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. 

June 30, 2016

The Chocolate Milk Event: a Glacial Outflow Mystery

A few days ago, we had an afternoon off, and planned to hike to "Iceberg Lake," up above Bow Glacier Falls. This hidden lake sits just below the Bow Glacier, and has an old, unofficial trail to its shore. The only tricky bit is that you have to ford a glacial creek to get there.

The Bow River under normal conditions
On the way up towards the falls, everything was looking pretty normal. The upper Bow River, coming down from the falls, was its normal steely, glacial blue. We turned to look at the mountains, and when we turned back a moment later, the colour of the river had changed to that of chocolate milk. We looked down river, and there was a tsunami of brown heading towards the lake!

Needless to say, when we got to the ford, it was impassable, so we followed the trail parallel to our chocolate milk stream, until we could go no further. Our path was blocked by a side stream that was at full boil. There were three other hikers there, who had crossed the side stream an hour earlier, when, they said, "it was a trickle." They'd barely made it back across.

Nadine watching the mystery side stream turning everything chocolate brown
Unfortunately, we didn't have time to bushwhack any further, but we're guessing that a glacial ice dam or moraine dam had given way, and the glacial runoff was... well, off and running.

Back at the delta, there were plumes of brown coming into the lake. As we headed home, we wondered if anyone else had watched this little mystery unfold, and we marvelled at the weird, little curveballs that nature can throw out there when you have an afternoon off in the Rockies!

Runoff coming into Bow Lake

June 13, 2016

The Italian Job – Lake O'Hara Style

I was up hiking at Lake O'Hara yesterday, for the first time this season, and it brought me back to a very interesting pilgrimage we undertook in Italy this spring.
We visited Falmenta, the ancestral home of Lawrence Grassi, perhaps Lake O'Hara's most famous trail builder.  If you are a Lake O'Hara fan, you've probably admired his trails.  His handiwork is the original “Italian Job,” long before Michael Caine and the boys pulled off their movie heist.

Lawrence Grassi climbing on Castle Mountain
Lawrence came to Canada in 1912 as a young man, and quietly climbed his way into our Rocky Mountain history books in the 20s, 30s and 40s.  He was a skilled mountaineer and guide, but in his spare time he built trails, including good chunks of O'Hara's trail system in the late 1950s.  His stone staircases and stepping stones are still in good shape, 60 years later, and our trip to Falmenta slowly revealed why.

Lawrence working on the trails of Lake O'Hara in the 50s.
Amanda, Lawrence's great niece, with a
photo of her grandmother, Lawrence's sister

Falmenta is perched on a steep hillside about an hour's drive from Lake Maggiore, and when we arrived unannounced, we really didn't have much of a plan.  In the town's small piazza, we asked around a bit, and were soon introduced to Amanda Grassi, Lawrence's great niece!  She took us on a tour to see the house that Lawrence grew up in, and pretty soon we picked up a small entourage of locals.  In the local cafe, we learned more about the town, and about their lives, and once we said our goodbyes, we headed into the hills to see what we could see.
Nadine, Amanda and Emilio, in front of Lawrence's home

One of thousands of stone walls around Falmenta
It wasn't long before we started to understand where Lawrence got his inspiration.  The hillsides around Falmenta are all terraced with dry stone walls, and the old and abandoned farmhouses are dry stone as well.  The forest is reclaiming what were once terraced farm plots and pastures, but the ghosts of a centuries-old stoneworking culture is everywhere on display.  Lawrence must have been steeped in this tradition from the cradle, and we're lucky he wanted to showcase his heritage in the Rockies.
An abandoned two story house, made with
 dry stone construction

And we'll be the benefactors again next summer.  There will be a new generation of stone-building here, when Amanda's brother-in-law Emilio (married to Lawrence's other great niece) comes out to Canmore in June, 2017. He plans to teach locals dry stone techniques, and together they will restore the trail to Grassi Lakes.

It will be “The Italian Job,” take two.

March 24, 2016

Byron Harmon, Photographer Extraordinaire, and the Mystery of Mount Habel

A few years ago, one of our fellow guides, Jeff Douglas, was featured on a Canadian stamp. He was perched atop Mount Victoria at sunrise, looking down towards Lake Louise.  Now we know that writing letters is a totally passe activity these days, but it's still cool to see a postage stamp that features someone you know, right in your own backyard.

In a couple of weeks, as part of their ongoing series on Canadian Photography, Canada Post is issuing another stamp that features a peak in our (slightly bigger) backyard.  The photo on the stamp is called “Climbing Mount Habel,” and is by one of our favourite Rocky Mountain photographers, Byron Harmon.

Harmon showed up in Banff  in 1903, and over the next 40 years, he practically invented the way this park is portrayed.  His photos are iconic, and we feature him in one of our shows – Rocky Mountain Madness – as a worthy inspiration for any photographer trying to capture what makes this place special.

Anyway, we wanted to remind ourselves of where Mount Habel was, and found it just north of us, near the Wapta Icefield.

But that's not the mountain on the stamp.

The mountain on the stamp is called Mount des Poilus, and it's located in the Yoho Valley, not far from the famous Iceline hiking trail.  So what's going on?  Well, Mount des Poilus was originally named for German mountaineer Jean Habel, who first explored the Yoho Valley in 1897.

We've long admired Mount des Poilus, and took this photo
while backpacking in the Yoho Valley a couple of years ago.

It was renamed in a fit of patriotic re-naming after the end of World War I.  Here's the rest of the story, from

“One week following the armistice which ended the First World War, eleven peaks in the Kananaskis Area were named after prominent French military leaders who had served during the confict. "Les Annales," a French publication, had suggested that one mountain be named, "for the great hero of the age, the humble and fascinating poilu (the lowest ranking soldiers of the French Army) who had battled the invading Germans."

Arthur O. Wheeler was asked to recommend a peak and the fact that he chose Mount Habel to become Mount des Poilus may have had something to do with the fact that Jean Habel was a German citizen. However almost seventy years later Jean Habel’s name was again placed on a mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Author Graeme Pole’s suggestion that a peak on the Continental Divide just north of Yoho National Park be named Mount Habel was accepted by the authorities in 1987.”

February 21, 2016

Sign of the Bat

We moved to Lake Louise in 1992, which means we are about to embark on our 25th year of calling Banff National Park home.  We've lived through a quarter century of nature revelations, including the discovery of: a golden eagle flyway over the park; a grove of 1,000 year old whitebark pines; and the South American migration destination of the park's elusive black swifts.

At the latest meeting of the local naturalist's club, Parks Canada revealed Banff's most recent nature discovery: the first bat hibernaculum in the park!  A hibernaculum is a nifty scrabble word for a den, cave, or any other hibernation location.  Since bats are voracious bug eaters, come winter, they either have to fly far enough south to find flying insects, or find a cave to hole up in.

Bat (probably a little brown bat) hibernating in a cave in Banff
National Park.  Photo by Tim McAllister, Parks Canada
Last fall, the park started doing some cave surveys along the highway from Lake Louise to Jasper – the Icefields Parkway. In December, they stopped into a cave to replace the batteries on some of their monitoring equipment, and there, hanging on the wall, was a bat.

The identity of the bat is not known for certain, but the size suggests it is a little brown bat, one of seven species found in the park.  Bats are not everyone's cup of tea, but we thought this little guy or gal was pretty cute.  If you're bat-phobic, and we can't change your mind with a picture, it's worth remembering that bats eat their own body weight in insects each night, and that includes mosquitoes!  So here's a toast to both Banff's bats and the joy of discovery.  Who knows what nature will reveal next?