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Joel Hagen

An Exciting Season of Prescribed Fires

Prescribed fire at the Saskatchewan Crossing in 2009

Prescribed fire at the Saskatchewan Crossing in 2009On this Earth Day, it felt right to write about one of the most fundamental natural processes that plays out over the surface of the earth: fire.

Forest fires have been part of the natural history of the Canadian Rockies since the return of plants and forests at the end of the last big glaciation. That’s about 13,000 years of wildfire in the landscape. Despite this, people and fire have an uncomfortable relationship. Fires are as natural as sunrise and sunset, and they create some tremendous patches of habitat, favoured by everything from birds to bears to bison. But they can take a real toll on communities, and they produce a lot of smoke, so the usual response to fires is to fight them and put them out, even in national parks.

One of the best tools for bringing fires back into a landscape is prescribed fire, where people (in this case, the Parks Canada fire team) decide when and where they want to have a fire. They can light fires when the weather window is favourable, and do nature’s bidding with a guiding hand.

Prescribed fires planned for Yoho, 2023.

In 2023, Yoho National Park is in the fire spotlight. In my over 30 years of living in the Rockies, Yoho is the park that’s experienced the least fire, so it’s time. This year, Parks Canada has announced an ambitious plan to light three large prescribed fires in Yoho. They are in out of the way valleys in the western end of the park, but if the park gets the right conditions, it could make for an interesting spring and fall (the park doesn’t do prescribed burning in the summer).

My Favourite Wildlife Sightings of 2022

Hoary marmot

It’s time for my fave animal photos from last year. I always love going through my pictures (all taken on my teensy Panasonic Lumix camera), but it’s always tough to pick the final shortlist. Let me know if you’ve got a favourite from the bunch.

1. Snowshoe Hare
Snowshoe hareI think this one will be hard to beat. I got home from snowshoe guiding on a snowy day last January, and while I was shovelling, I noticed a roosting snowshoe hare beside the woodshed. They often rest in the daytime, and this little cutie decided that this was the perfect spot. The next day, I was doing the dishes and looking out the kitchen window when I realized that a clump of snow underneath my car was… the same little snowshoe hare!Snowshoe hare roosting under the car

2. Yellow-Fronted Bumblebee (Bombus flavifrons)
Bumblebee and glacier lilyThis early bird (er, bee) was out gathering nectar and pollen at the end of May in Yoho National Park. Given the early date, this is a queen bee, born in the late summer of the previous year. She and her sisters are the only bumble bees from a colony that survive the winter, and after hibernating, each of them will try to start a new colony in the spring. Talk about resilience! Plus, if you need proof that bees are important pollinators, this picture is worth a thousand words.


3. Hoary Marmot
Hoary marmotThese photogenic and jumbo-sized squirrels could make my list every year. There’s something endearing about marmots and their big buck-toothed grin. Right now, they are in the middle of almost 8 months of hibernation, making them the deep sleep champions here in the Rocky Mountains (take that, grizzly bears!).

4. Grizzly Bears
Female grizzly bear and cubSpeaking of grizzly bears, sometimes the Lake Louise Ski Area lives up to its billing as a good place to spot bears. I was on the “Grizzly Express” summer sightseeing lift in July when I spotted this mama griz and her cub.

5. Chipmunk
chipmunk stuffing its cheeks with seedsFall is my favourite time to watch chipmunks, because they get really focussed on collecting seeds for the winter. It’s super charming: they harvest and husk grass seeds, then stuff them in their cheeks until they can’t squeeze in any more. These seeds are carried to the hibernation den and piled up until there are a couple of litres (!!) squirrelled (er, chipmunked) away for the winter. They wake up and snack frequently during their hibernation period.

6. White-tailed Ptarmigan
White-tailed ptarmiganOkay, I have to start with the only ptarmigan joke I know…

Q: Why can’t you hear a ptarmigan going to the bathroom?
A: Because the “p” is silent.

At the end of September, you know that winter is just around the corner, and for proof, I like to watch the white-tailed ptarmigan moult from summer brown to winter white. It takes a few weeks, but once it starts, it’s time to break out the long-johns and the extra puffydown jacket.

My Favourite Panoramas from 2022

Marcus on top of the world

A happy new year project for me every January is posting my favourite panoramas of the past twelve months. Panos are great at capturing the sweep of the landscape, and most of the time, I like to place a person in the frame for scale. Enjoy these half dozen photos from 2022!

February: Afternoon light on Mount Hector. With the sun low on the horizon throughout the day, winter is a magical time for mountain photography.Mount Hector

March: On a ski tour with my friend Marcus north of Lake Louise, we enjoyed the proverbial “sea of peaks” all around us. It’s an experience that makes you feel big and small at the same time.Marcus on top of the world

August: Lake O’Hara is one of my favourite places, and here you can see why. Thanks to the Bedrich family for agreeing to do the stiff climb to All Soul’s Prospect. This spot gives you a sense of accomplishment and beauty in equal measure.High above Lake O'Hara

September: This is O’Hara again, only a few weeks after the previous photo. My guests Eric, Alice and I had never seen anything like it: a full-on snowstorm to the north of us; a mix of clouds and sun to the south; and the three of us standing at the dividing line between the two weather systems!snow and sun at Lake O'Hara

November: Lake O’Hara a third time, in mid-November. My friend Chuck and I cross-country skied up to the lake, which was frozen and in deep shadow. All around us were glorious peaks.Chuck at Lake O'Hara

November: That’s yours truly on the same day, after a magical afternoon skate on Lake Louise. The lake ice was spectacular in mid-November, and in ten days I managed to skate on five different lakes and one river.Joel on the ice of Lake Louise


A Massive Cone Crop, Ocean-going Garter Snakes, New Snowshoeing Videos, My Next Ukraine Fundraiser, and more…

Ice crystals at Hector Lake

Great Divide’s Fall Newsletter, 2022

Welcome to the short days of winter. And what an amazing start to winter here in the Canadian Rockies! There was a pulse of snow in early November, and then clear skies and cold temperatures in the last two weeks. During that time I’ve managed to skate on five different lakes and one frozen river. The real treat was getting out on Hector Lake, the second largest waterbody in the park. The ice and frost crystals were magnificent.

ice crystals on Hector Lake

2022 was a real “bounce back” season for me, after two rough years of Covid-19. Thank you to everyone who joined me on the trail this year. It was a beautiful summer, and nature, as usual, provided some intriguing stories.

A Cone Crop for the Ages

Most of my guests noticed that the evergreens in the park were just plastered with a heavy crop of cones this summer. The numbers were staggering, and the big cone crop was consistent across different species of trees.

It was only the third time in my 30+ years in the Rockies that I’d seen this, and when it happened the last time, I wrote a blog post highlighting what biologists think is going on.

2022's amazing cone crop, featuring cones of many colours.

Clockwise, from top left, female (pink) and male (gold) cones on a Lyall’s larch; developing spruce cones; mature cones on a subalpine fir (blue-grey) and an Engelmann spruce (beige); subalpine fir cones rocking the purple in early July.


One thing about this awe-inspiring display of fecundity was how beautiful it was. We usually think pine cones come in a boring selection of beige or brown, but during the growth of this summer’s cones there was pink and purple and green and gold. It was absolutely striking.

Great Divide’s Favourite Nature Book of 2022: Seeds, by Thor Hansen

It is a tradition of this fall newsletter to recommend a book for the nature lover on your Christmas list. Since the big cone crop is still on my mind, I’ve chosen a book about the natural history of seeds. It was a gift from one of my guests this summer (thanks, Elyse!), and proved to be a really engaging look at something we don’t think about much (gardeners excepted).

Book cover of Seeds, by Thor HansonNature writer Thor Hansen takes the long view on seeds, starting with their evolution (a big advance over spores, which ruled before seeds took centre stage). From there, it’s a very entertaining ride, with stops en route that take the reader to the deconstruction of an Almond Joy bar, to how the beaks of Darwin’s finches evolved because of seeds, to a breakdown of why the seeds of peppers range from very mild to very hot. Most mindblowing of all: the story of how a 2000 year-old date palm seed found in the ruins of Masada was successfully sprouted in 2005!

Garter Snakes in the Salish Sea

I’m always on the lookout for nature stories that spark wonder. This summer, wildlife and nature photographer Ryan Wilkes went to British Columbia’s Gulf Islands to photograph some unusual garter snakes he’d heard about. On Saturna Island he found what he was looking for: garter snakes that take to salt water to hunt fish in the intertidal zone!


Garter snake hunting in salt water off of Saturna island, B.C.

Garter snake preparing to dive into the salt water on the coast of Saturna Island. Photo by Ryan Wilkes.

As Ryan wrote, “I spent days watching garter snakes meander down the beach, swim through kelp beds, hold their breath for minutes at a time, and even witnessed the occasional successful hunt. These snakes take on a surprisingly confident and poised persona while in the water which allowed me to get closer than I had previously thought possible from many fleeting encounters on land.”

Ryan’s photos ended up winning him an award in Canadian Geographic’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. You can find Ryan’s work on his website or on Instagram.

Rock Star Snowshoeing Videos

Last winter, I hired the team at Calgary-based Roam Creative (great company to work with!) to produce some video footage of my snowshoeing trips. We got lucky with a couple of bluebird days in February, and I’m really happy with the footage.

Joel's "Hero Video"Some of the clips will be getting featured on my website soon. But for a sneak preview, check out my “hero video” (Roam’s name, not mine) and a really fun stop motion video inviting you to come snowshoeing. Who could resist?

And as the Borg say, “resistance is futile,” so why not join me for a winter outing? My snowshoeing season starts next week, on December 1. To make a reservation, just visit the calendar on my website and pick your day.

Fundraiser for Ukraine

Getting in the Ukraine spirit.We’ve just passed the 9 month mark of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has been an awful and brutal conflict. Last March, I ran a fundraising weekend for the Canada Ukraine Foundation, teaming up with Wilson Mountain Sports, our local sports shop. I donated the proceeds from two days of snowshoeing, and Wilson’s matched it. Together, we raised over $2600 for aid to Ukraine.

This coming winter, in February, will be the one year anniversary of the invasion. To help the Ukrainian people, I will be doing another fundraiser, so if you want a fun day out, all while supporting a good and just cause, mark off February 25 or 26 on your calendar!

Enjoy the holiday season and winter, everyone, and I hope you can make it out to the parks for a snowshoe tour.

All my best wishes.


30 Years of Golden Eagles, Three Decades in Lake Louise, Fundraising for Ukraine, and more…

bill and joel showing donation cheques for canada-ukraine foundation

Great Divide’s Spring Newsletter, 2022

Happy May from Canadian Rockies. As this photo from late March would suggest, it’s been a glorious winter, but it’s taking a long time for spring to arrive. The leaves should finally pop open next week in Lake Louise, which also marks the beginning of my guided hiking season, on May 30. Speaking of 30, this year marks a couple of three decade milestones, one from the world of nature, and one that’s more personal…

Snowy scene in March

30 Years of Golden Eagles

Golden eagle flying

Golden eagle in flight. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Let’s go back to March 20, 1992. For bird geeks, this is an important date. This is the day that Peter Sherrington and Des Allen discovered, by accident, a hundred golden eagles flying over the Kananaskis Valley. Over the next few weeks, they put in the hours, and realized that thousands of golden eagles were flying over the mountains. I remember getting the call for volunteers that spring, and Nadine & I went down to watch for eagles flying over Lake Minnewanka.

How had we missed such a mass migration? After all, this is a bird with a 2 metre wingspan! The answer is they were simply flying so high that you couldn’t see them with your naked eye. You needed binoculars or a spotting scope.

This spring, the Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation marks thirty years of monitoring the migration of golden eagles and other birds of prey over the Rockies every spring and fall. Sadly, the number of migrating eagles has been in steady decline, but that highlights the value of multi-year studies like this one. They can sound the alarm when wildlife populations change.

Congratulations to Peter and Des, and kudos to all the volunteers over the years.

Three Decades in Lake Louise
I’m celebrating a more personal 30 year anniversary this year. In early May of 1992, I arrived in Lake Louise to begin work as a park naturalist with Parks Canada. I wrote a post on Facebook on the actual anniversary, May 4, and this is what I had to say:

interpretiation staff, 1992.

Joel (top right, dressed as a Scottish mountain goat) and his co-workers in 1992.

“It’s been a privilege to live in this landscape of mountains and nature. I get to take people into the park, and share with them stories of this amazing place.

“Based on a back-of-the-envelope estimate, in the last 30 years, I’ve led almost 2000 guided hikes, walks and snowshoeing trips, and done over 1400 presentations.

“Thanks to the friends and co-workers and guests I’ve met along the way. Thanks to Nadine, who shared in this journey for so many years. And thanks to nature, a true temple that we ought to treat better. It’s a sacred gift, to humanity and to itself.”

Great Divide’s Donation to the Canada Ukraine Foundation

bill and joel showing donation cheques for canada-ukraine foundation

Bill Keeling (left) from Wilson Mountain Sports and Joel, with our novelty sized cheques to the Canada Ukraine Foundation.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February was a brutal act, and the war continues, at the expense of tens of thousands of lives and untold misery. Like many, I wanted to do something about it, so I donated the proceeds of two of my guided snowshoeing trips in late March to the Canada Ukraine Foundation. When my neighbour Bill Keeling found out, he had our local (and awesome) sports store, Wilson Mountain Sports, match the donation. Together we raised $2700 to support humanitarian aid to the people of Ukraine.

Ice Melt Date at Lake Louise
It’s been a late spring in the Rockies, which means many of the high elevation lakes are still frozen. Every year, it’s fun to watch the ice on Lake Louise and mark the day when it finally disappears.

The good news: you don’t actually have to be here to see it happen. From the comfort of your armchair, you can pull up the webcam on the roof of the Chateau Lake Louise, and monitor what’s going on! My vote is for June 4. I’ll post the date once the ice comes off.

Art from at Lake O’Hara, and Lake O’Hara Hikes this Fall

Morning, Lake O'Hara, by JEH MacDonald

“Morning, Lake O’Hara,” 1926, by JEH MacDonald

This spring, while visiting Toronto, I got to make a long-awaited pilgrimage to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg. They have a big collection of works by the Group of Seven, including pieces painted in the Canadian Rockies, and it was such a thrill to see works made in places I know and love. One of my favourites was a canvas by JEH MacDonald, done up at Lake O’Hara. It was luminous and totally captivating.

And Lake O’Hara itself is luminous and captivating. Most of my summer is already booked up, but I’ve currently got lots of availability in the second half of September, during larch season, and I invite you to consider a trip to Lake O’Hara to enjoy the show. If you’re unfamiliar with larch trees, they’re an “evergreen” that isn’t evergreen! They shed their needles in the fall, but before they do, they turn a beautiful gold. O’Hara, a limited access area, has phenomenal larch displays, and I can reserve day trips into the area through the guiding quota with Parks Canada. If you’d like to see this feast for the eyes firsthand, let me know.

Covid-19 Update
After being fully vaccinated in 2021, I received my first Covid booster shot at the beginning of January, 2022. I’ll be eligible for my second booster in July, and am planning to get my inoculation then. Covid has not gone away in Canada, but most of the restrictions have. I still take it seriously, however, and all of my Covid-19 safety measures are laid out on the Great Divide website.

Have a wonderful summer, everyone, and I hope to see you on the trail.

Five Years of Bison in Banff

Large herd of bison in Banff, 2021

This week marks the 5th anniversary of the return of bison to Banff National Park. On a chilly February 1st in 2017, 16 bison were airlifted into the park’s backcountry, and released into a holding corral in the Panther River Valley.

Since then, it’s been a pretty amazing buffalo journey. Parks Canada’s Bison Blog has done a great job of chronicling the last five years. Here’s my favourite highlights, with all photos courtesy of Parks Canada:

Spring, 2017: ten bison calves are born, the first wild bison to be born in what is now Banff Park since at least the 1870s.

Bison and calves, summer, 2018


Late July, 2018: the bison herd – now 31 animals strong – is released from their paddock into the wilds of the park. There are now free roaming bison in Banff. Hurray!

Bison crossing a creek in Banff's backcountry.


Late summer, 2018: once out of their paddock, the bison herd goes to the last place anyone expected: the high alpine! They spend most of August and September behaving like real Rocky Mountain lovers, hanging out along treeline ridges. These bison are clearly full of surprises already.

Bison on an alpine ridge in Banff in August, 2018


November, 2019: automated wildlife cameras show bison and wolves interacting, with a young bull following some wolves! It’s hard to see the time stamp in these photos, but the wolves and the bison are just a few minutes apart. Eventually, wolves and grizzly bears will learn to hunt bison, and once some of the bison are old enough to die a natural death, many animals will be able to scavenge from their carcasses. On a smaller scale, the fur that bison moult every spring will line the nests of songbirds, and at least 6 species of dung beetles will thrive in bison droppings! It’s an absolute dream scenario for an ecologist.wildlife camera footage of wolves and bison


Summer, 2021: with the addition of more new calves in the last three years, the herd is now made up of 66 bison. Here’s about half the current crew in a high meadow.

Large herd of bison in Banff, 2021

The bison reintroduction project has been a great success. One of the few challenges has been the instinct of young male bison to go on long road trips. In the last five years, two bulls had to be euthanized after travelling beyond the Banff’s boundaries, but, thankfully, the rest of the herd likes to stay put. The result is a thriving population. I can’t wait to see what the next five years will bring!

My Favourite Wildlife Sightings of 2021

Bull elk jousting in the fall

It’s time for my annual lookback at some favourite wildlife encounters from last year. Going through my photographs this week, it’s clear that my luck runs highest in spring and in autumn. Here are seven favourite moments from last year.

1. Mountain BluebirdMale mountain bluebird

In early May, while out for a bike ride, I spied this male bluebird on one of the fenceposts alongside the TransCanada Highway. It’s like a piece of sky took the form of a bird, and flew down from the heavens. The blue that comes into our eyes from the bluebird’s feathers is called “structural colour.” It means that there’s no actual blue pigment in the plumage, only blue light that the internal structure of the feather amplifies and scatters. If you put all of this bluebird’s feathers in a blender, and chopped them up small enough, they’d be white. Crazy, eh?


2. Snowshoe Haresnowshoe hare in new summer coat in May

Usually shy and timid, snowshoe hares occasionally head for the spotlight. This one showed up in my backyard one morning in late May, and grazed on the lawn. The light was so good that I could see white guard hairs that hadn’t fully moulted yet, and the brown iris. I’d always thought that hares had black eyes. It was a joy to observe this animal up close. Normally you see a hare for about 5 seconds while it runs away from you.


3. “Split Lip” the Grizzly BearMale grizzly #136 in May

If you live in Banff or Lake Louise, you know about the park’s two most famous grizzly bears, The Boss and Split Lip. Officially, their names are numbers (#M122 and #M136), but everyone uses these nicknames. I see them every once in a while, which usually means I’m safely in my car along the Bow Valley Parkway, but this time I was on my bike, and it was pretty unnerving. Split Lip got spooked by a train just as I rode by, and darted across the road into the woods. Since I didn’t know where he was, I backed off. Eventually, he came out of the forest and started walking down the road, right towards me. I don’t think he was interested in me – it was just an easy route for him, but I had to flag down a passing pickup truck to put a metal shield between me and #136. When we passed the bear, he was not even five metres away, with just this little pickup between us.


4. Golden-mantled Ground SquirrelGolden-mantled ground squirrel

This is the most commonly-seen mammal in the park, I think. So much so that you stop even paying attention to them. But this curious ground squirrel showed up on one of my guided hikes in June, and I couldn’t help but snap a photo. Seeing it blown up on the computer monitor, I could really appreciate the long claws and the beautiful midnight black eyes. It was a great reminder to pay attention to the world around us, whether small or big, common or rare.


5. Mountain Goatmountain goat in September snow

Most of the goats I see are perched up high. They are called “mountain” goats, after all. But on a snowy day in September at Lake O’Hara, one of my clients spotted a goat trucking along a trail we’d been on only five minutes before. It was in a hurry, which makes sense. Goats aren’t swift runners or powerful jumpers, so if they’re on the flats, they are vulnerable. Their safe havens are the crags where only goats can go, so when they are between cliffs, they hustle.


6. Pileated Woodpeckerpileated woodpecker on a tree trunk

After the end of my hiking season in early October, I headed down to Kootenay National Park with friends to do some camping. We picked the right spot, because for about half an hour one day, we had the pleasure of watching a giant pileated woodpecker hacking away on stumps and downed logs right beside our campsite. If you ever wondered whether or not birds evolved from dinosaurs, this is the proof you need: it’s Woody Woodpecker meets Jurassic Park.









7. ElkBull elk jousting in the fall

Fall is the rutting season for elk. It runs from late August into early October, but there’s enough testosterone coursing through the system that some elk are still scrapping and posturing in November. That’s when I saw this trio just off the Lake Minnewanka Road. Even from 75 metres away, I could hear the antlers clacking.

Hope you enjoyed the virtual wildlife tour. Let’s see what I find in 2022.

My Favourite Panoramas from 2021

Fireweed beside the trail to Boulder Pass in August

It’s that time of year, when I post my favourite panoramas of the past twelve months. It was a tough cull this year — there’s just so much beauty out there! If you’ve never been to the “Canadian Alps” (as they were once called in tourism brochures), I hope these shots inspire you to plan a trip here. And if you’re a Rocky Mountain veteran, may they bring you fond memories of this extraordinary place.

March: on the Dolomite Circuit, a ski tour around Dolomite peak, north of Lake Louise, with my friends Hannah, Marcus and Anna.

Skiers on the Dolomite Circuit north of Lake LouiseApril: Snowshoeing along a lovely stream in Yoho National Park with Paul & Eva.

June: Stephanie admiring the view at the Abbot Pass Lookout, above the Plain of Six Glaciers.The Abbot Pass Lookout above Lake Louise

July: Lake O’Hara reflecting Schaffer Ridge and Mount Odaray like a mirror.

Schaffer Ridge & Mt Odaray reflected in Lake O'HaraAugust: a bumper crop of fireweed beside the trail to Boulder Pass.

Fireweed beside the trail to Boulder Pass in AugustSeptember: Larch trees in all their golden glory in the Skoki Valley on September 24, which was one of the peak days for colour this year (it ranges from about September 19 to 25).

Larch trees turning gold at SkokiLet’s see what 2022 brings for grand vistas and glorious scenes. Happy New Year, everyone!


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.


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.