3 – The Badlands and the Goodlands
Our trip up the Pic River was not confined to hunting orchids. For me, and for any naturalist, a trip in the bush offers many opportunities for gasping.
On the river, we encountered flies, as I said, but also dragonflies. Hordes of dragonfiles that I have never seen — or perhaps never noticed — before. Ebony Jewelwings.
The Ebony Jewelwing is without doubt the most spectacular of all dragonflies in this region. It has jet black wings and a luminescent green body. The bug book tells me that its larvae prefer flowing waters, and the male adults stake out territories on rivers and wait for females to flit by. Then the male performs a courtship display.
Well, we passed through clouds of males so horny that they courted the three of us. And we breezed through almost fly-free, for dragonflies do thrive on flies (the prickly, bitey sort).
The second-most ubiquitous and
gorgeous insect was the Tiger Swallowtail. From time to time we spotted robins, kingfishers, goldeyes, cedar waxwings, blue-headed vireals, and, of course, the most common bird in the boreal forest, ravens.
We encountered the Badlands, as John called them — a stretch of silt and clay cliffs on the east side of the river, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet high, sculpted into marvelous forms. Rains and seasonal
runoff from the high ground have powered the chisels, as well as spectacularly high seasonal floods. The freshet this past spring left driftwood in the trees on high clay banks, and a high water mark on the Badlands perhaps 12 feet above the level of the river we were travelling that Friday.
At some points in the clay banks, here and elsewhere, we observed varves — narrow beds or layers which are deposited annually in post-glacial lakes: the retreating continental glacier had left its footprints. We were actually travelling through the bed of an ancient lake. That accounted for all the mud.
In one place in the Badlands, on a sheer face, we noticed staggered rows of peepholes. Sue and Bryan immediately identified the creatures that swarmed out of them — barn swallows. They estimated 99 holes for the colony’s nests.
Just under two hours from
the launch site, we reached Middle Falls. This is merely one of many spectacular falls on the Pic River. Further north is High Falls, which, like Middle Falls, is not accessible by road. Middle Falls does not have the breath-catching drop of High Falls, but it is a panoramic tableau that few mortals have seen. It was my first time. And I gasped.
We landed on the left bank (That’s the east side) and padded along the portage that Aboriginals and voyageurs had tramped down over several centuries. Middle Falls has two branches. The gently sloping portage led to the east branch, a narrow part of the river. The west branch is the showy branch, but the right bank (west side) has an unassailable cliff of clay that no one in his right mind would ever attack.
We ate lunch in sight of the west branch. We started back downriver, stopping to examine likely sites for orchids. We noted a sandbar (more aptly described as a siltbar) with a layer of embedded bark from the romantic days of the old log drives. At one point I idly offered the comment that companies often estimated a 10 percent loss of logs during their drives. Beneath the mud of many a lake and river in Lake Superior country, there is a wooden floor.
Some of the orchids we encountered in our hunt: the rather plain Rattlesnake Plantain, the Small Round-leaved Orchid, and the Northern Green Orchid (aka Tall Leafy Green
Orchis), the more showy Calypso or Fairy Slipper (past blooming), and the very elusive but definitely showy Franklin’s Lady’s Slipper (aka Sparrow’s-egg Lady’s Slipper).
You know, Captain Sir John Franklin lost his life looking for something in the Canadian Arctic. Is it really too far-fetched to think he was looking for this glamorous article? On an earlier expedition, he had found this very orchid now named after him. And we do know he died on June 11, 1847 — for all we know, a beautiful summer day. However, perhaps at that point his mind was on other things. Something else: no one has found his gravesite. To this day Franklin remains elusive. Believe me, people are still searching for him and his two ships.
But we moved on, for we ourselves had other marvels to behold.