Putting conservation on the map

As told to Conor Mihell

People call me Uncle Phil. It’s a term of endearment I’ve come to appreciate after four summers of canoeing, portaging and camping with 91 new-found friends in Wabakimi Provincial Park, Ontario’s largest expanse of protected boreal forest.

Some days I wake up and wonder what I’ve done. In 2004, I decided to head 250 kilometres north from my home in Thunder Bay to canoe in Wabakimi, instead of following the masses of people south to Quetico Provincial Park as I had done for over 35 years. I returned to civilization after 32 days in Wabakimi, awestruck by the pristine landscape of boreal forest and woodland caribou, and hooked by the lure of countless wild rivers and crystalline lakes that form a long-forgotten network of canoe routes across its expansive wilderness. Sixty-two years old and fresh into retirement, I had discovered my passion: to document all the canoe routes in Wabakimi Provincial Park and fight to protect ancient water trails that lead beyond the park boundaries from logging and mining pressures.

Wabakimi is quickly becoming an island of wilderness, despite being over 890,000-hectares-huge. Our wanton destruction of the boreal forest for lumber, pulp and minerals is partially to blame. Crown land usage outside of Wabakimi is further confounded by the fact that four separate Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) districts manage the land according to a non-uniform series of regulations. One of my objectives in identifying old canoe routes has been to convince MNR and park managers that the wilderness values of the Crown land outside of Wabakimi’s boundaries should be preserved – for the sake of both canoeists and wildlife. I hope that in making MNR aware that these historic waterways still exist they will be protected and continue to act as corridors to and from Wabakimi’s interior.

The Wabakimi Project started in 2005 with a single posting I made on a canoe tripping Web forum to invite paddlers to join me on a series of week-long excursions in the hinterland of northwestern Ontario. I stipulated that trips would follow sketchy, overgrown routes and involve clearing portages, cleaning campsites and documenting what we found. I promised to supply food, gear and motivation. I cap my trips at three participants plus myself. At the end of the season, a few of us spend the winter months marking up topographical maps with all of the things we’ve found.

I swear that all the time I’ve spent in Wabakimi has made me more of a night owl year-round. For me, twilight is the best part of the day, when the blackflies and mosquitoes are less ferocious and all is quiet. My favourite Wabakimi moment took place on a night during the summer solstice when we watched a spectacular, multicoloured northern lights display well into the wee hours of morning.

I am forever indebted to a man from Wisconsin named Barry. On a trip in 2005, I was sitting around a campfire deep in the Wabakimi wilderness, chatting with Barry, a systems engineer who lives outside of Milwaukee. I expressed my desire to produce a canoe route map of Wabakimi, and Barry’s eyes lit up. “I could make the maps,” he said. We’ve been working together ever since.

In the first year, I recruited 21 volunteers; this year, 45 people will help me out. Participants come from coast to coast and represent five provinces and 12 states. Getting the volunteers is easy. The greatest challenge is the organization: it’s no small feat to fit 17 weeks’ worth of food for 40-odd people into my house for sorting and packing.

In 281 days of canoe tripping in the area over the past four summers, I’ve paddled over 1,600 kilometres and hauled canoes and gear over 300 portages. After another 121 days, 1,150 kilometres and 265 portages this summer, I hope to have enough information to produce the first version of the Wabakimi Canoe Routes map. Proceeds from map sales will go toward covering the expense of funding it and supporting future Wabakimi Project trips.

I don’t see the Wabakimi Project ever ending, only evolving and changing forms. Eventually, I hope my ever-expanding network of canoe tripping buddies will become known as the Friends of Wabakimi. But I’ll always be Uncle Phil.