Sunday, 25 January 2015

Base Camp's Adventure Challenge

This will likely be my last blog post for Base Camp as I am transitioning to a new teaching position within the Calgary Board of Education.  Since it is my last week at camp, we decided to have a fun, team-based event for the students.  We created Base Camp's first ever Winter Adventure Challenge.  This was something that Jeff and I had been discussing for months, but for a variety of reasons were never able to get it off the ground.  With some planning and a little hard work we were able to make it happen on a beautiful winter afternoon.

The planning stages of the winter Adventure Challenge
The idea behind it was to combine several different activities into one big event where the students would have to work together as a team to complete the entire circuit.  At no point could one student progress ahead of his/her classmates.  They had to start and finish together as one team.  

The cross-country ski transition zone
The whole event started with a Lumberjack Challenge where the students had to chop, haul, and stack a pre-determined amount of firewood.  Once complete, they jogged over to the garage where a series of fitness challenges were waiting to be completed.  As a team they had to decide who was going to complete what, with each student having to perform three separate exercises before they were able to move onto the next activity.  The students rattled off pushups, pull-ups, crunches, and the like, before hitting the road for a brief trail run.

Running through the meadow
At the conclusion of the run each student had to lace-up their cross-country ski boots, snap into their skis, and continue on down the road.  The skiing began with a steady climb up a reasonably-sized hill, so there were a few challenges with this leg of the course.  Once at the top, however, the trail flattened out and the students seemed to enjoy themselves as they coasted to the next checkpoint.

Starting the cross-country skiing section of the course
The second last leg of the challenge featured snowshoeing through the bush on an old quad trail.  The most difficult part of this section was actually putting the snowshoes on!  Once all of our feet were snuggly in place we were on the move again.  We trekked through the woods with more than a few glimpses of picturesque Black Rock Mountain peeking above the tree tops.

Snowshoeing through the woods with Black Rock Mountain in the background
Our last event featured the Team All Aboard element of the high ropes course.  The objective of this element is to scale the pole to the small platform at the top.  Once everyone is standing, they will join hands and slowly lean back over the edge while being supported by the belay team on the ground.  Of course this element, like all on the course, is considered "challenge by choice" and nobody is going to force anyone to do something they aren't comfortable with.  One of our students chose not to participate in the final activity, and that was more than fine, but the remainder of the students decided they'd like to give it a try.  

The Team All Aboard element on the high ropes course

From start to finish the event took roughly an hour and a half.  The students seemed to have a great time, although their teamwork skills could use a little polishing.  I believe this type of event is something that will evolve and grow over the next few months with different activities being incorporated that are dependent on the changing seasons.  I can vision paddling, swimming, and mountain biking as being utilized in a similar event this coming spring, it's just too bad I won't be around to partake in all the fun!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Babies Around Base Camp

If you've been following us for awhile you'll know that we've captured a couple of young critters on our cameras.  Thus far we've seen Fawns...

...Coyote pups...

...and a Moose calf...

...but we are always hoping for something more, something that we haven't seen before.  When we checked the cameras earlier today we got just that.  As we've noticed over the years, things tend to slow down over the winter.  The cameras just don't see the same amount of action that they do during the warmer months, so when we discovered that there were only 22 video clips after leaving the camera out for approximately six weeks, we weren't that surprised.  As I was scrolling through the footage something very exciting caught my eye and then the video got even better.  See for yourself...

Are you as impressed as we were?  A mother Cougar followed closely by her kitten, likely born this past spring!  This is not the first time we've captured a Cougar on film, but it is definitely the first time we've caught a kitten.  If you'd like to see some of our additional Cougar footage, please watch our highlight reel titled Base Camp's Wild Year.

This past spring and throughout the summer we noticed an increase in Cougar sightings on our cameras.  We were always a little unsure whether it was the same cat or different ones, but had a sneaking suspicion that it might have been the same Cougar.  Either way it's pretty neat to know that there's a mother out there raising the next generation and we can only hope they'll saunter in front of our cameras for years to come!

If you'd like to see more photos of Cougars (and other wildlife), please visit the Wildlife Camera album on our Facebook page.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Lynx canadensis

During our first week back from the Christmas Holiday break we had a pretty rare and exciting moment.  On our drive home near Benchlands a Lynx crossed the road directly in front of Jeff's vehicle.  He immediately pulled over and searched for his camera.  I pulled up behind his car, unsure why he had originally stopped, and then I too noticed the mysterious creature slinking into the trees on a nearby hill.  We both grabbed our cameras and set off through the snow following his well-defined tracks.

These are the tracks the Lynx left in the snow

Neither of us had seen a Lynx in the wild before and this one was surprisingly big.  Larger than either of us expected it to be.  We followed him up and over the small hill and spotted him out in the open while he was crossing a field.  We snapped several photos, but didn't get really close to it.  The Lynx couldn't have cared less that we were taking his picture.  He didn't even look back at us to investigate our presence.  

The Lynx
Strolling across a field
Continuing on his way
In the next few photos you'll be able to see just how big this cat was.  A group of horses came running across the field and crossed paths with the Lynx.  They were extremely close to it and the white horse almost stepped on him.  I'm still amazed at just how large he was.

He was almost stepped on by this horse!
A couple more horses to give you an idea of the size comparison
As I mentioned before this was the first Lynx either of us had seen in the wild, but we have captured Lynx on our remote trail cameras.  To see the footage, and to learn a little more about one of Canada's wild cats, please visit our previous post titled, The Elusive Lynx.  You can also view more photos of the Lynx, as well as a variety of other wildlife, on our Facebook album called Camp Critters.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


Pictographs are paintings that were created using a mixture of red ochre, a natural iron-based mineral, and animal fat.  The mixture was painted onto rock faces to tell stories, describe journeys, and give warnings, among a host of other meanings.  Many of these sacred sites are slowly disappearing due to time, weather, vandalism, or some combination of the three.  Digital photography is one way of preserving these sites for future generations.  A digital enhancement technique known as decorrelation stretch, or DStretch, allows us to better interpret these paintings by uncovering pieces of the puzzle that were once thought to be lost forever.  

DStretch is an image enhancement technique that was first used on aerial photographs, but has numerous applications for studying rock art.  It can bring out faint elements of pictographs that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye.  It works on digital camera images, so no special filters or lights are required.  DStretch is a plugin for the image processing and analysis software ImageJ and was developed by Jon Harman.  Both the ImageJ software and the DStretch plugin are available free of charge.

On our recent trip to Grotto Canyon we viewed several faded pictographs that are believed to be between 500 and 1,300 years old.  These paintings were created by the Hopi people, who were visitors to the area.  Most of the paintings in the canyon have been damaged and are difficult to decipher, but with the help of DStretch a little more of the picture is revealed.  

The original photograph of the entire painted wall in Grotto Canyon
The same photo after being processed by DStretch.  You can see the paintings, but they are still pretty unclear.
Zoomed-in photograph on the same wall
The pink, bent over figure on the left is the flute player, or Kokapelli
Another section of the wall with some faint artwork
After being processed things become a little clearer.  The paintings at the top look like animals while the bottom looks to be a line of human-like figures.
For more photos of the pictographs in Grotto Canyon please visit the album on our Facebook page.  

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Grotto Canyon

Last Thursday we headed out to the Bow Valley for a day hike through Grotto Canyon.  This would be the first out-trip of the school year for Jeff and I.  The Grotto Creek Canyon Trail is a very popular hike in Bow Valley Provincial Park and it's easy to see why.  It's close to the town of Canmore making access very easy, it's relatively short (only 2km to the waterfall), and has minimal elevation gain (only about 170m).  There's also the beautiful surroundings, a hidden waterfall, and some ancient First Nation history thrown in for good measure.

We left Base Camp by 9AM and were on the trail just after 11AM.  Our plan was to hike to the waterfall, have lunch, and if time permitted, venture into the open valley beyond the canyon to see the hoodoos.  The sign posted at the trailhead reads,
"You are not the first visitors to Grotto Creek.  500 to 1,000 years ago, native people sought solitude of this isolated canyon in their quest for guidance from the spirit world.  Their visits were recorded in pictographs, on the smooth canyon walls.  If you see pictographs, please do not touch them as they are extremely delicate. 
The steep canyon walls were carved thousands of years ago by the surging melt-water from a receding glacier.  The walls of the canyon and valley protect a variety of plant life, such as limber pine and Douglas maple, not commonly found in the mountains."
Before entering the canyon you're rewarded with this view of the mountains
The mouth of Grotto Canyon
Hiking through the canyon

One of the neatest things about this canyon is the rock art.  Painted on the canyon walls is a collection of First Nation pictographs that are believed to be between 500 and 1,300 years old.  The pictures were painted by the Hopi people, who were visitors to the area.  According to legend, the Hopi sent off members of their tribe in four different directions with the intention of meeting again at a common place, which ended up being present-day Arizona.  It would appear that one of these groups travelled north and left their markings on the limestone walls of Grotto Canyon.  It's believed that the pictographs located at Grassi Lakes near Canmore were painted by the same individuals.  Hopi is the shortened form of Hopituh Shi-nu-mu, or "The Peaceful People".  Unfortunately most of the paintings have been damaged by weather, time, and people touching them.  The oils in our skin will destroy the pictographs and that's also why in the photos below the paintings look glossy or waxy.  The pictographs depict both animal and human-like figures.  There is also one of a flute player, or Kokapelli, which is the symbol of the Hopi.  It is believed that the Kokapelli represents the traveller, as well as fertility.

The ancient First Nation pictographs painted by the Hopi people
A collection of human-like figures standing in a line
Continuing our hike past the pictographs
Grotto Falls spilling off the steep canyon walls
Just another day at the office for Jeff and I!
After lunch we decided we had just enough time to make our way to the valley beyond the canyon's walls.  This required hiking through the narrowest part of the canyon.  To ensure everyone's safety we donned climbing helmets and carefully made our way through this short section.  Once through, the canyon opens up into a beautiful backcountry valley that is home to a few hoodoos.  Unfortunately we were running out of time, so we weren't able to thoroughly explore the valley.  I guess that's all the more reason to come back again.

One of the hoodoos can be seen on top of the brown-coloured hill
Time to head back to the parking lot
The mountains were shrouded in eerie clouds when we exited the canyon
Getting to spend time with the students on the trail, as opposed to in the school, is one of my favourite parts of the job.  It allows us to see the students in a completely different setting, which can help foster stronger relationships back in the classroom.  This was a great mid-week trip and I'm already looking forward to our next adventure.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Eagle Highway

Alberta is home to two species of eagle, the Bald and the Golden. Twice a year these magnificent birds use a narrow strip on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains as a highway. In the spring they migrate north to Alaska and the Yukon so they can breed and give birth during the summer. In the fall they reverse course and fly south to spend the winter in warmer locales. For some this means travelling as far away as the southern United States and Mexico. They can travel hundreds of kilometres each day, making use of the wind and geo-thermal lifts to rise and glide over these considerable distances. Sometimes, when the conditions are perfect, they’ll only need to flap their wings a couple of times over the course of an entire day!

Although the eagle behaviour described above is now well-accepted by the scientific community, this wasn’t always the case. In fact before 1992 it was believed that only a small percentage of the eagle population migrated out of the province, but nobody knew where or why until Peter Sherrington and Des Allen made an enormous discovery. While conducting a routine bird survey in the Mt. Lorette area of Kananaskis the duo observed over 100 Golden Eagles flying northwest across the valley. They speculated that the number of eagles all flying in the same direction couldn’t have been a coincidence and returned to the site a few days later to try and learn more. This was to become the first unofficial observation of eagle migration; a study that’s continued for 23 consecutive years at the Mt. Lorette observation site.

Although the RMERF will count and identify all raptors they see, they are most concerned with the two species of eagle
Informative graphics from Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation

Today a team of volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation (RMERF), working from sunrise to sunset, are responsible for the bi-annual count of raptors in Alberta. They have three different observation sites where the counts take place each spring and fall; the previously mentioned Mt. Lorette, the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, and Piitaistakis (South Livingstone Ridge), both of which are located in the Crowsnest Pass area of the province.

The Mt. Lorette observation site with Mt. Lorette in the background.  Hummingbird Plume is the tree-covered ridge stretching from the left to Mt. Lorette.
The view from the observation site is spectacular.  Here we have Mt. Kidd (left) and Mt. Bogart (right).
Nakiska Mountain Resort on the lower slopes of Mt. Allan.  The true summit is the pyramid-shaped peak on the right.
Mt. Allan (left) and Mt. Collembola (centre)
Last week we took our students to the Mt. Lorette observation site to learn more about the eagle migration and to assist in the day’s count. We were greeted by Cliff Hansen, the Observer Coordinator and active member of the RMERF, who briefed us on the equipment, the landmarks, and the process for spotting and recording any and all raptor sightings. Our Principal Observer for the day was Joel Duncan, a 10-year veteran of the RMERF and the man who would be identifying and recording the different birds we saw. After our introduction it was time to get to work. Our jobs were to be sky sweepers and inform Joel of any birds we observed. Armed with binoculars we scanned the skies of the surrounding mountain peaks and ridges. Almost immediately we were rewarded with our first Golden Eagle sighting just off the summit of nearby Mt. Lorette.  From there the floodgates opened and we were spotting raptors on a regular basis, despite Cliff’s initial warning about the less than ideal wind conditions.

Golden Eagles flying off the summit of Mt. Patrick.  Photo Credit: Joel Duncan
A solitary eagle soaring above Mt. Patrick's summit
To keep the students engaged, and to drum-up a little friendly competition, Jeff created an Eagle Bingo card.  The students were working in groups of two to try and earn a blackout on their card.  Not only did they have to see various raptors, but they also had to ask the RMERF volunteers specific questions related to the semi-annual migration.  Of course no competition is complete without prizes, so there was also a little something riding on their ability to complete the cards.  

We only spent about three hours at the observation site, but it gave us great insight into all the work that these citizen scientists undertake. The days are long, the weather can be inclement, and breaks can be few and far between, but their love of birds and the mission of the RMERF keeps them coming back day after day, year after year.

The Enviros crew hard at work sweeping the sky!  Photo Credit: Joel Duncan
Joel spent 10.5 hours at the observation site that day and counted 256 Golden Eagles, 5 Bald Eagles, 6 Red-Tailed Hawks, 6 Rough-Legged Hawks, 2 Cooper’s Hawks, 2 Sharp-Shinned Hawks, 2 Northern Goshawks, and 1 Northern Harrier. The day also marked the highest total of Golden Eagles so far this fall. We only contributed a small percentage to the day’s final count, but we were more than happy just being part of the entire experience.

This is an Osprey gliding across the sky.  Photo Credit: Cliff Hansen
A Bald Eagle perched on the top of a tree.  Photo Credit: Cliff Hansen
I would like to take this time to thank Cliff, Joel, and the Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation for allowing us to assist in the raptor observation. All of us learned a great deal about Alberta’s various birds or prey and now have an even greater understanding of all the work that happens behind the scenes while studying wildlife. If you’d like to learn more about the work they do or if you’d like to volunteer your time to assist in the semi-annual count, please visit their website.

The ridgeline to the west of the observation site during twilight.  Photo Credit: Joel Duncan

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Moose On The Loose

Over the month of September we've had a lot of Moose activity on our cameras.  We've capture cows, bulls, and calves all within a very short walk of Base Camp.  We even caught some unusual behaviour on two separate occasions from two different cameras.  We also captured some rare footage of the interactions between males and females during the fall rutting season.  It's not exactly what you're picturing right now, so get your mind out of the gutter, but it is pretty close!

This first video clip was taken using one of our new Bushnell NatureView Cameras.  We set it up on the east side of camp at the junction of two trails, which is a location that's garnered some great footage in the past.  We tried the new Hybrid Camera Mode, which means the camera takes three still photographs before recording a video clip.  In this case the camera captured three photos of a young female Moose, but she was already out of range by the time the camera started recording video.  Nevertheless you can still here her walking around just out of sight.  If you listen carefully she also does something to the lock on the camera box.  Watch the video and see if you can tell what she was doing.

These next two videos are from the same camera and the same location.  This particular camera was setup on the west side of camp, not too far from the lake.  We were using our new Browning camera at this site and were happy with what we captured.  You can see a mama Moose walking around in front of the camera with her calf not too far behind.  This is pretty standard behaviour and not unlike footage we've captured before, but if you continue to watch one of them begins smelling and licking the camera.  If you haven't already guessed it, this was what was happening in the previous video as well, only we weren't able to see the behaviour.  We think it makes for a pretty cool video when the animal is that close!

This last clip is the one I'm sure you've all been waiting for.  Mating season, also known as the rut, takes place in late September through mid-October.  At this time the males will scrape trees that they scent with urine and the odor glands in their hooves.  They will also advertise their presence by using low grunting sounds.  The females will communicate with the males using a series of deep vocalizations or mooing sounds.  If competition for females is fierce, males will thrash shrubs with their antlers or engage in noisy, sparring matches with other bulls in order to win the right to breed with the cows.  Once breeding season is finished the cows and bulls will go their separate ways to continue their solitary lives.  Like I mentioned before, this video doesn't depict mating between two Moose, but you can tell that's what's on the bull's mind!