Taiga: The Candaian Boreal Forest
by David Henry, from Borealis Magazine

Dr. David Henry is author of numerous scientific articles and a book on Swift Fox published by Smithsonian Press, he is a long time Conservationist in Canada and has played key roles in the protection of various landscapes across the country.
The Canadian Boreal Forest is of staggering proportions. It ranges across the nearly 10,000 kilometer breadth of Canada from Newfoundland to the western most borders of the Yukon at times, reaching over 1000 kilometers in north to south width.

At its southern most extension the Boreal Forest reaches Thunder Bay, Ontario along the north banks of Lake Superior. Surprisingly you will also find Boreal Forest up to a point just south of Tuktoyaktuk and the Arctic Ocean in the Northwest Territories.

Things Boreal influence our everyday lives more than any other natural feature of Canada. The Latin version of Boreal is 'Borealis'. 'Aurora borealis' are the northern lights, which for many Canadians represents a kind of magic or mystery associated with a cold, crisp and starry winter night sky. Occurring between altitudes of 100 and 1000 kilometers it is thought that the lights are the result of interactions of charged particles being towed into elaborate formations by the magnetic poles, working like giant neon lights in the thin air of Earth's outer atmosphere.

In Latin, 'Borealis' is feminine rather than masculine or neuter. The Boreal Forest is home to dozens of plant species which also bear the same name. The exquisite twinflower, 'Linnaea borealis' graces forested mossy banks from coast to coast. The bluebeard Lily, 'Clintonia borealis', is a northern member of the lily family and abundant in damp areas near bogs and swamps across Canada. The Northern Twayblade, 'Listera borealis', is a small, delicately, fashioned orchid of deep spruce and pine forests across the north.

While the number of tree species is not high in the Boreal Forest, the diversity of bird life is spectacular. A close relative of the ubiquitous Black-capped Chickadee is the Boreal Chickadee, which having a brown cap, rather than a black one, inhabits northern conifer forests. The Eskimo Curlew, 'Numenius borealis' is a species decimated by man and now apparently extinct. The Boreal Owl is a miniature owl who mouses by night and whose spring song sounds like the ringing of soft bell. From the very top branch of a White Spruce in northern Canada you may be fortunate to find the stately Olive-sided Flycatcher singing his often paraphrased song, "Quick, three beers". There are many other species of birds named after the Boreal Forest including the Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Flicker, Black Swift, Northern Shrike, Arctic Warbler, Cory's Shearwater, and the Common Eider who each carry the subspecies name 'borealis'.

A familiar sound that rings out from many thousands of sloughs across Canada is the song of the Boreal Chorus Frog. Boreal Toads are also common on the fringes of lakes, just after the sun goes down.

Even in the world of butterflies you find Labrador Skippers and Pearly Eyes who both are subspecies which bear the name 'borealis'.

Among the smaller mammals are the Boreal Red-backed Vole and the Northern Bog Lemming, 'Synaptomys borealis', a cousin of the famed Brown Lemming whose migrations in times of abundance capture our imagination. Even among flying mammals we find namesakes, like the Red Bat, 'Lasiurus borealis'.

The Northern Right-whale Dolphin, 'Lissodelphus borealis' and the Rorqual (Sei Whale), 'Balaenoptera borealis', are among several sea going creatures which adopt their names from this great ecosystem.

In the dead of night, while the northern lights are still dancing across the northern sky, a most significant member of the Boreal family becomes apparent. 'Borealis' is the north star, which guided early mariners and explorers across the chartless seas and continents for centuries.

For many people, the word Boreal simply means 'the north'. No matter how you look at it, the Boreal Forest describes what most of Canada is and significantly it represents the largest ecosystem, the largest collection of interacting nature in this country. From the fragility of the beautiful twinflower to the seemingly inconceivable extent of the Boreal Forest itself, it is our most pervasive influence, and inside its web of life is the key to the health of an environment which nurtures and provides for our existence with water, trees, wildlife and even a stable continental climate.