The Great North Woods


Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson


The Great North Woods

It's late June, a smoldering midnight sun high and bright above the northern horizon. A moose stands at the edge of a willow thicket, raises its head and listens. Somewhere in the distance, a long, mournful howl lifts into the still silence. Others join in, their voices ranging from deep baritone to wavering sopranos, mixed with yips and barks. The haunting voices drift along twisting rivers, carry across mirror-calm lakes, echo from mountainsides—wolves, sentinels and icons of the great boreal forest.

Most people have never even heard of the boreal forest and those who have may think of it only as a perfect place to fish or hunt, to hike or paddle. But even if people don't know it exists, the boreal forest is important to their lives…no matter where on earth they live.

When people think of the biggest forest in the world, usually it's the tropical rain forest that comes to mind. But in fact, the boreal forest is the largest intact forest ecosystem on earth. It covers 11percent of the land area on the planet, and is actually 50 percent bigger than the Amazon rain forest.

Stretching across the northern world like a wide green necklace, the boreal forest covers much of interior Alaska, Canada, Russia, and northern Europe. Unlike some forests, which are dense with trees, the boreal forest is a mosaic of open meadows, ponds, lakes, and boggy muskegs interlaced among the stands of trees.

In Alaska the boreal forest is dominated by the coniferous white and black spruce, woven together with deciduous birch and aspen trees. There are also thickets of willows and alders, meadows and bogs, millions of lakes and ponds, many large rivers and winding meanders, creeks and rivulets, and mountains skirted with green, often with alpine tundra on their heights.

It is an area of great diversity, spectacular beauty, and vast wildness. Some parts are still virtually unaltered wilderness. In places like Denali National Park, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, and Gates of the Arctic National Park, every species of plant and animal known to live there before Europeans arrived, is still there today. 


A Land of Extremes


In the far North, the differences in day length from the heart of summer to deepest winter are extreme. You can almost feel the Earth tilting on its axis as it angles toward or away from the sun—especially in the spring and fall when increasing and decreasing daylight changes are most dramatic. For instance, in Fairbanks, Alaska, each day in September is about 7 minutes shorter than the previous day, and each week has nearly 50 minutes less of daylight than the week before! Of course, the process is reversed in spring, when the days are getting longer.

Summer is a time of bliss for everyone who lives in the north country—twenty-four hours of daylight, warm temperatures, and even hot days reaching 80 or 90°F. The late evening light is a soft, protracted gold. And for most of the summer days and "nights", the air is sweetened with the songs of many species of birds.

In winter the sun is ether very low on the horizon for a few hours each day or it's not seen at all above the Arctic Circle, with only a period of twilight at midday. But it is not as dark as we might imagine. Because the land is covered with snow for 6 to 7 months each year, what light there is—from the sky, stars, moon, and even the aurora—is reflected by all that white.

Winters are very, very cold—temperatures plunge as low as -70° F. Before the first snow falls, most of the summer birds migrate to warmer climates, but the forest still has a voice in winter—ravens, ptarmigan, gray jays and other birds who make this their year-round home chortle and croak, cheep and whistle. Ice on the rivers and lakes crackles and booms, snow shuffles from branch to ground, and sometimes the wind murmurs in the treetops.

Yet the winter boreal forest is often stunningly quiet and still.


At Home in the Forest


The boreal forest is home to some very big animals—moose, grizzly bear, black bear and caribou. They live here along with many smaller mammals: wolf, wolverine, lynx, river otter, beaver, red squirrel, mink, and marten. Some of these animals—like the grizzly bear, lynx, river otter, and wolverine—have disappeared from much of their former range, so the boreal forest is their last stronghold. Wolves once widespread throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, now exist in only a tiny fraction of their original homeland, mostly in the boreal forest.

Animals like caribou, who spend their summers on the artic tundra, seek refuge in the forest where they find food and shelter from winter storms. The long cold months are a time of endurance for all who live there, and for caribou this means, pawing the ground endlessly in search of lichen buried deep under the snow.

Summer is a time of relatively lavish abundance. Moose for example, feast on fresh leaves and shoots—and suck up pond vegetation—to the tune of 50 pounds per day!

And for the billions of birds who come to nest and raise their young, the boreal forest provides an explosion of protein-rich insects for feasting. In fact, this area is so important to the life cycles of more than 200 species of birds, it is called the "bird factory". Some birds migrate vast distances to spend their summers here; they come from every continent in the world, including Antarctica.


People of the Forest

North America's first people came here after their ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia at least ten to twelve thousand years ago. Since that ancient time, people of many indigenous cultures have made their livelihoods by hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering in the boreal forest. This great northern land remains the homeland for many indigenous people.


There are about 50 native villages in the boreal interior of Alaska, including 11 Athabaskan Indian languages, and a number of inland communities where the people speak Inupiaq and Yupik Eskimo languages. The vast boreal forest country of Canada is home to about 600 First Nations communities.

While at times it is a lean and sparse and challenging place, for native people who have learned over countless generations how to live in this country, the boreal forest still supports a thriving culture based on subsisting from wild resources. The people are sustained by what the country gives, and their culture is infused with a close and enduring relationship with the land.

Hunting, fishing, and trapping are vital to the economies of these modern villages. People gather wild foods like the amazing array of berries—blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, crowberries, bog cranberries, high bush cranberries, cloudberries, and currents. Wild meats, fish, and plants are not occasional departures from store-bought foods—they are the main staples in a villager's diet.

Traditionally, people made their clothing, bedding, shelter, sleds, tools and equipment from the animals and plants of the forest. For example, caribou and moose hides were used for clothing, tents, bedding, sinew, and tools. Even today, caribou skin boots and mittens are still made by skilled village seamstresses and worn in the wintertime, and caribou hides still provide soft camp mattresses.

For indigenous people, white spruce is probably the most important tree species. It dominates much of the North American boreal forest—tall spires up to a hundred feet tall and living as long as a century. Like all plants of the far north, they are slow growing.

Wood from spruce was used for building cabins, for tent poles, boats, paddles, dogsleds and caches. Spruce boughs are still used to insulate tent floors and as bedding for sled dogs. The roots are important for basket making, and pitch is an effective antibiotic for healing cuts and sores.

Koyukon people who live in interior Alaska believe that each part of the natural world has a spirit that must be respected by following special rules passed down since ancient times. It is especially important for a hunter to treat animals like moose or black bears carefully, so that they will "give themselves to him", assuring food for the family. Showing disrespect for a very powerful animal like the grizzly bear would be risking revenge from the offended spirit.

Rules for showing respect also apply to important plants like spruce trees. For example, someone who cuts down a tree should show respect by using as much of the wood as possible, so that nothing is carelessly wasted. White spruce trees have a protective spirit, so people often camp under the boughs of a big old spruce, because it will shelter them from physical or spiritual harm.

Spruce trees are so important to Koyukon people that they have over 40 words to describe its nature and conditions. For example: ts'ibaa (white spruce), k'itloo (dry branches near bottom of spruce), doht'oh (ball of branches in spruce), ts'ibaalot'oodza (rough outer part of bark), ts'ibaalotlaakk (whole bark of spruce when removed in sections) tl'eel-o (straight grained tree or wood), K'itloo' (dry branches near bottom of spruce often used to start campfires).


Carbon sequestration

One of the most important roles of the boreal forest globally is what's called carbon sequestration—the ability to store carbon. Because carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, the boreal forest's ability to hold carbon is important for keeping these gases locked up and out of the atmosphere.


The boreal forest stores more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem—30% of the total carbon stored on the earth's continents.

All plant materials store carbon, but as a plant decomposes it releases carbon back into the atmosphere. What makes the boreal forests ability to store carbon so much higher than plant communities in temperate or tropical climates? The key is colder average temperatures year round, which make the rate of decomposition much, much slower. In other words, a huge amount of the earth's carbon is held within the gradually decaying organic material underlying the forests, meadows, lakes, and bogs of the boreal regions.

For this reason, scientists conclude that climate regulation by stored carbon is an important reason to limit cutting of boreal forests, trying to control wildfires, and keeping these great forests intact.


The Gift of the Forest

The boreal forest is one of the world's great treasures. This vast wild land remains a stronghold—and in some cases a last remaining home—for some of our most spectacular wild creatures. Grizzly bears still roam in the sheltering northern forest, lynx move silently across the winter drifts, moose haunt the willow thickets, wolverines lope along the mountainsides, and wolves howl at the winter moon.

In summer, the boreal forest comes alive with an endless chorus of voices—billions of birds, many of which enrich the lives of people throughout the U.S. and Canada, from Mexico to the Amazon, down into Patagonia and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

This is the largest intact forest on earth, responsible for storing 30% of all carbon—an extremely important role in regulating greenhouse gases on the planet.

We might also think of the boreal forest as a storehouse for the world's remaining wildness.

What if we could understand the importance of the boreal forest in terms other than money? How would we measure the value of songbirds, waterfowl and shorebirds; the value of wolves and grizzly bears and caribou; the value of a sacred homeland for indigenous people across the northern reaches of the globe?

Can we weigh these values along with the importance of this last great intact forest for storing carbon that helps to counterbalance our green house emissions? Are these fundamental values—for the preservation of species and the sustaining of life on earth itself—more important than what we gain in newspapers, oil, gas, and electricity?

Perhaps a way to think about the significance of the boreal forest is by listening to the voices it brings to all of us. 

Mark Bethka