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.


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!


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

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.


COVID-19 Update, Snowshoes for Horses, and More…

Guide Joel Hagen on cross-country skis

Great Divide’s Spring newsletter, 2020

Greetings from self-isolation in Lake Louise. Our little town is very quiet, and the locals are waiting patiently for spring to come. Now that it is May, the snow should disappear from town in the next few weeks, and we can all look forward to life returning to our frozen Lake Louise world.

COVID-19 Update

In mid-March, with the declaration of the Coronavirus pandemic, things ground to a halt here pretty quickly. The Lake Louise Ski Area closed, as did almost all local hotels and businesses. Even the Chateau Lake Louise is shut down, which hasn’t happened since WW II. We currently have only essential services open, and Parks Canada is urging visitors to stay home until the park can safely re-open.

For the summer season, I am accepting bookings for guided hikes starting June 1. If necessary, I will delay the start of my hiking season. There will be no penalties for reservations cancelled due to COVID-19. I will post updates on Great Divide’s website as the park and the province of Alberta begin to re-open.

I am in awe of the healthcare workers who have taken on this crisis with such dedication, especially in the hard hit areas. And the essential workers have also earned my admiration. Kudos to all of them.

Snowshoes for Horses!

Have you ever heard of glacial archaeology? Researchers in this field search near melting glaciers for artifacts revealed by disappearing ice. Last month, archaeologists working in Norway published their latest findings from Lendbreen Pass, northwest of Lillehammer. During the 2019 summer field season, along with clothing and arrows, they found a horse snowshoe.

Yep, a horse snowshoe.

Horse Snowshoe. Photo by Espen Finstad,

It hasn’t been dated yet, but other finds, including horse shoes and the preserved remains of packhorses and horse dung (!), proves that horses were used to cross the pass for centuries, maybe even millennia. As a snowshoe guide, I was delighted to learn that there were horse snowshoes. I also feel a strong sense of connection to this story, as my dad’s family is Norwegian, and one of the archaeologists involved in this project, Jamie Barrett, has been a friend of Nadine and her brother Mark since they were kids.

For more, visit the Secrets of the Ice website.

A Favourite Nature Book for 2020: Wildlife and Habitats by Susan Morse

Two of my snowshoeing guests this winter sent me this book (thanks Cynthia & Milo), and it has been great fun to read.

The writer, Sue Morse, is one of North America’s most celebrated animal trackers, and founder of Keeping Track. She’s got an eagle eye for finding evidence that animals have left in the landscape, and this is a collection of her tracking essays, published over the last 20 years. It’s full of captivating stories and beautiful photos (all taken by her), and has answers to questions I’ve been asking for ages.

For example, here in the Rockies, I’ve seen lots of trees with their bark peeled off by bears, and I’ve often wondered which teeth the bears use to scrape up the yummy cambium layer. So what does Sue Morse do? She takes a bear skull replica around to the peeled trees, and matches up the teeth with the scrape marks to show that bears use their lower incisors to get at the sweet cambium!

This in an engaging read and an invaluable reference if you like to look for signs of wildlife. Pricey but worth it. Available only at Keeping Track’s online store.

How Much Snow is in Them Thar Hills?

It’s been a winter to remember, and many locals have declared it “one of the best snow years I’ve ever seen!” But memories are fickle, and it’s tough to remember what the snow was like two years ago, let along 12 years ago. So if you really want to know how much snow is out there, you need to find a weather station that records how much water is trapped in the snowpack.

The black line shows this year’s snowpack, measured in “snow water equivalent” (SWE). The green line is the average, and the grey bar shows the range of snowpack over the last thirty years.

There’s just such a weather plot near Skoki Lodge, tucked behind the Lake Louise Ski Resort. The plot reports the “snow water equivalent” (SWE), and it’s currently at almost 140% of the longterm average. When this snow melts this spring, it will flow into the Pipestone River, which runs right past the village of Lake Louise.

I can attest to how much snow is out there, because yesterday I was cross country skiing on almost 2 metres of snow!

There will be big water in the rivers here this spring! If you want to see the snowpack for yourself, you can see it online, updated in real time.

Joel at Halfway Hut, on the ski trail into the Skoki district, on May 1, 2020. That’s a lot of snow!

May your spring find you healthy and safe.


A Mystery Lake, my Favourite Nature Book of 2019, and More…

glacially coloured lake

Great Divide’s Fall Newsletter, 2019

We’ve had real winter this past week, with bracing temperatures and clear blue skies. As I write this, the sun is shining, and there is a plume of spindrift blowing off the summit of Mount Temple.

Thank you everyone, who joined us on a guided hike this summer, and now that our winter snowshoeing season has begun, I look forward to seeing you on the trail this winter.

My Favourite Nature Book of 2019: Forest Bathing by Dr Qing Li

By now, many have heard of “shinrin yoku,” the Japanese art of forest therapy. This is more than an art, it’s also a science, and Dr. Qing Li is Japan’s most well known forest therapy researcher.

He has distilled his findings into this lovely book, and cleverly, he has done it in a format that mirrors the experience of being out in the forest. There are soothing pictures of Japanese woodlands, and just enough text on each page for Dr. Li to share his story.

It’s a relaxing and profound read at the same time, if such a thing is possible. Perfect for the nature lover on your Christmas list.



The Mystery Lake of Molar Pass

In July, I hiked with friends Anna & Marcus up to a high ridge overlooking the Molar Pass meadows. It is dotted with lakes, and most of them looked like this:

But one of them was a brilliant glacial green. The problem, and you can see it in the following photograph, is that there is no glacier above this lake, and you need glaciers to create this colour. The moving ice grinds the bedrock and produces ‘rock flour,” a fine silt that stays suspended in glacial lakes, rendering them green or turquoise.

I could not figure it out, but Nadine knew immediately. “It’s a rock glacier,” she said. Yes, dear reader, there is such a thing. Wikipedia says rock glaciers consist “either of angular rock debris frozen in interstitial ice, former ‘true’ glaciers overlain by a layer of talus, or something in-between.”

The key thing is that a rock glacier moves (even though it might only be a few metres a year), and this is enough to produce rock flour, and turn your everyday garden variety lake into an eye-popping emerald masterpiece. Mystery solved.

Best Nature Podcast of the Year: The Bison and the “B”

Canada often plays second fiddle to the U.S. when it comes to profound ideas about nature and conservation. When I was a biology student, I read Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey, all celebrated American writers.

So I was delighted to learn that in the early 20th century, there was a secret society of Canadian (and some American) biologists and ecologists who paved the way for modern thinking on conservation. They called themselves the “B”, and they came together to stop the transfer of plains bison to Wood Buffalo National Park in 1925. As the host of the podcast, Briony Penn says, “the members of the ‘B’ went on to influence an underground environmental education movement that resulted in much of North America’s early protected areas, conservation legislation and environmental ethos.”

You can listen to or download the podcast here.

Happy holidays, everyone.