BY LINDA MONDOUX
If you’re pondering an eco holiday in a pristine wilderness environment away from the stresses of daily life, you’ll be happy to know that you need not travel all the way to Costa Rica for the experience.
Camping. Fishing. Hiking. Mountain biking. Canopy tree walking. Dogsledding. Stargazing. And soon, the longest zipline riding in the world. There’s wildlife to view up close, including wolves. There’s forest honey to taste. And Japanese mushrooms to take home and harvest. You can even find toys made from the forest’s own timber.
The Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve
, a 70,000-acre privately owned treasure in the Haliburton Highlands, offers the perfect escape back to nature. It’s here, in Canada’s first certified sustainable forest, where owner Peter Schleifenbaum has harmoniously combined recreation and industry to help him preserve a unique inheritance that boasts rolling hardwood forests, 50 lakes, meandering rivers and streams, vast wetlands and abundant wildlife. It’s also here that research shows our early ancestors camped and fished along an ancient riverbank as far back as 7000 BC.
While Schleifenbaum is only too eager to talk about the forest’s star commercial attractions — the Wolf Centre and the “walk in the clouds” tree-top canopy tour — he is equally as excited to discuss its extensive research partnership with the University of Toronto; the sawmill and wood shop; the apiary; and the shiitake mushroom operation. Not to mention the submarine that was shut down due to government red tape and lack of inspiration (more on that later).
First, an update on the Haliburton Forest’s orphaned moose, which is still creating a buzz since its arrival in June 2011. Turns out that the surviving “female calf” taken in after the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources came knocking following a car accident that killed the mother moose — leaving two young orphans behind — is actually a boy. “He came as a she,” says Schleifenbaum of the orphan. “We were told it was a female. At two weeks old, you can’t tell what it is.”
The aptly named Hershe (formerly Ms. Moose) has since been castrated, making him a “lifer” at the Haliburton Forest for the safety of both the animal and motorists. You’ll find him in an enclosure at base camp, where he is “doing his own thing” and winning the hearts of visitors who drop by for a look. “He’s very popular,” says Schleifenbaum, who says visitors want their photo taken with the moose. Fully grown, a large bull moose could reach a shoulder height of six feet and weigh up to 1,800 pounds.
The enclosure ensures Hershe will remain safe from the forest’s many wild wolves, including the famous pack that roams freely in a 15-acre enclosure, one of the largest of its kind in the world. A large indoor observatory at the Wolf Centre overlooks the feeding area within the wolf compound, giving visitors an opportunity to watch these beautiful animals through a one-way glass. It’s a thrilling experience to observe the grey wolves close-up as they come down the hill and into view. Photos on a wall of the viewing area help visitors identify individual wolves through their markings — the pack now numbers seven. In winter, a microphone picks up the sound of the wind, the occasional distant snowmobile and sometimes the animals’ playful antics or a warning growl or snap when a wolf of lower rank gets out of line.
Meet Luna, Layla, Logan and Lonestar
Haliburton Forest celebrated the birth of four wolf cubs in April 2011, after three years without offspring. “It hadn’t happened in 16 years,” Schleifenbaum says of the litter drought, adding that the reason wasn’t discovered until Citka, the alpha female, died while trying to give birth. It was discovered that Citka had a hidden growth under the base of her tail. In the previous year, the growth had “squashed the pups” as they were born. The pups were found dead by forest staff, but no one knew why. A year later, the growth had grown so large that it prevented the final litter from being born, resulting in a stillbirth and killing Citka.
Today, Haida and Granite are the alpha pair and rule the pack. The new pups have been named Luna, Layla, Logan and Lonestar.
If you’re lucky enough to be behind the observation window at feeding time, you’ll see the animals devour the carcass of a deer or some beavers offered by area trappers. Or even a moose. Even though all their food is dead, more sensitive visitors might still opt to stay away during feeding time when the hungry wolves, descendants of a pair that arrived from northern Michigan in 1993, will lick and gnaw bones clean with amazing speed.
The Wolf Centre, which is open year-round, also contains exhibits, a small cinema/classroom and a retail area featuring a selection of wolf-related books and tapes.
In winter, you can combine a visit to the Wolf Centre with an afternoon of dogsledding. More than 130 Siberian Huskies will be raring to go. But be warned: they don’t call this the Haliburton Highlands for nothing. It’s not just the dogs that work on these treks. If you opt to drive the team, rather than sit back and enjoy the scenery from the comfort of your sleigh, be prepared to work on this hilly terrain.
If you have access to a snowmobile, the forest offers more than 300 kilometres of well-developed trails through some of Ontario’s most scenic wilderness.
In spring, summer and fall, you can take the forest’s famous “walk in the clouds” canopy tour, which begins with a drive through the forest, followed by a walk along the banks of the Pelaw River and a short canoe ride. Once at the canopy staging area, you’ll soon be walking up to 20 metres above the forest floor along a half-kilometre long boardwalk — the longest of its kind in the world.
Seems Schleifenbaum has a thing for world records, so it’s no surprise he is planning to introduce the world’s longest zipline in 2012. “I wanted it to be over two kilometres,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It will be about that.”
Red tape sinks submarine tour
Technical challenges are nothing new for Schleifenbaum, who introduced the world’s only fresh water tour submarine to the forest’s MacDonald Lake in 2004. Until provincial red tape closed him down after two years, lucky visitors got to take a ride on the six-person custom-made submarine, which plunged 70 feet below the surface of the glacial lake for a closeup look at its undisturbed ecosystem.
“There were no government regulations to operate a submarine, so we created our own,” Schleifenbaum says. “We operated for two summers with no problem, then the federal government sent someone in, presumably to close us down, because they couldn’t imagine that anyone could operate a submarine safely.”
Far from closing down the sub to public tours, the official gave the thumbs-up, proclaiming the submarine bombproof and “ingenious.” Then came the Ontario government, which sent in the Ministry of Labour to make sure all the appropriate rules were being followed. Since there were no provincial rules guiding the operation of a submarine, the ministry decided that diving rules would be applied. One of the first rules of diving is that the operator wear thermal protection. “So our pilots had to wear wetsuits, which as you can imagine was really hot in such a tight space,” says Schleifenbaum.
Next, the province sent in someone from the Canadian navy. “They shut us down seven times while we met their conditions,” says Schleifenbaum. “It the end it was semantics, the way the regulations were written and how they were interpreted. We finally decided to give up. Sometimes we think of taking on the fight again, but we just don’t have the energy right now.”
While the submarine is closed for commercial tours, it can still go under for private use. “It was amazing down there,” Schleifenbaum says. “I’m a forester, so I learned lots: how fragile the environment is.”
A major coup during the submarine’s tour was the discovery of an inukshuk-like stone structure deep beneath the water’s surface. About 18 feet high and 18 feet wide, the structure is believed to be a directional marker left by an ancestor who hunted and camped along the shoreline of MacDonald Lake when water levels were much lower than today, due to a dramatic drought that gripped eastern North America between 7000 and 9000 BC. The marker, which an archeologist hired by Schleifenbaum has confirmed is manmade, sits at the edge of a deep ledge, pointing to what experts believe is a deep pool where ancient trout hid out. Haliburton Forest is still famous for its lake trout today.
While a submarine ride is out for now, Haliburton Forest visitors, beyond enjoying all the recreational activities available, can also play astronomist. In summer, you can sign up to watch the stars from the forest’s observatory, which comes complete with roll-off roof and three telescopes. If you’ve never seen a real dark sky, this is the place to discover it.
There are also mountain bikes to rent, along with canoes and kayaks.
Year-round, you can visit the sawmill, which was launched in 2009 to “serve the forest.”
Sustainable forest practices
“We got back to our roots,” Schleifenbaum explains of the sawmill operation, which ensures all 25 species of trees at Haliburton Forest are milled, including poorer grade lumber. That means there is a use for everything, from the lowly railway tie to high-grade wood for fine furniture, all of which is sold into the world market. The fact that not only the best timber is harvested takes the pressure off and means the forest won’t be depleted the way it was when Schleifenbaum’s father bought it in 1963, a year after German Baron von Fuerstenberg acquired it and named the holding Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve.
Hand-in-hand with the sawmill is the forest’s wood shop, which crafts custom pieces from timber milled onsite. You’ll find everything from bowls to furniture to toys. The wood shop store is open seven days a week.
The forest’s wood products are also available at the new store located on Highland Street in the nearby village of Haliburton.
Schleifenbaum, who studied forestry in Germany before he came to Canada in the late 1980s to manage Haliburton Forest, brought a taste of Europe with him. While the philosophy of integrated, sustainable resource management and land use is the chief import, he has recently introduced forest honey, the first of its kind in North America. The forest’s opiary project, which has bees foraging on the native wildflower blooms, nectar from trees and honey dew, is among the many areas of research by the University of Toronto.
If you suffer from hay fever, you might want to consider eating forest honey, which is said to reduce or eliminate plant allergy symptoms. The honey, which is generally darker, more flavourful and more mineral-heavy than traditional honey, is available for sale at Haliburton Forest and the village store.
While you’re at it, you might want to pick up some shiitake mushroom tree logs to impress guests at your next dinner party. The non-timber forest production is all part of Haliburton Forest’s goal of responsible stewardship and sustainability.
The 'pet log' that keeps on giving
The hardwood logs, inoculated with between 40 and 60 mushroom plugs containing thousands of spores, are about 40 inches long and four to six inches in diameter. While they might look like something you would use to start a fire, these are no ordinary logs: Take one of the fungus-infested logs home, soak it in water for 24 hours and voila! You’ll get a fruiting of fresh shiitake mushrooms. Keep the log at the recommended cool temperature and they’ll produce mushrooms every eight weeks for six years! It’s what Schleifenbaum refers to as “pet logs.”
“If you look after it properly, it keeps on giving,” he says.
Haliburton Forest recently began selling the shiitake logs, which cost between $35 and $40 each. With each fruiting producing between one and three pounds of mushrooms, and shiitake mushrooms selling for between $15 and $20 a pound in the store, you’ll have your log paid off after the first two offerings — and be the talk of the dinner party. Also look for local oyster mushroom logs.
Like the majority of eco lodges in Costa Rica, Haliburton Forest is all about nature and the simple things in life. Don’t expect luxury. Accommodations at base camp are comfortable but rustic, ranging from two- and three-bedroom housekeeping units to open-loft log cabins complete with fireplace and spiral staircase. For the more adventuresome, there are semi-wilderness campsites available in the forest interior. There’s a licensed restaurant on site, so you don’t have to cook if you prefer not to.
Base camp at Haliburton Forest is about 225 kilometres from downtown Toronto. A lot closer than Costa Rica, where we have yet to spot a wolf or a moose.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — January 2012