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THE SENTINEL: A Wildfire Story
By Jim Moran
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2010 Jim Moran
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNORTH OF LAKE SUPERIOR, 2005 (300 YEARS LATER)
THE WHITE PINE STOOD ALONE ON THE RIDGE, towering over the forest cover like a sentinel, never resting, ever vigilant. The ridge itself was the most prominent geographic feature on the landscape, making the pine even more formidable. This had been its posting for three centuries. Its frame arched to the southeast, branches sparse, some skeletal-like without foliage, others like tattered coat sleeves with fingers pointing aimlessly in every direction. At close inspection, the dull armour of thick, impenetrable bark had been torn open in a descending spiral pattern, its wound appearing in various stages of whites and greys, in stark contrast to the rest of its vestment. The wound, the result of a thunderbolt of lightning, had healed as a prominent scar-a testament to its ability to survive. It had not only survived an assault from the sky, but had also persevered through three hundred frigid winters, well north of its optimum growing range. However, nothing was immune to the forces of nature.
If the old guard could see, to its far north lay a uniform blanket of olive green that stretched to the horizon. The blanket was, in reality, a stand of eighty-year-old jack pine, spawned by the last great fire to visit the area. The old pine had been witness to this phenomenon and watched countless numbers of jack pine stretch, twist and struggle from birth to adulthood.
Closer north and south of the old pine stretched the ridge that was its home. It was sliced at angles with hollows and valleys and supported rock outcrops in various hues of grey. Overall, the ridge took on a narrow quilt-like appearance with a patchwork of greens, each signifying a different tree species or groups of species. Teal green was dominant and represented balsam fir and white spruce, both species struggling to combat a relentless infestation of the voracious spruce budworm. Throughout this sea of teal, splashes of khaki and dark reds signified a struggle by individual trees to stay alive-while spears of grays and blacks poked through the patch as pointed monuments of mortality. Other large patches of poplar and white birch stood out as pale green and spring-green. The pale green patches of poplar tended to sit atop smaller ridges while narrow spring-green patches of birch hugged side slopes. The ridge was a ragged "man-of war" and the pine was its worn and tattered main mast.
It was just to the north-east that the old pine seemed to point its largest bows, as if reaching out, beckoning for comfort and compassion. For it was here that a few other white pines appeared among the spruce, poplar and other tree species. This was no patchwork, but an eclectic array, like a poorly fitted puzzle with no apparent picture yet surfacing. The puzzle pieces were three dimensional and popped up, some bent, some separating, all in various shades of greens, the darkest of which were other white pine, offspring of the patriarch on the ridge. Their proof of life gave comfort to the old pine. It stood as tall as it could, despite the ravages of weather and time, like an old man steeling himself against weather to some purpose. The pine's purpose was singular, yet daunting-watch over and protect its children and their children.
An incongruity to this pristine forest setting stretched westward. Man had left his unrelenting mark. In stark contrast to a solid mosaic of rich and subtle greens, splashes of ochre and sienna browns dominated the western vista, broken by muddy shades of grey where soil gave way to bedrock. If it weren't for the occasional dirty white, wart-shaped rock outcrops and sand coloured, worm-trail roads crisscrossing this unremarkable blanket of dull, an observer could be forgiven for losing focus and slipping into thoughtless, slack-jawed depression. At intervals, along the roads, piles of harvested tree-length pine appeared like neatly stacked tooth picks. They lay as rows of long, narrow caskets, a testament to man's avarice. There was, however, a light peppering of standing pine and neglected or undeveloped spruce and balsam shot-gunned across the landscape. They were conspicuous by their limited numbers and appeared like tiny, folded cocktail umbrellas. The remaining pine were the trees left to provide a seed source for the next generation, but they appeared tenuous in their footing, embarrassed by their nakedness without the cover and protection of their siblings. If the pine could rationalize, it would re-call seeing this intrusion in the past and revel at the ability of the forest to struggle back into form over time. Perhaps it would live to see yet another re-birth to the west.
As if providing relief from despair, in all directions from the ridge, various shapes of silver appeared as countless shards of broken glass thrust down in no apparent pattern upon the landscape. These were the lakes and ponds that served as reservoirs, holding the key of life and survival for all forms of flora and fauna in the area. Many were connected by silver threads of rivers and creeks that undulated in all directions, forming countless loops as they faded into the distance. The largest body of water was to the east. Daily as the sun rose and if the sky chose to be clear of cloud cover and if the wind was gentle, the lake shimmered with countless points of sapphire-spawned light, each sparkling with its own unique size and intensity, as if reaching out and twinkling for a viewer's attention.
If the old pine could rationalize or had the ability to comprehend, at close inspection it would puzzle over the shorelines of the lakes and rivers. It would see signs of low water-darker grey below lighter grey on the shoreline rocks, signalling a drop from the high water mark. Shoreline ferns and bracken had prematurely turned to gold and rust-brown. Smaller streams and ponds hung slack with brackish water. Elsewhere, beaver houses appeared abandoned, showing as pick-up sticks and lacking the presence of the tell-tale pantry of last winter's remaining poplar and birch cuttings placed just beyond their entrances.
If the old pine could really look in any direction, it would worry that in the seventh month of this year, in the three-hundredth's year of its life, some of the traditional shades of green showed fringes of yellow and gold. And if the old pine could remember, it would recall the year when a similar change had last occurred-the year of the heat, smoke and flame, the year when it was struck, no, shaken to its very core by the awesome, searing flash from the sky.
But the old pine could not see, nor feel, nor rationalize. It could just be, and continue to appear as a sentinel on the ridge, on the horizon, never resting, ever vigilant, and ever weary.
Chapter TwoThe sow was in her 10th year, her prime, and had given birth three times in her lifetime. She was average for a female. Walking flat-footed on all four paws (each with an impressive array of five curved, 1 1/4 inch claws), she was over three feet from ground to shoulder and weighed in excess of one hundred and eighty pounds. At this time of year, had she been well fed, she would normally carry another twenty-five to thirty pounds. There was nothing out of the ordinary about her. Her close-set eyes were not particularly effective in supporting her role as teacher, provider and protector of her cub. Her relatively short, oval-tipped ears worked somewhat well as tools for picking up and separating sounds, sounds that might signal food or foe. It was, however, her tapered, white-tan nose with its long nostrils that were her greatest asset. It channelled an amazing sense of smell, sometimes picking up scents over long distances, depending on winds and air currents. This was the primary tool used to support a never-ending search for food supply.
In her quest to store body fat for the annual quasi-hibernation, the sow was omnivorous. She would eat almost anything. She was predisposed to vegetation such as grass, berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, elderberries, pin cherries, choke cherries) and nuts (beech nuts, acorns, hazelnuts), but, as a supplement, she would turn to almost anything that crawled-ants, grubs, worms, grasshoppers and other insects. She had been known to take a moose calf or fawn in the spring, following the pregnant cow or doe, then waiting patiently for it to drop its offspring during the birthing. She would not turn her nose up at carrion; it was easy to locate with her sense of smell and easier yet to obtain. There was no hunting or chasing carrion. It was a fair return on a limited effort. Small mammals were quick, and more difficult to catch. Ants served only as snacks, and grubs were relatively limited in number. As a predator, perhaps what set her apart from similar species (carnivores such as wolf or lynx) were her lips and tongue. The lips were separated freely from the gums making them tactile and finger-like in their grasp of berries and insects. The tongue was manipulative and versatile; it could probe, prod and collect.
Almost jet-black, with an occasional "artist-brush" fringe of dark brown spattered across her fur, she walked low at the front and slightly higher at the back. One might be amused by her meandering, awkward, shuttle-like gait. However, amusement would undoubtedly give way to astonishment if she chose to run down the over-confident observer at bursts of up to fifty-five kilometres per hour. An antagonist could be sixty metres away and be set upon in less than six seconds. It would require the six seconds, to remove one's hands from one's pockets, look frantically in three different directions for a place to find shelter (no sense looking towards the sow) and finally turn towards the path of choice in order to affect an unlikely escape. This is the very same final, adrenalin-pumping, wasted six seconds prior to being struck down by a single blow powerful enough to kill.
The sow, however, was not aggressive by nature and would not likely react in such a manner even if she, her cub or her food were threatened. Her first instinct would be to warn the aggressor. Because of her long, thick hair, she was not predisposed to raise it on the back of her neck like a canine would to signal warning. Because of her short tail, she did not have the ability to "swish" it back and forth like a feline. Her body language, showing intent, would be conveyed through her head, neck and mouth. If she were agitated, she would likely approach cautiously with her head held low, below the shoulders. She might bare her teeth, snarl, open and close her mouth rapidly or actually make chomping noises.
Today, however, like most other days, was uneventful. Her sole, instinctive purpose was to search for nourishment. She was driven by the desire to "over-indulge"-store body fat for next winter's trance. The reserve of body fat was required to support herself or her suckling newborn cubs that might arrive late winter.
In her lifetime, of her seven offspring, four had survived. Now, her lone cub, trailing behind her, was the latest survivor. Born with a twin in late winter, each at 3/4 of a pound and nearly hairless, the cub now followed the sow alone. In the early months, a territorial boar had cornered the sow and her offspring on the fringe of a swamp and killed the twin. Not heeding the sow's warning, a low throaty "woof, woof", the twin hesitated for a split second and died instantly from the blow. The surviving cub had, upon instinct, climbed the nearest black ash, a tree tall enough and strong enough to support the cub's weight, but not so large as to support the boar. The sow's response was too late to prevent the boar from lumbering off with its prize.
* * *
NORMALLY CONFINING HER ROUTINE to a familiar patrol within a ten kilometre square area, the sow began to extend her search into new territory. It was dry; more so than her senses had experienced in the past.
Ancient ponds and connecting black-blue ribbon creeks that had been traditionally protected by thick, black spruce swamps held little water. Fringes of waist high, emerald green saw grass had prematurely turned a wheat-yellow. The pale-green tamarack that stood as bastions between the black spruce and the grass-lands were now showing some of their early winter colours, bright yellow spikes of soft needles. Their needles, unlike those of other coniferous trees, were preparing for their annual, quiet descent to the forest floor. This was, however, mid-summer.
It was seasonally hot that day, with little air movement, the sky a light-cyan blue with high, semi-transparent, tissue-like clouds stretching from cotton balls to ribbons. The sow and her cub wandered mid-day. This was usually her time for rest but she was hungry and anxious about her off-spring. The cub tended to lag behind more often and complained with frequent grunts and bawls, likely because of the slight discomfort in its stomach. The cub was weaned and no longer required the sow as its food source. It would eat what its mother was teaching it to find. Food was scarce.
If one could view the sow's travels from high above, and took the time to scan the landscape, one would see not a homogeneous forest, but a patchwork of cutover, broken by uneven corridors of immature forest, protecting ribbon-like streams. In some cases, these narrow stands of spruce mixed with balsam fir, poplar and white birch encompassed lakes and ponds. Terrain was flat to rolling and in the lower areas the corridors and fringes were predominantly comprised of black spruce.
Had the observer taken flight over the area a few years prior, the patches on the landscape would not be brown to grey spotted occasionally with green and strewn with residual logging debris. They would not be bisected and dissected by countless threads of winter logging roads and trails. The patches would be a forest green of countless jack pine, in their immature to mature stage-all even aged and even height, growing soldier-straight and packed tightly like matchsticks in a jar. If one rose higher, still higher, to extend perspective, the brilliant patches would join seamlessly as a quilt with one colour, broken only by variations of greens, represented by narrow stretches of other species.
The quilt was the result of natural wildfire occurring over eight decades ago. It would take the intense heat associated with fire to force open the bullet-hard jack pine cones so their seeds would be exposed for germination. It was this very same jack pine that grew so tightly packed and straight at over twenty-five hundred trees per hectare that would be used to manufacture the studs for home construction. It would do no good to selectively cut this species. The shallow rooted, remaining jack pine could not support themselves in the open and would be subject to "blow-down" from heavy winds. Consequently, the harvesting prescription of choice was clear-cut. Required follow-up regeneration either took the form of aerial seeding or tree planting. In both cases, it would be several years before an observer would notice the young jack pine becoming a predominant species within the patchwork. Soon after the clear cut, a succession of other foliage would establish itself. Wild raspberry would appear on the side slopes. Tag alder and red osier dogwood would grow in the lower areas close to water. Blueberry bushes would spring up along the higher, drier sites on the cutover. Poplar and white birch seedlings would drift in from some of the fringe areas and establish themselves in a "shotgun" pattern. Hidden among all of this new growth were countless numbers of rock-hard, slightly curved jack pine cones. Had man not taken the effort to artificially regenerate the area with new jack pine, the cycle would still take place over time. New jack pine seedlings would reappear, but only with the arrival of the next great wildfire.
* * *
THE SOW WAS IN UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY. She would normally avoid the more open areas associated with the cutover, but she sensed that the new growth raspberries and blueberries would provide the nourishment her cub required. As they wandered aimlessly from shrub to shrub, they found some sustenance, but most of the crop was either sparse or shrivelled from many days of drought. There had not been enough precipitation to encourage an adequate supply of berries, a staple in a bear's diet this time of year.
Excerpted from THE SENTINEL: A Wildfire Story by Jim Moran Copyright © 2010 by Jim Moran. Excerpted by permission.
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