Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...



Saturday, 20 December 2014

Walls of Stone - Ultra Light Backpacking Technology

"Often I would feel ok, but it would only take one slip or lift to set my back off again. That's what happened before I set out on my Red Deer River trip, but I had committed myself so off I went..."

It has been over ten years since my last backpack trip. That probably sounds like a prologue for an address at a meeting of "Backpackers Anonymous", but it is a sad truth for someone who says he is crossing the Rocky Mountains in 2015. In 2003, I had decided that my backpacking career was over, but I am hoping that technology can overcome some of my physical issues and allow me to make this one last great trip.
The fledgling Red Deer River
When I made my "Red Deer River Journey", it began with a lengthy hike via Skoki Lodge in Banff National Park and into and along the headwaters of the Red Deer River to the grassy plain at the front of the Rockies known as Ya Ha Tinda. During the ten years that preceded my journeys, I suffered from the effects of a torn disc in my lower back, which (in the beginning) had knocked the legs out from under me. I remember getting out of my pickup truck and my legs buckling. I lay helpless on the ground while my two dogs jumped on me and licked my face. At the time, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The rest of that Thanksgiving long weekend was spent lying on a mattress in excruciating pain. In many ways, I think that day was the end of my youth. What followed was physiotherapy, lost time off of work and continuous back pain of various intensities. Often I would feel ok, but it would only take one slip or lift to set my back off again. That's what happened before I set out on my Red Deer River trip, but I had committed myself so off I went...


The weight of the sixty or so pounds of gear that I packed through the front ranges compressed my torn disc causing it to herniate.  At first it actually felt better, but upon my return home I developed sciatica. That was the worst pain I have ever encountered and I have no desire to ever go to that place again.
It has been ten years free of back pain since then and I have done plenty of excellent day hikes in that time. I often carry daypacks of perhaps 20 to 30 pounds without problems, so that got me thinking about the possibilities of a phenomenon known as ultra light backpacking.

Here is some of the gear that I am planning to take with me:

Western Mountaineering ultralight -7                           820g             

Therma-rest neoair slite sleeping pad                          350g             

Big Agnes Fly creek UL1 tent                                       930g             

Video gear:

Panasonic Lumix GH4 body                                         560g              

Panasonic DMWBLF19 Lithium Ion Battery                                          

Lumix® G VARIO HD 14-140mm / F4.0-5.8 ASPH.    460g               

Go Pro Black                                                                136g  

Maybe:

LumixVario 100-300mm/f4.0-5.6 lens                          520g 
I haven't decided on a backpack yet. All or most of my food is going to have to be of the dehydrated variety. There will also be caches of food and fuel at two places along the trail to ease the weight of my pack. The bare necessities of sleeping gear and tent weigh in at a mere 2.1 kg (or 4.6 pounds). I will also need a campstove. I am considering bringing my trusty old Coleman Peak1.

I want to make a film of my experiences, but this time the video gear weighs in at 1.2 kg (or 2.6 pounds). A small carbon fiber tripod will weigh an additional pound or two. That is a very low weight for video gear that will capture excellent ultra-high definition images compared to the twenty pounds plus of standard-def gear that I lugged along the Upper Red Deer River!

There will be food and clothing of course, but I think that keeping the bulk of my equipment around ten pounds is a very good start. There is also the issue of my own 50+ year old girth. Last New Year's, I resolved to lose thirty pounds of my own unwanted fat and I achieved that goal. I have managed to maintain this new leaner weight and I am hoping to drop another ten pounds after this year's holiday season (to get me in fighting shape).
Kenner and me at Elbow Pass
(a place I will be revisiting on my Rocky Mountain traverse)
I received the news this week that my three week vacation has been approved (beginning on July 10). I am not taking this lightly (ha!), so I will begin a regimen that I hope will leave me ultra-light and ultra-fit.
 

 


Saturday, 6 December 2014

Walls of Stone - Waterton and the Fourth Dimension


"There is absolutely nothing in the city to give us the same feeling as the great, mysterious things of nature even though they be stone and ice. It is only among them that we feel the utter helplessness and insignificance of ourselves."
Jimmy Simpson


Waterton Lakes bison paddock
The fronts of the Rocky Mountains were covered in snow as we headed south along Highway 6 to Waterton Lakes National Park. It was mid-September and the previous week had seen an early fall snow storm wreak havoc in southern Alberta, especially in Calgary. Now the summits stood out like diamonds against the azure blue backdrop of a typical autumn Alberta sky. It was a little early for snow, but I did appreciate the beauty of the scene (though I was hoping the snow in the high country would melt away quickly).
We set up our trailer in the busy town site campground and took a walk over to nearby Cameron Falls. I thought about how many times I had stood on this spot. It had been almost 50 years since I first laid eyes on the falls -  which seemed like a long time by human standards, but nothing compared to the age of the rock  which makes up the falls. The limestone of the Waterton Formation is thought to be slightly less than 1.5 billion years old. In his "Handbook of the Canadian Rockies", author and geologist Ben Gadd talks about how limestone is formed as the result of cyanobacteria living in warm shallow seas. It really boggles my mind to even consider that most of the rock in the Canadian Rockies is the result of microscopic algae-like bacteria and has been deposited going back that far in time. The rock of the falls is the oldest rock that one is likely to see in the Rockies, though I'm sure most people don't think of this while they take selfies on their smart phones.

The rock and mountains of Waterton/Glacier are different than the rest of the Rockies. The older Purcell Group rock* gives the mountains a distinctive look. Waterton is famous for its red and green argillite, such as can be found at Red Rock Canyon. As kids, my sisters and I used to start at the shallow end of the canyon and rock hop our way deeper and deeper into the canyon. The game was to see how far we could go without getting wet. Inevitably one of us would fall into the ice cold water.
 
 
Mount Dungarvan and ridge
It had been half a dozen years since our last visit and my wife and I were there to hike. Most of the high country was covered in wet snow, so we decided to explore the open south-facing  grassy slopes below Mount Dungarvan, ascending the ridge just south of the rocky summit. The view was excellent from the ridge. To the south we could see the mountains of the Akamina parkway with the intervening land containing Crandell Lake. To the right of Crandell I could see the enigmatic meadows around Ruby Lake to the east of the summit of massive Mount Blakiston (an unofficial trail that I hope to visit one day). To the east, the valley opens up into the Waterton Lakes valley. To our north,  the castle like summit of mount Dungarvan towered over us. It was a bit disconcerting to see vehicles stopping below us on the Red Rock Canyon road . Their inhabitants getting out no doubt to look at and photograph the many bears in the valley.
Crandell Lake
The following day, we took the short muddy hike to Crandell Lake from the Akamina Parkway to have a picnic lunch. We could look back at Mount Dungarvan and the ridge we had stood on top of the day before.
 
 
 
Bertha Lake
It was looking like most of the snow had melted over the first few days, so we did the hike from our trailer to Bertha Lake. It was my fourth visit to the Lake since 1977. Two of my trips there had been overnight backpack trips. The first time there, I visited with a group of school-mates and had a frightening experience when gas being poured into an overheated Coleman lantern caught fire, engulfing us in flames. We managed to put the fire out in a frenzy of activity. Once I swam in the cold waters of the lake during a lengthy rain storm. This time, the trails around the lake were wet and muddy, but the sound of cascades pouring off the surrounding mountains filled the high cirque.

Summit lake
We saved a classic hike to Carthew Summit for the last day of our visit. I had hiked the entire length of the Alderson- Carthew trail over twenty-five years earlier and I was keen to revisit the summit. The trail begins at Cameron Lake in the very South West corner of the Province of Alberta and winds its way over the summit, past the scenic Carthew Lakes, down to Alderson Lake and eventually emerges in the town site right next to Cameron Falls. This time however it was a return trip beginning Cameron Lake.

Bev sits on the remains of an ancient sea bed
which is over a billion years old at the Carthew Summit
There were many people on the trail that sunny Saturday. We ascended through the jungle-like Columbian forest usually reserved for parts of British Columbia to the ridge and Summit Lake. It is surrounded by Engleman spruce, bear grass,  and alpine larch. We stopped briefly to drink some water and take some pictures for a boisterous group of athletic looking young twenty-somethings and set out onto open rocky slopes which eventually led to the scenic Carthew Summit. Once at the top of the ridge we made our way south to the high point and stopped to have lunch. there were quite a few people coming and going from this point while we had lunch and we noticed that one group was singing Happy Birthday to an older looking though obviously fit gentleman. Someone asked how old he was and he replied that he was 86 years old. I was inspired to see a man over 30 years more senior still enjoying a hike in our Rocky Mountains.
The view from the summit is one that I will never forget. Lakes Nooney and Wurdeman, each set in their own bowls can be seen just across the U.S. border to the South. Summit lake is visible on the ridge to the West and tthe bowl containing Cameron lake is behind that    - bordered by the summits of the great Divide to its West and on the South by Mount Custer. Looking east from the ridge is a sight that took my breath away the first time I laid eyes upon it - the three Carthew Lakes all in a row nestled by a summit of pink-red argillite, behind them a drop off between mountain summits and a gap that looks out onto the prairies that abut the mountain park. It had been a beautiful day and it was the perfect culmination of this year's hiking season.
Carthew Lakes



When I'm in the mountains, I find myself not only pondering the size and height of the mountains and distances that I need to cover, but the fourth dimension of time. In my many (but intermittent) visits to Waterton, I have had many guises; newly immigrated schoolboy, Canadian teenager, single twenty-something, newly wed and middle-aged man. When I look at the walls of stone that surround me in a place like Waterton, I can't help but be aware of the millions of years of life that created the material from which these mountains are built. Our lives seem minute compared to that, but yet here we are. We aren't the pinnacle of creation, but the result of natural selection and chance. I can take a strange sort of comfort in the comprehension of just how insignificant my life really is.
*Gadd, Ben; Handbook of the Canadian Rockies (Corax Press)

 

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Walls of Stone - The Fortress


The Fortress from the front side - circa 1987
"The Fortress" is an imposing looking mountain near the old Fortress ski hill in Alberta's Kananaskis Country. The front side of the mountain is part of an iconic scene. It appears in everything from Jackie Chan movies to truck commercials, though I don't think most Albertans realize what they are looking at when it appears on their screen. From the front side the peak looks like an unassailable cliff which climbs to a flat topped summit. Non-climbers like me would never dream about reaching its upper heights except for the fact that (like many front range mountains) the back side is a quite reasonable scramble. I didn't have a set agenda for this year's Kananaskis trip, but the one thing that I did want to do was scramble to the summit of The Fortress.
Three Lakes Valley
August is usually a dry month in Alberta, but this year it rained on and off for the entire two weeks we had in the mountains. One rainy day we did the entire loop around the Upper Kananaskis Lake. Even though it rained, we wore our short sleeved shirts for most of the hike.  During the final galling 4.5 kilometres between the Upper Lake and Interlake parking lots it poured down, forcing us to don our hoodies and "Mac in the Sacks". We were soaked by the time we got back to the truck. On another rainy day, we revisited a few shorter walks - King Creek Canyon, "Canyon" and Marl Lake (where we saw the usual family of common loons). I was just winging it this year - hiking whatever took my fancy on a particular day.

Fossilized coral in Three lakes valley
Possibly Southesk Formation
On the last sunny day we visited pretty Marushka Lake. It was only Monday of the second week but I began to realize that the window was already closing on any opportunity to reach my goal of summiting this season. All weather reports indicated that a major weather system was coming in on Tuesday and the resulting deluge would last for the entire rest of the week. It was disappointing news, but I decided to get up early Tuesday and attempt the scramble up The Fortress before the bad weather arrived.



Spruce grouse
I got up very early the next morning and filled my to-go coffee cup, grabbed some food, jumped in the Jimmy and headed up the Smith-Dorrien Road to the Chester Lake parking lot. it was about 7 a.m. when I headed up the trail. My dog, Kenner scattered a flock of spruce grouse. I'm sure he would have liked to pursue them, but I had him on a long protractible leash. I started out huffing and puffing a little bit, but the further I went, the better I felt. I passed the old larch that I remembered from years earlier. Once I got to Chester Lake I was feeling good about things. I took a brief foray into the pretty three lakes valley, then I crossed a talus slope and into the upper Chester creek valley. It was cloudy but I had made a deal with myself that if I could see the summits of the surrounding mountains, I would keep going and I still could... It was warm enough that I was just wearing short sleeves.

Upper Chester Creek valley. The Fortress center top.
In front of me was a familiar sight - a limestone headwall guarded the upper valley. I made my way to the top of the headwall and found myself in an incredible "valley of stones". All around were walls of limestone. At the very head of the valley I could see the backside of the Fortress. It was divided from Mount Chester by a high col. One would have to scramble up a loose looking talus slope to the col and then make their way up to the summit from there. It all looked very doable and I was starting to feel excited about the prospect. I could still see the summits surrounding the high rocky valley, but then I looked back toward the headwall. The summits across the valley were gone - all obscured in cloud. My heart sank. A stiff wind was blowing above tree line and it was beginning to get cold. I had no sooner got my hoodie on that it began to rain. Just that quickly I needed to turn around from this beautiful, but exposed spot and retrace my steps down the headwall. By the time I got back to Chester Lake, The Fortress and Mount Chester were obscured by cloud. Kenner and I headed back to the Jimmy.
Descending the headwall
As the forecast predicted, it did begin to pour rain. The next day we packed up in a downpour and headed home early. The summit of The Fortress would have to wait. I am usually philosophical about these things. It had been a good day out in the high country.  I can't help but notice just how the days and years fly by and I know it will be a long while before I get the chance again. The one thing that consoled me was the upcoming trip to Waterton Lakes National Park that loomed several weeks in my future. I already couldn't wait!

 

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Walls of Stone - Tryst Lake Baptism


I have always said that there are two kinds of hikers - those that hike to get fit and those that keep fit to hike. I fall under the latter category. I've never been much of a jock.  When my wife and I were younger we would start each season with weekend or day trips in the spring (wheezing up the foothills and mountain slopes) and by the time summer came, we were in prime hiking condition. Several times, I caught people looking at us (when we passed them on a trail) in wonderment. Sometimes they would comment about how fast we walked. To us it just seemed a normal pace.
Spring conditioning hike among the limber pines of the Bull Creek Hills with our old dog "Flip"
Lower Tombstone Lake August, 1988



































I once did a solo trip along the headwaters of the Sheep and Elbow Rivers. I camped for a day at Tombstone Creek backcountry campground. A party of dudes arrived on horseback and waited while the crew set up camp. I chatted to their guide about the surrounding country, which of course he knew very well. That evening  I decided  to do the side trip to pretty Tombstone Lakes. I arrived back at the campsite just before dark and I noticed some of horse party looking at me.  The guide approached me with a funny grin on his face. I'm sure I didn't look the part with my long hair and no doubt a bit of a gut on me (I drank a lot of beer in those days!). I was probably wearing ratty jeans and a t-shirt and I had a cheap backpack and a tent that I bought for 30 dollars at Costco. He wanted to shake my hand. He said that the party of tourists had sat around the fire and watched as I ascended the ridge to the lakes or "almost ran" as he put it. I'm not sure what was said while they watched, but apparently they were impressed by my speed and agility. I took this as a high compliment from a cowboy and experienced mountain guide. I had a lot of respect for anyone with the fortitude to be a  mountain guide, but it was probably the first time that I felt the respect was mutual. I was twenty-eight years old and that was  over 25 years ago! I do remember that there were many times that I did struggle and I never felt like I was ever doing something exceptional, but those were the days...
Younger, fitter days. Grueling spring hike to Guinn's Pass.
I enjoyed this past summer, as I usually do. The "best part" however didn't turn out quite as well as I had hoped for. There was the August long weekend, then a four-day work-week to be followed by two full weeks holiday at a campsite in Alberta's Kananaskis Country. What could be better? Mid July began two weeks of neck pain and then on the Friday of the August long weekend my scalp felt numb. By Friday evening the back of my head felt like somebody had hit me with a baseball bat - with intense and shooting pain that radiated across my skull. I had no idea what was going on. I decided that I would try and tough it out (with the help of pain killers and booze) until the doctor was back at work on Tuesday. I lasted until Sunday morning then headed to emergency. No I didn't have a tumor, infection, or aneurism.  I had what is called a "tension headache", which was due to strained nerves in my neck. I wasn't dying , but the doctor said that it could last two weeks. So medication, chiropractic care and massage therapy were on the agenda  for the week before our Kananaskis hiking trip.

Foothills-like hiking terrain near where I live
Good exercise, but nothing like the mountains
Walking around the country where I live is good exercise, but is never an adequate preparation for hiking in the Rocky Mountains. I usually do some shorter hikes for the first couple of days of my mountain vacations with at least one that takes me to tree line. I find this gets me acclimatized and ready for a few more challenging hikes. This year I decided to make the first hike up to pretty Tryst Lake. I thought the initial walk in along an old logging road, followed by a stiff (though not too long) climb up through a forested trail to the lake would be a good warm-up.

I got up about half way up the hill when I began to overheat. I took a break, sat down and drank some water. I wasn't concerned, but when I went to continue I found that my legs didn't have much strength. I went a bit further and discovered that I had nothing left. This was a new experience for me and I was concerned. I tried to continue on for short spells, but I ended up sitting down and drinking more water. My head felt hot. it was a hot day and I was carrying two bottles of water. I finished the first and went to drink from the second, but it was the water from the campground which was so full of chlorine that it was undrinkable. With my wife's help, I managed the final portion of the hike to the lake and found a place to rest and have lunch. I figured that I would feel better after eating and resting for a bit. Even after lunch, I still wasn't feeling right, so I took things in hand. I stripped down and  waded into the cold waters of Tryst Lake. Almost immediately I began to feel better and after a soak, I climbed back out and got dressed. I felt fine! I shot some footage around the lake, while my wife scrambled up a ridge to the south. It was a beautiful day and I was finally beginning to enjoy it. My baptism in the freezing subalpine waters among the larches and heather had apparently wiped away my ailments.
Tryst Lake
 

The Highwood - Wash-out at Lineham Creek.
There is still plenty of damage from last year's flooding
That evening I decided that I needed to get off of my headache medication. The next day we took a leisurely walk along the Highwood River. The following day I did the hike to the fire lookout over 400 meters above Boulton Campground and managed it easily. Young couples with bikes passed me on my way back down - huffing and puffing. "Is it this steep all the way?!"

 
I just smiled and said honestly, " it gets a bit steeper near the top".  I felt good and I knew that I was once again ready to hike my Canadian Rocky Mountains.
View of Kananaskis Lakes from the lookout

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Walls of Stone - Across the Canadian Rocky Mountains (Introduction)


"I grew up in Calgary and I got used to seeing the fronts of the Rocky Mountains along the western horizon, beckoning me." That's how I began my last story, but then I proceeded to go on about the prairies. This time I want to talk about the mountains. The mountains have always held a deep fascination for me and I am preparing for a hiking trip-of -a-lifetime that will take me across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, from east to west. Over the next year or so I will share the preparations, obstacles, technologies utilized and the story of my journey.

Childhood Dreams
My father did something when I was five years old that changed the lives of everyone in my family. He moved us from England to Canada and took a job in the oil business. I have heard Calgary called a "prairie town" many times, but to me that isn't what makes Calgary the city that it is. It is the close proximity to the Rocky Mountains from which it derives its fame. Being immigrants in a new land, both my parents were interested in exploring their new surroundings and the mountains were both close-by and novel.

We made trips to nearby Banff and Canmore. Waterton Lakes National Park soon became one of our favorites. I remember enjoying the many day hikes that we embarked on, but I would find the low-level hikes to be a bit disappointing.  The hoodoos near Canmore, the "paint pots" in Kootenay National Park, Crandall Lake in Waterton and the inevitable Johnston Canyon in Banff were all enjoyable walks, but I did find them to be a bit of a yawn... It wasn't until we took a family trip to Banff and beautiful Moraine Lake that I "got it".

I can remember exactly when it was that I fell in love with the mountains. That day we did a popular hike called "Larch Valley" which took us up into the subalpine and alpine zones above the forested valley. The unusual alpine larches were just some of the unfamiliar living things which inhabited this alien landscape. The sounds of marmots whistling form the scree slopes and the pikas scurrying about collecting vegetation, the sight of open meadows with rivulets of water, small tarns among the limestone boulders reflecting the blue sky and the sight of hanging glaciers across the valley all contributed to my growing sense of euphoria at every turn. I could see the switchback trail climbing to a high alpine pass (Sentinel Pass) and I wanted to push on, but my parents (perhaps wisely) said that it was getting late in the day and that it was further than it looked. I remember that feeling of disappointment,  but when I became a young man I was able to go further - across those passes and into the high windswept places of my imagination.

My childhood dreams of the savannah of Africa, the rainforests of South America, the Gobi desert and sailing the oceans were replaced by a new, more plausible dream - one of the Rocky Mountains. This was a dream I could see every day. Whether I was driving, going to school or building high rises in Calgary's downtown core, I could look to the west and see those limestone peaks. I got to know all of their names and where they were situated. I spent hours perusing topographic maps and reading guides. I did as much hiking as I could afford , but it never seemed enough. When I met my wife, we spent much of our free time exploring the Rockies (mostly in nearby Kananaskis Country). We have enjoyed the beautiful locations and many adventures that have happened along the way. This summer we will return to both the Kananaskis and Waterton regions. For me, it will be part of my preparations for a bigger adventure next summer.

I am definitely closer to the end of my hiking career than the beginning, so I have resolved to make this one last journey. The plan is to complete a hike from the eastern front of our Canadian Rocky Mountains, through the Front Ranges of Alberta and across the Great Divide. Then I will cross the magnificent Main Ranges of British Columbia. The finish will include a traverse of one of the less traveled Western Ranges and in to the Rocky Mountain Trench, ending at the banks of the Columbia River. I have the route planned, after many winter nights pouring over maps and playing with Google Earth. I won't go into the details, but it comprises the absolute minimum of front-country road bashes and contains several classic hikes. Somebody mentioned that there is a bike path that I could take across the Rockies, but that doesn't interest me in the least. It isn't about me or saying I made the journey. it is about the journey itself and the places I hope to see. It is about the mountains.

Friday, 28 March 2014

My Sacred Places - Part Six


Great Sand Hills

 
The sound of the wind and the song of the meadowlark
are constant accompaniments during the prairie springtime
I grew up in Calgary and I got used to seeing the fronts of the Rocky Mountains along the western horizon, beckoning me. On the eastern horizon there were no mountains just empty skies. I suppose it was no wonder that I focused most of my energy (as a young man) exploring the Rockies, never giving a thought to the vast prairie region to the east. There was a year however that my family had lived near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. I was a boy of 7 and we were new immigrants to Canada. In two years we had moved from London, England to Calgary, Alberta to Burstall, Saskatchewan. That was my only experience of living on the prairies. I remembered little of it, but I know that my parents had fond memories of our time spent in that surprisingly interesting part of Canada.

"Boot Hill" - one rancher's tribute to the Great Sand Hills
Fast forward 37 years to my journey along the length of the Red Deer River. I had a pretty good idea what to expect for the first three quarters of that expedition, but the last part of the trip into the “Palliser Triangle” was a mystery to me. It was the “Undiscovered Country”. That section of the river and the land around it made such a mark on me that I decide to return there the following autumn. I have been back to this part of the prairies many times in the ten years since.
Kangaroo Rat skull
I usually camp at Sandy Point campground – a spot on Alberta’s Highway 41, where it crosses the South Saskatchewan River.  This provides me with a central place from which I can explore the large area that surrounds the Great Sand Hills. From there it is a quick drive across the border into Saskatchewan and east to the sand dunes. The Great Sand Hills is very large in area, but only a small percent of the sand hills are actual exposed dunes. Most visitors go to the dunes east of Burstall and south of Sceptre, which is the most accessible spot to visit. One can wander the dunes looking for signs of the resident, but nocturnal kangaroo rats (which are at the northern limit of their range). I have never actually seen one, but their trails and holes are everywhere.

Snowy owl along Old Millie Road
There are many other less visited places in the sand hills of course and I have some much-loved ones of my own. My favorite drives is via the “Old Millie Road” which (along with the New Millie Road) traverses the sand hills and leads to other roads which branch out in different directions to hidden gems – dunes, small lakes and quiet, secluded places miles from anywhere, where ferruginous hawks soar above you and deer and pronghorn run free. There are even moose in the sand hills, or so I am told. I have seen them in the area, but not actually in the sand hills themselves. In the spring and fall, tundra swans can be found along with numerous other waterfowl in the few lakes and ponds that can be found near the heart of the region. Sandhill cranes migrate through the area in the spring and fall in large numbers as well as Canada, snow and greater white fronted geese. In the fall one can find thousands of migratory waterfowl around ponds and in the fields. Seeing them suddenly all take off at once is one of the great natural spectacles that you will ever see.

The scent of sage is in the air and the ground cover mostly consists of fescue and juniper. There are sheltered stands of aspen and balsam poplar in places that we sometimes like to stop and have lunch. In spring we look for the prairie crocus (anemone) peering out of the otherwise drab-looking turf.
The Great Sand Hills is a massive area and exploring its reaches is not something that can be treated lightly. It involves lots of driving and hours and hours of exploration, map reading and speculation. Days can go by quickly and I have to be careful not to run out of daylight, especially in the shorter days of late autumn around Thanksgiving .
Standing rock - a large glacial erratic near Hazlett

The larger area around the sand hills also includes the valleys of the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer Rivers, which both include some magnificent vistas of their own. The forks of the two rivers is a place that I return to often, because of its natural beauty and its personal significance. One of my favorite places is the "Bulls Forehead", a high grassy hill opposite the confluence of the two mighty rivers. I will often sit up there for hours, while remembering my journeys on the two rivers and taking in the ambience of the surrounding valleys, poplar groves and grassland. If you're a birdwatcher this is a spot that you must visit in the summer. Bluebirds, king birds, thrashers, towhees and many types of sparrows can be found in the grasslands and river-side thickets. Along the river's edge there are ducks, geese and wading birds (such as the ever present willet) along with flocks of white pelicans on the sandbars. A pair of bald eagles nest on one of the islands and there is a great blue heron rookery. Prairie falcons and swallows nest along an area of sandstone cliffs.
The South Saskatchewan River

A wandering garter at Sandy Point
There are also four types of snakes common to the region; bull snakes, wandering and western garters and the prairie rattlesnakes, which radiate from some large hibernacula near the two rivers. I understand that there are no snakes in the actual sand hills themselves, which may be a comfort to some. On wet years the evening chorus of frogs on the highlands is almost deafening.


There is a great deal of historical significance to this region of  Western Canada. The river valleys and forks were important to the tribes of the plains. The Blackfoot people believed that the souls of the dead wandered the Sand Hills. Around 1800, Peter Fidler established the Hudson Bay Company's ill-fated Chesterfield House at the forks. I once climbed the hill (on the tongue of high land) between the two rivers and stood in the spot where explorer John Palliser had been a hundred and fifty years earlier. In later times, there was a M├ętis settlement near the forks. Paddle wheelers once plied the tricky waters of the South Saskatchewan as far as Medicine Hat. There are old cemeteries and stones that mark the places that once held long forgotten settlements and towns. Some of them were abandoned when their young men failed to return from horrors of the Great War.
Memorial to local war dead at a lonely crossroads east of the sand hills
So why the Sand Hills? Or why the prairies at all for that matter? I have lived in the parkland region of Central Alberta (at the edge of the great plains) for almost twenty years now and I remember a conversation with my old neighbor and Cowboy Hall-of-Famer, Bill Greenwood. He had noticed that we were away for a few days and enquired about where we had gone. I told him enthusiastically that we had been up to the Ghost River country and had hiked to the summit of Blackrock Mountain. He just snorted and said, "why would you want to go up there? There's nothing but rocks..." Bill was a man that had grown up on and learned to love the open country of the prairie. He said the mountains made him feel claustrophobic.I have come around to his way of thinking over the years. Though I will never apologize for my love of the mountains, I can see what he was talking about on our drives and in our many conversations. Among the Great Sand Hills and the breath-taking open country around them, I can get a glimpse of what the prairies must have been like before the arrival of the European settlers. There is a certain light and aura about that whole part of the country. I am sure that it is an acquired taste, but the prairies have become a part of who I am.
Sunset at Freefight Lake, in the heart of the Great Sand Hills

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Sacred Places - Part Five


St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Churches, cathedrals and graveyards - no holiday would be complete without a visit to at least one of these. As I said in my introduction to this series, I am not a religious man. That being said, I do often find myself  on hallowed ground when I'm on vacation. Questions of an almighty aside, I am interested in the story of mankind. Throughout history, religious buildings offer the best of what we are as human beings. I want to tell you about one that filled my heart with wonder.

The New River in my home town of Enfield
I am an immigrant to Canada. My family came to Alberta when I was just five years old. Anybody that meets me would immediately peg me as a Canadian. In fact I was born in North London and it wasn't until I was 38 years old that I ever returned to my homeland. It was an eye opening experience and it didn't take long for me to be totally enthralled by London. I think some people who know me are a bit mystified by the fact that I love London so much. Yes, I am the same person who goes to such great lengths to find solitude in natural settings. The only way I can really explain it is that I like  the "real" thing and London is definitely a real city. You can feel the buzz of the place before you even get off the plane. You clear customs and then the race is on. My father told me that his dad would always tell him "get ready to start running" whenever they took the tube into Central London and the pace hasn't slowed.


Westminster Cathedral
I have visited many English holy places. St. Mary's Church in Warwick (resting place of the Earls of Warwick and Robert Dudley) was the first. I have visited the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban's, which is said to be the oldest site of Christian worship in Britain. The Cathedrals of Westminster and Canterbury are probably the two "no-brainers"  if you're looking for history and I have been to them both. St. George's Chapel in Windsor (where I found myself standing over the grave of Henry VIII), King's College Chapel, Cambridge and Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford  (it once laid claim to being the smallest cathedral in England) are some notable ones.  I think that's a pretty good list for an agnostic.

So why St. Paul's? It is different than the rest. Its high domed ceiling and climb upward to the upper galleries was an experience not unlike ascending a mountain. It is the closest thing I have ever experienced, that approached nature in its grandeur.

I must admit that I have only been to St. Paul's once and at a sad time in my life. I was in England for the funeral of an Uncle who was particularly dear to me. I had two weeks in London, which I would normally relish, but I wasn't in the mood to sight-see. One day my sister suggested that we visit the cathedral and I agreed. It exceeded all of my expectations. Standing beneath the dome I looked up and wondered at its design. There was a choir there (from Florida) that sang beneath the dome. Their voices sang out a mix of Southern Gospel and more traditional choral songs which reverberated from the dome. It was one of the most amazing aural experiences I have ever encountered.


Under the dome
I wandered the floor of the cathedral and found the American Memorial Chapel, which is dedicated to the U.S. servicemen based in the UK that lost their lives in the Second World War. It was created in a section that was rebuilt after being destroyed by Nazi bombs during the blitz. Downstairs in the crypt were heroes Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and Florence Nightingale. Also lying beneath his masterpiece is the body of Sir Christopher Wren. Wren created the modern incarnation of St. Paul's after Old St. Paul's was destroyed in the Fire of London in 1666. The new cathedral was officially completed in 1711.
The City from Stone Gallery
It was when we began our ascent up a series of narrow stairways that I truly began to embrace this man-made wonder. The first gallery we encountered on the way up was the Whispering Gallery, 30 metres up from the Cathedral floor.  A whisper spoken against the wall can be heard 32 metres away on the opposite side of the dome. I am not sure exactly how this works, but I understand it was discovered after the gallery was built. Then we ascended to the Stone Gallery on the outside at the bottom of the exterior dome. The interior dome is built within the exterior one and does not conform to it at all. We climbed higher to a point at the very top of the interior dome. My sister directed me to  a small glass portal that looked straight down to the Cathedral floor, where I had stood minutes before staring up in wonderment. We continued up to the Golden Gallery which is 85 metres above the floor and looks out over London. I could see the Old Bailey, the Thames of course and the Millennium Bridge, Parliament and the London Eye. Across the river on the South bank was a pub which beckoned me with its fine ale and plowman's sandwich. Soon I was back down on the streets of London and across the bridge to a waiting pint...
Looking down at the Millennium Bridge from Golden Gallery
At the highest point of The City there has been a church or cathedral for some 1400 years. The latest version is certainly the most magnificent one to grace this hallowed spot. I have often wondered if  I might be a more religious person if I was raised among the churches and traditions of the Old World. My only experience at St. Paul's Cathedral seems to lend some degree of credence to my speculation. Sir Christopher Wren's tribute to Almighty God's creation is quite simply the most inspirational man-made structure that I have ever encountered.
After our climb to the top of the cathedral, a pub beckons from across the Thames