Woodland Caribou Provincial Park (WCPP) is a canoeist's paradise located in NW Ontario - or at least it used to be... As most readers of this page will know, the past 5-10 years have seen a dramatic change in the landscape. Due to its unique location on the eastern edge of the prairies and west of a wetter climate, WCPP has had more than its fair share of large wildfires that increased dramatically in size and frequency in 2016. Some theories as to the reasons include a few extra dry seasons, a large snowdown event with the jackpine in 2012 and a dramatic uptick in pine bark beetles since around the same time. Humans tend to use words like "devastation" or "disaster" when referring to natural wildfires but of course these are essential not only for new boreal forest growth but also for soil rejuvenation and the continued existence of various plants and wildlife. Selfishly, as a human that loves to paddle along a forested shoreline and camp under a shadowy canopy part of me is mourning the temporary loss and damage of so much of my favorite WCPP landmarks. Since 2011 there have been at least a dozen significant wildfires in and around the park including but not limited to;
- Red Lake 124- 2011 - 21,675 ha
- Red Lake 031 - 2013 - 18,556 ha
- Red Lake 003 - 2016 - 85,000 ha
- Red Lake 076 - 2018 - 21,165 ha
- Red Lake 081 - 2018 - 5,071 ha
- Red Lake 097 - 2018 - 17,381 ha
- Red Lake 045 - 2019 - 37,770 ha
- Red Lake 016 - 2021 - 158,737 ha
- Ken 051 - 2021 - 200,667 ha
- Red Lake 010 - 2021 - 6,004 ha
- Red Lake 072 - 2021 - 5,931 ha
- Red Lake 077 - 2021 - 36,037 ha
As you might imagine, all of these fires have had a significant impact on the landscape and on the many canoe routes contained within. You will notice that most of the largest burns have been since 2018 and thanks to Covid-19 and the dramatic 2021 fire season most of the portage trails have not had a chance to be maintained since these fires.
As I started to plan for another canoe trip in early 2022 I quickly realized the landscape had changed dramatically from my last trip to the park with my daughter in 2019 when we dealt with another very recent burn along Royd Creek. It was tough to find maps showing just how destructive the 2021 fires had been, while also showing all the other big wildfires since 2016. Then I came across a brand new map at mywoodlandjourneys.com and spent a few hours playing around with it. I encourage you to buy a printed copy from Glen and I hope he's ok with the slight modification I made to the map below to show the fire impacts more clearly. The left hand map is the map as Glen put it together with some small fires in light red from 2005 marked. The right hand version is one that I've painted red over more recent fire boundaries, the more "red" the more recent the burn. I know many people looking at this will doubt how accurate it is, so I have put real satellite images from 2017 compared with 2021 below this map. A close comparison will show that the generated map is pretty darn accurate. Have fun playing with the sliders below and hopefully they can help demonstrate not only the massive wildfire impacts to WCPP but also give you some good ideas of routes that may avoid the worst of the burns for now.
Don't forget to scroll down a bit further for some satellite maps also showing the impacts and a discussion about future use of the park.
Satellite Image Comparisons
Drag the center icon to show the north half of WCPP as it looked in late September 2017 (L) compared with September 2021 (R). It's hard not to flinch a little as you drag the brown and black image over the lush green one! These images were taken from the Sentinelhub Playground, a very useful satellite tool for trip planning in any season or for historical landscape comparisons. I often use this tool when planning springtime trips in the Rockies to see recent snow cover.
The south half of the park didn't fare any better than the north half did. As a matter of fact the 2021 fires burned over a lot of the 2016 area, scorching it even more than it already was.
The Future of WCPP - Some Thoughts
So what does this all mean for future WCPP paddlers? I could tell you that there will be no impacts for the average paddler and that you should continue to plan and paddle the park as if nothing happened. I could tell you that everything will go on as normal. But I'd be lying. I would have continued to say those things in 2019 despite many fires in 2016, 2018 and 2019 but after 2021 I think the park has honestly reached a tipping point for the average canoe tripper.
I remember paddling Royd Creek with my daughter after the 2018 burns and before the trail maintenance crews came through (1 day before) and it was brutally hard in places. The creek itself was hard to paddle with fallen trees across it that I had to cut with a handsaw. The 1900 meter portage between Indian House and Joey Lake was hard to follow even with a GPS track due to recent burns! We came out of a long few days battling Royd Creek and fire damaged trails exhausted, blackened by soot and thinking Donald Lake looked like a paradise with its green shores and clean air. Constellation Lake was a paddler's paradise before the fire and I was looking forward to paddling it for many years before finally getting there. I was so disappointed paddling along the charred shoreline - it surprised me how depressing it was at the time. Don't underestimate how dreary a recently burned lake can be! It's one thing when the fireweed and other greenery starts showing up but this wasn't the case for us.
Then there's the safety issues with traveling through a recent burn. There's obvious issues such as falling trees, fallen trees and lost portage trails. There's issues with choked waterways and messed up camps. Heavy rain will impact campsites much more without ground cover plants and no forest canopy. More subtle issues come in the form of sharpened trees that have burned hard as nails on portages and fallen into shallow water along the way. Ribbons that might be used to mark portages will not last long in WCPP. Doing battle with messed up portage trails increases the risk of personal injury from flailing around with axes and saws. Tripping hazards will increase exponentially and will actually only get worse as the recent burns get a bit older and standing trees finally give up and fall over.
I know this may all sound depressing but I deal in reality and this is the reality as I see it for the next 5+ years in WCPP. I think that the park will continue to see fly-in guests enjoying the various fishing camps due to the excellent fishing and undamaged structures still located in some of the lakes. I think the park will see a dramatic drop in paddlers for the next 5-10 years or so and I think this is probably a good thing as far as safety and overuse is concerned. Experienced paddlers will continue to visit - they know what to expect and how to deal with it safely and efficiently. Hopefully the park will continue to have portage trails maintained but here again - there is only so much a few chainsaw crews can do in the short summer season. One issue I see going forward is that the few relatively unaffected areas of the park will see most of the traffic, potentially taking away from the feeling of isolation that many seek. If portage routes are only cleared on a subset of the more popular routes this will also serve to congregate parties to a limited set of paths through the park, risking overuse of campsites along the way.
For now, my suggestion if you're an experienced wilderness tripper is to go enjoy a (hopefully) quiet park! Sharpen your axes and saws because you're gonna need 'em. ;) If you are a novice wilderness canoeist I strongly suggest you choose another area for now. At the very least wait until mid-2022 or even 2023 when some recent conditions reports should start trickling out to the general public. WCPP isn't going anywhere. The burnt trees will eventually fall over and new growth will thrive. Portage trails will start to stay cleared and will once again be pleasant hikes through the Boreal. Nothing is forever, including the charred landscape that is ripe for regrowth.
Happy adventures and happy paddling!