Muskoka Woods

Logging operations have spawned an entire genre of books, beginning with the brazen dramas of clear-cutting trees and driving them to saw mills. Fortunes were made, lives lost, and governments rose and fell over forestry policies. In the process, forestry has emerged as an essential Canadian story of conflict, inventiveness, opportunism, and compromise.

Rival land use between lumbering interests and settlers in Muskoka began as a raw frontier of conflict, vividly reported in a number of books including those by Doug MacKey and his son Paul in The Fossmill Story, by Gary Long and Randy Whiteman in When Giants Fall, and by Grace Barker in Timber Empire.

Such conflicts ranged from hungry log drovers raiding a riverside farmer's apple trees, to log-filled rivers made impassible to navigation for passengers and supplies. Conflicts extended into government policy itself, with impoverished settlers being charged government stumpage fees like loggers on trees they were legally required by the same government to clear in order to qualify for "free grant" land, all the way up to the government's creation in 1893 of Ontario's first, and now world-famous, Algonquin Park.

"The lumber barons were concerned by the pace of settlement," explain the MacKeys, "and supported the establishment of Algonquin Park because it would prevent settlement of the vast pine forests they wanted."

Hallmark inventiveness was equally on display in logging operations in and around Muskoka – just two examples being the gravity-defying Gilmour Tramway, and the powerhouse logging railways.

Necessity propelled Gilmour & Company, one of the giants on the Canadian lumbering scene during the 19th century, to invent its astonishing "tramway." Long and Whiteman describe how the Gilmour family had "made a fortune stalking the huge pines in the virgin forests." By the 1880s "the firm's sawmill at Trenton on Lake Ontario was one of the world's largest" but faced a crisis because the supply of pine that fed the mill was running out.

"The survival of the company now depended on obtaining fresh timber limits in distant Algonquin Park," explain Long and Whiteman, "and on a bold plan to float logs 445 kilometers along three different rivers systems – and over the hills between them." The tramway south began at the Lake of Bays. While it was being constructed, more traditional river drives of logs from the Gilmour timber limits in Algonquin Park descended Muskoka's rivers and lakes to a sawmill at Georgian Bay.

Getting logs to mills via river systems was always problematic due to low flows as spring freshets turned to low water levels over treacherous rocks during summer, to rival logging firms competing for river use, and to log jams that took daring, skill, dynamite, and a number of lives, to break. Even getting huge loads of logs on horse-drawn sleds to river banks during winter was an uphill challenge. An inventive solution was constructing railways and a number were built across Algonquin Park, in Nippissing, Parry Sound, and north Muskoka, as fully described in The Fossmill Story. A variation of the Gilmour's dilemma is well portrayed by Grace Barker as the "Muskoka River Experiment" of entrepreneurial Mossom Boyd, who'd built himself a timber empire from his sawmill at Bobcaygeon on the Kawartha Lakes. By the 1870s Boyd was prospering, exporting millions of feet of pine lumber yearly, thanks to his timber limits that extended north to the furthest headwaters of the Trent in Haliburton County. Depleting those resources, Boyd and his logging crews then advanced upon the virgin forests of Muskoka. Only after acquiring these logging rights did he discover his mistake: the Muskoka River watershed could not feed his Bobcaygeon mill. Barker's stark evidence of the many obstacles encountered by Boyd's log drives on the Muskoka River – from squeezing log booms through the narrow rock cut to reach Gravenhurst mills from Lake Muskoka, or driving logs further downriver to the huge water-powered Muskoka Mills near the mouth of the Musquash (Muskoka) River on Georgian Bay – is a telling portrait of the human determination and resource exploitation that formed the character of people and the policy of the province. Timber Empire also shows the opportunism of how private enterprise is conducted at public expense, for instance when the Ontario Department of Public Works built a 1,000-foot log-slide for lumber companies to get their logs over the treacherous 109-foot high South Falls near Bracebridge.

Given the importance of forestry, you'd think that foresters in Canada would occupy as high a rung on the professional ladder as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. In fact, Ontario's past century has lacked true emphasis on forestry education and has suffered inattention to sound forest policies that one might expect from a provincial government having primary stewardship of the forests.

Over ninety percent of Canada's forest is publicly owned and managed, unique in the world. That should mean government responsibly embracing its stewardship for well-regulated use of forest resources, but as Mark Kuhlberg documents in One Hundred Rings and Counting, governments have looked upon the forests as something to extract money from rather than spend money on.

Kuhlberg, a history professor at Laurentian University with deep interest in Ontario's forestry practices, writes about the tortured decision in 1907 to create a Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto, the first such faculty in Canada but the furthest possible place in all Ontario from the forests themselves. A century's worth of marginalization of the faculty, dramatically told in faculty fights, university politics, and disinterest by the provincial government, culminated in 1993 with termination of the bachelor of science in forestry program, "thereby ripping out the faculty's very soul."

In the process, the Dorset forestry school at Muskoka's eastern edge was part of the effort to connect forest education with the reality of Ontario's backcountry.

From first logging operations in Muskoka up to the present day, fundamental conflicts between sustainable management of forests, environmental stewardship, and wanton resource exploitation make a story that these authors present as backdrop to our present circumstances. The first three books richly detail how it happened, while One Hundred Rings and Counting, Khulberg's larger history of forestry education and policy over the last century, is testament to our enduring ambivalent attitude to the forests that sustain us.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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