February on the Great Divide, temperature in the -20s C

Beautiful or bleak? Does it make you want to hunker down by a warm fire or put on your skis and go?

Winter in the city can be brutal. It was -30 in Edmonton this morning and barely struggled to -26 this afternoon. Enough wind to freeze your face if it was exposed. At least we’re not shovelling snow or sliding on ice, and our power hasn’t gone out. But wherever you live, Canada has produced a harsh winter, and we haven’t even reached January yet.

I love winter, even in the city. But its real beauty is in the wilderness. Here are some of my favourite memories, some recent, some decades old.

Can there be a more iconic form of transportation than a sled and a team of dogs eagerly pulling you across the land?

Dogsledding in the Tombstones, Yukon

Few animals are more powerful in their beauty than the polar bear. Will we still have them when ice no longer forms in the North?

Polar bear in Churchill

Winter is defined by climate, not the calendar. The photo below was taken in May, but we had temperatures in the -30s. Canada’s highest peak never disappoints in its scenery.

High on Mt Logan

Nor does Baffin Island disappoint. I was there twice. First in 1979 with the Alpine Club of Canada. We had enough light to ski 24 hours a day, and sometimes we stayed out that long.

Full moon over an unnamed peak, Ayr Lake, Baffin Island.

The second trip was a private expedition with my husband and a friend to Auyuittuq National Park. The granite walls and massive glaciers form a landscape worthy of the Norse gods for whom many of the mountains are named.

The land that time forgot.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games. We had the “help” of a snow machine to get to our first camp in Auyuittuq.

Who thought that this was a good idea?

But even bad weather isn’t necessarily bad.

Dais Glacier below Mt Waddington.

Of course, I spend most of the winter in the city, and what I have learned in the wilderness keeps me from hibernating. I’m happy at -40, but when I’m out walking, I understand why so many people hate the season. People who can afford serviceable clothing either don’t buy it, don’t wear it, or don’t use it correctly. Instead of spending an extra five minutes at home to protect themselves, they shiver for 15 to 30 minutes waiting for a bus or walking to the grocery.

The number one error? Not covering the head, neck and face. When I wrote my book on snow camping, I said that we lose 40% of our body heat from the head. That was common wisdom at the time (1993).

Now I saw an experiment a few years ago in which people were stripped naked, placed in a cold room or in cold water, and heat loss from various parts of the body was measured. Turns out, they didn’t lose more heat from the head than from any other place on the body.

I’m not sure what the scientists were trying to prove. When is the last time you saw someone wandering naked down the street in the middle of winter?  (I hope they were treated for hypothermia and frostbite before seeing a psychiatrist.) If you have clothing on all of you except for your head, where do you think you are going to lose heat? And you’ll lose a lot.

So don’t become a cave rat. Bundle up, put a smile on your face, and go for a walk. You’ll feel better and you’ll be able to pity the poor souls who haven’t got the message yet.

For me in winter, there’s really is no such thing as bad weather–only a bad choice of clothing. Now if someone could just tell me how to dress for “hot and humid.”

View from Mistaya Lodge, B.C.


This will be a quick post as I am about to leave for Mexico and Costa Rica. The Firth has many rapids but none as wild as those at Sheep Creek. On my first trip, all guests rode the rafts, but policy has changed. On the second and third trips, we hiked up to a viewpoint while the guides took the rafts through one at a time. What follows in a mix from two trips.

First challenge.

Yes, there's a raft in there.

Yes, there’s a raft in there.

There it is.

There it is.

Second obstacle.

Sideways works as well as straight on.

Sideways works as well as straight on.

A bit of a splash.

A bit of a splash.

Safely through.

Safely through.

Third obstacle.

Let's get lined up right.

Let’s get lined up right.

Paddle hard!

Paddle hard!



Almost have it.

Almost have it.

Easy does it.

Easy does it.

Made it.

Made it.

There’s lots more to show about the Canyon Reach, but that’s for a later post (probably not for a few weeks).


The Firth River Valley

The Firth River Valley

An ancient, gentle landscape, untouched by the overpowering forces of glaciation. Since the British Mountains arose in the Tertiary Period, only erosion has shaped the rounded summits and smooth slopes, broad flood plains, and fluvial and bedrock terraces.

Parks describes the Firth in terms of four regions. The first, which we did not visit, is the Aufeis Reach which provides much of the flow in the river in summer. Aufeis is water that trickles up from the ground and freezes in layers. We would see a lot of it further downstream, but we landed in the Mountain Reach where it had all melted.

First camp near Margaret Lake, and a first taste of Firth weather

First camp near Margaret Lake, and an introduction to Firth weather

Northern light

Northern light

The terrain throughout the Firth makes for easy hiking, but because the river changes course from year to year, it may not be possible to repeat a hike you did on an earlier trip.

My favourite hike.

My favourite hike. Note the flood plain and the winding course of the river.

An easy trek into the unknown.

An easy trek into the unknown.

The landscape is perhaps more dramatic in its history than visually. Over the millennia, rain, wind, freeze-thaw, and gravity have weathered the slopes, exposing the bedrock and moving bits of it downhill to form bedrock terraces, just as the river, in cutting through the earth, has left behind fluvial terraces.

Winding river

Erosion at work

Compare a typical scene from the Canadian Rockies.

View from Deception Pass, Skoki Valley trail.

View from Deception Pass, Skoki Valley trail.

The Rockies are much older than the British Mountains, but because of recent glaciation, erosion has had little time to wear down the rock. Note also the hanging valleys, some of which still hold glaciers.

Another feature which one does not see in glaciated mountains is tors, which are rocky outcroppings on lower slopes and ridges.

Approaching Wolf Tors campsite

Approaching Wolf Tors campsite. Yes, there are rapids on the Firth! These are mild.

Life on the river can be lazy and comfortable or absolutely miserable, depending on what the weather gods dictate.

Short break for fishing.

Short break for fishing.

Campsites are wherever you want to put in and are generally welcoming and scenic.

Home for the night.

Home for the night.

Gravel, but it's flat and makes a good tent site.

Gravel, but it’s flat and makes good tent sites.

Puerto Vallarta North

Puerto Vallarta North

Every party camps at Wolf Tors and on each of my trips we have spent two nights there.

Camp at Wolf Tors. There are multiple levels to choose from, depending on how far you want to carry your gear.

Camp at Wolf Tors. There are multiple terraces to choose from, depending on how far you want to carry your gear.

Tors at Wolf Tors

Detail of tors at Wolf Tors. This was on my first trip and the weather was sunny.

Of course, the Firth has moods. On my third trip we were less fortunate.

Snow at Wolf Tors camp

Snow and my tent at Wolf Tors camp

One day, I may do a post on the travels of my little Hilleberg Jannu tent. It’s been through a lot and has never failed me.

After Wolf Tors, we entered the Canyon Reach and some exciting rapids. That’s for the next post.

Oh, Wilderness were paradise enow!

The beauty and majesty of the Canadian Rockies

The beauty and majesty of the Canadian Rockies

Somewhere north of the Arctic Circle

Somewhere north of the Arctic Circle on the Firth River

It has been a strange few days. Friday evening, I landed in Edmonton after a month of river rafting in northern Canada. Monday, I drove the TransCanada Highway through Banff and Yoho National Parks. The contrast could not have  been more sobering.

For twelve days, in July, fifteen other people and I rafted the Firth River, north of the Arctic Circle in Ivvivik National Park. This park, which receives fewer than 100 visitors a year, hugs the Yukon/Alaska border and ends at the Beaufort Sea. Apart from a few structures erected by Parks Canada and some laughable landing strips for planes that can set down virtually anywhere, there are no traces of modern humans, although the area does have a number of archaeological sites. In the 10,000 sq km of the park, we were alone.

No dispute: Ivvivik is wilderness in its purest form, almost unique on our planet.

Camp at Wolf Tors on the Firth River

Camp at Wolf Tors on the Firth River

For four hours on Monday, I drove through two of the most popular mountain parks in Alberta and B.C. My very conservative estimate of the number of vehicles I saw travelling toward me in that time is 7500. Assuming that a similar number were going in my direction, that’s 15,000 cars, RVs and trucks in one afternoon, all speeding along, their occupants perhaps enjoying the scenery, but just as likely thinking of other things.

Is this wilderness? Is this what we are preserving, supposedly in a natural state, for future generations to enjoy? What I saw in Banff and Yoho looked more like an invasion, like ants swarming over a prize food source. Isn’t bumper-to-bumper traffic too much love? And what of the trails that lead off the highway? When you have to move over to let faster hikers pass, you are not alone with Nature.

Camp in a meadow of wildflowers

Camp in a meadow of wildflowers on the Firth River. No sounds but the river, the wind and the cries of birds.

The argument, of course, is that if people don’t see the beauty of our parks, they will have little interest in preserving them. And the mountain parks are spectacularly beautiful, even if you never get out of your car. To see the Firth, you need good organization, expert river guides, enough money to transport you and all your gear by air, and a willingness to camp in whatever weather the Arctic chooses to throw at you.

I came home today saddened because I don’t know the answer. Wilderness doesn’t survive when people arrive in large numbers. Do we have the wisdom and dedication to preserve it even if we cannot visit? But if we never visit, how can we know what wilderness is? I’m afraid that for many of the people I passed in Banff and Yoho yesterday, wilderness is good scenery with a road through it. But am I not a hypocrite? I wish that everyone could visit Ivvivik and see it as I have, but I don’t want them to.

Once more unto the North, dear friends, once more.

Virginia Falls, Nahanni River

Virginia Falls, Nahanni River

Enough Shakespeare! I won’t be fighting the French at Agincourt; I’ll be in the North fighting mosquitoes on the Nahanni and Firth rivers. It’s time for another trip to my second home (the Canadian Rockies are my primary retreat from urban life). Two weeks on each river will see me through half of our short Alberta summer. I won’t be home until the first of August, and since our northern wilderness is still blissfully free of cell phone and Internet coverage, there will be no more blog entries until then.

These will be “soft” trips, northern style: rafts to carry everything and everyone, guides to row them, do the cooking and generally look after us, and lots of wildlife, fortunately, not all of the six-legged kind. My aging joints like “soft” trips; there would be a palace revolt if I suggested climbing Denali again. (That’s a much younger me in the photo at the top of the page!)

Since rafting the Firth costs about the same as a luxury safari in Botswana, you have to be a little crazy to sign up for the privilege of putting up your own tent every night, let alone do so more than once (this will be my third time on the Firth, second on the Nahanni). Still, I would not trade my life of adventure for all the material objects I could have purchased over the years but didn’t.


ICE: Arctic Post # 7

It’s what comes to mind when one thinks of the Arctic. But ice is not a simple subject; it forms in many ways and takes many forms, from delicate and beautiful to massive and frightening.

Chandelier ice

Chandelier ice, Burnside River

It can be a place to live, if you’re a polar bear.


Hudson Bay

The poetry of ice and water can work its magic as you sit on the shore and contemplate the endless lonely reaches of the North.

Beaufort Sea at sunset

Beaufort Sea at sunset

Arctic rivers feature a type of ice that I have never seen in the south. Called “aufeis,” a German word meaning “ice on top,” it forms in winter when water rises from below and spreads on top of existing ice, creating a sort of layer cake that can be several metres high. During summer breakup, the layers have a haunting beauty.

Aufeis on Burnside River. Photo by Don Taves

Aufeis on Burnside River. Photo by Don Taves

Aufeis can be terrifying if you have to find a path through towering walls on a fast current that blocks retreat if you have picked the wrong channel.

Burnside River. Photo by Don Taves

Rafting the Splits on the Burnside River. Photo by Don Taves

Or it can just be a lot of fun.

Rafters at play while the guides try to find a thru-channel. Lagoon at mouth of Firth River.

Rafters at play while the guides try to find a thru-channel. Lagoon at mouth of Firth River.


LOUSEWORTS: Arctic Post #6

Lousewort? It sounds like something you should attack with disinfectant. What an ugly name for something so beautiful. Let’s take it apart. “Wort” has nothing to do with its unfortunate homonym “wart” (or at least it didn’t until J.K. Rowling turned hogwort into Hogwarts). It’s simply an Old English word for a plant, and it shows up in many flower names, for example, coralwort, honeywort, lilywort, none of which sound particularly menacing. It’s the “louse” part that can’t be elevated by etymology; it really refers to lice. People used to think that the plant was infested with vermin and that animals grazing on it would also become infested.

We have a few louseworts in the Canadian Rockies, and although they are pretty, they are not spectacular. To see the full glory of the lousewort, you have to go to the Arctic.

#41 Arctic Loussewort and caribou antler

Arctic lousewort and caribou antler


#40 Capitate Lousewort

Capitate lousewort


#42 Arctic Lousewort

Arctic lousewort


#89 Wooly Lousewort

 Oops! How did an arctic willow get in here? My mistake. But it’s beautiful anyway.


#112 Sudetan Lousewort

Sudetan lousewort


#113 Sudetan Lousewort

Sudetan lousewort



Wooly lousewort