June 11, 2011

In Praise of Willows

Yesterday, while leading a group up towards Yoho Pass, I (Joel) came across an interesting sight: a pile of what appeared to be toothpicks on the ground at the base of a willow bush.  On closer inspection, the “toothpicks” turned out to be willow shoots that had been stripped of their bark by a vole or mouse.

It was the fourth time in the last few weeks I'd seen willows used as food by animals.  In mid-May, on the way from Jasper to Lake Louise, I watched a black bear munching pussy willows by the banks of the Sunwapta River.  And not just any old munching: this was a sit down meal!  The bear parked itself right beside the bush, and pulled the branches towards its mouth.  One by one, the pussy willows disappeared.  When the bear finished, it walked over to the next willow, plunked itself down, and started all over again.

A couple of days later, our first rufous hummingbird of the season arrived in Lake Louise, and it too was drawn to the pussy willows.  As one of our earliest blooming flowers, pussy willows keep hummingbirds going until other species of plant come into bloom.  There's a willow just outside our front door, and it was a treat to watch our resident hummingbird use it as his local restaurant into early June.

Speaking of “Chez Willow,” the latest diners to visit have been migrating warblers.  The first ones showed up about a month ago, but in the last two weeks, we've seen a pulse of Wilson's, orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers come through, and they've all been busy catching insects at the willow thickets.  The bugs go for the pussy willows and the fresh leaves, and the warblers go for the bugs.

Here's to the humble willow.

June 2, 2011

Making a Find in Banff National Park

On a snowshoeing trip this winter, I (Nadine) and two fun-loving young Brits headed up Bath Creek near Lake Louise.  Poking around on the edge of the riverbed, we were looking at some pine marten tracks when I realized that the tracks disappeared into a hole that was framed by peeled logs - intriguing!

Refocusing, I could see the outline of the log cabin ruins beneath the snow.  A quick reconnoitre and we found another cabin footprint nearby.  I was not surprised to see them as that area was home to railway building camps in the late 1800s and some light logging in the early 1900s too.

But I was curious if they were already on the list of ruins that the national park archeologists were aware of.  Every once in awhile I'd read about new "old cabin" discoveries in the paper - ruins found when people were in unusual places in the park.

So I contacted the park archeologists in Calgary to see.  They had me double check the inventory and sure enough... they weren't listed.  After a few back and forth emails, it was confirmed!  We were the "discoverers" of these two cabins.  Very exciting!

Unfortunately we didn't take pictures that day, so this is a photo pulled off the internet that is something like what we saw.

At some point, I'll join an archeologist on a return trip to document the cabins.  But most importantly,  what a treat it was to provide at least one set of guests with an unusual and satisfying national park experience!