The autumn colour season is just about over.
We were all expecting that the colours might be not as good as other years because of the dry summer season, but in places, they are as brilliant as ever. Now it is getting on towards the end of October and the birches, oaks, poplars, and oaks still have lots of leaves.
It is the time when the tamarack or larch (often called juniper) are changing from soft greens to yellows and even oranges. They are the one of the few conifers (needle-bearing) to lose their needles. When their greens of summer begin to yellow up, it is surprising to see how much larch there is in our forests.
The forests of Cape Breton belong to a larger group known as the Acadian Forest Region. This forest region extends all the way from Newfoundland, down into the New England States. It is really a mixed forest environment, that is, it is made up of deciduous (hardwoods) and coniferous (softwoods) trees.
The forest is really a three-layered one with an upper canopy of larger trees, a middle layer of shrubs and bushes and saplings, and the forest floor of flowers, ferns, and other low-growing weeds and mosses. Much of the forests of Cape Breton are forests that have been overcut in past generations and are slowly renewing themselves. Old growth forests anywhere in Nova Scotia are hard to find. Small pockets occur here and there.
An old-growth Sugar Maple forest is found in the Grand Anse River valley at the foot of North Mountain. Occasionally, we can find remnants or individual trees that are very old and very large. Sometimes in deep ravines, we can find very large hemlocks and pines and sugar maples that have avoided the ax and saw of the lumberjack. The steepness of the ravines’s slopes have made it almost impossible for them to be harvested. I remember coming across several giants in the Blue’s Brook and Piper’s Glen Brook areas. Several were large enough that several people could hardly circumvent their trunks by holding hands.
We can’t help thinking about our ancestors when we look at the forests of Cape Breton. Many of them had never seen an axe or saw before and yet they faced the indomitable task of land clearing. To them the forest was their foe. There was danger of every kind lurking behind every tree.
“Lone and brooding amid the gloom of forest verdure
My moods are fitful, and my soul is wan
I got this place which stands at strife with nature
And all my native powers of mind are gone.
…Before I plough the ground and reap the fruitage,
This fearsome wood be rooted from its base
My arms despite their strength will lose their vantage.”
Yet the forest would soon begin to yield its resources to them – building materials, protection from winter’s blasts, food, and firewood.
My favourite haunts in the forest have always been the old seldom traveled country roads, where there once were communities, old logging roads, and brooks, that of course, might have a waterfall in their hidden glades.
A wander into a logged-out area reveals the rapid change that is taking place in the forest community. Raspberry bushes, elderberry bushes, fireweed, ferns, and sucker saplings from the old maple trees are springing up everywhere. Down under this dense tangle of lush growth are the small spruce and fir seedlings that will soon outstrip all others and become the new forest.
The forest is many things to many people. To some it is a resource to be harvested. Lumber, pulpwood, Christmas trees, maple sap and sugar, hardwood for fuel all have monetary value. To others the forest is a haven for a variety of plants, animals, insects, and birds. It is a rich habitat that has a great interdependence of living organism on one another. And to others it is a recreational paradise. The hunter, the photographer, the hiker, the camper, the snowmobiler, and the bird watcher all see the forest as a domain not to be harvested.
It is an ecosystem in which it is easy to get close to nature. It is the laboratory where life and death struggles are constantly going on. It is one of Cape Breton’s most important environmental resources.

A small stream runs through a softwood forest in the Highlands of Cape Breton.
A small stream runs through a softwood forest in the Highlands of Cape Breton.