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Joel Hagen

The Amazing Mystery of the Bicknell’s Geranium

October 7, 2018

Part two of our report on last fall’s big fire.

Photo by Edwin Knox

Nadine and I, along with our old friend Edwin, are walking through charred aspen groves on our way to Lakeview Ridge. All around us is a forest of young aspen shoots as high as our knees, sometimes as high as our waists! It’s an exuberant and joyful explosion of life.

Buffaloberry growing back from a taproot that survived the heat of the fire.

We are in the middle of a forest burned in 2017’s intense Kenow Wildfire. About half of Waterton’s vegetated landscape was scorched in the fire, but in the Canadian Rockies, plants are built tough! Lots of species are adapted to come back from these moments of destruction.

The aspen are joined by buffaloberry bushes, sprouting from their deep rootstock. In a year or two, once the bushes start to yield fruit, they will become a key source of food for black bears and grizzlies.

Western showy aster going to seed

And there are fields and fields of western showy aster. It’s got a great Latin name, Eurybia conspicua, and boy, is it ever conspicuous! There are millions of plants and their puffy seed heads are sporting billions of seeds.

Among these familiar sights, however, is a plant that none of us have ever seen. It’s everywhere, growing close to the ground, and we three “park experts” are in the dark.

You can see why this geranium is nicknamed a “crane’s bill.” Photo by Edwin Knox

At dinner, we go to work to figure out the story behind the mystery plant. First we use Job Kuijt’s epic plant guide to Waterton to discover that our mystery plant is called Bicknell’s Geranium, AKA crane’s bill.

Then it’s off to the internet, where we learn that the seeds of the geranium physically explode out of those crane’s bill seedpods in autumn. They can then stay dormant in soil for centuries, and will only germinate after a fire.

In one study, from the Boundary Waters area of Minnesota, seeds in a 270 year-old forest sprouted after a fire. In a greenhouse test, almost all of the seeds germinated after 10 minutes exposure to temperatures of 65-100° C (150 to 210° F).

The leaves of the beautiful Bicknell’s Geranium. Photo by Edwin Knox

This plant loves fire! So why had none of us seen it before? Well, once the other plants and trees start to recover, the Bicknell’s geranium disappears. In some forests, it can cover 25% of the forest floor the year after the fire, but in three to five years… it’s gone.

But it’s not really gone. It leaves behind seeds, and they wait for the next fire, even if it is hundreds of years away.

The forests of Waterton look ravaged, but life will return…

Waterton’s Big Burn is a Magnet for Wildlife

October 7, 2018

Nadine and I are standing above Galway Creek, on the eastern edge of Waterton, with our old friend and long time park warden Edwin Knox. In front of us, in the shaded snow, is a tableau of wildlife tracks. There are dozens of mouse tracks, and moving up in size there are the footprints of pine marten, wolf, deer, and most impressively, grizzly bear.

Grizzly tracks on the left, mouse tracks in the centre, and marten tracks on the right.


The bear tracks look very fresh, and lead to two big digs in the hillside. “Oh, yes,” says Edwin. “It looks like it’s after the hedysarum.” We peer into the hole, and sure enough, we can see the severed stalks and fresh greenery. In the dirt behind, there are unmistakable claw marks where the bear has scooped out the sweet roots.

Freshly dug up Hedysarum sulphurescens. The bears go for the roots, not the greenery.


We are visiting Waterton, where I used to work, for the first time since a ferocious wildfire – the “Kenow” Fire – tore through the park last September. We wanted to see for ourselves what the fire had wrought, and what had happened since. Before getting to our wildlife track bonanza, we’ve already seen the tracks of moose, elk and coyote, all in a section of the park that was completely consumed by flames.

Nadine & Edwin look out over last September’s burn.


Before the day is done, we will see a pair of moose courting in the burned-out timber, and a deer happily browsing on the vegetation that sprouted this summer. It is a picture of resiliency and recovery, with wildlife thriving in a landscape that was blackened one year earlier.

Next week, part two of this story, in which the we make (at least to us) an amazing discovery…

Autumn Art

Today marks the first official full day of autumn, but fall comes early to the Canadian Rockies. We’ve been experiencing it for weeks. If you need proof, we’ve had lots of snow so far this month, there are fall colours everywhere, and Jack Frost has left his mark.

But for me, the best piece of proof that fall has arrived comes from seeds. In September, our plants throw themselves into the task of making seeds: in a frantic effort to beat winter, they create miniature templates of themselves, and send them forth into the mountains. My favourites are the species that defy gravity, producing extremely light seeds wrapped in gossamer fluff. When these seeds are dry, and the wind gets to them, they head skyward, to journey for miles, or dozens of miles.

Yellow dryas


This fall, I made a concerted effort to photograph some of these seeds, as they are things of beauty. Enjoy the show.

Happy autumn, everyone!

Willow at Bow Lake


River Beauty


Cotton Grass

Canada Day and July the 4th are for the Birds!

Canada’s national holiday was on July 1, and tomorrow, July 4, is America’s Independence Day. How can we say that these two holidays are for the birds?

Let us give you three reasons:

1. the Gray Jay, one of our favourite birds here in the Rockies, has recently been given its old name back: the Canada Jay. This was the name used from the early 1800s all the way through to the 1950s. Even celebrated bird artist John James Audubon used it in his 1840 publication of The Birds of America. In May of this year, the American Ornithological Society officially approved the name change, giving Canadians something to celebrate. So happy Canada Day, Canada Jay!

2. South of the line, today is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which had originally been enacted by both the U.S. and Canada in 1916. This act made it illegal to hunt migratory birds (except for game birds). It also stopped the killing of birds for feathers, made it illegal to collect their eggs, and even made industries who killed birds accidentally change their ways. The Act is probably responsible for keeping a dozen species from going extinct. Unfortunately, like a lot of cross-border legislation these days, it is under threat, but its accomplishments are definitely worth celebrating.

3. It’s the “Year of the Bird,” as declared by National Geographic. As bird lovers, we can get behind this, and it turns out we all should. Thomas Lovejoy, “the godfather of Biodiveristy” said, “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.” Amen to that.

Happy holidays, everyone, and happy birding!

Ice Walking at the Athabasca Glacier

Midway between Lake Louise and Jasper is one of the wonders of the Canadian Rockies, the Athabasca Glacier. A literal river of ice, it flows down from the Columbia Icefield towards Highway #93, and is a must-see destination in the Canadian Rockies.

Last week, on a field trip sponsored by our Interpretive Guides Association, I got to join Master Guide Peter Lemieux and fellow interpreters on an ice hike all the way up to the top of the glacier, where it tumbles off the Icefield in a series of ice falls. What a spectacular place, and what a unique experience!

A pool of mysterious “cryoconite,” made of wind-blown dust and microbes.

We passed millwells and crevasses, ice-scraped bedrock and sub-surface ice tunnels.

Along the way there was so much to look at, from the mysterious “cryoconite” deposits on the surface of the glacier to the massive side moraines that showcase what a beast the Athabasca Glacier was in the 1800s.

Peter and his dog George led us across the ice surface, chopping the occasional step, offering the occasional hand, and stopping to share stories of the changes he’s seen at the glacier over the 30+ years he’s been leading trips there.

Most shocking is the speed at which the glacier is receding. Peter stopped at one of the metal research poles in the ice, where, at the end of May, he’d put a piece of yellow tape around the pole where it came out of the ice. In less than a month, the ice surface was melting away quickly, and he said that the glacier will lose 5 – 8 metres of ice from its surface this summer. It was a powerful reminder of climate change in the Rockies.

The piece of yellow tape by guide Peter’s hand was wrapped around this pole in late May, right at the surface of the ice. In less than a month, almost a metre of ice had already melted away.

The highlight was getting to the icefall, where chunks of ice the size of houses cartwheel down from the icefield above.

All in all, a top-notch experience, and highly recommended:


Canada Geese Corner the Real Estate Market

We’ve been doing a lot of birdwatching this spring. Now that we’ve passed through the migration phase and much of the courtship phase, it’s time for the nesting phase. And here we’ve got to tip our hats to the Canada goose, a bird that we’ve noticed is willing to nest almost anywhere, even if means claiming real estate that already belongs to some other member of the animal kingdom.

First up is a nest on a muskrat “push up.” I took this photo in May at the Cave and Basin marsh near Banff. Muskrats make push ups in ponds and wetlands in the winter, shoving up mud and reeds above the level of the ice. They are usually meant for one (muskrat, that is), but this top floor reno is very goose friendly.

Next up is a nest I snapped  in April on a beaver lodge in Minnekhada Regional Park, near Vancouver. We like how the goose actually ended up blending in pretty well. This lodge looks big enough for at least a duplex, but geese like a little bit of space between neighbours.

Finally, we’d heard that Canada geese will even try to take over osprey nests, but unlike in the case of muskrats and beavers, the existing tenants aren’t so keen on this. Last spring, at an osprey nest in Charlo, Montana, a pair of geese found out the hard way that not all real estate is up for grabs!

The Travelling Wolverine

If you look up “mystery” in the dictionary, it should just say “wolverine,” based on how hard it is to find one. Nadine finally got lucky last summer and saw a trio of wolverines near Moraine Lake, but I (Joel) am still waiting for my first sighting after 26 years in the Rockies. One day I hope to be close enough to get a photo like this (thanks, Wikipedia!).

But that doesn’t mean I’m striking out completely.  Every year or two, I see tracks, and some of them are so fresh that you wonder if you’ve missed the mythical beast by hours, or only minutes…

Two weeks ago, on a backcountry ski trip just outside of Banff park’s western boundary, we got up early to ski over to the Campbell Icefield, and in the beautiful low-angle morning sunshine, there were fresh wolverine tracks.  Based on the snow we’d been getting, they were hours old, tops. But what was really impressive is where they had come from, and where they were headed: this wolverine had climbed up out of the Valenciennes drainage, made treeline, crossed about 4 km of the Campbell Icefield (at 2500 metres above sea level!), and then headed due south down towards Waitabit Creek.

There was no break in the tracks — it didn’t look like the animal had even stopped for a rest! But that’s all part of being a wolverine. Here in the Rockies, a male can have a home range of over 1500 km2, so being a travelling wolverine is the norm.

We should soon be finding out more about wolverines here in the park.  PhD student Mijam Barrueto is about to begin a multi-year study, using automated cameras and barbed wire hair traps to capture both pictures and DNA from these enigmatic animals. Stay tuned!


Mystery Tracks near Bow Lake

On the weekend, I took my friend Mark up to Bow Lake to go snowshoeing. It’s a dramatic spot, and there’s always at least a few wildlife tracks around. We saw traces left by snowshoe hares, white-tailed ptarmigans and pine martens, but there were also the signs of some other creature…

The mystery trough…

We found a trough in the snow, with pigeon-toed tracks running down the middle of it. Whatever left the tracks behind had to be relatively slow, and relatively heavy, and at that elevation, there’s only one creature that fits the bill: a porcupine.

I have to admire this one. We were at almost 2000 metres, and the snow was 165 cm deep. That’s one tough porcupine. I’m sure it is looking forward to spring, when it can switch from eating bark and the needles of evergreens to much more digestible leafy plants.





Outta my way – I’ve got a date with some salad!

The bug that says, “Spring is Here!”

Spring is just around the corner, but last week we saw the official harbinger of this change of the  seasons. We saw a snow crane fly.  That’s right, even though it was below freezing, we saw an insect.  Just to remind you of how amazing this is, insects are cold-blooded, so when the temperature is below 0 degrees C, that’s usually the end of the line for any insect that’s out in the cold.

But snow crane flies are different.  They produce glycerol (a sugar alcohol) in their blood, which makes them tolerant of below zero temperatures… But not too far below zero!  If the temperature falls below about -7 or -8 degrees C, they risk “flash freezing.”

And this is why they are a harbinger of spring.  For most of the winter, our temperatures sit well below -7 or -8 degrees C.  It’s only when it starts to get warm that they can be out and about.

If you are out on snowshoes or skis at this time of year, watch for what looks like a spider walking across the snow.  Snow crane flies have to walk everywhere, because they are wingless.  This may seem unimpressive, but they’re pretty speedy: they can cover over a metre a minute (which is pretty good when you’re only 8 or 9 mm long).

Pretty soon our first migratory birds are going to show up, and our ground squirrels will pop out of hibernation, but until then, let the snow crane fly call out, “spring is here!”

Dateline Banff: Wolf Spotted on Bear Street

We are in the middle of the Annual “Snow Days” festival in Banff and Lake Louise, and that means wildlife shows up in unexpected places, courtesy of talented snow and ice carvers. Banff’s snow sculptures on bear Street are really impressive this year, and include a wolf, a lynx, and a trio of bison.

Here in Lake Louise, at the Ice Magic Festival, there are frozen bears, wolves and Northern Lights.

The carvings and sculptures usually stay in pretty good shape for a couple of weeks, so if you are in the park, check out downtown Banff or the shore of Lake Louise for some frozen art.

By the way, if you are wondering what wildlife is really showing up on the streets of Banff, an RCMP officer picked up this image of a cougar on his dashcam video a couple of weeks ago.