Nature Trail ~ The Forest

Three hundred years ago, Epekwitk (Prince Edward Island) was covered with a great ancient forest of yellow birch, beech, white pine, sugar maple, red oak and many other species of trees. That forest is gone now, due to extensive land clearing through the 1800s. Gone with that forest are many species that inhabited it including black bear, marten, fisher and many of the resources these forests once provided the Mi’kmaq with to supply food, shelter and clothing.

What remains of the forest does continue to provide material for a wide variety of Mi’kmaq arts and crafts. Traditionally Mi’kmaq craft items were made for practical purposes, but have become very popular today as household decorative items. For example, a split wood basket made from ash or maple wood has long been a staple of Mi’kmaq craftsmanship. In the 1930s and 1940s, a size known as a “potato basket” became particularly popular and they sold for twenty-five cents a piece. They were the standard for picking potatoes without machine and making these potato baskets to sell to farmers each fall kept the Mi’kmaq busy. The art of making ash potato baskets is still alive and well on Lennox Island.

Because black ash is an ideal craft material, The Lennox Island Aboriginal Ecotourism Program is overseeing a project to locate the remaining native black ash seed in PEI. With funding from the First Nations Forestry Programme the project hopes to locate and document all existing Black Ash on PEI. We could then collect their seeds and plant these seeds in suitable habitats. The project will preserve an important piece of the island’s natural biodiversity while keeping this raw material for traditional Mi’kmaq art forms alive.

Other ornamented baskets were also made for special uses. These decorative baskets could be made of wood, bark and rushes or even woven from sweetgrass. One particularly beautiful Mi’kmaq art form is the use of dyed porcupine quills to create multi-coloured and intricate designs.

In addition to tools and crafts the most common Mi’kmaq shelter, a wigwam, was constructed entirely of materials from the Forest of Lennox Island. Wigwams are a cone-shaped shelter, constructed from a frame of 5-10 spruce poles, which are tied together with lengths of spruce root. A thick sapling is then bent into a hoop and long sheets of overlapping birch bark are placed to cover the structure. The bark is kept wet while working with it so it remains flexible. A hole is left at the top to let smoke escape from a rock fireplace inside the wigwam. The fireplace is edged with sand and the rest of the floor is covered in fragrant fir boughs.