 5 the next morning, we meet the rest of our group: Hyer’s son Michael, 10, and his friend Charlie Faust with his teenaged son, Julien. There are only three ways into Wabakimi: by canoe, sea plane, or Canadian National Railroad. We’re up early to catch the train as it makes its western run from Toronto to Vancouver. As aboriginal Canadians pour out of the passenger compartment, we load the train with our three canoes, kegs of food, tents, sleeping bags, and backpacks full of warm clothes. It’s early autumn, and as the sky turns red and orange with the morning sun, we see frost on the leaves of the fog- shrouded forest as the train chugs onward.

“That’s Shawanabis Lake , where I had my first log cabin,” says Hyer, pointing to a desolate waterway. It was in 1976 that the budding naturalist moved to Ontario, having left his position in the Connecticut state government regulating pesticides. Looking at an Ontario map, he couldn’t believe that this large swath of wilderness existed and was so easily accessible from the US Midwest. He was determined not only to live off the land, but also to protect every ounce of green space available, along with the woodland caribou, bear, moose, and other critters that call this part of North America home. Fighting tooth and nail with paper companies and making countless trips to the provincial government in Toronto, Hyer prevailed, and in 1983, Wabakimi became a small preserve. That wasn’t good enough for Hyer, and he kept at it. So 14 years later, Wabakimi expanded its area sixfold and became a huge wilderness park

One hour into our ride, we’re deposited at a former Hudson Bay outpost — for all practical purposes, in the middle of nowhere, and now a historic ghost town. Hyer has a remote outpost here where Yankee sports can go and catch walleyes and huge pike until their arm gets sore. We throw the gear in our canoes, pair up, and head north.. We would not see another human until the plane came back to pick us up.

“We only get about 600 permit requests a summer, and there’s, what , about 3,000 miles of passable waterways. You do the math,” Hyer chuckles, adding that most people in Thunder Bay don’t even know about Wabakimi.

All the more reason to hire a guide like Hyer who can help navigate the best route. We decide on a mix of white water, quiet water, and hooking the fish they call “Midwestern lobster,” walleye. We would tackle the Allanwater for four days, forging 21 rapids, and end at a spot where the floatplane can land. The whole trip is an insignificant two inches on the Wabakimi map Hyer carries.

The sound of rushing water would accompany us most of the trip. Jeff and I would do our best to stay with the current and avoid bouncing into rocks at the last possible moment. Hyer, on the other hand, was a skilled natural, effortlessly guiding his canoe through the oversized boulders. His son, Michael, is not far behind in the skills and confidence department.

We stopped at a previously unused potential  campsite, the potential of which was only obvious to Hyer for all the spindly jack pines that had tumbled over. That didn’t stop Hyer from chopping away at the remains, tossing trunks aside like kindling to unveil a layer of thick moss. One night’s sleep on this soft padding, and I realized that Mother Nature’s finest mattress could rival any king-size bed at a Four Seasons resort. While we set up camp, Jeff and Michael grabbed fishing poles and returned in minutes with dinner: beautiful walleyes, yellow undersides speckled with green. Hyer filleted them and Charlie sprinkled some batter on the fillets to grill them over the open fire. Minutes later, we had some of the sweetest fish I’ve ever tasted.

The gleaming white head of a bald eagle greeted us the next morning from high atop a black spruce. As the river split around an island, Hyer instructed Jeff and me to head quietly out on our own. Listening to the rhythm of our stroke, we soon spotted a furry head skimming the water’s surface. It was the first of many minks and beavers we would spot, a reminder that we were indeed on part of a legendary fur trade route. Charlie, a specialist on aborigine culture with Canada’s Ministry of National Resources, noted that natives still hunt for pelts, but at $50 for a beaver skin, it’s a struggle to make a living.

On our last day we left the river early to camp and fish from atop a high bluff. Jeff and I both hooked two walleyes each the size of our forearms. Hyer cooked the feast and afterward, bellies far too full, we were content to lie back on the rocky perch and enjoy the twinkling stars in the night sky. The Big Dipper was so clear you felt like you could snag it. Shooting stars and slower moving satellites were soon lost in the colossal Milky Way.

Out of nowhere, a ribbon of green appeared on the horizon. Then a ray of white light shot upward, so bright it felt as if we were watching a nighttime concert above the Hollywood Bowl. Soon the Milky Way was hidden by a wavy curtain of color called the northern lights.

This is all right, I said out loud. Hyer’s done real good.

Stephen Jermanok, a freelance writer in Newton and author of “New England Seacoast Adventures ” (Countryman, 2002), can be reached at farandaway@ comcast.net.