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Photography

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.

Kootenay National Park turns 100!

Postage stamp featuring photo of Floe Lake by Roger Hostin

There’s a lot of news that is getting missed as the world deals with the Coronavirus pandemic, but I didn’t want Kootenay National Park to get lost in the shuffle.  Today, Kootenay turns 100 years old, which is definitely a birthday worth celebrating.

September at Floe Lake, in Kootenay National Park

The park was created out of a “land for service” swap inked on April 21, 1920.  The province of British Columbia transferred about 1400 square kilometres of land to the federal government in exchange for the feds building the “Banff Windermere Highway,” today’s highway 93S, from Castle Junction to the town of Radium.  This road has given Canadians and world travellers a century of access to some sublime scenery and nature.

Perhaps the most dramatic area in Kootenay is the Rockwall trail.  It’s one of the most celebrated trails in the Canadian Rockies, and for the 100th birthday of the park, a part of the Rockwall trail has been featured on a Canadian postage stamp.

Photographer Roger Hostin, centre, beside his beautiful shot of Kootenay’s Floe Lake

My friend and long time Parks Canada co-worker Roger Hostin, a very talented landscape photographer, had his image of Floe Lake chosen for the stamp.  If you still send letters, look for it at your favourite post office!

And if you want to see more of Roger’s work, check out www.rogerhostin.com.

Happy Birthday Kootenay!

My Favourite Wildlife Sightings of 2019

Female grizzly #142 and one of her cubs

Some lucky locals got to see the Bow Valley wolfpack near the Lake Louise campground on New Year’s Day, and it reminded me that it was time to post my annual “favourite wildlife” stories. From the memory card of my little Panasonic Lumix camera, here’s what stood out for me in 2019:

1. #142 and Her Two Cubs

One of our local female grizzlies, named “#142” (researchers use numbers to identify some of the park’s bears), spent a lot of time near Lake Louise this spring, with her two yearling cubs in tow. She even put in an appearance on the lawn next to the Chateau Lake Louise! I was lucky enough to see her on several occasions, and she was always on the lookout for male bears, who will sometimes prey on cubs. I love her vigilance – she is a very conscientious mom.

2. A Thirsty Black Bear

This young black bear showed up during an early morning birdwatching trip I was leading at Johnson Lake in July. It was very well behaved, and just wanted to get to the water’s edge for a drink. I like the reflection just before the snout broke the water.

3. The Goat Gang

A big herd of goats right beside one of the trails at Lake O’Hara was a show-stopper in July. They were so close that we could hear them grazing. Amazingly, the adult goats were just moulting their winter fur. Remember, this was on July 20! Makes you realize how short summer is around here.

4. A Marmot Family Compact

Hoary marmots live in nuclear family groups, and everybody has got everybody else’s back. I interrupted this family (there were five of them in total) in the rocks near a little meadow beside Temple Lake, and they checked me out to make sure I wasn’t going to eat them.

5. The Humble Bumblebee

Everyone loves the bigger animals, but let’s not forget the little stuff, which makes the world go around. This glorious patch of “river beauty” (a relative of fireweed) wasn’t just a feast for the eyes, it was a feast for the ears: the patch was full of pollinating bumblebees, and this scene literally hummed. Check out the bright orange pollen on her hind legs.  This gal is making things happen!

Here’s to 2020, and whatever nature brings. My New Year’s wildlife resolution is to finally see a wolverine! Well, we’re all allowed to dream a little, right?

A Month of Amazing Mushrooms

Sculpted Puffball mushroom, Calbovista subsculpta

As August comes to a close, and the rain comes down today, we have to be grateful for the extra precipitation this month, as it has led to one of the best mushroom displays we’ve had for years. The fungi love the moisture, and we’ve seen species that are totally new to us.

Sculpted Puffball, Calbovista subsculpta

It started just over a month ago at Lake O’Hara, with a spherical mushroom that looked like a geodesic dome, and was the size of a baseball! We checked in with the Alberta Mycology Society, and were told that it’s a Sculpted Puffball, Calbovista subsculpta.

That was the beginning of the floodgates opening – this month we’ve seen mushrooms that are purple, orange, green, red, and a hundred shades of brown. They’ve been as big as dinner plates, and as tiny as tapioca pearls.

What follows is a photo album of some of our favourites. If we know what they are, we’ve labelled them, but if we’re in the dark, which we are for most of them, do not let their anonymity distract you from their beauty.

Giant Shingle Tops, Sarcodon imbricatus

A species of slime mold, once considered a kind of fungus, but now classified independently.  They can out-weird even the weirdest mushrooms: slime molds can move!

Sun Dogs and Supermoons

sundogs and the parhelic circle

The full moon is tomorrow, and it reminds me of the astronomical wonders I saw a month ago, on a backcountry ski trip.

First up was a “Supermoon.” This is a full moon that coincides with the moon’s closest pass of the year to Earth. Tomorrow’s full moon will be a supermoon as well (50,000 km closer to Earth than the full moon this coming September), and it should look amazing!  Supermoons are noticeably bigger and brighter than regular full moons. I snapped this shot a few days before the moon was full, as it cleared the peaks near Mistaya Lodge.  When my ski mates and I looked up and saw it, we all said, “wow,” as it looked so impressive.

Along with the moon, we were treated to a solar light show as well.  February was one of our coldest on record, and when it’s that cold, for weeks in a row, we often get lots of sparkly ice crystals in the atmosphere.  This is the result:

Holy diffractionation, Batman!

All those ice crystals are reflecting and refracting light from the sun. The big circle around the sun is called the 22 degree halo, and the bright spots on the right and left are nicknamed “sundogs.”

But there can be more than just that, and a month ago, we got the whole show.  There were things I’d never seen before: the Parry arc, the parhelic circle, and the coolest thing of all, an upside-down rainbow way up above the sun called the circumzenithal arc. It looked like a giant happy face:

I had to look all this stuff up to understand how it worked. If you want a rundown of all the pieces of the puzzle, this Smithsonian article is really good.

There’s also a lot of good diagrams online, and since I love history, I found a reproduction of the first diagram to illustrate the physics of all this bending and reflecting light. It was drawn by polar explorer William Parry in the 1820s:

Happy moon watching tomorrow!

My Favourite Panoramas from 2018

Giant Steps, in Paradise Valley

I love panoramas, as they are so good at capturing the scale of the Rockies.  Here, from February to November of 2018, are my top ten favourites.  It was really tough to pick just ten.  I hope this brings back memories of the Rockies for you, no matter what season you’ve been here.

February: Pipestone Canyon, which I can snowshoe to from our house!

March: Dolomite Peak, on a ski tour from the Icefields Parkway.

April: Glacial “erratics,” near Bow Lake. These things are as tall as two story buildings.

May: Balsamroot in bloom, in the Columbia Valley just west of the Rockies. When we want to get our first hit of spring, this is where we go.

June: Athabasca Glacier, in Jasper National Park. This is an outing with Athabasca Icewalks, and I highly recommend the experience: www.icewalks.ca

July: Upper Paradise Valley, a splendid jewel between Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.  That’s Mount Temple on the left.

The same July day: The Giant Steps, in Paradise Valley.

September: Incomparable Lake O’Hara.

September: Nadine and friend Adriana, above Spray Lake in Kananaskis Country, on our way to the Windtower.

November: Our friends Josee and John, skating on Two Jack Lake near Banff. 2018 was an exceptional skating season.

Autumn Art

Cotton grass seed heads

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

A year in Panoramas – 2017

panorama of the Ten Peaks above Moraine Lake

Happy New Year everyone, and in what we hope will become an annual tradition, here’s a little look back at 2017, from the widest angle:

1. Lee on the way up the Cataract Valley in January

 

2. Near Bow Lake in March

3. April in the Pipestone Canyon

4. The Valley of the Ten Peaks in early June

5. Ptarmigan Lake from Packer’s Pass in July

6. Jasper’s Skyline trail in August

7. Mount Whitehorn in September

Then I lost my camera, and didn’t get a new one until the beginning of December…
8. Frozen Hector Lake in December

9. And an oldie, but goodie…