Even our sacred places aren’t sacred

Russell Wangersky
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It was the stones that struck me most.

Far in along the trail up the northern side of Trout River Pond in Gros Morne National Park, you come out from under the tree cover of a forest trail that has been mostly tree cover and the occasional forest meadow. You cross a fast-moving snowmelt brook, clear and cold, that catapults down the steep hillside from the back of the Tablelands, and all of a sudden, the terrain changes completely.

The hillside changes to loose jumbled rock, the perfect definition of scree, and the vegetation becomes sparse — it’s not clear at first whether it’s because of the increased acidity and scarcity of soil, or whether the angle of the hillside has increased to a particular tipping point.

But after that brook, the landscape changes to the duns and browns of bare stone and sand, with the occasional spruces cut into stylized wedges by the wind, standing squatly on gnarled, curved trunks.

It’s almost sere, the kind of landscape you might expect in central Spain or Greece — except there, the missing element would be water, and at Trout River Pond, you can’t help but expect that it would be soil, basic organics, that was lacking, simply because nothing is bound together.

Right after that point, the trail curves down to the very edge of the pond, and on an August day in late morning, the stones — yes, the stones — of the beach are so deep and loose and untrammeled that you sink into them. They are a quicksand made out of a loose matrix of stones in a range of sizes from about the size of a dime up to a quarter. They push back like sand dunes into the nearby flatland spruces, drifts of rock, and when you lie down on your stomach and feel the sun-warmed stones hot against your belly through your shirt, you look down and realize that, in the most unlikely way, you’re actually lying on a beach that is entirely semiprecious stones.

Churts and quartzes, small dappled bright stones and smooth bright rocks that look like they solidified, glassy, right at the moment when they were wetly mixing liquid. Pick up one, pick up another, drop one, drop another — each one a tiny facet of a massive parks system that stretches right across this country.

We have done a good job protecting unique parts of this nation: from the Bow River and the snow-topped Rockies in Banff to Gros Morne and Terra Nova, to the lost Northern parks that must be always packed with wonder yet rarely with people. Historical sites, from Signal Hill to the Halifax Citadel and right across the country, it would be hard to argue that past governments have not done a good job of finding unique places and saving them for future generations.

We have done a good job protecting unique parts of this nation: from the Bow River and the snow-topped Rockies in Banff to Gros Morne and Terra Nova, to the lost Northern parks that must be always packed with wonder yet rarely with people.

I’ve been to many national parks and historic sites, and rarely to one that disappointed.

And perhaps that’s why I wonder about the particular contraction that’s about to happen. Parks Canada has told 1,689 employees that their jobs will change or disappear. In this province, 79 jobs are affected, with 24 vanishing entirely.

CBC News obtained a memo about what that will do in this province, and what it said is hardly unexpected: “Parks Canada is focusing investments on the periods of highest requirements,” a Parks Canada official wrote. “This will result in changes to the operating season of some parks and sites.”

Now, focusing on peak tourist time may make the most business sense.

Narrowing the window to a stricter summer-season may provide the most bang for the buck, and may provide the best services for those who want them.

But it’s probably not the best thing for Canada’s national parks. Because these are not traditional businesses, and deciding to run them solely like businesses deliberately erodes their worth.

Investment is about more than money, and about more than peak periods.

There’s science being done in many parks, and conservation, too, wildlife management and maintenance and a whole host of protective work that few people ever see. And not only that.

The best time to see Canada’s national parks is perhaps when you are almost alone in them — when you can feel the full weight of their wonder without the sound of another human voice.

Coincidentally, that’s also when parks most need someone keeping an eye on them. Just like weakening the CBC until it’s meaningless, successive cuts can diminish the strengths of our parks system. It’s hard to believe that anyone would pick tax breaks to big business over protecting and cherishing true wonders. But somehow, we’ve elected a government that does.

These parks are not a business where you just close the doors at the end of the season and plan for next year. They are lungs and and limbs and spirits — oh, and souls, too.

Unless, of course, you don’t have one.

Russell Wangersky is editorial page editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Parks Canada, CBC News

Geographic location: Gros Morne National Park, Spain, Greece Canada Bow River Rockies Banff Terra Nova Signal Hill

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Recent comments

  • Casey
    May 07, 2012 - 07:02

    Are there people who don't have a soul, and can you tell? Geez! This from a guy who has a degree in philosophy.

  • David
    May 05, 2012 - 06:57

    Classic. Sorry, but your hyperbole about the beauty of the park has no bearing whatseover on the issue of layoffs at Parks Canada ---- and most certianly not in Gros Morne. Beyond the trail builders who were well-paid for their work 30 years ago, it didn't take any current Park employees to let you experience what you did. The fact is that Park employees do not inspect or maintain many of the trails in GM...portions of the Green Gardens trail are so poorly maintained and in such a state of disrepair as to be a real danger to the public. And it isn't becasue there's "too much work" for the exiating staff, so just can that. It's bad that people will lose their jobs, but they did not provide much of any value for the tremendous amount of money spent......if the truth were different, you'd have a point.