December 12, 2015

Cry mush, and let slip the dogs of snow!

It doesn't feel like a proper winter week in the Rockies if you don't get outdoors to do at least three different recreational activities. In the course of seven days, we'll typically tick off skating, skiing and snowshoeing.

Heading towards the Continental Divide

Megan Routley, owner of Kingmik, plus yours trulies.
Well this week, we added a new pastime into the mix: dogsledding. For over 30 years, Kingmik Dog Sled Tours has been operating in Lake Louise, and we finally joined them for a two hour trip. It was an excellent adventure: with Kingmik owner Megan Routley as our musher, host, and story-teller, we were pulled by a team of eight dogs, and, boy, do they ever love to run. We simply flew along the trail, covering 16 km at a speed that would make a cross-country skier jealous. It was a beautiful day, with snow draped on the trees, and the swish of the sled runners as the soundtrack.

It was also an interesting experience for us nature nuts, because the sled dog is a wonderful mixture of nature's handiwork and the triumph of centuries of breeding. Kingmik's pooches are all Alaskan huskies, and no two of them look alike. They are multi-coloured, and come in all sizes. We wondered, “Where are the huskies that we see in the movies, or as plush toys?” It turns out that those pretty boys are Siberian huskies, and these days they're mostly bred for looks. Alaskan huskies are bred to run, so it doesn't matter what they look like. They represent the end point of several thousand years of people's effort to create dogs that can do two things: run fast and run far. After we finished our tour, it looked like they would happily have gone out for another ten mile jaunt.

The leaders of the pack.

Megan told us that sled dogs may be the ultimate athletes. They have been the subject of physiology research (if you want some nice light reading, try “Metabolic Strategies for Sustained Endurance Exercise: Lessons from the Iditarod.”), and when in peak condition, they can put out a sustained effort of up to 250 or 300 ml/kg/min VO2 max (this is the standard measure of maximum oxygen uptake, in millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute). For perspective, the finest endurance athletes, like cyclists and cross-country skiers, have never been able to crack even 100 ml/kg/min VO2 max.

Along the 1A, with Mount Fairview in the background.

To be pulled through a beautiful landscape by such superbly conditioned dogs was a real treat, and we recommend it for anyone wanting to add a new winter activity to their checklist. Thanks, Megan.

November 21, 2015

Our favourite wildlife sightings of 2015, including grizzly bears!

A pine marten left its tracks in the snow on our roof this morning, reminding us of how wonderful it is to have wildlife around – it just makes life in the Rockies more... interesting.  In keeping with this idea, we look back to our favourite wildlife sightings of the year.

Let's start with harlequin ducks.  These beautiful sea ducks migrate here from the west coast every spring, and then eke out a living in our high elevation lakes and fast-flowing rivers. To see this pair courting on Moraine Lake back in May – before all the winter ice had even melted – reminded us that some harlequin romances are real!
Next up, at the height of summer, we saw a chipmunk. A chipmunk? How could it make the list? Well, it was beautifully perched on a sentry rock festooned with what looked like brilliant orange frosting.  Clearly, there was a story to be told here.  It turns out that certain chunks of limestone get covered with a lichen known as Xanthoria elegans, but only when those rocks have been fertilized with the droppings of birds and mammals.  It takes the concept of "mixed media" to a whole new level.

At the end of August, there was a strange bird on Bow Lake, just one metre from the shore.  It  turned out to be a phalarope (good scrabble word!), which is like a sandpiper crossed with a duck: with partly webbed feet, it can swim around on the surface of lakes and ponds.  We watched, enthralled, as it spun around like a whirling dervish., picking bugs off the surface of the lake with its delicate bill.  It turned out to be a juvenile, and was flying from the high Arctic to South America, for the first time in its life.  Wow!

Our #1 memorable wildlife sighting was on August 3, on the border of Banff and Mount Assiniboine Parks.  It's one of those places that feels special.  You look in all directions, and see nothing but high peaks and forested valleys.  It whispers “wilderness”, and since the ultimate symbol of wilderness is the grizzly bear, it was only appropriate that we were lucky enough to see one... well, three, actually: we heard a clatter, and then spied a trio of bears running down a scree slope.  Pure magic, and we managed to catch it on video.  They were kind of far away, but we hope you enjoy the show.

October 7, 2015

A Wild Rockslide

Turn that cow into a mountain goat!
Ever thought that you'd seen it all?  After over 20 years of guiding in Banff, I (Nadine) have seen a lot of amazing things, but until last weekend, I'd never seen a full-on rockslide.

I was heading up to the Plain of Six Glaciers with guests on Sunday, and all of a sudden it sounded like we were in a war zone.

With all the echoes, it took a few moments to figure out where the sound was coming from, but then we turned to look up at the side of Mount Fairview, and watched the show.

Rocks and boulders hurdled down the cliff, bouncing high into the air, and then splashed into the water.  It was truly awe-inspiring, and one of my guests had the presence of mind to film the second half of the rockslide.   Thank you Michele.

See it for yourself!

August 7, 2015

What's in a Lake? Part I

Last weekend, I went for an explore to Skoki, a hiking district just east of Lake Louise.  It's famous for its high alpine lakes, including beautiful Ptarmigan Lake, pictured here.

But high elevation lakes are more than just eye candy, as I soon discovered...

My goal was get to some small lakes I'd never visited before.  They're tucked up against Brachiopod Mountain, which means almost 16 km of hiking before you even get to your reward.

Brachiopod Lake, looking like a big... mud puddle.
The highest lake was called Brachiopod Lake.  It looked tantalizing on the map, right up at treeline, surrounded by high country scenery, but when I got there, it was... almost totally dried up. It sits in a limestone basin, and the water that fills the lake in early summer can percolate right through limestone.  So instead of a lake, I got to see a big mudflat.

Initially, I was very disappointed, but I decided to go for a walk in the mud, just for the heck of it.  And that's when I could see “what's in a lake?”

There were tracks, tons of tracks, left by everything from pikas all the way up to grizzly bears, everything that had visited the lake in the last couple of weeks.  I spent a delightful half hour of treasure hunting, and here's a photo collection of my faves from that day...

Hoary marmot tracks.

Sandpiper tracks.
Grizzly bear track.
Wolf track.

July 25, 2015

The Arnica – a Favourite and Magical Flower

The wildflowers in the Rockies are superb this summer.  We had a lot of warm weather in June and early July, to get things started, and since then, there's been cooler, damper conditions, keeping the flowers in great shape.

We recently hiked into the alpine meadows near Temple Lake, and came across a profusion of one of our favourite flowers, the arnica.  They score big points with us three counts: first, they're beautiful; second, they have an unbeatable fragrance (but not in the flower!); and third, they come with a great interpretive story.

For beauty, no description is needed, just a closeup, like this.

For fragrance, anybody who has used a topical arnica cream (to treat bruises and inflammation) might recognize the smell of arnica leaves.  This is especially true with Arnica mollis, which we usually call “fuzzy-leafed arnica.”  When you rub the leaves, a wonderful, savoury fragrance fills your nose.  As is often the case when trying to capture in words what something smells like, the best we can come up with is “indescribable,” but it makes Nadine very happy.

How we see the arnica: in the visible specturm
How an insect sees the arnica: in the ultraviolet spectrum
The interpretive story is linked to how the arnica attract pollinators.  The flower colour that we see is very different than the colour seen by insects.  As is the case with many members of the Aster family (dandelions, daisies, and fleabanes), the centre of an arnica gives off light in the ultraviolet spectrum.  The paired photos show how we see the flower, and how a bee sees the flower.  That bullseye means that arnica get visited by more than enough pollinators to successfully set seed.

Happy flower viewing, everyone!

May 5, 2015

The Sights and Sounds of Spring

When you live in Lake Louise, spring comes into existence slowly, almost painfully so.  A week ago we had a warm day, and there were flocks of swallows overhead.  Then it snowed and the swallows disappeared, not to return until today.

Prairie crocus.  Photo by Doug McKown
So, we thought, “if spring won't come to us, we'll go to spring,” and went looking for some early season hiking on the weekend.  We found it east of Canmore, on a sunny trail to Windy Point.  All the snow was gone, and the prairie crocuses were blooming everywhere.  We had great views of nearby snowy peaks, and enjoyed a welcome hit of sunshine.

But in the mountains, nothing says "spring" more than finding some animal out there in the mountains trying out its pickup line for the first time in almost a year.  It's the the wildlife equivalent of “hey, baby” at the bar on a Saturday night.  We found our pickup artist right near the top of the trail: a male dusky grouse, hidden just behind some brush, was puffing itself up and hooting out these amazing, low frequency notes.  It was positively symphonic.

My little camera recorded a pretty good video of the booming grouse, but the microphone couldn't pick up the sound, so I've attached a sound file of the dusky grouse's coastal cousin, the sooty grouse, so you can enjoy not just the sights, but also the sounds.. of spring!

April 28, 2015

The Blackpoll Warbler – a Migration Mystery Solved.

We just got back from Cuba, and enjoyed both snorkelling in really warm water (hurray!), and birdwatching in the jungle.  We saw some great species that are native only to Cuba, like the Cuban trogon, or “tocororo,” which is the country's national bird, and also the Cuban tody, which looks like a chunky, souped-up hummingbird.

Cuban trogon

Cuban tody

But we also saw lots of warblers, birds that we think of as Canadian species.  There were yellow warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, common yellowthroats, and lots of American redstarts.  These four warblers – and many others – winter in the tropics, and spend their summers in North America.  All the ones we saw “down there” are also found nesting “up here” in Banff National Park.

But the best Cuba / warbler connection was waiting for us when we got home: we were catching up on episodes of Quirks and Quarks, our favourite science show on CBC radio, and there was a feature story about the newly confirmed migration route of the blackpoll warbler.

Blackpoll warblers are lovely black and white striped warblers, weighing in at about half an ounce, or 12 grams.  It's long been known that they gather in the fall in places like Nova Scotia, Vermont, and Maine, and then head south.  That's pretty normal warbler behaviour, but the problem is that south of the Carolinas, they are almost never seen...  which is strange, because warblers like to fly over land, so they are usually easy to observe on their southward migration.  With blackpolls, it seems like they just disappear.  By the mid-20th century, reports of blackpoll warblers landing on ships out in the Atlantic during autumn offered up the first clues about where they were going: they were migrating over water!

Blackpoll warbler, wearing a geolocator.  Photo courtesy of Vermont Centres for EcoStudies

Well, now we know the whole story.  Dr Ryan Norris, from the University of Guelph, was able to put tiny geolocators on the backs of the warblers.  These geolocators record the timing of sunrise and sunset, and were used used to tell the longitude and latitude of the birds who were wearing them.

This spring, Dr. Norris and his colleagues published their findings: blackpoll warblers leave Nova Scotia in late September or October, fly 2,500 km over open ocean in three straight days, and then touch down in either the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Haiti or Cuba!  From there, they refuel, and continue south to winter in Venezuela or Columbia.

It puts our Cuban migration (courtesy of Westjet) to shame.

Here's the Quirks and Quarks episode, if you want a listen.  (The interview starts after the theme music and intro, about one and half minutes into the podcast.)

March 25, 2015

Where the Wild Things Sleep – Grizzly Bear Den Sites Revealed Thanks to GPS Technology

Banff's first grizzly bear was spotted last week, by hidden camera.  Bear #122, a large male that has made his home in the Bow Valley for the last few years, was captured by one of the park's automated cameras at a research site near Castle Junction on March 19.  Adult male bears are often active by March. The rest of the gang (subadults, lone females, moms with cubs) will come out of hibernation over the next six or eight weeks.

Out of sight usually means out of mind, but we often wonder where bears are spending the winter.  We don't know where they are, but we have a friend who does.  Brian Spreadbury works for Parks Canada in their Resource Conservation department, and specializes in wildlife work.  He can use GPS data to find bear den sites.  Since 2012, a handful of Banff's grizzly bears have been fitted with GPS collars, allowing researchers to track their movement.  Every fall, when the GPS signal suddenly disappears, you know that a bear has gone into its den.

Using the last transmission point as a guide, Brian has discovered several dens.  If you're wondering, he waits until the summer or early fall, long after the bear in question has emerged, so he doesn't disturb them.  Last fall, Brian sent us a photo of the den used by grizzly bear #72, a local female, in the winter of 2103 – 2014.  The park likes to keep the exact location of dens a secret, but Brian recorded all the other info about the den.  Take a look, and imagine yourself spending six months snoozing in this particular spot...

February 19, 2015

Gung Hey Fat Choy: the Year of the... Ptarmigan?

Today is the official start of the Chinese lunar new year, and depending on who you talk to, it is either the year of the sheep, the goat, or the ram.

On today's snowshoeing trip, we didn't see any hoofed mammals, but we did see a most extraordinary bird, and it is a worthy Rocky Mountain substitute for this year's "official" animal.

It was a white-tailed ptarmigan, and it can boast many of the same features that the Chinese attribute to the goat / sheep / ram:

  • Sheep are "gentle": ptarmigans stay alive by munching on willow buds.  How gentle is that?
  • Sheep are "mild-mannered": when was the last time you heard about a ptarmigan going postal?
  • Sheep are "shy": ptarmigans epitomize shy.  It's their life goal.  With their cryptic feathers, they blend right into the background.  In the winter, they are completely white except for the black eyes and beak.  In the summer, they sport feathers that look like rocks and lichens.

    White-tailed ptarmigan in fall, moulting from its summer plumage

  • Sheep are "stable": check!  By growing extra feathers on their feet, ptarmigans have stable snowshoes to keep them upright and supported while they walk around in the wintry landscape

    Feathered feet on a ptarmigan that's being banded for a research project.  Photo courtesy of Kathy Martin 
  • Sheep are "brimming with a strong sense of kindheartedness and justice": okay, four out of five ain't bad!
Gung Hey Fat Choy, everyone, and enjoy whatever wildlife you get to see here in the park!

January 19, 2015

Ice Magic, Beyond the Sculptures...

We were up at Lake Louise to see the ice sculptures this evening, a day after the carvers put the finishing touches on their creations at the annual “Ice Magic” festival. Ten teams were given a dozen 300-lb blocks of ice each, and it is truly astounding to see the results of their efforts.  Our favourite was the "Wonder of the World by Faberge," with a giant hand holding a giant egg, which in turn contained the Taj Mahal.

Seeing these sculptures reminded us of how beautiful ice can be, and how there are frozen works of art everywhere in this park.  For instance, we'd been down to the end of the lake a few days ago, and seen some of nature's Ice Magic at “Louise Falls.” These falls form every winter, as there is a permanent spring at the top of one of the lakeside cliffs.  Even with a flow rate of only a few litres per minute, by mid-winter, the water dribbling out freezes into an impressive 100 metre tall ice column.
Louise Falls

Earlier this month, at Lake Minnewanka, near Banff, the lake ice was frozen thick enough for skating, and the trapped air bubbles in the ice again made for exquisite and impressive art.

Air bubbles at Lake Minnewanka

Tonight, we've gone through our photo album, and pulled out a few of our favourite “frozen fotos.”  We hope you enjoy the Ice Magic!

ps: the ice sculptures at Lake Louise usually stay in really good shape until early February, if you want to come to see them.

Skating at Lake Louise in November

Frost flowers and frost heaves at Vermilion Lake, near Banff in November

Frost on water birch leaves in September

The Upper Victoria Glacier at sunrise in July

Early ice in October in one of the side channels of Paradise Creek

Surface hoar frost on the snow near Lake Louise