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Great Divide’s Fall Newsletter, 2023

The "Icicle Farm" on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail.Say hello to icicles, snow, and frost crystals: ’tis the season where the mercury dips, and winter’s magic spreads over the land. Three weeks ago, I hiked up to the Plain of Six Glaciers with my girlfriend Lisa, and was astounded by the presence of what I’ve nicknamed the “Icicle Farm.” In all the years I’ve lived in Lake Louise, I didn’t know about this feature. It’s only visible in the narrow window from when it’s cold enough for the water dripping over the cliffs to freeze, but before the heavy winter snow buries all the icicles.

Reflection at Bow Lake in early July, 2023

Beautiful Bow Lake, on a still July morning.

Summer 2023 was full of outdoor adventures, and almost 100 days of guided hiking. Thank you everyone, from far and wide, for trusting me to take you out on the trail. Aside from some smoky weeks, the hiking and scenery were excellent this year. Here’s one of my favourite shots from the summer. It was a still day in early July at Bow Lake, and the mirror surface made for flawless reflections.

An Exploding Wildflower in Slo-Mo

Dwarf dogwoods in bloom.

Dwarf dogwoods, Cornus canadensis, blooming in early summer.

One of the delights of early season hiking is finding dwarf dogwoods in bloom. These ground-dwelling shrubs, which are related to full-sized dogwood trees, add good cheer to any hike. Plus, they do something truly extraordinary: they explode.

As a way to guarantee the delivery of their pollen to adjacent dogwoods, the flowers pop open in a violent explosion. The explosion can come at the touch of a small insect (who then becomes like a Fed Ex pollen delivery driver), or can happen spontaneously when the flower ripens. Even though the flower is only about the size of a pin head, the pollen can travel as much as 2 or 3 cm through the air. According to botanist Joan Edwards, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts, the force of the explosion can reach over 2,000 Gs. You can see time lapse images of exploding flowers on her “Tale of the Dogwood” web page.

I had some fun with guests Darren & Tracey and their kids Joshua & Isabel this summer trying to capture the explosion in slow motion on our iphones. They managed to get the best video of the experiment, so thank you, gang!


Climate Change in Lake Louise

This summer was a shocker for temperatures in Alberta and Canada. You probably heard about Canada’s record-breaking fire season (over 18 million hectares burned). We weren’t alone in our misery: the World Meteorological Union declared that 2023’s June, July, August and September were each the hottest summer months ever recorded worldwide.

All this was distressing, but for those of us who live here in the Canadian Rockies, it was May that was the most surprising. Banff smashed its all time record for May, with temperatures over 4 degrees C above normal. Banff has kept weather records since 1891, and this year was unprecedented. Dr John Pomeroy, the lead hydrology and glaciology researcher in the Canadian Rockies, had never seen anything like it. He recorded the most rapid snowmelt in his research career, and even observed winter melting at the Athabasca Glacier for the first time ever.

This is extremely sobering and alarming news, and since a picture tells a thousand words, here are two photos to showcase what happened this year. The first is at the Plain of Six Glaciers, on June 4, 2022, with the meadows and mountains still buried in snow. The second is exactly the same place, one year later on June 2, 2023, after a May that felt like July.

early June, 2022

June 4, 2022

June 2, 2023

June 2, 2023, after the warmest May in Banff’s history.

To read more about this summer of dramatic climate change, there is an excellent CBC article from September. Dr. Pomeroy was interviewed and he described the changes that took place this year on the Peyto Glacier, which has been studied since the 1890s. By early September, the glacier’s losses from the summer of 2023 were 6.5 metres of ice from its surface, and 80 metres from its terminus.

Fire Destroys the Largest Residence in Lake Louise

Charleston Residence in Lake Louise on fire on July 3, 2023

Fire at Charleston Residence on July 3, 2023

Amidst all the worry about forest fires this past summer, a building fire on July 3, 2023 took down the Charleston Residence, which was the largest staff accommodation in Lake Louise. “Chucktown,” as everyone calls it around here, was home to the staff of the Lake Louise Ski Resort. There were about 165 people displaced, but in the winter, the building normally houses between 300 and 400 staff.

Luckily, there were no injuries, but the fire has been determined to have been deliberately lit, and a staff member is awaiting trial on arson charges.

Until a replacement is built, the resort has built temporary staff temporary staff quarters at the base of the hill.

Fossil fun in Kananaskis Country

Horn corals at Arathusa Cirque

Horn corals at Arethusa Cirque

Sometimes it’s good to get out of your neighbourhood and see something new. My girlfriend Lisa, who is a geologist & geophysicist, took me to an amazing spot in Kananaskis Country this summer. Our destination on a beautiful mid-September day was Arethusa Cirque, near Highwood Pass.

It’s a dramatic landscape of folded limestone, so your eye is drawn by the big scenery. But there was little stuff to marvel at as well: it turned out that the limestone was full of fossilized corals. Most were horn corals that had thrived in the seas of the Carboniferous Era, 350 million years ago. It was like a scavenger hunt through time!

Next Up? Snowshoeing!

My snowshoeing season begins on December 1. You can find out all about it on my snowshoeing pageUntil we meet again, Happy Thanksgiving to those in the US, and happy holidays to everyone during the coming Christmas season.