December 12, 2017

Ice Art at Hector Lake

We're having a glorious skating season in Banff Park so far this winter. We've been on Bow Lake, Waterfowl Lake, and Lake Louise, and many other lakes and ponds have been exquisite. But the real proof is this: after twenty years of watching and waiting, we finally got to skate on Hector Lake, the second largest in Banff Park.

The ice came in sometime last week, and by the weekend, we made the 2 km trek to the lake, hoping it would be ready. It was, and this morning I returned, with camera in hand.

There are many beautiful things in the world of nature, but lake ice deserves an art gallery of its own. I hope you enjoy this mini gallery (click on these to see them at full size).

Strudel Snow

The Cable
This was part of a seam that ran for at least a kilometre.

The Rift

Bird Spirit

Self Portrait in Ice

The Magical Mirror

September 29, 2017

A Million Stars in Broad Daylight

Yesterday, I (Joel) was out hiking with some friends, and we passed from bright sunlight into the shadow being cast by Mount Temple.  We looked up at the sharply etched silhouette of the east ridge, and were stunned, because in the glow, it looked like the stars were out.  There were millions of points of light!

We looked through the binoculars, and the "stars" were all moving, dancing in the air. What were they?

I figured it out today: on the return trip from another hike in the high country, with my face towards both the sun and the strong west wind, I passed through a patch of fireweed, the answer was sudenly all around me...

Fireweed seeds dancing in the wind

Seeds.  Fireweed seeds.  They are the size of a fleck of cracked pepper, and come with their own parachute of fluff -- the lightest fluff imaginable.  On warm fall days, the seed pods split open, and the wind picks up billions and billions of seeds.  They are sent skyward, flying over the mountain tops, to land wherever the wind carries them.

So we didn't just see stars: we saw shooting stars!

ps: a few years back, I tried to count how many seeds were in just one pod on a fireweed plant. Here's what I came up with.

September 7, 2017


Last week, my (Nadine's) twenty-five year wolverine vigil came to an end.

After years of tantalizing tracks in the snow, and near misses on the trail ("We saw wolverines there just yesterday"), I finally caught a glimpse of one of the most elusive creatures in the park.

I was on my way up to Sentinel Pass with guests when some fellow hikers said there was a wolverine just up ahead.  Since I'd had many "wolverines" reported to me over the years, only to find out that they were marmots, I was skeptical.

But when we got up to near the start of the final switchbacks, we looked over to the final lingering patch of snow (and patches of snow have been a rarity in this hot dry summer), and, sure enough, there was a wolverine.

And not just one wolverine.

Not two wolverines.

There were three wolverines! We guessed it must be a family, and got the treat of watching them sleep on the cool snow, play on the snow, and just hang out in a most un-wolverine fashion.

One of my guests, Maryse B., got some shots with her camera, and has kindly allowed us to share them.  They were pretty far away, so the images are small, but it gives you a taste of the wonderful experience we all had.


August 20, 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beetles! (the fire beetles, that is)

This week, during a mini-vacation to the Columbia Mountains, we got to watch the Prairie Hill Fire in Glacier National Park, a couple hours west of Lake Louise. On the same day we left for our trip, the B.C. Wildfire Service confirmed that the province of BC is experiencing the worst wildfire season on record. This is no surprise to visitors of the Rockies this summer: there have been a lot of smoky days, and lots of grumbling.

But fires are as natural as air and water in the mountains of western Canada. Everything from hummingbirds to grizzly bears thrive in the aftermath of burns, and the latest creature on this list that we've learned about is the fire beetle, Melanophila acuminata.

The fire beetle.
These are jet black beetles that manage to show up in large numbers during fires, where they mate and lay eggs in freshly burned trees.

Ecologists used to wonder how they managed to get to fires so quickly. The answer is amazing: Dr. William G. Evans, a retired prof at the University of Alberta, was the first to show that these beetles can detect infrared heat sources using paired receptors situated on the thorax. Apparently, they can detect the heat signature from a fire from over 50 km away!

We're guessing that there will be a lot of happy fire beetles out there this summer.

PS: if you're wondering about the smoke, it comes and goes, but we've never had more than a couple of days in a row of poor visibility before things clear up again.

July 2, 2017

A Week of Wondrous Woodpeckers

It's been an interesting week for us on the woodpecker front.  Last weekend, near the Saskatchewan River Crossing, north of Lake Louise, we found the Johnny Cash of woodpeckers, the black-backed woodpecker. As the name suggests, they are attired mostly in black, and it makes them very well-camouflaged in their preferred habitat, burned forest. In 2014, in early July, there was a big lightning-sparked fire at the Crossing.

From the side they are pretty easy to see, but when we startled a juvenile, and it flew up onto the trunk of a charred tree right beside the trail, it seemed to disappear.  We crept past, and it stayed stock still, becoming one with the tree.

See if you can find the woodpecker against this tree trunk...

Et voila...

The aftermath of the 2014 fire at Saskatchewan River Crossing 

These last few days, we've been leading walks at Moraine Lake, and there is a three-toed woodpecker nest right beside the trail.  The nest is at head height, and the juvenile woodpecker lets out a constant barrage of chirps, so hundreds of people a day are hearing it, and getting a close up view of this forest woodpecker.

We've both taken a quick peek ourselves, and then backed up into the forest to watch for one of the adults to come to the nest with food. Even with hoards of people around, mom and dad will fly in whenever there is a break to feed the young. The youngster should take flight any day now.

We're looking forward to our next interesting wildlife encounter.

June 21, 2017

How Much Depends on the Grizzly Bear?

Here in Banff, grizzly bears are sometimes called "indicator species."  This means that as well as being majestic, beautiful and impressive, grizzly bears reveal something about the health of our park.  

You could sit around a pub with a bunch of conservation biologists talking about this idea for hours, but in a nutshell, this is what it means: if we can keep grizzly bears around, in healthy numbers, then our park is probably healthy enough to sustain most of our other animals as well.

So imagine our delight when we saw this play out at our house this past month, in an absolutely literal sense.  We have a wreath that our sister-in-law Dawn made, with an enamel grizzly bear nestled into it. In May, we noticed that a pair of juncos were building a nest behind the bear. The eggs were layed at the end of May, the chicks hatched on June 9th and 10th, and the young fledged out of the nest yesterday and today.


We've had front row seats from our kitchen window for the whole time, so here's a quick look at the growth of our little family of birds, piggybacking on a grizzly bear!

Mom... or Dad (you can't tell with juncos)
Are you bringing food?
At the start, the chicks were made of mouths more than anything
A dead ringer for Larry from the Three Stooges
Out of the nest, but still looking for handouts!

June 16, 2017

The Year of the Avalanche!

A couple of days ago, I roller bladed up the Yoho Valley Road, the route in to see the famous Takakkaw Falls. After about 4 km, this is what I saw:

The debris covering the road must have been at least 10 metres thick at its maximum, and about 50 metres across. The Parks Canada highway crew had started to dig through it, but it's going to take a lot of work to get the road open.

Looking down the Yoho Valley Road at Mt Cathedral

The winter of 2017 saw an intense avalanche season here in the Canadian Rockies, peaking in mid-March. At the base of the snowpack for almost the entire winter, there was a thick layer of really weak hoar frost crystals. After the heavy snows of March, this layer got overloaded, and really large slides rushed down the mountainsides. Some avalanches ran beyond their historic end points, knocking over trees that were centuries old.

Yoho Valley Road, ten feet off the road surface!

In the last couple of weeks, we've managed to get onto some of favourite trails as they come into shape for the summer hiking season.  The Valley of the Ten Peaks is in very good condition, and the Plain of Six Glaciers trail is now hikeable, even though there are some piles of avalanche debris across the path.  But on almost every trail, you can see dramatic dramatic changes wrought by this winter's epic snowslides.

We'll be showing people the avalanche after-effects all summer, but here's a quick photo review of what came down the mountains between March and May

1. at Sunshine Meadows in early May.

Nadine with our friends Eva and Paul, posing beside a big chunk of
cornice that came down in March

Joel on top of the cornice chunk.

2. The Icefields Parkway on May 4.

Parks Canada did avalanche control to ensure that the road from Lake Louise to Jasper stayed safe. The snow that came down covered the highway to a depth of 15 metres (almost 50 feet) and took a couple of days to completely clear.

Avalanche debris across the Icefields Parkway.
Photo courtesy of Parks Canada

3. The Consolation Lakes Trail, late May.

In 25 years here, we'd never seen avalanche debris across this trail.
This tree used to stand straight up!

4. The Plain of Six Glaciers trail, early June.

One of our guests, Dave, sizing up a centuries old fir tree
that was snapped in half in an avalanche 

Trees like this are very sturdy, so the forces required to break them
are truly impressive

5. The Eiffel Lake trail, last weekend.

At least 5 metres of snow fill the big slide path before Eiffel Lake.

The Valley of the Ten Peaks.

April 16, 2017

A Sesquicentennial Challenge

2017 marks Canada's 150th birthday. And since everybody loves big round numbers, we'd wager that right now, a whole bunch of Canadians are trying to come up with bucket lists involving the number 150.

And Banff is getting in on the action.  Yesterday marked the first of the Banff Community Bird Walks, held every year from mid-April to mid-June.  The goal with this year's walks is to tally up 150 bird species.

It's our sesquicentennial challenge! (That's the fancypants way to say 150, by the way)

photo courtesy of Amar Athwal

The walks take place on Saturdays and Mondays at 8:15 a.m. and run until June 12. The meeting place is on Sundance Road near its intersection with Cave Avenue in Banff.  The area has wetlands, forest, a horse stable, and grasslands, so the birding is really good.  Some people come for half an hour and keeners sometimes stay until the early afternoon.

We've been to some of the walks ourselves (on one of them, we saw the “grand slam” of Banff's swallow species – all six of them – sitting on a single telephone line near Warner's Stables), and they are a lot of fun.  There's great volunteers who make walk participants feel welcome, spot species, help with bird identification, and share their books & equipment.

photo courtesy of the Banff Community Bird Walk

So join in a walk, and see if you can't contribute to the 150!

ps: one of the participants on most walks is Amar Athwal, who takes great photos of the birds.  His weekly "Moments" emails are superb, and we recommend you sign up by sending an email to  Or, check out Amar’s website.

April 12, 2017

What is Your Home... River?

What is home?  Many an ecologist would argue that what really counts is your watershed - your "home river". It's a logical boundary to use for land management, and the water in your watershed is crucial to life and livelihoods.

Our home river is the Bow, and we live a mere 30 minutes from its headwaters. Last fall we had the opportunity to learn about its deepest nature.

We attended a talk by Dr. Richard Hauer on gravel-bed rivers in the mountain west. In a recently published paper, he and colleagues have documented and explained how important these kinds of rivers are to wildlife and ecosystems here.

We've been using this story on our snowshoe trips, as we travel beside and on the Bow River.
Nadine & Jun along the beautiful Bow River
It's the first time scientists have put this big picture story together, and it really is big news, big enough to have been covered by the New York Times.  The article summarizes nicely:

"Melting snow and groundwater flow down the channel; this is what we think of as a “river.” But underground, far more water is moving slowly through a labyrinthine network of cobbles, gravel and sand that make up the entire valley bottom. [our emphasis]

This deeply buried habitat is far more important and far more productive than thought. The matrix of gravel and sand cleans the water, filtering organic material and freeing up nitrogen and phosphorous embedded in the gravel.

These natural fertilizers spread across the valley bottom, a shot of adrenaline that nourishes plants in the flood plain such as willows and aspen, which in turn draw birds and beavers, elk and caribou. The plant-eaters attract predators like wolves and grizzly bears."

We've always known that rivers were movement corridors and hotbeds of biodiversity, but now we can see the bigger picture: the smallest sediments and the largest carnivores are tightly connected.

These days, we look at our "home river" with different eyes.

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.