Wilderness canoeing in Canada’s remote Boreal Forest to survey breeding birds
By Conor Mihell
The Ogoki River is flowing fast, breaching the shoreline cedars and boiling around Canadian Shield granite, making our laden canoes feel like bits of driftwood. On such a big river, moving at such speed, you only have one chance to pick the safest line to run rapids. The conditions demand an unconventional river-running strategy for scouting a safe passage: with the canoe bobbing in a rare haven of still water, I cautiously stand up and use my binoculars to study the seething whitewater ahead, searching for safe passage through the froth. And so we tiptoe down the belligerent river.
"The goal of this long-term scientific project, now in its third iteration, is to survey songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds, owls and other avian species across a province that’s larger than Texas."
My trip mates include a PhD ornithologist, a government biologist, and a lifelong obsessive naturalist—all with expert birding skills and plenty of field experience on similar projects. We corresponded online to assemble the expedition menu and gear list, maps, and charter a floatplane to access the remote stretch of river. It was obvious that I was recruited as the canoe guide. I assumed canoeing would be the easy part; as an aspiring birder, I was excited by the opportunity to fast-track my bird ID skills and add some new northern species to my life list in the company of professionals.
Yet survival paddling dominates the first few days of the trip, where the Ogoki tumbles over bedrock. In between whitewater thrills and bushwhack portage trails around bigger falls, we conduct “point counts”, a standardized procedure of sampling bird populations in various habitats. To catch the birds’ morning chorus, we rise at dawn, guzzle quick cups of cowboy coffee, and each strike off alone and away from the river, navigating to preassigned GPS coordinates. A point count consists of listing the species observed (generally identified by their unique songs) in a five-minute span, as well as unique breeding behavior such as nests and adult birds transporting food to young.Trekking up to five miles through bogs, dense thickets and knee-deep moss to start the day is hard work, and we’re each lucky to complete a half-dozen such points during our morning time window. Tractless wilderness is only part of the challenge. It’s no coincidence that the breeding cycle of Canada’s population of migratory birds aligns perfectly with peak mosquito and blackfly season; clouds of blood-thirsty insects make our point counts feel like self-inflicted torture. As a rookie field scientist I’ve been tossed into the deep end. But I’m also astounded at how quickly I come to recognize the distinctive trills and melodies of various warblers, flycatchers, sparrows and thrushes, just as I enjoy coming together as a group, tallying the day’s bird list and sharing stories each evening in camp. Our species list rapidly nears 100, including rarities like Connecticut- and Canada Warblers, Rusty Blackbirds, Olive-sided Flycatchers and Boreal Owls—species that depend on such habitat for survival and are infrequently observed anywhere else.
The Ogoki merges with the even larger Albany River, which flows like a smooth treadmill across the spongy landscape of the James Bay Lowlands. We float effortless downriver with a five-mile-per-hour current. Finally, my binoculars are used for more conventional means: Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks and Osprey circle overhead; Common Loons, American Widgeons and Common Goldeneye ducks follow us downstream; and so many tiny warblers perform impressive solos, challenging us to spy their flashy gold, orange and green plumage in the dense alders and spruce along the water’s edge. Most magical of all, a massive Great Gray Owl ghosts silently out of the woods and gracefully wings across the river on an otherwise lazy afternoon.I’ve paddled several rivers in Ontario’s far north, but aside from this journey I never had the need to stray too far from their watery corridors. The magnitude of this landscape and its role in supporting immense biological diversity strikes me while hiking inland to conduct my point counts. Clean water and lush shoreline forests are only part of what makes this region unique. The Audubon Society describes the vast peatlands of Ontario’s James and Hudson Bay Lowlands as the summer home for millions of breeding birds. Many Indigenous people, whose small, roadless communities comprise the only human settlements across 79 million acres, refer to their home as the “Breathing Lands”. There’s no better description of a place that supports an immense array of life (including wolverines and, farther north, polar bears) and makes huge contributions to regulating the planet’s climate by sucking carbon from the atmosphere.
"It’s no coincidence that the breeding cycle of Canada’s population of migratory birds aligns perfectly with peak mosquito and blackfly season; clouds of blood-thirsty insects make our point counts feel like self-inflicted torture."
It’s a revelation for me to trek across this landscape by ear, recognizing that every subtle change in habitat has its own distinct soundtrack of birds. The largely untapped natural resources of this vast region have recently pitted conservation groups and Indigenous communities seeking to protect one of the world’s largest wetlands against developers touting mineral discoveries that would bring roads, workers and undoubtedly pollution to the region. In navigating big rivers and stumbling through bogs I’m witnessing an ecological crossroads; I wonder if in 20 years, when birders return to repeat our surveys, they’ll encounter the same incredible abundance we observed.
We’re still tallying new birds on the final morning of the trip, bringing our list to an impressive 105 species. We assemble our canoes and gear at a widening in the river and wait for the float plane to return to whisk us back to civilization. Too soon, we’re loaded in a vintage DeHavilland Otter, with the canoes strapped to the floats. The plane’s gradual ascent affords us a new perspective on the places we’ve become so intimate with on the ground. But eventually, the noisy plane punches through puffy clouds, and the green and blue below becomes a landscape of our dreams.
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Conor Mihell is an award-winning science, environment, outdoor adventure, and lifestyle writer. He’s been nominated for multiple Canadian National Magazine Awards, winning gold in 2012 and has earned two Northern Lights Awards for Travel Writing Excellence and was recognized by the Ontario Tourism Summit for Travel Writing. With over 15 Years Experience in Print and Digital Media, he’s been published in some of the largest media outlets in Canada and the U.S., including SIERRA, Cottage Life, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, ON Nature, Explore, Canoe & Kayak, Canadian Geographic, the Globe and Mail, Paddling Magazine, and Mensjournal.com.