March 21, 2017

25 Years of Mountaintop Eagles

Yesterday, 323 Golden Eagles flew north over Mount Lorette, in Kananaskis Country, southeast of Banff.

If that strikes you as a very specific number, it is. And that's because for exactly twenty five years, dozens of keen volunteer bird watchers have been counting the Golden Eagles that migrate along the backbone of the Canadian Rockies every spring and fall.

On March 20, 1992, Des Allen and Peter Sherrington were doing a general bird survey in the Kananaskis Valley when they first noticed Golden Eagles flying high along the ridgetops. They saw over a hundred that day, but when they looked for other records of large numbers of eagles, they could find nothing even close.

They started watching, and they got others to watch too.  We remember that spring, because we heeded the call to volunteer. It was our very first summer in Lake Louise, and we spent a day in lawn chairs beside Banff's Lake Minnewanka, peering through binoculars to look for the mysterious eagles. And that's when we learned why nobody had noticed what Des and Peter had found that spring: you couldn't see these gigantic birds with your naked eyes! It seems impossible -- they can have 7-foot wingspans -- but they were flying so high that you needed to pick them out with scopes or binoculars.

The golden eagle migration down the spine of the Rockies.
Courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation.
Since 1992, observers have spent over 4500 days in the field, and they've counted more than 180,000 Golden Eagles in total.  The birds are believed to nest in the Yukon and Alaska, and their wintering grounds stretch from Montana to Mexico.

On this, the first full day of spring, let's celebrate nature's splendour, and tip a hat to Peter and Des for their epic discovery.

If this blog post has made you curious about birds, we offer private birdwatching trips in June and early July every year. Come join us!

March 9, 2017

What's with all the Snow Mushrooms on the Fenceposts?

If you've driven between Banff and Lake Louise this winter, you've probably noticed the big globes of snow on top of the wildlife fencing posts. Or, if you've been snowshoeing with us, you've seen even bigger piles of snow on stumps or broken tree tops

How do these "snow mushrooms" form? Especially when the surface they're sitting on can be as small as a dessert plate.

To answer, we need to welcome you to the wonderful world of snow science, and specifically the process of equi-temperature or destructive metamorphism. We hope you're ready for a bit of physics!

When new snow falls in the Canadian Rockies through the winter, the cold temperatures almost always guarantee that it will fall as light, low density "champagne powder." But it doesn't stay that way.  If snow lands on something above the ground, like a log suspended in the air, or a stump, it will start to change. The newest snow will always be light and fluffy, but snow that's been on the log or the stump for a few weeks or months will feel like really high density styrofoam. You are hard pressed to push a ski pole into it more than a few inches, and the snow crystals stick to each other tenaciously, even though new snow in the Rockies can't even be formed into a snowball.

Here's what's going on: since the temperature around the suspended snow is the same at any given time (hence "equi-temperature"), the snowflakes start to break down in a surprising way: water in the spiky ends of the flakes sublimates (meaning it evaporates directly from ice into water vapour). The water vapour that is produced through this sublimation moves from the higher vapour pressure at the edges of the snowflakes toward the lower vapour pressure around the interiors of the snow crystals.

Still with us? This small scale water migration means that airy, fluffy snowflakes become denser over time, and closer together. This promotes the stickiness of the snow, meaning it can occupy a bit more space than the surface area of the stump or fencepost. With each subsequent snowfall the surface area for collecting new snow increases, until a giant blob of snow can sit on the tiniest of surfaces.  Big snow mushrooms can measure more than 3 metres across.

photo by Vaughan Cornish, public domain
We are not the first to notice these snow mushrooms.  In 1900, English geographer Vaughan Cornish took a winter trip on the CPR through western Canada.  He photographed giant snow mushrooms in Glacier National Park. Here's one of his archival photos, plus a few more from us.

February 7, 2017

Bison are Back in Banff!

In late January, at the Ice Magic competition in Lake Louise, one team of carvers had the prescience to sculpt a life-size bison in clear ice. I looked at that frozen figure, and thought to myself, "in just a few weeks, you are going to come to life!"

On February 1, 16 bison from Elk Island National Park were airlifted into the Panther Valley, in the wilderness heart of Banff, and released into their paddock. Bison are back!

Bison being released in Banff National Park last week.  Photo courtesy of Parks Canada
Many Rocky Mountain visitors remember the days of the bison paddock near the town of Banff, but this time things are different. This herd will be released into the wild once they've acclimatized to the landscape. Most of the bison are females, and they will have calves this spring, adding new blood to the fledgling herd. After another crop of bison calves in May of 2018, the population will have doubled, and the bison will be released from the paddock to roam in the centre of the park. They'll be the first free-roaming bison in the park in 140 years.

It's exciting stuff, and feels very appropriate for 2017: Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday this year, and this is Banff's birthday present to the ecology of the country.

Here's a few highlights from CTV's coverage of last week's bison relocation.

January 23, 2017

Ice Magic, 2017 Edition

Ice Magic, the international ice carving competition, returned to lake Louise this past weekend, and the sculptures were, as always, beautiful and captivating.  Here's a few of our favourites, captured yesterday as dusk turned to night.

The carvings usually stay in pretty good shape for about a week or ten days, so if you are planning a trip to Lake Louise, make sure you leave enough time fora walk through the "gallery."

December 31, 2016

A Year in Panoramas

We got a new little digital camera at the beginning of the year, and it takes great panorama photos. We love it, and it allows us to capture the grand scale of the Canadian Rockies.  Here's a little look back at 2016, from the widest angle:

1. Crowfoot Mountain in February

2. Marble Canyon in March

3. Muleshoe Meadows in May

4. Bow Lake in June

5. Lake Oesa in July

6. Mountain goats near Burgess Pass in August

7. Wilcox Pass in August

8. Mount Whitehorn, with Lake Louise in the background

9. Unnamed lake in Banff National Park in September

10. Bow Lake in November

11. the forests of Lake Louise, and today's snowshoeing group.  Happy New Year's from Joel & Nadine!

December 10, 2016

The Great Pipestone River Ice Jam

We live about 50 metres from the Pipestone River.  Yesterday, in only a few minutes, the river went through a dramatic transformation: a giant battering ram of water and ice scoured the river clean. The force was enough to throw blocks of ice the size of pool tables up onto the banks.

Sadly, we missed the action.  I (Joel) went to the post office to get the mail at about 12:15 in the afternoon, and the river was hidden beneath a thick mass of terraced ice that had been growing since November.

Two hours later, Nadine went to the post office to mail a Christmas package. By that time, the pressurized ice flow had poured down from the Pipestone Canyon above town and done its work.

This has happened maybe three or four times in the years since we've lived in Lake Louise, and we're still waiting to watch the event with our own eyes...

Here's a photo montage telling the whole story. These are large files, so click on them if you want to get better resolution.

Before: The Pipestone River two days ago - swollen with ice terraces.

After: Exactly the same view (really!) of the Pipestone River yesterday
afternoon, with all the ice cleared out.
One of the side channels of the Pipestone, choked with ice.

The ice flow barely fit under the pedestrian bridge between
the village and the Post Hotel.

Telephone pole-sized trees along for the ride.

There are some pretty nice ice couches out there, if you want a winter picnic!

The view upstream from the village towards the Post Hotel.

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!