Learning with Boreal Forest Guides #TakeItToTheLake
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Nancy and Shawn Perry help people reconnect with nature
JEREMY DERKSEN for #TakeItToTheLake
COLD LAKE, AB
Tendrils of smoke curl from the kindling I’ve just set alight. Soon, the slow burning embers ignite and tiny dragon tongues lick the sky. Shawn Perry sets a pot over the fire, preparing to make tea from the leaves we’ve just harvested.
I’ve made fires many times before but somehow this feels different. More primitive. No matches, no lighter, no newspaper, no cheats of any kind - just a flint striker to set ablaze some bark, dry grass and sticks, burning down into a single upright log (a technique known as a “Swedish torch”).
Soon steam is rising from our mugs of chagga tea. I lift my cup to my lips and taste the forest, woody, earthy and clean.
“Nearly every plant has uses, you just have to know them,” says Nancy Perry, Shawn’s wife and partner in Boreal Forest Guides. “The pioneers knew all the plants, they knew all of this. It’s not something we don’t know, it’s something we traditionally always knew, but we’ve lost it.”
We are far from being lost amid the aspen, spruce and dogwood here. As a white-throated sparrow sings its telltale call, the sunlight speckling the verdant forest floor, it feels a lot like home.
In just around one hour, I’d learned about different edible and medicinal uses for spruce needles and tree sap, Usnea (Old Man’s Beard), plaintain, dandelion, chagga, labrador, sasparilla, aspen and more. For someone who has experience outdoors, I was surprised by how little I knew.
Of course, I recognized basic tree and plant types, had some familiarity with the use of spruce gum or plaintain as a salve, and knew about a few edible leaves and berries. But knowledge and practical application are two different things.
Recent research suggests that younger generations than mine (late Gen X/early Millenial) have even less connection to the natural world. One famous study found that children today know over 1,000 logos but can identify fewer than 10 plants and animals.
We can react in shock, but ask yourself: how much time to do you spend exploring nature? How many plants can you name (much less know how to use)? I’m sure it’s more than 10, but it’s probably nowhere near what people used to know 50 years ago.
As we walked through the forest together, I had noted a deliberate care in each step Nancy took. For each root or leaf she harvests, she tells me, she gives a small offering of thanks.
Through their company Boreal Forest Guides, she and Shawn share their knowledge and love of the natural world with others, including water safety, backcountry survival skills and bushcraft, but it all begins with their own personal affinity for nature and the forest. The boreal beauty surrounding Cold Lake is their palette.
“I lived in the Yukon for a long time and up there I found just a different world,” Nancy explains. “When I moved back to the city I had to work really hard to hear the birds again, hear the trees. It took me almost six months to not hear the buzzing of the powerlines. Once I figured that out I could feel myself getting grounded again.”
Helping others rediscover that same grounding is what motivates the couple. “We forget what’s right in our own backyard,” Nancy says. “That connection is something we really want people to find again.
“I think a lot of people are lost, they don’t know what they’re missing, it’s just that little bit of themselves,” she adds. “That busy lifestyle, go go go all the time, sometimes all you have to do is come out here.”