The Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Areas is a volunteer organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of the resources of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area (MJWA) including its provincially significant wetland and wildlife, along with meadows and forests. We work closely with Cataraqui Conservation, owner of the Wildlife Area.
This year marks the groups 25th anniversary. To commemorate this significant milestone, Cataraqui Conservation presents a series of interviews with individuals who have played key roles within the Friends over the past quarter century.
Our final interview in the series features Lesley Rusk, a long time Friend, who is also the individual who came up with the idea of bringing the very popular Mush Larose dog sledders to the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area.
CC – How long have you been involved with the Friends of the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area? And why did you choose to become part of the organization?
LR – I just loved the notion of the wildness. It still hasn’t been cultivated yet. Mac Johnson is still wild. You can sit there and just be in your own little world, and all of a sudden, a deer will come out, or you’ll see rabbits. You may see an osprey nesting or herons and lots of things like that.
And I don’t know whether [long-time former Cataraqui Conservation staffer] Stefan Foerster has actually seen a bear, but he has seen paw prints. I just felt it was something special. We worried at times that if it got too popular it would ruin the place, that there was a fine balance if you have too many people, but you need to have a certain amount to keep supporting it.
CC – In terms of the dog sled events, you must be pleased how this little idea has grown to be one of the most popular events at the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area, to the point where they added a non-winter event too?
LR – I don’t know whether it was just me. Stefan had a lot to do with it as well.
That is so exciting the non-winter one, where they’ve got two dogs and the musher is on a bicycle, talk about taking your life in your hands.
It started off in about 2001. I had been dog sledding and I was up in Sundridge [at a large dog sled event], I thought perhaps Mac Johnson might like to try something like that, because they’ve got the trails and such. I had been talking to Stefan and he was quite excited about the idea as well.
We went ahead and got a hold of Mush Larose, and they thought it might be fun, so they came down and took a look at the trails and thought that the site would be grand. The first sledding event took place in 2002 with the actual dog sled races for the winter Family Fun Day. And we were thrilled because we got about 16 teams out, and if people came early enough, they could come and meet with the dogs.
And at the same time that film Eight Below really elevated the popularity of huskies. And we got a lot of good publicity because of that.
CC – So you really identified with the mandate of the Friends, which is to preserve, protect and promote the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area?
LR – One of the big advantages of the Fun Day or the Family Day activities, is the fact that families come out with little ones. And the wee ones will remember those experiences and look forward to coming out the next time. And then we did different things with people who have special needs, we would have them come and we would book the nature centre, in the early years, and they would come, and they would be able to use the facilities and were able to go snowshoeing and were able to go skating, something they had never done before. They had the warmth of the cabin because of the wood stove.
It was just quite incredible that they could come out on a cold, cold day, yet thoroughly enjoy themselves.
CC – Besides the success of the programs and initiatives that the Friends have been involved with over the years, what else do you enjoy about being a member of the organization?
LR – We all have made friends there. And people come and go. I can’t remember if its Tennyson or whether its Wordsworth who said, ‘I am a part of all whom I have met’. [It was Tennyson in his poem Ulysses]. So, whenever you meet someone and you become friends, you are part of their life as well as them becoming part of yours.
If people are wanting somewhere that they can go and relax, and just listen. I mean it’s a trite phrase to stop and smell the roses, because its much more than that, its being still and listening to nature, listen to the running water, listen to the birds singing. And you must give something back for all that, because if no one does, it all ends up getting destroyed. You have to be able to, as I say, be prepared to give something back. It doesn’t need to be much, it can be a donation, or you can come to any one of the different events that the Friends put on.
We have the work bees that go on throughout the spring, summer and fall. Our nursery is doing wonderfully, and the trees are pretty much all indigenous and of this area.
CC - Judging from the references to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Wordsworth and your accent, can we assume you weren’t born in Canada?
LR – I was born in Northern Ireland. I came over to Canada in 1968. And what brought me over? I will quote from Milton this time, ‘fresh fields and pastures new.’
I found a lot of poetry has kind of encapsulated what the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area is all about, not forgetting W.B. Yeats’ The Wild Swans at Coole because there have been times whenever the swans do a fly past, whenever people are skating on the weekend, and its absolutely awe inspiring to see them circling and circling and then coming into land. And the kids are just standing there with their mouths hanging open.
We have also had some lovely paintings that people have done, and I know local art groups have come out for inspiration.
CC – One of the great things, too, about the Friends group, is that you can be involved as much as you want, and that pretty much everyone has something they can offer?
LR – Like on Fun Days, whenever you are at the gate you need to be able to talk to people and give instructions and be friendly. We always need people to help with the canteen, so you don’t need special skills. But it’s also good if you like to do carpentry and things like that. And nobody’s getting any younger, so we need the younger ones to be there to know what needs to be done and eventually take over.
Thank you, Leslie, for your dedication and work with the Friends.
Congratulations to the Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area on their 25th Anniversary. It has been a pleasure hearing your stories and thank you to all past and present members for your passion, dedication, and protection of this precious resource.
For more information about the Friends of Mac Johnson Wildlife Area, upcoming events, to donate or become a member visit https://cataraquiconservation.ca/pages/friends-mac-johnson.