My wife and I made a decision long ago that we enjoy the dramatic cycle of seasons in the north, so we avoided the rush of our generation to move to Florida or Arizona. I’m paler as a result, but am especially enjoying winters in central Michigan because of the snowfall. In fact, when the fat flakes are softly falling, I will often venture out on foot or in the Subaru to see what I can find to photograph.
The pictures here, taken over the last six years in Michigan, the Canadian Rockies, Newfoundland, Iceland, and a few other places represent my passion for falling snow. I love how the thickly falling flakes dissolve the landscape into what seems like molecules, where I get a glimpse of the fundamental nature of the universe. Nothing is as solid or as stable as it seems, and everything we know and love is made up of infinitesimal and fundamental particles buzzing around each other in the void. My glimpse into the great mystery.
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The first leg of the journey was the drive to Burgeo, a fishing village accessed by Route 480 from the Trans-Canada Highway near Stephenville. The wild and beautiful landscape was covered with deep snow, and the conifers were magically encrusted with a thick layer of hard snow so that, in places, they looked like snow elves. We kept our eyes alert for Woodland Caribou, but didn’t see any on the drive. When we reached Burgeo, we stayed at a small motel that would be convenient for catching a ferry the next morning.
We packed what we would need for the trip in two suitcases and left the rest in the car, since we couldn’t take a car on the Marine Voyager ferry. These communities have no roads and no cars, so all that is needed is a foot ferry, albeit one that can carry enough cargo to meet a small community’s daily needs. We walked up the ramp on the ice-covered boat, then descended into a room for the passengers. Comfortable seats, round portholes, and a soap opera on the television – what more could we hope for? We paid our fee of $6 per passenger, which was clearly subsidized by the government, and settled in for our sailing along the coast.
There were only a couple of other passengers, and they lived in the villages of Grey River and Francois (a French name Newfoundlandized to “Fran-Sway.”) We were invited up to the bridge for a front-row seat and visit with the captain, who was a lifelong resident of Francois. One of the other passengers, a younger man named Cody who owned a fishing boat, introduced himself to us as well. He was also a lifelong resident of Francois and he told us about the community and what he liked about living there.
Hesitantly we asked the captain if he thought the ferry would be running two days later when we wanted to make our return trip, which would give us enough time to drive back to St. John’s and catch our flight back to the USA. He said this was the first time the boat had sailed for a week because of storms but that the weather looked good for our return trip. We had two nights at Francois and could enjoy ourselves. We had been watching the marine forecast every day for the past two weeks of our trip, trying to find a three-day window of weather when the ferry would be running; there were high winds and high seas every day and then finally the forecast looked good.
The south coast of Newfoundland has a series of fjords, which provide sheltered locations and harbors for fishing communities. The village of Grey River was the first village we came to, and was located partway up a fjord. We motored through pancake ice and past colorful houses to the dock, where about ten people were waiting for the boat. All these people helped unload bread and beer and Amazon boxes full of the stuff a small community needs. Snowmobiles and ATVs were the transportation in town.
We soon set sail again, with no new passengers – after all, who would go from Grey River to Francois in the middle of winter? The sea was rough and it started to snow, and was just about dark when we carefully navigated the narrow fjord that ends at Francois. By this time the wind was howling and the driven snow stung our exposed faces. We didn’t know where our rental place was, but the captain and another man showed us the way and took our bags for us on a snowmobile. We settled into our place for two nights, and ventured outside briefly to get a feeling for the town.
We spent the next day wandering the village along its boardwalks and pathways – remember, there are no roads needed in a town with no cars or trucks. All the houses are connected by these paths. The town is small, but has Sharon’s Place, a grocery and liquor store that is open morning, afternoon, and evening, with breaks for lunch and supper. There is a church that sits above the rest of town, and a large school that currently has six students and one-and-a-half teachers. This must be one of the smallest schools in the world in terms of the number of students! But education also arrives by computer, with courses available to older students online. There is a medical clinic, but no permanent doctor in town. There is a helipad used during emergencies.
Colorful houses are a feature of the town, with red and purple and turquoise tones mixed together in a delightful jumble. In winter some are occupied and some are not, with some people leaving for part of the year for jobs. There are stages along the waterfront: small buildings on stilts where fishermen stored gear and later processed the catch. These are a distinctive and wonderful feature of all the Newfoundland coastal towns.
We walked past one house just as a lady in perhaps her late 70s was leaving the house on this snowy morning to meet for morning coffee with two other ladies who were 84 and 85 years old. We spoke with her briefly, and she told us she had lived her entire life in Francois. There were 89 people living in this little town in 2016, and we met perhaps eight of them – all of whom had lived here nearly their entire lives, except for time spent in the military or going to school. This lady was really concerned about the dwindling population of Francois.
As the snow continued to fall, we met up again with Cody from yesterday’s boat ride when he drove up on his Ski-Doo (the Newfoundland name for all snow machines) and chatted with him about the town. After graduating from the town’s school, the St. Simon & St. Jude Academy, he went to work on his father’s fishing boat. Later, he bought his own boat and now fishes for crabs, lobster, scallops, and sea cucumbers with his wife and up to five crew members.
Cody’s diverse fishing activity is a big change from the past, when the fishery was based upon the seemingly never-ending cod supplies. Alas, every time people think that a natural resource is unlimited, they use it up, and Newfoundland’s fishery was no exception. It was devastated by overfishing of the once common cod, a harvest made possible by technological advances utilized by both Canadian and foreign companies. In July 1992, with cod stocks down to less than 1% of historic levels, the Canadian government abruptly shut down the 500-year old cod fishery in order to try and save the fish. This instantly put 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work and devastated local communities. In the years since some, like Cody, were able to diversify and found a path to the future. Others found a future in tourism, which is starting to take off in Newfoundland. The cod has since rebounded but the fishery is extremely small and limited compared to the good old days. Just try to get fresh cod in Newfoundland most of the year!
A bit later we ran into another man on the boardwalk who was driving his Ski-Doo. He stopped to talk and told us that he was also a lifelong resident, but he didn’t make his living on the open ocean. He was a helicopter pilot who had worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, but now owns his own company and ferries a lot of people on remote hunting trips, mostly for Moose.
As I mentioned, the houses are scattered all around town seemingly randomly, with no clear lot boundaries. We asked one man about this, and he said that all the houses are built on Crown land, which is government land. People own their houses, but not the land under them.
We met another man driving his Ski-Doo who we had seen shoveling snow off a boat, which turned out to be his uncle’s boat. He works fishing for herring, crabs, lobster, and sea cucumbers. He was also a lifelong resident … are we beginning to see a pattern here? People are born here and live their whole lives here, though with a strong tether by ferry and by the internet and television to the larger world. When we asked Cody about his fellow citizens, he said that most everyone gets along well in town, but over time some people are moving away and the population is getting smaller.
The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has had a decades-long effort to move people away from the outports, which require huge government subsidies for ferry and helicopter transportation and education and medical care. By now, most Newfoundland outports have been abandoned, with the people voting to disband their towns and move elsewhere, but Grey River and Francois have been exceptions. In Francois, the question has come up for a vote twice over the years, but both times it was defeated (the latest in 2013) and the people remained. I understood that if the people voted to move out, the government would pay each homeowner $250,000 to compensate for the abandoned homes. It still could happen, but it is wonderful to see a few of the outports still hanging on against the tide of modernization.
I continued to photograph the buildings and waterfront and falling snow to my heart’s content on this wonderful day, when we talked to more strangers than we usually talk to in a week. Newfoundlanders are like that … they go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome, and we did.
There is even a good story that might be mostly true or wholly true about a German submarine that entered the fjord containing Francois during World War II. It came to quietly get fresh water for its tanks at a waterfall entering the sea. It was on a Saturday night and there was a dance at the community center in town; some handsome but unknown young men showed up who knew little English and who danced the night away with the local girls. The young women apparently thought that these might be Basque fishermen who often fished nearby, and didn’t realize that the men were German sailors.
The next morning we prepared to leave Francois for the voyage back, and the ferry Captain came to retrieve us. The morning showed a bit of sun and good weather for an ocean trip, so we went down to the dock and prepared to leave. The trip back was stunningly beautiful, with morning sun kissing the snow-covered headlands. And we got back in time to make the long drive to St. John’s to catch our flight.
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We were staying in a log hut during a Seattle Mountaineers trip to Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, one of the dramatic high country huts in the Canadian Rockies, when it snowed one night. The next morning, Karen led an effort to create a snowman that reflected the changing seasons. It had a rain hat and a warm woolen scarf, as well as an evergreen mouth, a traditional carrot nose, and eyes of still-flowering purple asters that a Pack Rat had cut in front of our cabin. Making this “Hippy Chick” snowwoman took our minds off the Grizzly Bear tracks that were left overnight on the trail that went right by the hut.
The guy staying in the hut next to ours had been camping about a mile away, but a bear invaded his camp in the night and scared him, so he moved into the cabin. Perhaps our snowman worked as a talisman to ward off hungry grizzlies.
When backpackers unexpectedly encounter a group of, ahem, older hikers, making a snowman along a trail, they are delighted. After all, snowmen take us back to the days of carefree childhood, when playing in the snow was simply what we did in the winter, bundled up in snowsuits, woolen mittens, and warm boots. During those winter days of long ago, those of us growing up in northern climates would also make snow angels and erupt into spontaneous snowball fights–reflecting the sweet and agressive sides of our childhood natures.
Karen Rentz started creating snowmen during backpacking trips at least a decade ago. Gradually her friends came to expect that when they came to a remnant snowfield during a summer hike, they were going to be roped into making a snowman, and that it was a fun distraction from the exertion of hard hiking. Almost everyone pitched in, gathering hemlock cones and fallen lichens and twigs and leaves and whatever other natural materials were at hand, sometimes supplemented–long enough to take pictures–with mittens and hats.
These are sweet-tempered snowmen, unlike the snowmen that sprang from the mind of Bill Watterson’s Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip (which I still miss): Calvin and Hobbes. Karen’s snowmen usually smile through a twig mouth and they have funny hats or hair and are gentle spirits, reflecting her soul.
All snowmen are ephemeral, of course, and that is part of their charm. When Karen and friends make a snowman, it some times lasts an hour or two, perhaps for another day or two, with sunshine and gravity taking their inevitable toll. But the short lives are okay, for none of us lasts all that long on this earth, and they are a reminder to stop and smell the roses: for that alone, making a snowman is worthwhile.
On Mount Townsend we built this snowman on the top edge of a very long snow slope that descended several thousand feet at a steep pitch, so we had to be careful not to slide off. On this spot once stood a U.S. Forest Service fire lookout cabin built in 1933 to watch for fires in Olympic National Forest, but it was destroyed in 1962.
This Mount Townsend snowman was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. We found the old spoon at the edge of the snow field, and believe that it was lost when the lookout cabin was destroyed. The eyes, nose, and buttons are made of small rocks that had been broken off the bedrock when water trickled into cracks in the rock, and then froze. These rocks originated millions of years ago on the Pacific Ocean floor, then were thrust up above the ocean to form the rugged Olympic Mountains. But enough of geology. The hair is made of fallen branches of Mountain Hemlock.
Karen Rentz with the Mount Townsend snowman. Cold knee!
While backpacking in The Enchantments of Washington State, there was a bit of remnant snow at the time the golden Alpine Larch needles were falling in October, so we gave this hula snowgirl a Hawaiian skirt, thinking about how much warmer it would be to be hiking in the islands.
There was just enough snow left over on that Enchantments hike to make a snowman’s head about the size of a big man’s fist; cones make up the eyes.
We built this snowman along the Pacific Crest Trail, at the very place we met a hiker who had already come all the way from Mexico and was going all the way to Canada. He was unique in that he was quite a dapper hiker, wearing a Panama hat, a neatly trimmed beard, and a necktie (really!); he said he was between jobs and wanted to be ready in case someone wanted to interview him for a job along the trail. Hey, I’d hire him for his sense of humor!
This Pacific Crest Trail snowman had pretty lupine flowers for hair, Mountain Hemlock cones for a nose and buttons, pine needles for eyebrows, and a happy twiggy smile. This snow field was located in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, a place where there once towered a volcano on the scale of Mount Rainier. It sits directly between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, named for the founder of the national forest system who worked in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.
Karen and I were driving through Yosemite National Park one fine autumn day and came upon a patch of snow that hadn’t yet melted from an early autumn snowfall. So, we just had to make this cute little snowman with Lodgepole Pine cone eyes. One of our photos of this snowman was featured in an article about quirky snowmen on NPR’s website several years ago.
We hiked with two friends around Gold Creek Pond in October of 2012, when the first heavy snows were starting to blanket the Cascade Mountains above Seattle. The last of the autumn leaves were still vivid, but the first major snow of winter had deposited enough snow to make a snowman. Gold Creek was also enjoying a Kokanee Salmon run, so while Karen did most of the work on the snowman, I did some underwater photography of the salmon, which were the color of burgundy. The underwater photography was so cool that I returned the next day to do some more. By then, the snowman was looking a bit under the weather, but I would be too if I had to stand in the same place all night. The second day, a young gold miner walked by and chatted with me (remember, this is GOLD Creek Pond); he carried some mining equipment–as well as having an exposed pistol on his belt. Mining is a serious activity, and that fall the price of gold was shooting upward, so a guy had to be prepared for outlaws.
We used vivid Vine Maple leaves for the hat, and Douglas Fir cones for the eyes. Gold Creek Pond is located near Snoqualmie Pass above Seattle in the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest.
Karen and I hiked up to Melakwa Lake at the end of July. It was a cold, foggy backpacking trip to one of the high mountain lakes located closest to Seattle, and at the beginning of the hike the trail leads under a beautiful elevated section of I-90 (it is elevated to allow avalanches to pass safely underneath). We created this handsome snowman, which we named “Misty Melakwa,” atop a remnant snow field. The hair is of a Mountain Hemlock branch that had turned yellow, perhaps after being buried for nine months under the snow, and the buttons and eyes are of hemlock cones. The spiky hat is a piece of old, weathered wood that might have been a hard knot from a rotted tree. “Misty Melakwa” has a bit of the devil in him, or so it looks from the crooked smile. Melakwa was an Indian word for “mosquito,” so we’re glad the weekend wasn’t warmer, allowing those pesky devils to swarm.
Karen Rentz with her creation. Our snowmen are not big, and they don’t live long.
Lee Rentz during one of his occasional beard phases (it would be much whiter today).
During a hike to Mount Fremont Lookout in Mount Rainier National Park in August, we started making a snowman a little ways off the trail on a remnant snow field. In this national park, the volunteer park rangers are adamant about staying on the trail, and we were several yards off the trail. I saw a ranger coming up the trail, and figured I would head her off at the pass by chatting with her about the trail. But she saw my comrades making the snowman and wondered what we were up to. I guess she figured that a group of older people making a snowman in late summer was a harmless, though slightly eccentric, activity so she let us off with a warning: “Please make sure you take a giant step onto the snow field to make sure you don’t crush any tiny plants about to emerge at the edge of the snow.” Duly noted. And done. (Though it should also be noted that a group of volunteer rangers was gathered off the trail around the lookout in lawn chairs, where they were having a party.)
With the lovely pink hat and fashionable scarf, this snow lady is definitely a girly-girl.
Karen, Joan, and Junko make up the trio of ladies who built this lovely creature.
A trail shelter at Boulder Camp in Olympic National Forest was our destination for this day hike. The trail shelter must have enjoyed divine intervention, because giant avalanches had frequently thundered down the surrounding mountains, but always seemed to miss the hut. We built this friendly snowman, with his carefully parted lichen hair, as a talisman to bring us good luck during our visit. He certainly looks friendly, and he is standing atop a tree that had been toppled by a long-ago avalanche.
Boulder Camp is located in the deep Upper Dungeness River Valley below Marmot and Buckhorn Passes in the Olympics. There aren’t very many of these shelters in Washington State’s mountains, but they do provide a dry place to get out of the rain when the weather takes a turn.
With hair and arms of Wolf Lichen, this snow woman is dancing atop a precarious snow bridge over a tiny creek. Wherever a creek flows under a snow field in the mountains, it melts the snow from underneath. Careless hikers can plunge through the thinned snow if they’re not careful, and that’s probably what happened to this little snowman after we left. RIP, tiny dancer!
A happy snowman made by Karen Rentz and Linda Moore along the Grassy Knoll trail in the Columbia River Gorge. Mount Hood points into the sky in the distance. His happy feet look to be made of Douglas Fir branches, with cones for toes.
Our most recent snowman, made in October high in The Enchantments above Horseshoe Lake, was in a meadow that still sported a few late summer wildflowers and lots of Pikas running around gathering winter hay in the meadows around the rocks. Pine hair and chartreuse lichen details make the snow guy look a bit crazy. This was created by Karen, Junko, and me.
Reason #1 for carrying an orange trowel is to scrape hardened snow off snowbanks in order to build a snowman. Reason #2 is, well, digging holes for #2. This happy hiker gal was enjoying the cool snows of summer in Mount Rainier National Park.
Made in Canada, this snowman features a fine rock hat, as well as nice rock body parts.
On Mount Rainier, even snowmen need ropes to climb the 14,410 foot high volcano, and this one has stylish ropes of red and purple.
The hat is made of layers and decorations of volcanic rock, while the scarf was made of flagging tape (removed before we left, of course). This was along the Skyline Trail near Paradise.
The Snowman Project will be continued, as long as there is snow to shape and trails to walk and bodies that can make the journey.
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Perhaps there was a violent storm raging in the northern Pacific. Perhaps the storm came up suddenly, while the little bird was in flight, starting its migration from Kamchatka to Cambodia. Perhaps the creature became separated from a flock and flew down the Alaska and British Columbia coast instead of the northern Asian coast. Perhaps it was exhausted and a bit desperate. We’ll never know.
All we know is that one Red-flanked Bluetail, entering its own personal Twilight Zone, ended up alone in the winter drizzle of a Vancouver, British Columbia, park. An observant person sketched the bird’s coloration and showed the sketch to an expert, and the unusual visitation was confirmed. This tiny bird of the Russian taiga decided to make the best of its wintering grounds, and began daily circling a little territory under the cedars, which included a childen’s playground, two picnic shelters, and scattered logs and brushy islands where it could perch.
Showing its identifying colors, this Red-flanked Bluetail is a hemisphere away from its kind
Meanwhile, its arrival spurred a sensation, spread at Facebook and Twitter speed, with birders flocking from all over North America, arriving by plane and car and SkyTrain and on foot, to experience the wonder of this little creature. Some days, there were 60 people at once. The Bluetail was pretty much unperturbed by its newfound celebrity, and went about its rounds regularly, the people following it like disciples following a mystic.
We drove the 220 miles to Vancouver to see the Red-flanked Bluetail on a recent Sunday. At the Canadian border, the guard asked me the name of the bird when I told him we were going to see a specific bird, and I answered correctly (I think he was trying to trip me up). He let us through, mentioning that they had experienced a lot of people coming north to see it. We drove through busy neighborhoods and ended up in the community of New Westminster, where we entered Queen’s Park. We parked our car, then a local dog walker pointed the way to a small cluster of birders, and we joined them and almost immediately saw the target bird. During the two hours of our visit, there were friendly local Canadians, as well as a man from Georgia and another man from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. One young teen was perhaps the best birder there, with acute hearing and vision and a passion for birds that can lead to a life-long obsession.
The Bluetail constantly twitched its tail, like some of the closely related flycatchers
Later, we ventured to a neighborhood of old homes in Vancouver, where we wandered down a back alley and trained our binoculars on a thicket in a small yard, where there was another rarity: a Brambling. This one had been reported by a kindly homeowner who fed the birds and noticed a strange one among the regular Golden-crowned Sparrows and House Finches. The Brambling is also from Eurasia, and is a bit more common than the Bluetail (which had last been seen on one of the Channel Islands off Los Angeles).
Still another wanderer, a Citrine Wagtail, was observed for a couple of months on Vancouver Island, beginning in November and ending with its disappearance in January. I didn’t get to see that one, but it was as rare as the Red-flanked Bluetail and also attracted human observers from all over North America.
We can all feel sorry for these lost little souls, so far from their kind and their familiar surroundings. Yet we can also imagine them as castaways, trying to keep life going when the going has gotten rough. Sometimes people have been stranded on remote islands by a storm, and they try to make the best of it. Birds can end up the same way, and sometimes evolution can lead to a whole new line of colorful creatures in an unexpected place.
Carry on, brave little Bluetail. I hope you make it home.
I don’t have the ears or eyes or passion to be a great birder, but I admire those who are. One of my favorite movies of all time is the gentle comedy/drama The Big Year, which follows several birders traveling all over the country trying to see as many different kinds of birds as they can in one year. It stars Steve Martin and Jack Black. Both are great in the film, and play the roles with an uncharacteristic laid back charm.
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A Clark’s Nutcracker, face stained red (I’m not sure why), using its sharp bill to probe between the pine cone scales of Whitebark Pine for pine nuts
We hiked along the shore of turquoise Bow Lake, then up through the conifer forest to timberline, where there was a dense stand of Whitebark Pines. We paused at a viewpoint, looking out over a barren and rocky basin that looked as if a glacier had just left. The silence of the place was loudly interrupted by the arrival of a gray, black, and white bird yelling “khaa-khaa-khaa!” The Clark’s Nutcracker completely ignored us, and immediately begain feeding on the Whitebark Pine cones, prying open the scales and extracting the big pine nuts within. We didn’t realize it at the time, but what we were witnessing was one of the great ecological stories of the Rocky Mountains.
I love pine nuts. Their resinous flavor is a great addition to salads, especially when they are toasted in olive oil with salt and fresh-ground pepper in a hot pan. Our pine nuts come from Costco, already shelled and in small bags imported from Asia (nuts which gourmets consider inferior to those imported from Spain and Portugal). Lord knows we don’t need the calories, but the nuts sure are good. In nature, the calories in Whitebark Pine nuts are crucial to wildlife, including Clark’s Nutcrackers, Red Squirrels, Black Bears, and Grizzly Bears. Since the nuts are 52% fat and 21% protein, they give bears the energy for a long winter and birds and squirrels a lot of energy in one big (compared to most seeds) package.
A 55 second video of a Clark’s Nutcracker calling and extracting a pine nut from a Whitebark Pine cone
Scientists have studied Clark’s Nutcrackers extensively, because these birds have coevolved with Whitebark Pine–each becoming dependent upon the other. The nutcrackers get the nuts, of course, which are vitally important as food for adults and young. The pine, as well, has become dependent on the birds for spreading its seeds around. This is because the nutcracker caches most of its seeds, rather than consuming them immediately. The birds cache from one to 30 seeds–but typically three to five–burying them under about an inch of gravelly soil. Some caches are forgotten: after all, who can possibly remember the location of the 9,500 to 30,000 small caches that each bird makes? Those forgotten caches, wetted by the rains and snows of the high country, will often sprout new seedlings that hope to become the forests of tomorrow.
Balancing high on cones and twigs in a high wind sometimes requires using wings for balance
What is remarkable is how effective a bird is at remembering most of its caches. Clark’s Nutcrackers are related to ravens, jays, and crows, a group of birds that goes far beyond the label of “bird brains.” Ravens play like humans do, sliding down snowy slopes and cackling with glee. Crows are smart enough to remember individual human faces. Jays, such as the Steller’s Jays at my feeder, certainly know me as the source of their whole peanuts. Clark’s Nutcrackers, like their relatives, are intelligent and have good spacial mapping abilities, so that they can find the nuts they’ve stored.
Their acrobatic abilities are also well developed, with the ability to balance on cones and branches, in windy conditions, while opening cones with the long, strong bill. When they extract a seed, they first hold it in the bill, then deftly store it in a pouch under the tongue. When the pouch is full, they fly off to a suitable spot on the ground and create a cache for the stored nuts.
Clark’s Nutcrackers harvest the pine nuts from mid-summer until sometime in October. They use the caches during the season when seeds are unavailable–especially for feeding the young. During the nut harvest season, they compete with Red Squirrels for the nuts, and sometimes with Black Bears who climb the trees to get at the cones. The squirrels snip off branches and carry them to storage piles, called middens. Grizzly Bears and Black Bears will often raid these middens, taking the easy way out to get a big load of rich calories for minimal effort prior to their long winter’s sleep. I’m sure this makes the squirrels really mad, but that’s just the way it goes in nature, where tooth and claw (literally, in the case of bears) rules.
Whitebark Pines are beautiful trees, even in death, and I have several times photographed their bleached white skeletons on windy ridges of the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. But there are more of these skeletons than I would like to see, which is the result of two diseases that ravage the pines. The first is White Pine Blister Rust, which is a disease introduced to Europe and North America, apparently from Asia. This blister rust is a fungus that has a complex life cycle, which requires the fungus to also have a gooseberry/current shrub as a host, and depends upon airborne spores to travel between the pines and the gooseberry bushes. It kills pines in the white pine group, which have five needles, a group that includes Eastern White Pine, Sugar Pine, Whitebark Pine, and several others. The best way to control the disease is to eliminate all gooseberry and current bushes from an area, which is a major undertaking.
Whitebark Pine (photographed in Washington State) probably dying from a Mountain Pine Beetle infestation
The second killer of pines is the Mountain Pine Beetle, which has devastated huge sections of the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the USA. Lodgepole Pines have been hit especially hard by the beetle, which drills into the living tissue of the pine, preventing the tissue from carrying nutrients. Where a rocky mountain forest has been badly hit, a whole mountainside looks rusty red instead of green; it is ugly. Foresters and ecologists believe that a long series of warmer and drier summers, perhaps an outcome of global warming, has tipped the balance in favor of the killer beetle by allowing bigger populations of the beetle to survive the winters in the high country. When we were in Canada, some mills appeared to be specializing in taking truckload after truckload of pines killed by the beetle.
Whitebark Pine struggling for life in the high country of Olympic National Forest in Washington
Think of the consequences of the deaths of so many Whitebark Pines: Clark’s Nutcrackers would go into a steep decline without the ready supply of nuts; Whitebark Pines wouldn’t have the nutcrackers spreading around their seeds, so fewer seedlings would get a start; and squirrels and bears would lose an energy-rich food source, probably reducing their numbers. All in all, the forests at timberline would be ghostly and quiet with death, their white trunks gleaming under a full moon.
A pine nut in its bill, this Clark’s Nutcracker will temporarily store this nut in a pouch under its tongue, then will fly off to cache the nut, with several others, under the soil on a mountain slope
We watched and photographed the Clark’s Nutcracker for about fifteen minutes; there were several in the vicinity, but it seems like one persistent individual kept returning to the same clump of trees. The noisy activity was a delight to watch.
For more information about Whitebark Pines and their role as a keystone species in the high Rockies, go to:
The Lake O’Hara region of Canada’s Yoho National Park is, in my opinion, the most spectacular place in North America, and I have been to a lot of beautiful places. This portfolio of photographs, taken during hikes over a five day period in September, shows this magnificent area at a time when the Alpine Larches were turning smoky gold, and the first snows were sifting over the high country.
Hiker and cairns create a striking silhouette against Hungabee Mountain, high on the Opabin Plateau
Cathedral Mountain, viewed on a still and frosty morning across Lake O’Hara from the cabins of Lake O’Hara Lodge
Reflections of rock and trees on the still waters of Hungabee Lake on the Opabin Plateau
Golden Alpine Larches on a sunny day, with snowy Mount Schaffer in the distance
Trail through snow and Alpine Larches, heading up toward Opabin Lake
A loose snow avalanche, one of many we saw and heard, coming down Hungabee Mountain; the avalanches here made a strange screeching sound that we had never before heard
Colors on the surface of Lefroy Lake along the trail to Lake Oesa
Alpine Larches reflecting in Hungabee Lake
Cathedral Mountain reflecting in Lake O’Hara
A canoeist fishing the surreal waters of Lake O’Hara
The primeval basin of Lake Oesa
Victoria Falls thundering down through a gouge it carved in a cliff
Rock in Hungabee Lake, with reflections of the cliffs of Yukness Mountain
Reflections of Alpine Larches and the shaded, snow-covered slope of Mount Schaffer, in Hungabee Lake
Mount Huber and a flank of Yukness Mountain reflected in Hungabee Lake on the Opabin Plateau
Unsettled weather on Mount Huber
Opabin Lake, nestled below Hungabee Mountain and other peaks touching the sky; we watched and listened as a Zen Buddhist meditated with help of a clear bell above this lake
Odaray Mountain and Cathedral Mountain reflecting on the still morning surface of Lake O’Hara
Mount Huber rising magnificently over Lake O’Hara
The aqua waters of Victoria Lake, on the trail to Lake Oesa
The lovely turquoise waters of one of the Morning Glory Lakes, with golden Alpine Larches
Alpine Larches and snowy slopes on the descent from the Opabin Plateau
Lake O’Hara from Opabin Prospect, with Wiwaxy Peaks and Cathedral Mountain in the distance
Opabin Lake, in the cirque below Hungabee Mountain
The snowy cliffs of Mount Hungabee
Smoky gold Alpine Larch with rock grooved by a glacier, on the Opabin Plateau below Schaffer Ridge
Alpine Larches occupying the Opabin Plateau, with Mount Schaffer and Cathedral Mountain rising above
A colorful corner of Victoria Lake
Rocks and reflections in one of the Cascade Lakes on the Opabin Plateau
Reflections in Hungabee Lake
The morning view from the shoreline in front of the Lake O’Hara Lodge cabins, with Cathedral Mountain rising in the distance
This Seattle Mountaineers photography trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore. Yoho National Park is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the Canadian Rockies and perhaps in all of North America. For more information about Yoho National Park, go to the Parks Canada web site.
“It’s all in the details.” We say that about contracts, and it is true in nature as well. The grand landscapes are stunning in Yoho National Park, but the details of the landscape are often entertaining and visually fascinating. Here are a few stories and pictures showing some of those wonderful details from hikes that I and my companions took in the Lake O’Hara area.
We had hoped to see one of three species of ptarmigan on our hikes, but we struck out. On our last day in Yoho, we talked about not seeing ptarmigans, and I said we were more likely to see a grouse along the forested, lower elevation trail we were hiking. Within a couple of minutes, I looked up the trail and there was a Spruce Grouse standing right in the trail! It was a male, painted with bright red eye shadow. This species is also known as “fool hen,” because it is rather oblivious to the presence of people. We pointed cameras at it for nearly ten minutes at close range, and the grouse showed little nervousness about us.
Male Spruce Grouse in the spruce-fir forest of Yoho
The day before our grouse experience, we were hiking on the Opabin Plateau, which is a glacial hanging valley populated with Wolverines, Grizzly Bears, and Zen Buddhists–of which we observed only the latter on our two day trips into this valley. But what interested me? Squirrel sex! A lady Red Squirrel sat
Cute Red Squirrel eating seeds from a cone
demurely on a conifer branch, nibbling at a cone and allowing us to approach close enough to get some nice pictures. She was lovely. Then another squirrel appeared, and began chasing our lady ’round and ’round, up and down and around tree trunks, and dashing over the mossy forest floor. Finally he caught her and they mated. Then another chase. Then he caught her again; this time
Whispering into her ear, while she nibbles on a fir cone
she picked up and gnawed on a Douglas Fir cone while mating, as if bored with the whole act. Then another chase. And another mating. She chewed some more on her cone. My female hiking companions finally got tired of watching animal porn; and from then on they refused to point out any more squirrels to me!
Rated R for implied sexuality
I hadn’t realized that fairies lived in Yoho National Park, but we saw evidence of them all the time. Along the trails were little patches of puke, where fairies who nipped a bit too much on the ambrosia of the Canadian Rockies spilled their guts on the morning after. Actually, these patches of puke are Fairy Barf lichens, with plenty of tiny chunks against a bilious green background.
Fairy Barf lichen, Icmadophila ericetorum
We had seen enough lakes at Yoho to realize that nearly every medium sized lake and tarn contained a resident Barrow’s Goldeneye. These ducks spend the waning autumn days at these subalpine lakes, constantly diving for aquatic
Female Barrow’s Goldeneye on a turquoise lake
insects. In the clear mountain lakes, I could watch the goldeneyes as they swam underwater. In fact, the first time I saw one from above, I could follow its trail underwater by the cloud of silt it stirred up as it swam along the bottom. These ducks were only going to enjoy their Canadian Rockies vacations for a short time, since ice would soon seal all of the lakes and tarns; then they would have to fly to their wintering grounds to the south.
Barrow’s Goldeneye caught in the act of diving
Swimming underwater in a clear lake; the goldeneye uses both its feet and its wings during a dive
Popping to the surface
Faint trails in the bottom of the lake, which I believe were made by diving Barrow’s Goldeneyes
A couple of little birds love this high country; two come to mind. The American Pipit enjoys Canada as much as this American, and spends its time searching for food on the rocky shores of mountain lakes. The American Dipper walks underwater along mountain streams and lakes.
American Pipit, which constantly wags its tail up and down while searching the shores of a mountain lake for insects and plant seeds, in nonbreeding plumage
Juvenile American Dipper resting between underwater sessions of searching a stream for aquatic insects; the dipper is named for its habit of constantly dipping up and down by flexing its legs
An American Dipper who really didn’t want its picture taken, hightailing it away from me
Male Fairies in these woods have a poor sense of direction, and would be too embarrassed to ask a mere human for directions, so they’ve created an elaborate system of maps. I didn’t fully understand the maps, but I’m not supposed to, as I am not a Fairy .
Map lichen showing Fairy trails
A more colorful Map Lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum
When we visited Yoho, the wildflowers were essentially done for the year. But seed heads of several species could still be found before the falling of autumn snows covered them for the winter. This included the Western Anemone, which is also known as “Hippie Stick” and “Towhead Baby,” and which has a prominent crown of feathery seeds that reminds humans of hair.
“Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen” (lyric from the musical, Hair)
When we ventured above timberline, we would see rodents that looked like oversized chipmunks, except that the face is not striped like chipmunks. These Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels live in burrows under rocks in the high country, and have learned that humans sometimes leave behind bits of crackers and cheese and nuts–or that these big creatures will sometimes hand them free food, often with strange chuckling sounds coming from their upturned mouths.
Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel hoping for a handout
We didn’t see any large browsing animals in Yoho, though Elk and Moose are found in the park. The closest we came was seeing this track in the snow, several miles from Lake O’Hara. The details are obscured by the snow, so I cannot say for sure if if was an Elk or a Moose.
Elk or Moose track in the snow, showing dewclaw marks (at the top) which are shown when the large mammal is trotting or running
Below is a gallery of lichen photographs. I don’t recall ever being in a place so rich with lichen diversity. It takes patience to look close and photograph these miniature designs, which consist of a cooperative combination of fungus and algae. I am not an expert at identification of lichens, so if anyone out there in blogland knows more than I do, feel free to identify some of these by genus and species or to correct me.
Goblet Lichens, with the rims of the goblets ringed with tiny ice crystals, reminding me a bit of margaritas
I believe that the taller lichen behind is Cladonia gracilis ssp turbinata
A semi-aquatic lichen photographed on the rocks ringing one of the Morning Glory Lakes; identification anyone?
Finally, we saw a variety of mushrooms on this trip. Rather than try to identify these, I’ll just show them to you for your interest; I especially liked the combination of mushrooms and snow.
This Seattle Mountaineers photography trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore. Yoho National Park is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the Canadian Rockies and perhaps in all of North America. For more information about Yoho National Park, go to the Parks Canada web site.