In the pilot episode of the comedy television series Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson, director of the Parks and Recreation department of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, declares that his department's existence is a waste of taxpayer money and that his dream is to "have the parks system privatized and run by corporations, for profit."
The character, played by the gloriously mustachioed Nick Offerman, is meant to be a send-up of the stereotypical American libertarian — hyper-masculine, suspicious of government and subsisting almost entirely on cured meats and single-malt whiskey — so the last thing I expect to find as I explore the Haliburton Highlands, a three-hour drive north of Toronto, is something akin to Swanson's vision.
It's been pouring rain for hours when my husband and I meet Cameron Ferguson, our interpretive guide, at the main gates of Haliburton Forest near Haliburton, Ont., but all three of us are smiling: the summer-long drought has come to an end. Water drips from the signs declaring "TOTAL FIRE BAN" that hang from buildings and fenceposts, and the thirsty earth gives off a welcome smell of leafy decay. It's a good day to be in the forest.
My foreknowledge of the Haliburton Forest extends only to its famous Wolf Centre, a 15-acre enclosure with an attached museum and observation room where visitors can watch a small pack of captive but unsocialized wolves go about their lives and learn more about these misunderstood creatures. The centre is an unconventional attraction, but Haliburton Forest itself is an anomaly: a 32,000-hectare property that has the amenities of a provincial park and the same deep commitment to stewardship of the land, but which is in fact privately owned and home to an active commercial logging operation.
A German family, the Schliefenbaums, acquired the land in 1963 at a deep discount. At that time, Cameron tells us, fifty years of continuous logging had stripped the forest of its white pines and most other "useable" trees. But Peter Schliefenbaum, who holds a PhD in forestry and moved to Canada in the 1980s to manage the forest full time, recognized the property's potential. While he waited for the forest to grow, he would just have to get creative.
And so came trails for hiking, biking and snowmobiling, campsites, rental cabins, the Wolf Centre, an astronomy observatory equipped with a roll-off roof and three high-powered Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes, and, at one point, freshwater submarine tours of McDonald Lake. (Government bureaucrats, realizing that there were no regulations on the books concerning the operation of six-person submersibles, put a stop to that, and the submarine is now a curiosity that will eventually be displayed in the main visitor area.)
In time, selective logging resumed at Haliburton Forest — and not just of the choicest maples and pines, but also low-quality and mature trees, which helps mitigate the risk of forest fires and makes room for new, healthy trees to grow. In Schliefenbaum's forest, everything has a potential use and nothing is wasted, with the result that Haliburton Forest sells everything from ready-to-assemble log cabins and sheds to outdoor furniture, paddles, and even health food products like chaga, a fungus that grows on birch trees and purportedly has antioxidant properties.
Schliefenbaum rarely says no to ideas for new products or experiences to add to Haliburton Forest's diverse portfolio, Cameron says. "His attitude is, 'Let's try it and see what happens.' "
To wit: when a group of visiting forestry students from the University of Toronto had the idea to seal wood by submerging it in near-boiling vegetable oil, Schliefenbaum let them build a deep-fryer. It worked: not only does the oil penetrate through the wood fibres, locking out moisture, the finished product ends up smelling like a fairground donut.
Cameron drives us through the dripping trees to the edge of a small lake, today dimpled with rain, where a voyager-style canoe is waiting. After a short paddle, we draw up to a dock at the base of a steep, treed hill. It's time for the 'Walk in the Clouds' Canopy Tour, a guided nature walk with a unique twist: the "trail" is actually a series of 26 narrow suspension bridges strung between towering white pines 40 feet above the forest floor.
We don safety harnesses and Cameron walks us through the process of hooking and unhooking ourselves to and from the steel safety cable that runs along the floating boardwalk. I step onto the first bridge, which immediately sinks under my weight, and my legs momentarily turn to water, but once I find my balance, I begin to appreciate the novelty of seeing the forest from this angle. At one point, we are at eye level with a hawk's nest just a few trees away (the hawk, fortunately, is not in residence), and on this rainy, misty day, it really does feel like we are walking through clouds.
The commercial side of Haliburton Forest would at first seem to run counter to the spirit of conservation, but the company's commitment to stewardship is evident in everything they do. And why not? Its future hinges on the careful management of the forest as a resource for both pleasure and profit.
After our walk in the clouds, it's time for lunch at — where else? — Haliburton Forest's onsite restaurant, The Cookhouse, which specializes in comfort food. My husband and I interpret that as license to order a large poutine and a "Canadian" pizza, which comes loaded with cheese and three different kinds of meat, nary a vegetable in sight. Ron Swanson would be proud.