During the summer of 2015, a rash of wildfires swept across northern Saskatchewan, causing mass evacuations, the loss of many cabins and homes, displacing wildlife, and devastating the forests of the north.
Forest House is set on the shore of a pristine lake in the McLennan Lake area of northern Saskatchewan, Canada about 150 km north of Lac la Ronge. Forest House was carefully constructed to have minimal impact on the delicate Boreal forest Eco-system. The main lodge, two cabins, and spectacular organic garden took thirty years to come to fruition. Original builders, Deb Peters and Rick Kolstad lovingly crafted their vision using lumber harvested from the local forest, banks of solar collectors to generate power, and a self-composting septic system. Every single detail of Forest House's construction, from location, to materials, to the self-sustaining garden was meticulously planned to create a harmony between technology and the natural beauty of the Boreal forest.
The fires of 2015 did not ignore Forest House. A massive fire storm swept towards the tiny, unnamed lake, threatening the lodge, its two cabins, and outlying buildings. The only chance to save Forest House was to set up and man a sprinkler system, keeping pumps fueled, in an effort top make everything as wet as possible. Staff members from Churchill River Canoe Outfitters (owners of Forest House), braved the smoke, ash, heat and flames, to stop the progress of the blaze within mere feet of the complex. What an amazing undertaking!
2009 - Forest House 1.0
My first visit to Forest House was with my wife, Velda, in 2009. Churchill River Canoe Outfitter's owners, Ric and Theresa Driediger had just purchased the lodge. Velda and I were to be their first "test" guests.
When we walked across that last portage, into the small lake housing the lodge, we immediately realized something was different. The forest was greener and more lush than that of the surrounding lakes and there seemed to be a special feeling of serenity and calmness in the air.
Over the next few days, we explored the trails around the lodge, and ate gourmet meals with ingredients from the forest such as chickweed, dandelions, and cattails, as well as fresh produce from the abundant garden.
Velda and I had spent eighteen summers in northern Saskatchewan, but were "virgins" when it came to identifying wildflowers in the Boreal forest. One morning, we found a book entitled "Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland". Just for fun, we decided to take the book with us on a trail hike and see how many species we could find. The result was amazing!
There was Silverberry, Buffaloberry, Prickly Rose, Labrador Tea, Bearbeary, Fairybells, Star Flowers, Lady's Slipper, Plantain, Chickweed, Wood Anemone, Buttercups, Larkspur, Wild Strawberry, Fireweed, Pink Wintergreen, Northern Starflower, Hawkweed, Bunchberry, Harebell, Foxtail, Ferns, Bristle Moss, Thread Moss, Lichen, Common Shingle, Frog Pelt, Red Pixie Cup, and Sulphur Cup. We found these in a matter of a couple of hours. A rain storm put an end to the venture. Since, I have looked for similar flowers in other areas of the north, but I have yet to find a selection as prolific as this anywhere.
I was so moved and inspired by my first visit to Forest House, that I composed a suite of music dedicated to this magical, mystical, special place.
2012/2013 - Forest House 1.5
In August of 2012, Velda and I made our second trip to Forest House, this time accompanied by our friends, Bob and Sherry Paterson. It was the 20th Anniversary of Sherry's double lung and heart transplant and Forest House was our special present to our friend to celebrate the occasion.
As I walked across that last portage, I could not help but wonder if that magical, mystical Forest House feeling I experienced in 2009 would still be there.
The plaintiff called of the loon echoed across that small, calm lake, the trails deeply carpeted in soft moss were still there, and since it was August, wildflowers were replaced by armies of mushrooms dotting the forest floor. Most importantly, the sensation of being in a special, almost surreal place still existed. I named it "Forest House Fever".
In late August of 2013, I returned to Forest House, this time with songstress extraordinaire, Sue Leonard, as part of the Naomi Project (click here to see the details).
This venture was one giant experiment. I had met Sue through a music website I designed. Until this trip, we had never met in person. Sue is an amazing musician. As soon as I heard her, I fell in love with her sultry, sensitive, deeply-moving vocal style. I am honored at being given the opportunity to work with her.
Sue flew to Saskatoon, we jumped into my car, drove to Missinipe, Saskatchewan, loaded hundreds of pounds of recording equipment into a plane, landed on the lake next to the tiny Forest House Lake, portaged are cargo in, canoed it down the lake, carried up the steep hill to Forest House, set it up and recorded for four days.
Sue definitely felt that"Forest House Fever", and it inspired her to write some gorgeous, haunting melodies and profound lyrics. Forest House was still mystical and magical, but this time, it was also musical!
2017 - Forest House 2.0
July, 2017 would be Velda and my first trip back after the fires. We stopped into Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in Missinipe for a visit with Ric Driediger, before embarking on the last leg of our journey. He warned us, "When you first see it, you're going to cry! But after you get used to the changes, it will be OK."
Rick's words did not begin to cover what we saw and what we were about to feel. This time, when we walked across that last portage to where the magic usually began, our initial reaction was shock and tears. Everything to the north, south, east, and west of the lodge was gone, including the once pristine little islands that dotted the lake! I can still remember that gut-wrenching feeling.
Our gear was going to be ferried half way down the lake to the lodge by some of Rick's staff, but Velda and I decided to continue our tradition of walking the shoreline trail to the lodge. We would soon regret this. The old, soft, moss-laden gentle trail we remembered was now non-existent. We found ourselves bushwhacking through charred timber, our legs often-tangled in thick low-lying vines. We arrived at the lodge tired, covered in soot and deeply discouraged. But then..... what a surprise!
Forest House is a lush oasis, in the middle of a desert of charcoal!
The magnificent main lodge, the two gorgeous cabins, and the shoreline sauna house are all there, as are the vibrant, productive vegetable gardens, the carpet of green grass, assorted flowers and a selection of trees. Most importantly, is that special Forest House ambiance and that intangible sensation of serenity and peacefulness.
This trip I didn't have the opportunity to travel too far down the old trails looking for tiny residents of the forest floor to photograph. The trails were still somewhat tangled and cluttered with the forest fire debris. I did manage to locate some minuscule, beautiful blooms in the burn close to the lodge, hopefully a premonition of days to come. Ironically, Fireweed is everywhere, a gentle reminder from Mother Nature of her power.
The good news is that while we were there, Ric's staff continued to mark and clear the trails. In fact, there will now be a brand new one taking hikers over one of the highest points on the lake, with a spectacular view of Forest House and Hutchings Lake to the west. I hope that someday I will have the privilege of walking it.
We left Forest House on a rainy Monday morning. The shock was replaced by that old sense of awe and serenity. "Forest House Fever" is alive and well!
As I turned for that one last look of the lodge on the tiny little pristine lake, I could not help but marvel at the miracle that allowed this special place to survive the wall of fire - "By the Grace of God and the Almighty Sprinkler!"
P.S. - The Spirit that built Canada
The summer of 2015 brought massive forest fires to Saskatchewan and Alberta. As I write this in 2017, British Columbia is undergoing one of its worse fire seasons ever. During all of this, thousands of firefighters, pilots, and personnel, as well as countless volunteers have banded together to fight the flames and care for the victims. These people are unfortunately, often forgotten and unheralded. Their spirit and dedication is the same spirit that built this great land of ours. This is Canada!