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Regional Characteristics

Athabasca River in spring

Our story starts in the north central part of western Canada. This land is flat. There are no mountains, just a few low-lying hills. The land in the northern part of the area is solidly forested. As you go from the south to the north, you pass from prairies to parkland, with poplar trees and willows. That area grades into land covered with conifers, principally spruce trees of one kind or another, with occasional poplars and birches. As you go still farther north the spruce trees become shorter and scrubby, until finally you are into the Arctic Barren Lands, with only a few willows and shrubs.

-Terry Garvin, Bush Land People

The boreal forest is the largest ecosystem in Canada, covering approximately 3.24 million square kilometres, or about 35 percent of Canada's total land area. Located for the most part between fifty degrees north and seventy degrees north in latitude, the forest stretches about 1,000 kilometres from north to south, and about 9,000 kilometres from east to west. In the northwestern regions of Canada’s boreal forest, overall land elevation ranges from zero to about 1,000 metres above sea level. The overall climate of the region is generally humid and cool, with short growing seasons and long, cold winters. Average temperatures in the northwestern boreal forest tend to range from about five degrees Celsius in the south to minus three degrees Celsius in the north, with temperature extremes in the overall region ranging from minus fifty degrees Celsius to plus thirty-five degrees.

The physical and geological characteristics of the northwest boreal forest region have evolved from the unique demands of the northern environment. The various plant and animal species that comprise the boreal forest have adapted to cope with limited or hard to access food supplies, difficult terrain, and generally lower seasonal temperatures. Trees – in particular coniferous trees like spruce and pine - are by far the most dominant species in the boreal forest region, especially as one moves from the southern towards the northernmost borders of the region. Conifers have adapted to the nutrient poor conditions and brief growing seasons of the north, thus thrive in much of the forest area. Broadleaf deciduous trees also have a home in the forest, but such trees tend to be more numerous in the southern regions of the boreal forest bordered by aspen parkland.  

Another major characteristic of the boreal forest is the large presence of wetlands. It has been estimated that between 20 to 25 percent of the land area covered by Canada’s boreal forest is occupied by wetlands. Throughout the northwest, forested land in broken by clusters of lakes, bogs, marshes, and fens. Major river systems such as the Mackenzie, Peace, Athabasca, and Slave also pass through the boreal forest region. Aside from supporting the numerous plant species in the region, the enormous northern water table has drawn numerous waterfowl and aquatic mammal species to the boreal forest, and is one of the key components to overall species survival in the north.

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