There are small farms and abandoned harvesters along the way, but nothing to link this place with the sprawling, sulphur-spewing Weyerhaeuser Co. Ltd. paper mill 30 kilometres to the west at the far end of Lake Wabigoon. There appears to be nothing really, other than the trees that help to form the world's biggest boreal forest, to connect this place with the big forestry industry of Northwestern Ontario.
There is no sign marking the road's destination - a tattered hamlet that looks like something out of hillbilly country, complete with a baseball diamond that has lost the fence it once had along the third-base line but gained a pile of old appliances just beyond left field.
In marked contrast, the nursery looks like a new-age sports arena, with its translucent roof covering 96,000 square feet. In a region that knows its trees - how to grow them and how to cut them down - this is as good as it gets.
Down the road, a nursery playground sits empty, its swings and slides staring silently at a lawn sign left over from last year's federal election. It's for Liberal candidate Robert Nault, who went on to become Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, the grand chief of an almost $5-billion budget that trickles down to places like Wabigoon.
Every so often, the run-down houses occupied by people who aren't politically well- connected give way to handsome bungalows with pine decks and sturdy doors, inhabited by people who are. In either case, there is a satellite television dish and often snow machines and all-terrain vehicles in the front yard. They are the fruit of a good season's work in a logging camp before the perennial migration to social assistance, still the reserve's biggest economic resource.
In fact, until the nursery was built last year, the only visible enterprise was the Wabigoon Lake Community Store, owned and operated by the band, and on this day, the keeper of one head of lettuce, three loaves of bread, 28 frozen pizzas and 86 varieties of potato chips, nachos and cheesies.
In marked contrast, the nursery looks like a new-age sports arena, with its translucent roof covering 96,000 square feet. In a region that knows its trees - how to grow them and how to cut them down - this is as good as it gets. No other private nursery in the Dryden area - the "mecca of tree planting," Mitani calls it - has as much greenhouse space, as much computer equipment or as sophisticated a climate-control system.
Built at a cost of $1.8-million, the operation employs, in peak season, 40 people, half the reserve's adult population. They earn $10 an hour or more, which pumped more than a quarter-million dollars into the reserve in the first year alone.
The nursery also relies heavily on the very mill that the people of Wabigoon once loathed for spewing toxic mercury into the water supply. Now owned by U.S. forestry giant Weyerhaeuser, the Dryden plant and a mill in Thunder Bay, 325 kilometres to the east, owned by Bowater Inc. agreed to honour a deal (cut by Avenor, the Canadian company that once owned them both) to buy five million seedlings a year.
Having gobbled up much of the Canadian papermaking industry, Weyerhaeuser and Bowater were not only interested in good community relations. They had also come to realize the need for aboriginal co-operation if they ever were going to gain access to the vast forest - the last of its kind on the continent - that stretches from here to Hudson Bay.
"We could see first nations were playing a larger role in our business and they were going to play an even bigger role," Bowater manager Bill Roll says of Avenor's strategy in making commercial agreements with native bands around Dryden.
The bands viewed the huge forestry industry as their ticket out of unemployment and poverty, he says. The mills that once polluted their waters were now instituting affirmative-action programs, giving natives dibs on logging contracts and, in Wabigoon, buying their seedlings.
Forestry's great promise for natives is nothing new - about 80 per cent of Canada's first nations live in wooded areas. Much of it is Crown land that they have long believed they should be able to harvest, but that right has gone to big forestry companies thanks to long-term leases.
The two worlds - native and logger - started to come together in the 1980s. When millions of tax dollars were lost to reserve-based sawmills and other enterprises that went bust, provincial governments turned to the big forestry companies that had access to Crown land, and encouraged them to allot more logging and mill work to native communities.
One result was a new breed of entrepreneur.