Two and a half centuries ago, unbroken old-growth forests covered nearly all of Pelham. Pelham’s ancient woods were made up of giant trees that to modern eyes would seem like something out of a fairy-tale. Incredibly, the majestic white pines, kings of the forest, stood as tall as a 14-storey building. The stately oaks were as wide as two cars parked side by side.
These weren’t the only giants: American chestnuts, beech, walnut, maple, birch, ash, butternut, black cherry, elm, sycamore and tulip trees reached similar mammoth proportions. Some of these, like the huge tulip trees, were eighty feet high before the first branch. Together, these ancient trees formed a canopy that was so dense in places, with interlocked massive branches, that sunlight failed to penetrate to the shadowy forest floor. Here, lush mosses and giant ferns flourished, while elk, cougar, black bears, bobcats and wolves lurked.
A young officer in the War of 1812 described in his diary passing through some of these immense forests in the Niagara region: “The woods in which we were posted were part of an endless forest marching to the North pole, for ought we knew; some of the trees of the growth of centuries, with their heads in the clouds.”
Another traveller, Anna Jameson, in the 1830s, provided an eye-witness account of Upper Canada’s old-growth forests (what is now southern Ontario): “So thick was the overhanging foliage,” wrote Jameson, “that it not only shut out the sunlight, but almost the daylight; and we travelled on through a perpetual gloom of vaulted boughs and intermingled shade.”
Reading these descriptions today one could be forgiven for thinking they describe a lost world—that such enchanted forests are but a distant memory. But amazingly that is not quite the case. While the vast majority of Pelham’s (and indeed southern Ontario’s) remaining forests are secondary growth, there are still a few precious examples of ancient, old-growth woods left. This includes right here in Pelham.
Hidden almost in the plain sight are remnants of these original old-growth forests. Stepping into these primeval woods, and leaving the recent suburban sprawl behind, feels almost like crossing some magic portal, as if stepping back in time. The huge trees, given their shade, create a cooler micro-climate beneath them, where in their quiet shadows it’s easy to forget about the cares of the world.
Most of Pelham’s remaining examples of old-growth forest are on private property. Some of them I know well, having wandered among these ancient pillars of the earth since childhood. Having recently relocated back to my hometown, I decided to revisit some of my old forest haunts. Although much has changed, the old growth woods I remember are still here.
With my friend Wes, a companion on many adventures near and far, on a warm May afternoon we visited one of the best tracts of old growth woods left in town. To reach this forest, we first crossed a farmer’s field, as yet unplanted. Across the field loomed the edge of the woods—the crowns of the tallest white pines reaching above the canopy. Near the forest edge were staghorn sumacs, small trees that prefer open sunlight.
Pushing past these, we entered into the gloom of the woods. The strange laughing call of a pileated woodpecker rang out from somewhere unseen. Deer and turkey tracks littered the forest floor. Mayapples, sarsaparilla, trout lilies, Solomon’s seal and other wild plants were all sprouting from the leaf-covered ground. The trees here were big, but not quite old-growth: black cherries and yellow birches, sugar maples and shagbark hickories. They were anywhere from 30 to 80 years of age.
But as we walked deeper in, the true giants, like ghosts of a bygone era, suddenly appeared. Massive trees, straight as arrows, resembling the carved stone columns of a medieval cathedral, stretched skyward. The biggest of them were tulip trees, reaching heights of nearly eight storeys. We weaved among these ancient giants, pausing to admire their incredible dimensions.
Cherries, maples, tulips, oaks, and pines predominated. These trees range anywhere from around one to three centuries old. Their trunks grow remarkably straight and free of branches, a characteristic of old-growth woods. (In contrast, Pelham’s most famous tree, the Comfort Maple, ironically is not a good example of what old-growth looks like. Because the area around the Comfort Maple was cleared long ago, the tree’s branches gradually fanned out widely and very near to the ground, creating an almost circular pattern very different from what maples look like growing within a forest.)
In the cool recesses of these old woods, the ecology differs considerably from what one finds in most of the secondary growth forests that make up the majority of Pelham’s woodlands. Here, the understory is remarkably free of bushes and vegetation; a result of the shade created by the giant trees. This adds an almost enchanted air, the wide-open spaces making it easy to casually wander and daydream as you do so.
But alas, all is not well in the woods. In recent years a plethora of invasive diseases have ravaged the forests, killing off almost entire species of trees, and felling many once mighty forest giants. It was with sadness that I counted the decaying remains of the giant ash trees—all of them killed by the invasive emerald ash borer. Nor are they alone in this fate—American chestnut, butternut, and elm have all suffered from introduced diseases. Many other species too, including witch hazel, dogwood, and hemlock are afflicted by invasive pathogens. Perhaps most alarming, I noticed that nearly every beech tree is now infected with beech bark disease.
The scale of the problem is very serious—the mortality rate from many of these invasive diseases exceeds 99 percent. Without immediate intervention, not only in Pelham, but across eastern North America, the last of the old-growth forests are going to die off. We need a national campaign to save these species while it’s still possible. Already, an estimated 99 percent of southern Ontario’s old-growth woods have disappeared. The remaining one percent will not long survive unless the threat posed by invasive diseases is counteracted.
But in spite of it all this there are reasons for optimism too. If the response to Covid-19 has shown anything, it’s that with the right resources, science can achieve feats not previously imagined. Vaccines that would have normally taken years to create were invented in little more than eighteen months. Advances in genetic research holds out hope that, if the political will is there, we might be able to bring many of these tree species back from the brink.
Since leaving Pelham, my expeditions and adventures have taken me everywhere from the snows of Antarctica, to deep into the jungles of the Amazon, to extinct volcanoes in the arctic. I’ve wandered for more than 2000 miles across some of the greatest wilderness left on Earth.
And yet, for all that, some of the most wondrous things I’ve ever seen are still right here in Pelham. Whenever I need inspiration, or a break from the world, I grab my walking stick and head out to Pelham’s woods. ◆
Pelham native Adam Shoalts is the author of three national bestselling books, most recently Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic. He is the Explorer-in-Residence of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.