Elke Blodgett and Peter Murphy want to share the beauty of Grey Nuns White Spruce Park – they certainly do not wish to hide it. To make that happen they need people to come to walk the quiet trails of the forest.
“We are not trying to keep people out of the forest as long as they respect it and as long as there are no paved trails. It is part of the community and the more people who come; there is more protection for the forest. We need to have people to protect the forest from vandalism,” said Blodgett.
Blodgett and Murphy agreed to walk through the park earlier this month in an effort to show why they care for these spruce trees and this forest more than any other.
Blodgett explained that she first began walking through the forest many decades ago with her children. She still walks through it on a weekly basis, no matter what the season. A few years ago, when her son was married, Blodgett picked wild flowers from the forest to be worn as crowns by her daughter-in-law and her bridesmaids.
“I love that forest,” she said simply. “The flowers I picked for the wedding were magnificent: all colours, yellow, blue, red. I didn’t hurt the plants. I left them and just picked the flowers.”
Her love for the forest was so extensive that eight years ago, Blodgett, a senior citizen, took the entire summer to walk the trails and to record every single species that she could identify. She counted five species of trees, 21 species of shrubs and 49 species of flowering grassland plants.
“I wanted a record of what was there. And when I couldn’t identify them, I scanned them and sent them to a botanist friend of mine and he identified them,” she said.
Murphy is less emotional and more scientific in expressing his love for the forest, but his passion is obvious nonetheless. The retired forestry professor has studied the forest extensively and proved it was about 170 years old by counting the rings on a downed tree. He wrote an extensive history of the forest to explain how the early settlers needed the wood from the area to build their homes and on hot summer days, those folks went to the stand of trees to find shade and coolness.
“The local spruce forests were important to the settlers around the St. Albert Mission. Despite timber cutting, fires, land clearing for agriculture and more recently urban development, remnants of the original natural plant communities still exist. It’s the last little bit we’ve got of what was once a much larger forest,” he wrote, adding that it is the trees of St. Albert that continue to attract so many people to live in the city.
As he walked, Murphy explained that he believes the trees were too small to be cut for lumber by the early settlers. Nonetheless the forest was always there except for small breaks in the trees in areas such as the flood plain near the river, which were farmed.
“Aerial photos of this area from the 1940s show this was used for hay and pasture. Photos from 1924 show a forest on both sides of the river,” he said.
Now he would like to have forestry students visit the area to show them the different layers of tree growth. The quickly growing poplars shade the spruce trees until they become established.
“You can see the progression of the heights from aspen to spruce. It would be a neat area to take students,” he said.
Still, Blodgett believes the same area was damaged when road salt and debris was dumped there in years past.
“There was so much salt in the water it killed the growth of trees,” she said.
As she walked, Blodgett pointed to the tracks of baby deer and the swaying stems of bluebells, violets, wild roses and huge fungi known as artist’s conk. She paused to make cawing noises at a passing raven and explained the difference between the raven’s cry and that of a crow. She mourned the fact that she believes she no longer hears as many songbirds and blames the nearby existence of Ray Gibbon Drive.
“It is encouraging to see tracks of the baby deer but I have read studies that show that songbirds don’t nest near roads because they cannot hear each other’s mating calls,” she said, adding that her one fear in naming and preserving the white spruce forest as a park is that it will lose its natural beauty and become too urbanized.
“We must not fence this in because that will keep the moose and the deer out. It must be left in its natural state. And we must not add concrete trails,” she said.
Grey Nuns honoured
Last October city council declared the area located at the end of Hogan Road east of Ray Gibbon Drive as the Grey Nuns White Spruce Park. The forest, which covers an area just under 10 hectares, can easily be seen from the BLESS shelter on the south side of the Sturgeon River and people can walk to the spruce trees via the Ray Gibbon Drive pedestrian bridge.
Yet on a sunny June afternoon there is no sign of anyone else except for some ATCO gasoline pipeline personnel on the outskirts of the forest. The forest’s very loneliness and perhaps also the peaceful sense of solitude that it offers may also be its greatest detriment. Its apparent isolation and rough trails make it an easy target for vandals. It’s also served as an illegal camping ground and Blodgett worries that the campers will harm increasing numbers of trees.
“Before there was a trail system that was respected by everyone. But now there is a lot of vandalism. Trees were cut down and they fell across the trails and now people are forced to walk around the trees. When they do that they trample the sensitive forest floor and disturb the roots,” Blodgett said.
Murphy agreed, adding that in provincial parks, most people stay on designated trails. His wish is that the same thing could happen in the Grey Nuns Park.
“When the forest floor is trampled, it impedes the ability of the trees to take in water. We need dedicated trails. We need to sustain the forest,” he said.
Over the past several years Blodgett counted flowers in the forest but she also recorded instances of vandalism including a fire and evidence of camping.
During her walk she led the way past a tree that was cut down and now blocks the former natural trail. The tree was once a towering spruce with a huge trunk.
“Why would you cut this down? For what purpose? Just for the pleasure of cutting it down? It’s just waste and I cried when I saw it,” she said.
Now with the tree down, the best thing to do would be to cut a small walking space in the trunk to allow people to use the trail once again.
“They need to leave the old trees. Beautiful mosses will grow on them and they will rot eventually and add to the soil. I call them nursery trees, but you could cut a path through this tree so the old trail could be used,” she said.
Island of trees
Last fall Murphy was named to a committee to study the white spruce forest and he was reluctant to discuss any issues concerning the development of the park. But as a forester, he explained the issues that affect the health of the trees.
“The forest is a bit stressed. It is in isolation, apart from other trees, an island in an urban area. We may have to plant some more spruce to sustain it,” he said.
Murphy agreed that there are thousands of spruce trees growing all over Alberta. But this stand of trees is unusual in the Edmonton area.
“This is a rare forest. Spruce forests are rare in this part of the country and there aren’t any others in the Edmonton area,” he said.
In his historical essay Murphy also explained that he believes the forest must be maintained as a legacy for future generations and as part of the historical continuum that shows the forest was there and was cared for by many generations of St. Albertans.
“This is our heritage – it is what we have inherited,” he said.
Blodgett agreed, not just because of the long-standing history, but also because of the natural beauty of the area, which she says must be preserved.
“We must look after it because it is there. It is a historic monument more than anything else we have in this town. When you go to the white spruce forest, it is sort of like going to church because it is quiet and the old trees are like cathedrals. It is such a protected space. Please, get people to love it,” pleaded Blodgett.