December 16, 2012

Starry Starry Night

We had a scheduled power outage in Lake Louise a couple of nights ago, and when the lights went out at 10:00 p.m., we went for a walk in the starlight.  Wow!  Orion was bright in the sky, and with binoculars, we peered into the Orion Nebula and into the nearby Pleiades star cluster.

Winter is star season in the Rockies, and if you want to enjoy incredible night skies without light pollution, here are a few helpful tips:

Jasper National Park was recently declared a “Dark Sky Preserve” by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and you can go on guided star walks on Saturday nights throughout the winter.

Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park.  Photo by Thomas Pleiss.
To help you figure out what you're looking at, you can buy an amazing $3 app for your i-pad or i-phone called “Star Walk

To catch the northern lights, subscribe to "aurora watch", and you'll get real time updates of likely aurora borealis.

And finally, we'll be doing a night snowshoe trip from the Lake Louise Inn on December 28 starting at 6:00 p.m.  It will be a full moon, so the stars won't be as easy to see, but snowshoeing in the full moon is magical!

December 8, 2012

Photographer Amar Athwal

Northern Harrier in flight.  Photograph by Amar Athwal

A couple of years ago, we decided to give ourselves a weekly gift.  We signed up to receive emails that feature the photographs of a colleague of ours, Amar Athwal.  Amar lives and works in Banff for Parks Canada, and is a wizard with a camera.  The weekly photos he sends out are always a welcome sight in our inbox.

Amar explains how he took up his hobby: “Some eighteen years ago I started to take pictures while on hikes, today photography is the way I experience nature and it's the way I capture the moments I come across.”  His photos are the culmination of a lot of experience, a lot of hard work, and a very good eye.

If you want to give yourself an early Christmas present, without spending a penny, you can sign up for Amar's weekly “Moments” by e-mailing him at  Or, for a sneak preview, try his website.

November 14, 2012

The Snoring Hummingbird

Male amethyst-throated Sunangel in Ecuador.  Photo by Patty McGann

Last night we were listening to “As it Happens” on CBC, and their sound of the day was – are you ready for this? – a snoring hummingbird! Today, we found out a a bit more about the story behind the sounds.  It was a female Amethyst-throated Sunangel, native to the northern Andes in South America.  It had been captured by biology researchers who wanted to study the bird's oxygen uptake while it slept.

Many hummingbird species go into torpor overnight as a way to preserve energy, especially if they live in cold places.  The rufous hummingbird, which shows up in the Canadian Rockies for the summer, is a torpor specialist, and the Sunangel lives high enough in the Andes that it needs this strategy too.  These hummingbirds drop their heart rate, body temperature and their respiratory rate to get through the night.  But now you can add to the list at least one species that snores!

And by the way, the bird was released back into the wild the next morning.

November 2, 2012

Skating Season

Our summer hiking season ended in September and we were away for much of October and now, having returned from a beautiful eastern fall, we are anxiously awaiting skating season:  our chance to glide over entire ponds and lakes, unimpeded.

It isn't guaranteed.  To have a skating season, we need the right combination of cold temperatures and no snow.  We've only been able to skate on the full body of Lake Louise in about five or six of the 20 years we've lived here.  And sometimes only for one day!

Skating on a frozen mountain lake is an amazing experience.  If you are lucky the ice will be very smooth, and almost always there are gorgeous star-like crystals sticking up.  Patterns in the ice catch your eye - waves, bubbles, cracks.

Joel will skate on ice that is only three inches thick, but Nadine prefers something closer to six inches!  This Banff National Park video will give you a flavour for the speed, the sounds and the crisp, cold air.

September 26, 2012

Prepare to Hibernate!

We've had a pretty nice run of Indian summer weather this last two weeks, but there is no stopping the passage of time.  Birds have been flocking up and heading south, pikas and squirrels have been laying in supplies, and last week, we saw some very fat hoary marmots making their last visit to the alpine salad bar.

Hoary marmot
By this time of the year, the grass isn't just for eating.   This chunky marmot at Lake O'Hara was clearly collecting grass to use as nesting material.  I guess if you're going to sleep for eight months, you want to do so in comfort.  The last of the marmots will be out for the count before the end of September, and the next time we'll see them will be in June.

Sweet dreams.

August 18, 2012

Moose on the Stanley Glacier trail

Last week, we had a rare close encounter with a moose while hiking.  Since the big fires of 2003, the Stanley Glacier trail has great moose and bear habitat.  We often tell people this is the case, but it's great when the moose show up to prove it!

This young female moose showed real fondness for fireweed, and then wandered off through the downed forest, showcasing how good moose are at travelling through deadfall.

August 2, 2012

Frightening Fungus

A few days ago, we led a guided hike to Paget Lookout in Yoho Park, and on the way down, we found a great patch of mushrooms.  Our guests snapped a beautiful shot (thanks David!), and we admired the fungus.  I misidentified it as dead-man's fingers, but on checking at home, discovered that this mushroom is called “purple fairy club.”  Who knew that fairies were so vicious?

Common names are always a little problematic when it comes to mushrooms, and this species proves the point, as it is found throughout Europe.  Here's a list of the common names from both North America and across the pond:

Purple coral
Purple fairy club
Purple spindles
Purple squid mushroom
Kyjanka purpurová (Czech)
Purpurgrå køllesvamp (Danish)
Purppuranuijakkaat Purppura (Finnish)
Clavaire pourprée (French)
Purpurfarbige (German)
Gråfiolett køllesopp (Norwegian)
Goździeniec purpurowy (Polish)
Клавария пурпурная (Russian)
Kyjačik purpurový (Slovak)
Luddfingersvamp (Swedish)

Using “Google translate,” we found the following translations: “Gray-violet bat fungus”, “Lint finger fungi”, and “Kyjačik purple.”

The one thing they all agree on?  The Latin name is Alloclavaria purpurea.  The one thing we're sure of?  Learning Finnish would be very difficult.

July 21, 2012

Moss Campion at Sentinel Pass

Our hike to Sentinel Pass yesterday revealed that summer is well underway and even the high elevation wildflowers are coming into full bloom!  The rocky slopes at the top of the pass yielded some impressive moss campion plants.

Moss campion at Sentinel Pass on July 20, 2012.

Moss campion are worth getting down on hands and knees for, with a smell like warm, liquid honey.  They grow as pincushion mats, and are very slow growing.  It takes up to ten years before the plant first blooms, and it can take a quarter century for a mat to reach 15 cm in diameter (7 inches).  Moss campion can live over 100 years in the Canadian Rockies, and the record plant, from Europe, was 180 cm across (82 inches), and 350 years old!

The next few weeks will be a wildflower extravaganza in the Lake Louise area.  Some of the best trails include Helen Lake, the Valley of the Ten Peaks, Stanley Glacier and Bow Summit Lookout.

June 22, 2012

The Flood of 2012

The picnic area behind the Lake Louise Visitor Centre
We've had two days of nice weather in a row, so it's hard to believe that just two weeks ago, we were all experiencing the flood of 2012.  On June 5 & 6, we received about twice the entire monthly average rainfall for June, and the rivers just couldn't hold it all.

The bridge to "nowhere" on the Bow River Loop Trail near Lake Louise
Now that a couple of weeks have passed, and the photos taken on June 7 have made the rounds, we can take a look at what happened.  Most facilities have dried out and will be fine, but a few hiking bridges were damaged.  Some will require major repairs.

This was the third significant flood in the mountain parks in the last 30 years, the last being in 1986 and 2007.  This year has been a biggie, however.  Other rivers in western Canada are just reaching their maximum flood levels now.  The Fraser River, which rises west of Jasper National Park, is seeing its highest water since 1972.

All we can say is that the power of water is awe-inspiring.

The suspension bridge over the Vermilion River to the Paint Pots in Kootenay National Park

June 17, 2012

Mystery Mammal – CSI Yoho!

Earlier this week, while leading a guided hike to Yoho Pass, we came across a huge pile of fur right on the trail.  Clearly, something had met its maker, but what?

The fur was incredibly long, about 20 or 22 cm (8 – 9 inches), so it was definitely a winter coat.  Each hair was white at the base, and almost black at the tip.  Hmmm...

After the hike, I bumped into a friend who works for Parks Canada, in the department that monitors wildlife and deals with conflicts between animals and people.  He knew about the remains and said they belonged to... a moose!

It had been killed in early April, when animals still have their thick winter fur.  His guess was wolves, and when he and a co-worker had visited the site then, they found both wolf and wolverine tracks in the snow.

Mystery solved.

May 24, 2012

Vegetarian bears strut their stuff

Black bear feeding on catkins in an aspen tree

Last week, I (Joel) was lucky enough to get the chance to go to Jasper to teach an interpretation course.  On the way up the beautiful Icefields Parkway – Highway 93N – I saw both black and grizzly bears feeding on early season spring food.

First up was a black bear, perched atop a slender aspen tree.  It was feeding on the catkins, or clusters of flowers, that hang down from the ends of the branches.  It's dicey work, because bears are heavy, and aspen branches are skinny.  While I watched, the bear put too much weight on one branch, and broke it right off.  The bear made a nice recovery, but it was definitely moving verrrry carefully.

Pair of grizzly bears feeding on "mystery" plants

Farther north, a pair of grizzlies, maybe a female with a three or four year old cub, had their heads down, grazing on something sprouting along the roadside.  I couldn't get a good look at what they were so focussed on, so I took some photos and a quick video and then left them in peace.  Coming back the next day, however, I stopped at the same spot and took a closer look – the mystery food was a mini forest of sprouting horsetails.  These are primitive plants related to ferns, and bears relish them in the spring.

The "mystery" plants revealed.  They are young horsetails, just sprouted.
Enjoy the photos and the video footage.  It's always a real treat to be able to safely observe bears and see what fills their stomachs.

April 25, 2012

Carnivores Sink their Teeth into the Ecosystem

We like to keep up with the ecology research done in western North America, to understand the "big picture" in national parks like Banff and Yellowstone.

One of the biologists we like to follow is William Ripple, from the University of Oregon.  He has just published a paper on the effect that predators have on herbivores.  His research shows that areas that are missing their key predators  – like wolves – have populations of deer, elk and moose that far exceed what would be normal.  These grazers then damage plant communities, sometimes making them much poorer than what came before.

Read more about what we've nicknamed “the Ripple Effect.”

March 20, 2012

Spring into Winter

Today marks the first official day of spring.

But not in Lake Louise. Our March came in like a lion, and does not look like it will go out like a lamb. While snowshoeing this past weekend near the lake, we measured the snow to be almost 160 cm deep!

This deep snow is wonderful for skiers and snowshoe-ers, but it does present problems for animals who don’t come equipped with big feet. In Waterton Lakes National Park, in the southern part of the Canadian Rockies, one of the park’s remote wildlife cameras recently captured this image of a female mule deer trying to get from point A to point B.

We almost never see deer tracks in the deep snow environments where we snowshoe, and you can see why: it's too much work for heavy animals with small feet. Instead, elk and deer in the Canadian Rockies do small scale migrations, moving into the low valleys or eastern foothills for winter – places with much lower snowpacks. Obviously, this deer missed that lesson.

With all the snow, we are extending our snowshoeing season through the first week of April. If you'd like to spring into winter, give us a call.

March 9, 2012

A Swift Migration

We're big mystery fans, and when mystery collides with nature, we get very interested. Last week, a birding friend of ours sent us the abstract for a soon to be published article about one of the most mysterious birds in the Rockies – the black swift.  This bird looks like a souped-up swallow, and nests in a smattering of canyons throughout western North America.  Here in Banff National Park, you can see their mossy cup nests in rock pockets in Johnston Canyon.

Swifts eat insects on the wing, so they must migrate to warmer climates every fall. The mystery has to do with where they spend the winter, because they've never been observed in the winter months.  That's right, never!  The black swift is the last North American bird species to have its wintering grounds remain unknown.

Winter habitat in the Amazon rainforest
But no more: researchers in Colorado, using primitive little geolocators attached to a handful of swifts, have figured out where they go. Their winter destination: Brazil.  The swifts from the Colorado Rockies fly 7000 km to the Amazonian rainforest in western Brazil in September and October, and then return to the Rockies in May or June. The geolocators indicate they average between 300 & 400 km per day during migration.

The same research has not been done on swifts in the Canadian Rockies, so who knows if our swifts winter in the same place as their Colorado brethren, but if they do, that would add about 2000 km to the trip!

So we have a mystery solved, but a sense of wonder enhanced.  If you'd like to get a fuller account of the story, try this wonderful post at the earbirding blog:

February 29, 2012

Where's Waldo? – the Winter Edition

The winter snowpack is a great canvas for recording tracks, and over the years we've seen lots of footprints.  Usually they're left by common species like red squirrels, pine martens and snowshoe hares, but sometimes we see more unusual tracks from wolverines, porcupines or moose.

Finding the animals that left the tracks, however, is harder.  It might be because they're long gone, or it might be because they are “one with nature.”  That's certainly true of snowshoe hares.  Their winter coat is snow white, and they have mastered the art of blending in.

Every once in a while, though, we get lucky.  Last year, on a snowshoe trip with Peter L. from Toronto, we spied a hare sitting motionless in the woods.  We received photos of that trip from Peter last week, and when we opened them, we wondered, “why did he include these shots of a snowy patch of forest?”  Then we had our “ah-ha” moment.  It's like a “Where's Waldo” book, with the role of Waldo being played by the hare.  Have fun finding it!

January 26, 2012

Let Sleeping Bears Lie

On our snowshoeing trips, we are often asked, “do you ever find hibernating bears when you snowshoe?” And our answer is always “never.” It would be like finding a needle in a haystack: the rough guess from Parks Canada is that Banff is home to between 120 – 140 bears in total (that's black and grizzly). The park is almost 7,000 km2, so that's one hibernating bear for every 50 km2!

In the world of bears, however, you should never say “never.” A week and a half ago, a biologist friend of ours, Karsten Heuer, was out backcountry skiing with some friends along the Icefields Parkway, north of Lake Louise. They were skiing through the forest when they stumbled upon a sleeping black bear. It was tucked into a tree-well, right on top of the snow, which surprised everyone. Black bears normally find shelter in stumps or logs. Since they hibernate with a relatively high body temperature, the conventional wisdom is that insulation and shelter make it easier for them to conserve their body heat.

Karsten told us that the bear was curled up like a sleeping dog, and that when they came close, it lifted its head in a really groggy way. It dropped its head back down, as if to say, “can I just sleep for another few months?”, but then it lifted its head more alertly. That was the cue for the skiers to vacate the area and leave the bear in peace.

One of Karsten's friends, biologist and professional photographer Dan Rafla, was in the group, and he managed to squeeze off a quick shot as they skied away. Dan ( has generously allowed to use his photo, a rare image of an even rarer event.

If you're visiting Banff through this winter season, Dan will be presenting his show, “Wildlife in the Rockies” at Buffalo Mountain Lodge twice a month until the end of March. Check this link for details:

January 2, 2012

A beautiful Smilebox for us

Many thanks to Liz and Chris for making this Smilebox slide show of our snowshoe together!  Looks like they had a good time and so did Nadine.  

What a pleasure to be out in the snow during the holiday season.

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