SOME THOUGHTS ON A CANADIAN WINTER

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.

Early Fall in the Rockies

The view from Canmore

The view from Canmore

It was not a good morning for hiking. I ate a leisurely breakfast, read the Calgary Herald, and headed for the Vermillion Lakes as soon as the clouds began to break up. Aside from dawn or sunset, my favourite time to photograph the mountains is when there is a mix of blue sky and dramatic cloud.

I had to be patient, but there was beauty to capture at the lakes.

The gentle colours of September

The gentle colours of September

 

Sunlight on grass

Sunlight on grass

 

And then the summits began to reveal themselves.

Fresh snow at summer's end

Fresh snow 

 

Like ghost ships on a sea of clouds

Like ghost ships on a sea of clouds

And almost as soon as the clouds began to lift, they were gone, replaced by a clear blue sky. Mt Rundle suddenly thrust its summits out of a thick layer of cloud. By the time I got the camera from its case, the cloud had dwindled to a narrow strip.

Mt Rundle

Mt Rundle.

I left the lakes and drove to the osprey nest at Castle Junction. One lone juvenile was there, waiting perhaps for his parents to him bring some food, even though he was fully fledged and now capable of looking after himself.

Home sweet home, but not for much longer.

Home sweet home, but not for much longer. He was gone next morning.

Two hours of waiting brought nothing more exciting than a hop from one side of the nest to the other, and a few soft calls, so I headed for Lake Minnewanka in hopes of finding some sheep or elk. No luck. Aside from birds, the only wildlife I saw during my three days in the area consisted of small rodents.

It was too early for the aspens. Although a few had turned bright yellow, most of the groves were just beginning to change. September is a time of waiting and expectation.

End of summer

End of summer

 

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.

Osprey Family Matters

While I was in Banff National Park  this week, I stopped by an osprey nest along the Bow River. It is used every year and I always visit to see how the family is doing. On this day, the female was on the nest with only the top of her head visible. I walked down to the river and found the male sitting in a tree. Quite a handsome fellow!

Male osprey

Male osprey

The brown necklace on the breast is more frequently found on the female, but this bird was acting like a male, hanging around, not doing much of anything; I mean male ospreys, not all males! He spent a lot of  time meticulously grooming.

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After ninety minutes of waiting for something to happen, I headed back to the road, only to hear the female call. The bird flew to her, and of course, I missed a good shot. I walked below the nest and was able to see both birds. They were carrying on an animated conversation.

Female on nest, male on edge.

Female on nest, male on edge.

Nothing much happened for a few minutes, and then there was a great deal of flapping as one bird departed. The whole sequence lasted about three seconds, and I simply put the camera on burst. When I first looked at the photos on  the camera’s view screen, I thought that I had captured a mating. Only later, as I tried to sort out body parts, did I decide that in fact, the two birds were simply changing places. I hope that someone with more expertise in osprey matters will settle the issue.

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Female moves to side, male enters nest

 

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Female lifts off

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A Great Ski Lodge–Even if You Don’t Ski

View from Mistaya Lodge

View from Mistaya Lodge

If you like wilderness powder, all you need to know about Mistaya Lodge is that the terrain includes glaciers, alpine meadows and lots of wonderful runs in the trees. Plus the fact that normal access is by helicopter, and guests have the place to themselves.

So what was I doing there? I have reached a point in my life where joints don’t work the way they once did, and broken bones take a long time to heal. Time to put away the skis and bring out the snowshoes. Or if I’m really lazy, just sit in the lodge and enjoy the view (and the fantastic food and always pleasant company).

First the scenery:

View from lodge

View from lodge

The Lake

Looking up

The Spire

The Spire

And ever-changing light:

Sunset

Sunset

Mist

Mist

Moonlight

Moonlight

And a bit of exploring on my own:

Snowshoe track along Wildcat Creek

Snowshoe track along Wildcat Creek

On the next post, I’ll show life at the lodge.

 

ANTICIPATION

View from Mistaya Lodge

View from Mistaya Lodge

What is the best part of travel: anticipation, participation or the memory? I am about to leave for Mistaya Lodge, high in the Canadian Rockies, for two weeks of snowshoeing. This won’t be my first visit–more like my tenth.

I know that getting to the lodge will involve a spectacular helicopter ride up u-shaped valleys where glaciers spill from lofty summits, their crevasses gaping like ragged mouths, and sheer rock walls splotched with snow gleam black and white in the morning sun.

I look forward to good companions, good snow, more good food than is good for me. There will be early mornings and cold nights when sleep comes easily after an active day. There will be peace and spiritual renewal from experiencing a winter wilderness of incredible beauty.

I’ve been looking forward to this trip for a year, since the day I left after my last stay. The reality can always differ, of course; the weather may be terrible, the snow heavy or crusty, and last year, I injured my knee just before going, and spent two weeks confined to the lodge. Anticipation is never sullied by actual events or disappointing photos that affect the memory. It isn’t the most exciting or rewarding aspect of travel, but it is perhaps the most enjoyable.

Encounter with a Grizzly: Fact and Fiction

I could have published this story as another of my adventures: the place was Curator Lake Campground in Jasper National Park, the time was six years ago, and the events occurred almost exactly as described. In fact, I initially wrote it in first person and put it aside because I didn’t have a blog then. When I decided to try my hand at fiction, the grizzly encounter seemed as good a place to start as any. I changed the landscape a bit and added a female character named Mora Lassan. She seemed interesting, but I didn’t know her well; at the time, she was simply a backpacker, much like myself although certainly not me. What follows is Chapter One of my mystery, Frozen in Death.

 

DAY ONE

The grizzly appeared without warning. Mora caught the movement in her peripheral vision as she was rummaging through the food bag that lay open on the ground beside the picnic table. Sensing danger, she angled her head for a better look, her eyes also taking in the food that was spread out for a late lunch. The bear must have come up from the creek that trickled over rocks beside the backcountry campground, and it was digging beneath an aspen sapling that was barely sixty feet away. As yet, it hadn’t seen her.

Having six hundred pounds of uninvited furry guest interrupt one’s meal would send most backpackers into at least a mild panic, but Mora Lassan wasn’t the average backpacker and this was far from being her first bear. Still, she insisted on certain proprieties in such encounters.

You’re a little too close for comfort, big boy. Addressing silent comments to her visitor, she reached automatically for the bear spray on her belt, only to discover that she had left belt and spray in her tent at the far end of the narrow campground, and of course, on the other side of the bear. That certainly got the adrenaline flowing.

“You woolly-pated loon!” she muttered, annoyed with herself.

Uncomfortably aware that she was alone in the campground, being the first to arrive that day, she drew a deep breath as she weighed her limited options. Even if other hikers appeared in the next few minutes, they were just as likely to make a quick exit as help. Grizzlies had that effect on people.

Still bending motionless over the food bag, she scrutinized the powerful muscles that rippled under the lustrous coat as the bear lazily pawed clumps of dirt from the ground, partially uprooting the young tree. Above the sleek cinnamon fur of the body, the hair on the massive, pale-blond hump showed the grizzled tips so typical of the species. This was an adult, almost certainly a male from its size, in prime condition.

Her experience with grizzlies told Mora that she could probably back away safely, but then the opportunistic bear would be drawn to her food, so much richer in calories than its normal, vegetarian diet. And that would be the first step on a march to death. Once a bear found human food at a campground, it tended to return and become first a nuisance and then a menace, eventually forcing the park staff to destroy it.

I can’t let that happen to you, big boy. Not when you’ve caught me sitting here like an idiot tourist, with no way to protect myself or my food. I have to try.

Taking another deep breath, she rose to her feet so that the bear could see what she was. Startled by the motion, the grizzly swung its enormous head towards her. Its sleepy expression and close-set, blinking eyes gave scant evidence of the intelligence and perfectly adequate vision that she knew it possessed. Mora held her ground but was careful not to stare directly at the intruder.

Making an agile about-face, the bear galloped back to the creek, where it reared up on hind legs to a towering height. Even from a distance, Mora could see the lethal claws that extended a full four inches straight out from the toes of its huge forepaws. Rotating its head side to side, the grizzly sniffed the air, trusting nose more than eyes or ears to identify the thing that had disturbed it.

That’s right, big boy. Keep that nose working. You’re totally wild, and you have no idea what I am or what kind of threat I pose. Let’s keep it that way.

Mora was relieved by the animal’s shyness, guessing that it wanted nothing to do with her, but she had to get the bear spray just in case. It wouldn’t take much to trigger an attack—any hint of fear or aggression would do the trick—so as she walked past the aspen and into the tenting section of the campground, she avoided looking toward the creek. I am woman, the supreme predator, she told herself, hoping to project an aura of confidence that the bear would sense. Yeah, sure.

Oh, really well done, Mora! Belt and bear spray were in the tent vestibule, where she had stupidly dropped them in her haste to make a cup of tea and satisfy her hunger. Canister in hand, she headed back toward the picnic table. The grizzly was still in the creek, on all fours now, but alert. When it saw her returning, it turned, bounded up the hill from which the creek descended, and disappeared into the trees.

Heaving a sigh through pursed lips, Mora sank down at the table and reached for her water bottle. I’m really getting too old for this, she reflected, shaking her head. Two minutes later, another backpacker strode across the creek and into the campground.

“You just missed the grizzly!” Mora announced with a satisfied grin. She knew that she would have a great story for other travelers that evening and for her friends at home. Without a doubt, the close encounter would be the highlight of her trip.

She had no idea how wrong she was.

 

If you enjoyed this first taste of the novel, you can find the book on Amazon Kindle for $2.99 USD.