All Posts By

Joel Hagen

The Return of Cutthroat Trout, World Record Bird Flight, Advent Nature Calendar, and more…

Larch trees at Lake O'Hara
Great Divide’s Fall Newsletter, 2021

Happy November from Lake Louise, and Happy Thanksgiving to those south of the 49th parallel. Speaking of thanks, to all those who joined me on the trails this summer, please know that I am very grateful that you chose to hike with Great Divide.

It’s fully winter now in Lake Louise, and to announce the season with a flourish, I saw a lynx (a very winter-loving animal) cross one of the runs at the ski hill yesterday. Also, in the last week I’ve been snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, lake skating, and backcountry skiing. How’s that for winter?

My 2021 / 2022 snowshoeing season starts in less than a week (Dec 1), and conditions are great. I’m taking reservations for the whole season, and if you’re looking for an experiential Christmas present for someone special, you can purchase a Great Divide snowshoeing gift certificate.

 

 

Parks Canada aquatics biologist Shelley Humphries is all smiles at the “hatchery” in Corral Creek

Cutthroat Trout Homecoming at Hidden Lake

“311 fry were released last week!”

This was the good news that arrived at the end of August in an email from Shelley Humphries, the aquatics biologist for Parks Canada in Lake Louise. For over five years, Shelley has been working to return native cutthroat trout to Hidden Lake, a small gem behind the Lake Louise Ski Area. This summer marked the final step of the project.

I already knew the good news was coming because, a couple of weeks earlier, I volunteered to help carry film equipment for a video shoot featuring the reintroduction. We trekked along the creek that drains Hidden Lake, where Shelley and her team were rearing cutthroat trout eggs. There, we filmed an ingenious collection of buckets, tubing, and special mesh that were holding the eggs. New life was waiting to pop out!

The fish fry that hatched are endangered westslope cutthroat trout, which were once found in almost every stream and river in the mountain parks. During Banff’s early days, people fished with wild disregard for conservation, and other fish species were introduced into the park’s waterways. Cutthroat trout took a big hit from those actions.

Cutthroat trout eggs.

Today’s national parks are in the business of protecting their native species, so putting these fish back into some of Banff’s lakes and streams is an important and inspiring story. In an underwater way, it is the equivalent of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, or of bison into Banff’s backcountry.

The “Mighty 311,” as I’m calling them, are like orphans coming home for the first time. Go, little fishes, go!

 

 

Great Divide’s Online Advent Calendar

Advent starts on November 28, and for the second year running, I’ll be posting my Advent nature calendar on Facebook and on Instagram.

There’ll be engaging photos and stories about wildlife, mountain scenery, wildflowers, and birds. Look for it on Great Divide’s Facebook page , with the hashtag #adventnaturecalendar, or on my instagram account. Let me know if you want this to become an annual tradition!

 

New World Record for a Migrating Bird

Bar-tailed Godwit, a flying machine. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Two months ago, a bar-tailed godwit – which is like a jumbo-sized sandpiper – broke its own world record for non-stop flight, set only just last year. On September 28, it landed in Australia, 10 days after leaving Alaska!

In an almost unimaginable trip, the godwit travelled a distance of just over 13,000 km in 239 hours. Top speed? Over 88 km/h (55 mph).

What can one say except “wow.”

In the last 15 years, thanks to miniaturized satellite trackers attached to the birds, biologists have been able to closely follow this amazing migration.

You can follow it too: the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre in New Zealand has a Facebook page that posts live updates each spring and fall.

 

 

Great Divide’s Favourite Nature Book of 2021: World on the Wing, by Scott Weidensaul

It is a tradition of this fall newsletter to recommend a book for the nature lover on your Christmas list. Continuing with the bird migration theme, this year I’ve chosen an absolutely absorbing book about feathered travel.

Whether he’s talking about hummingbirds or Amur falcons, travelling to Alaska or to Africa, putting GPS units on snowy owls or counting a river of warblers on the north shore of the St Lawrence River, journalist and bird biologist Scott Weidensaul paints a vivid picture of one of the Earth’s greatest natural spectacles: the annual movement of billions of birds.

He documents how birds travel across deserts, mountains and oceans, defying the limits of endurance, but he also covers the human element: how people have developed ingenious leg bands, tiny geolocators, and the citizen science of e-bird, all to help us figure out where the birds are going.

I loved it!

 

Covid-19 Update

I received my second Covid shot in June, and I’m not alone: a huge majority of people who live and work in the mountain parks of Banff, Yoho and Japser are fully vaccinated. On top of that, Canada is in the top 20 nations worldwide for per capita vaccination rates. Since late summer, our nation has also re-opened its borders, welcoming guests from the United States and abroad. So if you’ve been waiting to come to the Rockies, now’s the time to start planning. All of my Covid-19 safety measures are laid out on the Great Divide website.

Have a safe and happy holiday season with your loved ones, and I hope you’ll join me this winter for a snowshoe tour. My best wishes to everyone.

-Joel

The Phoenix Rises: Four Years After the Fire in Waterton

Joel Hagen in a patch of thimbleberries, Waterton Lakes National Park

 

We’re in the midst of another historic wildfire season in Canada’s west. But in all the news about evacuations, towns under threat, and area burned (over 700,000 hectares in B.C. so far), you don’t hear much about what happens after the fires have gone out.

The Prince of Wales Hotel on the morning of September 12, 2017, with the Kenow Fire burning behind it. Photo courtesy of Parks Canada and Fortis Alberta.

Last month, I was in Waterton Lakes National Park for the third time since the big Kenow Fire of 2017. I’ve written about the aftermath of the fire before, in 2018 and 2020, but with each year there are dramatic changes, so this summer I wanted to focus on berries.

I did three days of hiking with my friends Edwin and Alice, and we passed flourishing patches of Saskatoon berries, thimbleberries and wild blueberries. At one point, I stepped into a patch of thimbleberries that were almost up to my shoulders. In the same spot on September 12, 2017, the day after the fire, there would have been dead trees and blackened soil for as far as the eye could see.

A patch of thimbleberries on the Bertha Lake trail in July, 2021. Photo by Edwin Knox.

How could these berry bushes come back so quickly? To find out, I looked them up in the US Forest Service’s amazing Fire Effects Information System, and the answers jumped out. The entries for the three plants – all with multiple research citations – were peppered with lines like “top-killed plants sprout from rhizomes,” “thimbleberry reaches or exceeds prefire abundance soon after fire,” and “deeply buried rhizomes enable Saskatoon berry to sprout after even the most intense wildfire.” These bushes have come back from roots, not seeds, and with warm black soil, fertilizer from the fire , and lots of sunshine, they are turbocharged to grow.

Saskatoon berries coming ripe in Waterton in July, right in the heart of the Kenow burn.

The upshot is a bumper crop of berries this year, and that’s good news for many mammal and bird species. During my visit, there were already Cedar Waxwings flying around in search of fruit, and I saw a black bear feasting on berries along the Red Rock Parkway.

I worry deeply about people whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by the fires in BC this summer, but in Waterton, the Phoenix is rising, and it will rise in other areas after the burns of 2021 are done.

A Via Ferrata Adventure

The Via Ferrata at Mt Norquay

“You’ll be clipping and unclipping these 220 times.”

This is what John Thornton (‘JT’ to everyone in the Bow Valley) tells us as we look down at the carabiners attached to our climbing harnesses.

We are at the base lodge at Mount Norquay, about to embark on a four hour adventure on the cliffs above the ski resort, and everyone is excited to be trying something new. That something new is Norquay’s Via Ferrata, first launched in 2014, with JT playing a major roll in its development and operation.

Guide John Thornton, happy in his natural habitat.

I’ve been wanting to try it ever since, and yesterday I got my chance. As a bonus, JT is leading our group. I’ve known JT ever since I arrived in Banff, and am keen to see him in his natural habitat.

After a quick ride up the trusty North American chairlift — built in 1948 and still going strong — we are ready to clip in and meet the “iron road.” Via Ferratas were first developed in Italy, and are an ingenious way to get up steep mountain-sides. Steel rungs for your feet and hands are attached to the cliff, and you clip your carabiners to steel cables adjacent to the iron steps. The combo allows you to climb easily, and be protected in case you fall.

JT leads the way, offering tips and encouragement, and we climb up and up, over steep bluffs, through little chasms, even across a suspension bridge. Below us is a fabulous view of Banff and the Bow River, and from north to south, a glorious panorama of Banff’s two signature mountains, Rundle and Cascade.

I’ve done a lot of rock climbing, scrambling, and even a few alpine climbs, so I shouldn’t be having so much fun, but the Via Ferrata is pure happy time. It gives you an eagle’s eye view, camaraderie with your new cablemates, and the joy of being up where the clouds can go.

People often ask me what I like to do on my days off, and what other things there are to do in Banff park. Yesterday the answer to both questions overlapped, and I highly recommend Banff’s Via Ferrata.

 

Hiking at Lake O’Hara, Joel’s on Instagram, Grizzly #142, Free “Thank You” Hikes, and More…

Lake McArthur and Mount Biddle at Lake O'Hara

Great Divide’s Spring Newsletter, 2021

Happy May from Lake Louise, where the snow is melting and the birds are singing. For those who were out with me on snowshoes this winter, a huge thank you. I am really happy that you came to the mountains for an escape from Covid.

We are now only four weeks from the start of the 2021 summer hiking season – May 31 – and I’ve traded in the skis and snowshoes for hiking boots and bikes. Also, I’ve been lucky enough to see my first grizzly bears of the year (see the video below).  I’m up to five different bears in the last week, and that’s my benchmark that spring has finally arrived!

COVID-19 Update

Alberta is currently really struggling to contain the third wave of Covid-19, but the vaccine rollout is accelerating, and by the summer, we should have a significant percentage of the population vaccinated. Banff is being targeted for a big immunization blitz in the next two weeks. I received my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on April 30, and am expecting my second shot in July or August.

I can’t predict the future, but based on successfully running my guiding program last winter and in the summer of 2020, I’m taking reservations for this summer’s hiking season, which starts on May 31. All of my Covid-19 safety measures are laid out on my website. There will be no penalties for reservations cancelled due to COVID-19, so feel free to plan your trip. I will post updates on Great Divide’s website as rules and restrictions change.

Joel getting his first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on April 30. A happy moment, even though the mask hides a big smile!

 

Lake O’Hara Guided Hikes

Lake McArthur and Mount Biddle, just one of many beauty spots at Lake O’Hara.

Lake O’Hara is a celebrated hiking district west of Lake Louise, and last summer, for the first time since WW II, access to the area was closed. This year, O’Hara has re-opened, and hiking guides have access to a special daily quota. With three month’s notice, I can reserve spaces on the 8:30 bus for up to five guests. If you’d like to experience this sublime hiking destination, contact me and I’ll do my best to reserve your trip. If you want to pick a date with a guaranteed departure, there’s even a few O’Hara outings currently listed on my availability calendar. Hurry – they won’t last long!

Great Divide is now on Instagram

I launched my new Instagram account in March, and invite you to follow me. Every week I post a wildlife pic and a scenery shot. And in season, I’ll have snowshoeing and hiking photos to share as well. And although it’s said that a pictures tells a thousand words, I’ll make sure to add compelling stories to go with the images. These stories should give you flavour of what it’s like to be out on a hike with Great Divide.

Here’s a sneak preview of this week’s wildlife feature. If you’re wondering what a walking bearskin rug is doing in the frame, check in on Wednesday for the details.

Who’s this, and what’s the story? Check my Instagram account to find out.

 

Back by Popular Demand – Free Hikes for Frontline & Healthcare Workers

Last summer, as a way to say “thank you” to all the workers who have laid it on the line over the past year, I offered free hikes for essential frontline workers. I took out doctors, nurses, surgeons, firefighters, and hospital volunteers.

I’ve decided to do it again this summer, and am hoping that people outside of healthcare also feel welcome to come on a hike. That means bus drivers, grocery store workers, restaurant servers – anybody whose job it is to work directly with the public. If you are a healthcare or frontline worker, Great Divide is offering one free hike per week to you and your family or friends, on a first come, first serve basis. To see if hikes are still available, go to my availability calendar.

#142 and her Three-year-old Cub

I consider myself a Lake Louise local, but even with almost 30 years of calling this place home, I don’t have anywhere near the recognition of our local female grizzly bear: #142. She arrived on the scene as a young-of-year cub in 2010, and I’ve seen her numerous times since then. You might have met her virtually, as she’s been featured in this blog a couple of times, too, like way back in 2011, when she was just a one year old cub. #142 became a mom for the first time in 2018, and although one of her cubs was killed by another grizzly bear last year, she and her remaining youngster are doing well.

Some different views of grizzly bear #142 (and that’s junior, just behind her in the corner)

Last week, I got lucky enough to see both of them while I was out on a bike ride. Thankfully, they were on the other side of the wildlife fencing that runs along the highway. Phew!

It was really interesting to watch their behaviour. Pickings are slim in the spring, but mom was working hard to find food, digging for edible Hedysarum roots (Junior didn’t seem quite so enthusiastic). It was a great opportunity to watch bears foraging, and to see how food focussed they are. Amazingly, no matter how much they eat in May and June, they won’t gain much weight until berry season, which starts in late July. It’s only then that they start packing on the pounds for hibernation.

I hope you didn’t pack on too many pounds over the winter, and can get into the mountains this summer. Wherever you are, I wish for you to be safe and healthy. See you on the trail!

-Joel

Banff’s Snow Mammals

Least weasel

I used to collect stamps, and I still geek out sometimes when I’m at the post office. Which is exactly what happened last week when I saw a new set of stamps featuring snow mammals. Yes, snow mammals! These are creatures that turn as white as snow for the winter months.

What could be more apropos here in Canada? According to Canada Post, we are “home to more species of mammals that moult from shades of brown or grey to white than any other country in the world.” And I was happy to see that two of the five animals featured – the snowshoe hare and the short-tailed weasel – are found right here. On our snowshoeing trips, we find the tracks of these two all the time, but almost never see them.  Which is entirely the point, I suppose.

Snowshoe hare in early June on the trail to Eiffel Lake.

Come summer, the weasel and hare moult from white back to brown, to better blend in with the forest colour palette. I’ve spotted a few hares in their summer garb, and got lucky with this photo.

Alas, for weasels, including one that ran right through my legs, and another that had a chipmunk in its mouth, I found myself without a camera, so I don’t have a summer photo in my collection.  However, here’s a shot courtesy of Wikipedia.  This photo, by the way, is a least weasel, one size down from the short-tailed weasel. The Latin name of the least weasel takes the idea of snow mammals to a whole other level. What is it? Mustela nivalis, “weasel of the snow.”

Least weasel in its summer coat, and weighing in at all of 50 grams. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Great Boiling Water Ice Experiment

Guide Joel Hagen conducting boiling water experiment on cold day.

Last week, Arctic air parked itself over the Rockies, and on many mornings, temperatures were as cold as -35 C. That’s not so fun for skiing and snowshoeing, but it’s perfect for trying a neat winter experiment – turning boiling hot water into frozen steam in just a couple of seconds.

Here’s how it works. You fill a thermos with boiling water, and then, making sure you’re not facing the wind, you throw the hot water into the cold. Amazingly, none of it makes it to the ground as liquid water. Instead, it appears to turn into an instant cloud of frozen steam.

So, what is going on here?

Boiling water, being so close to steam, is very energetic, so when you throw it out of the thermos, it splits or breaks into tiny droplets. The droplets now have a large surface area compared to their size, which allows for a lot of evaporation. Each teensy hot droplet is trying to turn into steam.

But the air is really cold, and cold air simply can’t hold very much water vapour, so the freshly made steam condenses back into a liquid. But each bit of “condensate” is still really small, and in the cold, all those little bits quickly freeze. Once that happens, you get an ice cloud that is, literally, very cool!

Check out this video of the whole thing in action. From emptying the thermos to the ice cloud disappearing takes about ten seconds!

Thanks to Mistaya Lodge (a great place to go backcountry skiing!) for a few thermoses of boiling water and the great sunrise venue for the experiment. And thanks to Mark Finlay for exposing his fingers long enough to take the pictures and the video.

Boiling water wasn’t the only thing to freeze last week. It was cold enough that your breath and even your runny nose would freeze, especially for a bearded guy like me.

In case you’re worried, we’re back to normal temperatures this week, so it’s safe to get back out on the snowshoes and enjoy the outdoors.

My Favourite Wildlife Sightings of 2020

Western White Butterfly

In November, a pine marten showed up in my woodshed, and when I snuck out the front door to get a better look, it didn’t budge. I had five magical minutes with this creature, in some cases only a couple of metres away from it.

My trusty digital camera was being repaired (in fact, I had to get it fixed twice in 2020), so I have no photos of the marten, but I did manage to capture a few special moments this past year:

1. Northern Hawk Owl

Not an everyday bird, but if you get lucky enough to spot one, it usually puts on a show, perching proudly from a treetop. This was in late January.

2. Grizzly Mom and Her Two Youngsters

This was special: mom and her brand new cubs beside Highway 40 in Kananaskis in early June when the road is closed to cars (but open to cyclists!). Wonderful.

3. Red Squirrel with Nest Material

Another shot from the spring, and another mom, in this case a red squirrel gathering grass for its maternal nest. These tree nests – known as “dreys”, if you’re looking for a new Scrabble word – look like grass volleyballs.

4. Western White Butterfly

The little things are easy to miss in the Rockies, but there’s a lot of beauty in the world of the tiny.

5. Mountain Goat Fur

Okay, so technically not a wildlife sighting, but this shot of moulted mountain goat fur is just the tip of the iceberg. Last summer there was gobs of the stuff draped all over the place, giving a certain atmospheric quality to the landscape.

6. Hoary Marmots Play-fighting

It was WrestleMania at Consolation Lake in July, as three hoary marmots played pugilist among the boulders. Downright entertaining!

Last year, at the end of my post about my favourite wildlife shots, I wrote this: “My New Year’s wildlife resolution is to finally see a wolverine!” Well, guess what? I saw two wolverines in 2020 (no camera either time). Since that resolution was such a success, I want to channel this year’s resolution towards something more globally important. Here it is: I wish for the terrible toll of Covid-19 to end as soon as possible.

May you stay safe and healthy in 2021.

My Favourite Panoramas from 2020

Consolation Lakes from Panorama Ridge

It’s time for my (mostly) annual top panoramas of the year. Panos are a great way to capture the grandeur of the landscape here. May they remind you of your time in the Rockies, or entice you to visit, no matter the season.

March: The Whitehorn Trail, on one of my last tours before the coronavirus hit.

April: the trail to Surprise Pass, during a ski tour above Lake Louise.

July: hiking down from Helen Lake, with a group of healthcare workers.

July: Maligne Lake and Valley, from the Bald Halls, in Jasper National Park. Maligne is the largest lake in the mountain national parks, and is truly magnificent.

July: Mounts Quadra, Fay & Babel, and the Consolation Lakes below, from Panorama Ridge. It took me and my neighbours two tries to get up this benign looking ridge this summer, but the views were worth it.

August: North Molar Pass, 30 km into a 42 km day hike with my “monster hike” friend Hannah. How long does it take to hike 42 km? 15 hours. And you feel it the next day.

November: Bow Summit, where my friend Josee is snowshoeing in pretty deep powder. Winter came early this year: this photo was taken on November 1.

A Most Canadian Insect

Ice crawler, an insect that lives near snow

If you had to come up with a truly Canadian bug, what sort of qualities would you expect it to have? To me, it would have to be right at home during the long winters, capable of travelling on snow (or under it), and just downright tough.

Enter the ice crawler, AKA Grylloblatta campodeiformis.

I had heard about these insects ever since I moved to Lake Louise. In fact, the first specimen known to science was discovered in Banff National Park in 1913, high on the side of Sulphur Mountain.  Ice crawlers are known to live beside or even right on snowfields. Their happy place? Under rocks or tucked into tree bark, places where they can find and eat small insects and other invertebrates. Oh, and at temperatures of about 0° – 3° Celsius. If it gets warmer than about 10°, they die.

But until yesterday, I’d never seen one. Friends and I were skiing in Yoho park, and came across one travelling along on top of the snow. It was about 30 mm long, just over an inch, and a nice beige colour. None of us had a clue what it was, but when I got home, I wondered, “hmmm, is this the famous ice bug I’d read about years ago?”

Happily, the answer is yes, and I’m jazzed to have had the chance to see another wonderful creature that calls the Rocky Mountains home. And as for its Canadian credentials, how about the fact that it is the official insect of the Entomological Society of Canada?

That’s what I call “cool.”

The Freeze on Lake Louise, Our Local Grizzly Moms, and More…

Guide Joel Hagen at the Great Divide

Great Divide’s Fall Newsletter, 2020

Greetings from wintry Lake Louise. Our snow came early this year, leading to the earliest opening day in the history of the Lake Louise Ski Resort: October 29! And I’m excited to report that I got in ten days of cross-country skiing in October. I never would have thought that possible. A couple of days ago, I skied to the Great Divide, between Banff and Yoho, and my friend Josee snapped a shot for this newsletter.

The Freeze on Lake Louise

Lake Suwa and Mount Fuji. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Yesterday, November 9, 2020, Lake Louise finished freezing over, and was even thick enough for skating on the front half of the lake. I’ve been tracking the “freeze-up” and “ice off” dates for Lake Louise for almost thirty years, and recording them on the citizen science website icewatch.ca.

But that’s nothing! Shinto priests in Japan have been recording the freeze-up dates on Lake Suwa, in the Japanese Alps, since the 1400s! The date of ice formation has been shifting ever later, and in recent decades, there have been many years in which the lake doesn’t freeze at all. It’s a fascinating record, and shows yet another effect of climate change.

Our Local Grizzly Moms

#142 and one of her cubs in June, 2018, near the shore of Lake Louise. Photo by Joel Hagen.

I’ve watched generations of grizzly bears make their living around Lake Louise, and the last two years have brought both hope and heartache to bear fans in the park. Two sisters, named #142 and #143, were both first time moms in 2018, and that summer a lot of us locals got to see the family in unexpected places, including on a grassy lawn beside the shore of Lake Louise! I’d never seen anything like it, and thousands of visitors enjoyed a scene usually found only in nature documentaries.

But after that joyful start, this year there was tragedy. In the spring, one of #142’s two-year olds was killed by a male grizzly bear, and in early September, #143 was struck and killed by a train.

Locals were saddened by both events, but #142 and her remaining cub had a good summer. My friend Amar Athwal, who is a superb photographer, saw the cub enough times this year to see him go from a skinny two year-old in June to a chunky two and a half year-old in October. He put together this photo collage a couple of weeks ago, and it really tells the story.

#142’s surviving cub, in June, July, August and October, 2020. Photos by Amar Athwal.

If you’d like to see more of Amar’s wildlife and landscape photos, he posts one or two shots to his blog each week.

Free Hikes for our Healthcare Workers

Firefighters from Manning, Alberta, getting some time off in September, 2020. Photo by Ryan Voorderhake.

Covid-19 has has put some groups of people, like healthcare providers, at greater risk, and as a thank you, I wanted to do something special for these brave folks. So all summer long, I offered free hikes once a week for essential frontline workers as a way to say “thank you.” I ended up taking out doctors, nurses, surgeons, firefighters, and hospital volunteers. It was a great experience. The last of these hikes, in late September, was probably my favourite. I led a group of wildland firefighters who had been stationed in northern Alberta all summer. They were enthusiastic about nature, fire history, and our hiking destination, and it was a wonderful and goofy way to escape from Covid talk.

COVID-19 Update

Speaking of COVID talk, here’s how coronavirus is playing out in the park, and what I’m planning for the winter.

The national parks closed during the peak of the first wave, and re-opened starting June 1st. The pandemic shut down my snowshoeing business, and delayed the start of my summer hiking season. From March 15 until the end of the summer, I dealt with the cancellation of almost 80 guided hikes. I ended up leading only 19 trips this summer. Needless to say, it has been a very challenging year.

But outdoor activities have proven to be good therapy for many, and COVID-19 transmission is very uncommon in outdoor nature settings. I have taken many steps to keep my guests safe, like signing waivers remotely, loaning out hand sanitizer for the day, and maintaining safe distances while we hike. My COVID policy is posted on my website.

We’re just a few weeks away from snowshoeing season, which is a perfect outdoor activity in these coronavirus times. I hope you’ll feel welcome here in Lake Louise and Banff National Park, and I warmly invite you to join me for a snowshoe tour.

Be well and stay safe.

-Joel