November 30, 2016

Rocky Mountain Art Breaks Records

Mountain Forms, Lawren Harris
Ninety years ago, in 1926, Lawren Harris painted his iconic Mountain Forms just down the road from us along the Sawback Range.  One week ago, this same painting sold at auction for over $11 million, smashing the price record for any Canadian piece of art.  It got us thinking about art in the Canadian Rockies, and it turns out the story of the previous record holding painting has a connection to both Lake Louise and Lawren Harris.

Lake Agnes, Above Lake Louise, Rocky Mountains, Lawren Harris
If you're unfamiliar with Lawren Harris, he was one of the founders of the celebrated artists collective, the Group of Seven.  They transformed Canadian landscape painting in the early 20th century, and several members of the group came to the Rockies to paint.  Harris' works are particularly brilliant and luminous, and we love them, as they convey what it feels like to be in the mountains.  His painting Lake Agnes, Above Lake Louise, Rocky Mountains puts us right up there on the mountainside.

In this work, you can see Mount Lefroy in the distance, and it turns out that the former record-holding Canadian painting is called Scene in the Northwest: Portrait of John Henry Lefroy, painted by Paul Kane.  Lefroy was an British administrator, but also a top-rank scientist.  When he was posted to Toronto in 1842 to run a new magnetic observatory, he launched an expedition into the hinterland of Canada to measure geo-magnetic activity all the way to the Arctic Circle.  The goal was to locate the North Magnetic Pole. In 1843 and 1844, he travelled more than 8,000 kms to perform his measurements.

Scene in the Northwest: Portrait of John Henry Lefroy, Paul Kane

Kane made the painting after Lefroy returned from the expedition, and then Lefroy took it home with him when he returned to England in 1853.  Here the story gets really interesting.  Wikipedia picks up the rest:

“The original painting remained in the Lefroy family for some 150 years, but they had no knowledge of the artist or its value. It was forgotten in Canada until researchers at the Library and Archives Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario learned of its existence and located it in the possession of one of Lefroy's descendants. They opted to put it up for auction in 2002. It sold at auction in February 2002 at Sotheby's Canada in Toronto for $5 million. The painting was appraised at $450,000 to $550,000, but a competitive auction vastly exceeded its appraised value.”

Mount Lefroy, Lawren Harris
As a final chapter to this story of top-value Canadian art with Rocky Mountain connections, we leave you with this reproduction of one of Lawren Harris' most famous paintings, Mount Lefroy. You can see the real Mount Lefroy next summer if you join us on a guided hiking trip to the Plain of Six Glaciers. We hope to see you on the trail!

November 22, 2016

The Animal Rodney Dangerfield

The golden-mantled ground squirrel doesn't get much respect. It was true in the 1950s and it's still true today.  These two videos prove it, and wow... looks like our attention span has gone from over 10 minutes to a mere 26 seconds!

Squeak, the Squirrel (1957)
Golden-mantled ground squirrels - Banff National Park (2014)

And, speaking of no respect, don't get us started about the Crasher Squirrel meme.

So we, Nadine and Joel, felt that it was time to raise the profile of this most photogenic of wildlife species. Let's give ground squirrels some respect, starting with the amazing story of their winter hibernation. While in their dens, they:

  • drop their core body temperature over 30 C, down to the ambient temperature in their dens (likely 1-3C).
  • reduce their heart and breath rate to 5-10% of normal.
  • have a metabolic rate below 5% of their active rate.

But they don't stay at these extremes all winter long. About every two weeks, they rouse themselves fully. Biologists have long wondered why. Their latest idea is that it's all about staying smart – the brain needs to repair itself.

A Scientific American article from last year describes it like this: “Hibernation devastates the ground squirrel brain, wilting thousands if not millions of vital connections.... But its brain has evolved impressive resilience, repeatedly renewing itself at astonishing speeds, like a forest erupting through the scorched earth in a matter of days.”

The idea is that allowing the brain to degenerate  reduces energy demands on a day to day basis. But that can't be allowed to go too far. The brain runs the risk of permanent damage. So, every few weeks the squirrel comes out of deep hibernation and the brain “blooms:”
“Whereas neurons in hibernating brains looked like barren tree limbs in the dead of winter... in only two hours the squirrels' brains had not only compensated for all the synapses lost during hibernation—their brain cells now boasted many more links than those of an active squirrel in the spring or summertime.”
One day later, they were back to being barren trees.

We don't yet know how they do it. It's an amazing story and one worthy of respect!

Respect also grows when you find out that ground squirrels are almost on a par with bears when it comes to medical interest in how they hibernate. More and more scientists are studying them to find treatments for ailments like heart attacks and stroke, diabetes, bone loss, and brain degeneration (Alzheimer's disease for example). They are also looking at ways to extend the shelf life of organs for transplant. Many of those scientists, like Ken Storey, are Canadian. After all, we're a land cold enough to have hibernators, eh!

These researchers are looking at the many amazing ways that hibernating animals reduce their energy demands and put themselves – safely – into a state of suspended animation. A hibernating animal is dealing with starvation, hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) and low blood flow in hibernation, and the need to quickly gain weight before hibernation.  To do it, they must transform themselves in many ways.

The list includes change at the cellular level (turning genes on and off; changes in the biochemistry of cell function) and at the macro level (shrinking organs; partnerships with microbes; adding haemoglobin to the blood... and much more). There's so much to learn that has medical implications.

So, the next time you are tempted to take that oh-so-cute snap of a ground squirrel... think twice! And take that picture with respect.

November 3, 2016

A Banff Love Story Comes to the Silver Screen

If you spend any time in Rockies, you eventually run across the story of a most unlikely romance – the late 1920s pairing of Banff local Peter Whyte and Boston socialite Catharine Robb. The two met at art college in Boston, and eventually settled in Banff, where they painted some of our favourite canvasses. The eventual outcome of Pete and Catharine coming together, along with a prodigious output of paintings, was the creation of the Whyte Museum and Archives in Banff, a beloved local institution.

Pete & Catharine Whyte in front of their house in Banff in the early 1930s.
PhotoV683 – Courtesy of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
We've known and shared the story of Peter and Catharine for years, but last night we got to see it recreated at the world premiere of Drawing Home, a biopic focussed on their life and legacy. It was as close to a red-carpet experience as we're likely to have around here: the producers and the two leads were both in attendance, the Lux cinema was packed with locals, and we whooped and hollered when Brad White, the great-nephew of Pete and Catharine, had his cameo in the film.

A scene from Drawing Home being filmed in Larch Valley, above Moraine Lake.
Photo courtesy of
A lot of big movies have been filmed here, without being set here: the Rockies have played Norway, Austria, Alaska, Switzerland, Wyoming... you name it! So it was wonderful to see the Rockies playing the Rockies. The filmmakers took advantage of some dramatic spots, like Lake Louise, Larch Valley, Moraine Lake, Skoki Lodge, and, of course, Pete and Catharine's beautiful home in Banff.  It was fun to try to pick out all the locations used in the movie.

The film is a romance, and even the back story of how it came to be is romantic. The producer, German Margarethe Baillou, told the sweet tale after the premiere. She came to the Rockies as a tourist in 2007, and fell in love with the place. When she happened across an exhibit of Pete and Catharine's paintings at the Whyte Museum (an unbelievable stroke of luck – it was the first retrospective of their work in the museum's history), she was hooked. From there it was a nine year journey to have it fall into place. The filming took place in 2011 and 2012, and post-production took four more years.

Our autographed poster of Drawing Home.
Since world premieres of feature length films are a rarity around here, we stuck around to get an autographed movie poster.

If you're keen on more, the Calgary Herald's piece about the movie is excellent.

And our local paper, the Crag & Canyon wrote a story about the movie a couple of days ago.

We hope Drawing Home shows up in your hometown. Make sure you bring a kleenex or two: you might shed a tear.

October 29, 2016

Prepping for hibernation, Rocky Mountain style

We've had snow in Lake Louise the last few days, and it's clear that it's going to stick around on the ground from now until spring.  In most years, we have snow in our backyard from late October into early or mid-May.

That's a long winter.

Hoary marmot

A lot of mammals in the park spend those snowy months underground. By our best count, there are ten species of hibernators in the park.

Here's the list:
  • grizzly and black bears
  • two kinds of grounds squirrels
  • two species of chipmunks
  • little and big brown bats
  • one species of jumping mouse
  • the hoary marmot

Columbian ground squirrel
This fall, we managed to see a couple of these animals in “prep” mode. All the rodents carry extra bedding material to their dens in September. You'll see them running around with giant mouthfuls of dry grass. I managed to snap shots of both a Columbian ground squirrel and a hoary marmot as they couriered grass across the meadows.

As well, all of these mammals gain weight before the snow flies, and bears showcase this the best. They can put on between one and two pounds of fat per day during August and September.  Last year, our friend Amar Athwal paired a photo of grizzly bear #148 that he'd taken in the spring with the same bear in the fall. The weight gain is extraordinary. Look for the little yellow ear tags in each photo.  It's the only way you can even tell it's the same animal.

Grizzly bear #148, in spring (right) and fall, 2015.  Photo by Amar Athwal

Since we've featured Amar's photo, we'll do another shout out to him here. You can find his celebrated “Banff Moments” either on Facebook or at his website, and if you want to get a weekly email featuring his latest photos, you can email him at

We don't hibernate, but we do plan to take it easy for the next few weeks ourselves, as we wait for the snow to pile up enough for snowshoeing season to begin. Enjoy your fall!

August 22, 2016

Bumper Berry Crop, Part II

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about the incredible crop of buffaloberries this year. Yesterday, after my morning guided walk, I got to see who was enjoying the harvest. Not 50 metres from our front door, a big male grizzly bear was feasting on berries.


Grouseberries, a low-growing blueberry

Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera with me, but I did capture the next chapter of the berry story later in the day.  We zipped up to Saddleback Pass in the afternoon, and passed all of the other berry species that are coming ripe.  As the buffaloberry crop wanes, grizzlies should start moving uphill to take advantage of the late season berries.  Here's a few to watch for:

  • Crowberries grow almost on the ground, and are a purplish-black colour. They're easy to miss.
  • Grouseberries are a dwarf blueberry, even though they're pink when they're ripe.
  • Huckleberries are nice deep purple, and are another member of the big blueberry clan in the park.

Keep your eyes peeled for both the fruit and the frugivore!

August 14, 2016

Fungus and Glaciers and Sheep, Oh My! A Day Trip to Wilcox Pass.

We had an afternoon off yesterday, and decided to take advantage of the rare sunny day we'd lucked into to go for an explore up the Icefields Parkway.  Just after the Banff / Jasper boundary, there is a marvellous trail to Wilcox Pass.  Nadine was not sure she'd ever been up there, and I hadn't been for years.

It turned out to be a spectacular day.  The trail is short and steep, and gets you into the treeless alpine in only about twenty minutes.  Enroute, there are at least a dozen vantage points that take in the big peaks and glaciers of the Columbia Icefield area.  It's heaven if you like panorama photos.  Don't forget to click this shot to see it full size.

Bighorn sheep ram near Wilcox Pass
We also spied a couple of beautiful bighorn sheep rams, but what really caught our attention after the eye candy of wildlife and mountains was the incredible coral fungus popping out of the soil.

With all the rain so far this summer, 2016 is proving to be a good mushroom season. This coral fungus highlights the beauty of mushrooms, but also the difficulty we face when asked, "what is it?" and "can you eat it?"

Coral fungus the size of a dinner plate!
This species is in the genus Ramaria, and there are 200 species of Ramaria around the world! Identifiying them requires a microscope, a chemistry kit, and a whole lot of patience. As for edibility, coral fungus run the full gamut from "edible and choice" to poisonous.

So we've decided to just allow ourselves to be moved by the beauty of the coral fungus, and leave all the ID work to the experts. If you are out hiking during the rest of August, don't forget to look down.  You may enjoy the view.

August 6, 2016

Bumper Berry Crop This Summer

If you've been in the Rockies this summer, you'll have noticed that we are having the best berry crop in years.  The berry everyone follows here is the buffaloberry (Sheperdia canadensis), and it is the single most important food for bears in Banff and Jasper.  Bears are able to consume over 100,000 of these berries per day in the best part of the summer, which by all accounts, is right now.

This year's climate must have favoured the buffaloberries, and if you are alongside rivers or roadsides in the park, the fruit is so abundant that you can see the red among the foliage.  When you get up close, the bushes are just stacked with berries.

I sleuthed around online and found a 2007 PhD thesis about buffaloberries, by University of Saskatchewan student Richard Green.  Here's the skinny on what's in a buffaloberry:
Ripe buffaloberries, August, 2016

  • 75.1% moisture
  • 1.4% protein
  • 0.5% lipid
  • 4% dietary fibre.
  • 6.4% glucose
  • 3.7% fructose
It's those final two ingredients that turn our skinny bears into fat bears. Come September, we expect to see some pretty fat bears!

If you find a patch of buffaloberries, keep your eyes open for bears, and happy trails.