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...

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Walls of Stone - Ötzi and Me: Mountain Travelers

copyright unknown
In 1991 one of the most fascinating archeological discoveries of our time was made in the Ötztal  Alps on the border of Austria and Italy. The frozen, mummified body of a man had washed out of a glacier high in the mountains. It was discovered by hikers, recovered and investigated by scientists and determined to be over 5000 years old! I followed the investigations through the excellent PBS television program NOVA. If you haven't seen these episodes, I can't recommend them highly enough. It is a fascinating story.

I couldn't help remembering  Ötzi as I make preparations for my traverse of our Rocky Mountains this summer. We often think of stone or bronze age people as "primitive", but he was kitted out with all the latest gear of his time. Of all the things we have learned about this mountain man, this is the most interesting revelation as far as I am concerned. Though I am hoping not to be found frozen in ice 5000 years hence, I begin to see how similar we really are...

Traveling the mountains might have been more of a necessity to him, but it probably was his passion too. He was well equipped to roam the high mountains, just as I will need to be. The "Iceman" was obviously a man of means and his equipment was top-of-the-line for its day.

By Bullenwächter (Own work) [GFDL (
 or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
His copper axe is a prime example of surprisingly advanced technology. If you excuse the pun it would have been "cutting edge" in its day and very useful. I'm not an expert, but I believe its discovery has changed many archeologist's ideas of  what technology was available in Europe at the time. I will not be taking an axe. There are lightweight ones available that would be suitable for backpacking, but (unlike Ötzi) I live in a time where people need to be concerned about our environmental footprint. We will not be making fires because they will not be necessary. We are taking efficient light-weight stoves for cooking.He carried a knife in a sheath that is very much like the hunting knives we use today. Ours are usually made with a stainless steel blade, where his was made of flint. I was considering taking a hunting knife, but instead I have opted for the more practical Swiss-Army style.
His backpack was made of hazel-wood, larch and goat skin and looks like it would have been quite useful. My super-lightweight Osprey Exos 58 is made mostly of rip-stop nylon and aluminum. It's strength and function is due mostly to how it has been engineered. It is the lightest backpack of its size that I could find.
His clothing was very advanced and functional for its day - made skillfully out of woven grasses and leather. Pants had not yet been invented. I will have pants! Most of my clothing will be made of water resistant and waterproofed lightweight polymers. He wore a hat made of brown bear fur (an animal that has been extinct in Europe for four thousand years). I am planning on taking a ball cap and a broad-brimmed hat to keep the sun off my head. His shoes were made of leather. My Keens contain some leather with various plastic materials.
Ötzi was probably armed. A quiver containing a dozen arrows was found near his body. I do have a modern compound bow, but I will not be taking it. I will however be armed with pepper spray, as a last resort in the case of bear attack. I hope it will never come to that!
He also had a birch bark container that some say was used to carry glowing embers for fire making. I will be carrying such modern high tech items as matches and a few "Bick Click" lighters - items that we take for granted, but I'm sure they would seriously impress the Iceman.

I dream of meeting Ötzi on the mountain-top of my imagination. We stop to chat and have a bite to eat. We compare our various gear and share some of our experiences, then we part ways. I descend my beloved Canadian Rocky Mountains and he wanders across his high Alps and into the mists of time. Our lives are separated by the rise and fall of many empires, yet we share a past-time that remains virtually untouched by the march of time. We are backpackers - mountain travelers, timeless and unchanged.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Walls of Stone - Of Latitude and Altitude...

From an article I wrote in 2012 for the Red Deer River Naturalist newsletter.
At the Grand Canyon, 8500 feet above sea level is a tourist walk.
As a long-time hiker of our Canadian Rockies, I couldn't help but recognize the importance of altitude in the creation of the different mountain eco-zones. I also understood(at least in theory) the correlation between altitude and latitude. Climbing up a mountain is very similar to traveling North toward the Arctic circle. The two trips that my wife and I took this past summer really brought this idea home to me and allowed me to actually experience some of the things that I have heard and read.

In mid-July we pulled our trailer West to Alberta's Kananaskis Country for our customary two weeks of camping and hiking. It had been a few years since we had a chance to be in the Rocky mountains during the peak flower season and I was savoring the experience.

The kind of signs one might see in the Montane Zone
The one thing that almost all of our hikes share is a gain of altitude and ascendant eco-zones. Low zone on the totem-pole in the Canadian Rockies is the Montane zone. This is the one that most casual visitors to Banff are familiar with. There are lots of trees -typically pine and spruce. There are also plenty of larger animals and people, with their roads, railroads, towns, resorts and campgrounds.

 As you hike up and out of the valley bottoms you notice that the kinnikinnick which carpets the understory is replaced by feather mosses and the trees are more typically Engleman Spruce, subalpine fir, white-barked pine and perhaps Lyall's larch. Also there are fewer trees and more meadows. As you gain altitude there become even less trees and the ones that you do see tend to be smaller. They often occur in groups of stunted trees huddled together known as "Krummholz".
Three Lakes Valley - entering the subalpine/alpine zone.
As you climb even higher you may enter into the alpine zone. Meadows in this zone contain no trees. Plants and flowers tend to be small and very low to the ground. Subalpine and alpine areas may contain less familiar creatures such as the pika and hoary marmot. The Clark's nutcracker replaces the gray or Canada jay of the montane forest. I always feel privileged to visit the alpine zone, but I know it is (by necessity) for a short period. The month of year and the time of day leave small windows, where I can comfortably spend time in the alpine. Whenever I am there, I make the most of it. I endeavor to take in all the sights, sounds and scents before I trudge back down the mountain.
One of the hikes we did this year(for the first time ever) was a trip up Plateau Mountain, located in the southern most part of K- Country. Unique in the Rockies, this mountain is indeed a high plateau, and its flat summit contains a large alpine area. In one area of the summit, we observed rocks arranged in polygon patterns on ground. I have never been to the arctic, but I have seen in films and books  where this same phenomena occurs as a result of the action of permafrost just under the surface of the tundra.

In Kananaskis country, tree-line is about 2300 metres or around 7500 feet above sea level. Above this altitude is the alpine zone. As one makes their way further north the tree-line becomes lower and of course it is higher the more you head south... I realized this fact, but it wasn't until a trip South to the North rim of the Grand Canyon that I ever really experienced it for myself.

In the Canadian Rockies, 8500 feet above sea level certainly isn't a tourist walk.
It was part of our first summer trip of 2012 to the beautiful Southwest United States. We were staying in the town of Kanab in Southwest Utah and one day (in late May) we drove further south into Arizona through what is typical of the desert - sand  and sandstone interspersed with pinion pine and Utah juniper. Imagine the cartoon loop through which Wile E. Coyote chases Roadrunner - this might give you the idea of the terrain, if you've never been. As the road began to climb, I noticed a sign "6500 feet above sea level". There were more trees. We began to see a forest of Ponderosa pine such as you might see in the Rocky mountain trench of Southeastern British Columbia. I saw one more sign; "7200 feet". That really got me thinking. "If I was in Alberta..."

Our first visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon was extremely enjoyable and in the late afternoon we attended a lecture on the geology of the canyon. The speaker began by asking if any of the people there had been to Glacier National Park in Montana and most of the crowd put up their hands. Then she told us that we were all sitting atop the Colorado Plateau at an altitude of 8500 feet above sea level - higher than almost every mountain summit in Glacier. We were a thousand feet above Alberta's tree-line and yet we had a spruce forest all around us. From bottom to top, the Grand Canyon also has layered ecosystems of its own. Sonoran to Hudsonian, they are representative of those from Mexico to Canada.

A visitor from the east once told me (after a brief visit) that he personally didn't like the mountains. I was incredulous and replied that if you don't like the mountains where you are, just walk up a few hundred feet and look around at a whole different environment and if you don't like that continue on up... The ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains are the nature of Canada in microcosm; foothills and parkland, montane  and boreal , subalpine and hemi arctic, alpine and arctic - the correlation may not be exact, but it is a close enough model for this layman. Perhaps one day I will visit the Arctic and gain a better understanding of an aspect of the natural world that has fascinated me throughout my life.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Walls of Stone - Return to the Highwood

As I tucked myself in for the night, I could hear the sound of drums resonating from across the river. I smiled.  We were camped in Eden Valley, west of Longview Alberta and our neighbors were members of the Bearspaw Nakoda Sioux First Nation. I have always loved this valley surrounding the Upper Highwood River and it was my last night of four spent back at this gateway to the Rocky Mountains. It had been a good few days.
Mount Armstrong
We were there to hike and Wednesday we wandered up Highway 40, which is closed and gated for the winter at Highwood House. It was nice to be able to walk up the paved road past amazing views of the Highwood River and Mount Armstrong. The rocky great divide summits of Mounts Muir and McPhail (known as the Pyramid) were visible above the grassy open slopes of the Strawberry Hills. We made a return trip to Strawberry Equestrian Campground under Azure skies. It was cool as it usually is in the Highwood, even under the uninterrupted glare of the sun. The day's outing was an unusual type of hike, but a good warm-up with a backpack at mountain altitudes. I found myself thinking of the possibilities of making a lengthy backpack up the Highway that is closed until June 15 and the many possible side trips that radiate from the roadway. It would be nice to have the valley to oneself.
The second day began with an abortive walk down Cataract Creek from the campground. We decided to cut that lackluster thrash short and instead venture up Fir Creek in the Bull Creek Hills. That turned out to be an excellent choice. It had probably been over twenty five years since I had ventured up Fir Creek and I had honestly forgotten what a pretty hike it was. The display of early season wildflowers was the most amazing one that I have ever seen at an altitude lower than subalpine. We counted over twenty varieties of  flowering plants. The compressed growing season means that one can see early spring flowers, such as prairie crocus (anemone) on a hillside next to the first few red paintbrush. We spent hours hiking and stopping to identify flowers.
Day 3 was definitely the most spectacular of the bunch, as we returned to the Bull Creek Hills and headed north up Pack Trail Coulee to the aptly named Grass Pass. From the pass, I looked south down the u-shaped glacially carved valley to the river 450 metres below. Across the river another valley mirrors Pack Trail Coulee - Zephyr Creek valley cuts south between the Bear Creek Hills and Mount Burke. Looking out of the mouth of either valley provides excellent views of the opposite one. We have spent many days over the years wandering both valleys in spring, summer and fall. I must caution those that might be tempted to cross the Highwood in the spring. The river may be higher in the afternoon and evening than when you initially forded its ice cold waters in the early morning light. There's nothing more galling and potentially dangerous than being stranded for a cold night within sight of your waiting vehicle.
Looking down Pack Trail Coulee toward Highwood River and Zephyr Creek valley.

I have used the trail to Grass Pass and beyond as an early season conditioning hike over the years, because it is usually snow-free due to the Chinook Winds that rip through the Highwood Gap. The Chinooks are a major component in the shaping of the stark environment of this unique section of the eastern slopes. The strangely beautiful and twisted limber pine that dot the summits of the hills are evidence of the power of these warm westerly winds. The most celebrated of these ancient trees is the "Boundary Pine", a particularly old and gnarled specimen, which features in Raymond Patterson's bestselling book "The Buffalo Head". It was once the southern boundary of the old ranch that reached well into the Bull Creek Hills in older days. We climbed up from the pass and walked along Fir Creek Point (peering down on the previous day's setting) until we found the famous tree and I took some time to shoot video from various angles. I plan on using the footage for a segment in an upcoming film.

Looking toward Grass pass from the Boundary Pine.
Holy Cross Mountain and Mount Head in the background.
As I drifted off to sleep that final spring night in the Highwood, I felt an elation that has eluded me for some years. There are so many magnificent places in the Rocky Mountains that (after a time) one can't help becoming jaded. Life itself can tire a person and make them more cynical about the world. Depression is like wearing blinders that shield us from the beauty all around us. After a few days in the Rockies under azure blue skies, surrounded by wildflowers, trees, meadows and those lovely hills and mountains, the old thoughts and dreams began to return. Once again I can look at these mountains and valleys and see the possibilities. Excitement is building knowing that very soon I will be returning to these mountainous heights to begin the journey of a lifetime.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Walls of Stone - Preparations in the Parkland

Time can be such a funny thing. In many ways, it feels like my hike across the Rockies can't come fast enough. In other ways, I have been afraid that I won't have enough time to prepare. There are less than three months to go now, and April has been a time of near-constant preparation.
Expert skier; Don Wales in a classic pose
The first news this spring was good news. Somebody that I have known for quite a few years decided that he would be able to join me on my trek. Don Wales is the current president of the Red Deer River Naturalists and is a very experienced hiker, skier and kayaker. In recent years he has been mounting kayaking expeditions to various parts of the Arctic. So far he has completed trips to Labrador, Baffin Island, Greenland and Iceland. I can't help being slightly intimidated by the breadth of his experience. Neither one of us have ever set out on a journey like the one we will be attempting this summer, so it will be the "undiscovered country" for us both. Having two of us to share the load and duties will mean that my list of "items to bring" may be shortened, but some additional planning will be necessary.
Don on one of his many kayaking adventures
A fellow can't just walk across the mountains these days. Backcountry passes and reserved campsites are mandatory and must be booked within a maximum of 90 days in advance. I have had to keep one eye on the calendar this month. The bookings in Alberta's Kananaskis Country can be made on two different websites - one for front country and one for back country camping. The National Park back country sites must be booked by phone. As of yesterday everything is booked - including Kootenay Park Lodge (which I reserved in January). That means that the dreaded bureaucratic part of my preparations is over.
One of the great things about living in the country where I reside is that there are a lot of wild, hilly places where I can walk. The knob and kettle parkland of Central Alberta (east of Red Deer) is reminiscent of the foothills west of Calgary. Woods of balsam poplar and aspen remind me of some of the early season hikes that my wife and I would do to warm up for the season's mountain adventures. Death Valley in the Sheep River region and the Bull Creek Hills in the Highwood were two of our favorites in days gone by.
Now it is just a five minute drive to what I have come to call my "Three Lakes Trail" in the woods and hills that are visible to the south of my house. I have resolved to walk these trails at least five days a week. Part of the inspiration for my new regimen was taken from a video made by Tegan Powell; the daughter of an old friend.  "One Month in Nature" is a challenge to get out in nature for an hour every day for a month. I have found it is good for my mental as well as physical well being and it has been an interesting way to "walk into spring". From the near silence of winter to the increasingly busy landscape and soundscape of spring, I have noticed the subtle changes in nature every day. I can't help but appreciate the sights and sounds of geese, swans and red tailed hawks overhead,  the ruffed grouse drumming in the trees and the wood and boreal chorus frogs croaking away in the many ponds - all building toward the crescendo of spring.
The walking seems to be working. There are good days and bad days, but my legs are definitely developing some muscle and are noticeably tighter. The plans are to throw in some more difficult climbs now to build up my calves. The hill from the bottom of the Red Deer River valley at Dry Island Buffalo Jump will do nicely.  Right now I just need to keep moving, but that won't ultimately be enough. Nothing can compare to actually hiking the mountains.
Reaching the summit of Three Lakes Trail
Hummock Lake in the background

Sunday, 1 March 2015

A Brief History of Video - Part 2: The Panasonic Lumix GH4

"...yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on." Led Zeppelin
I had never owned a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. Any money that I had available  went to my camcorders and accessories. I knew that some stills cameras had video capability, but until recently, I turned my nose up at them. I had always preferred purpose designed video camcorders rather than even the full sensor 35mm that I noticed some film makers were going to. I asked Collin Orthner (of McBain Cameras in Red Deer) if he could shoot some video of a saw whet owl  for me with his Canon DSLR and I was impressed by its quality. I began to have second thoughts... If you are a beginner film maker, I definitely recommend thoroughly investigating both routes. What spurred my quest however was the issue of weight.
GH4, Rode microphone with"dead kitten" and 100 - 300mm lens.
I began to research the possibilities of DSLRs for video. One site that was very helpful was  and their "DSLR Cinematography Guide". Some browsing and talk with Collin Orthner led me to the Panasonic Lumix GH3 that some film makers were using. Collin introduced me to its smaller micro four thirds format.  Then I found out about 4K and UHD (Ultra High Definition) formats that were rumored, then confirmed to be coming in the new GH4. I put my money down and waited for my new camera to arrive and I haven't been disappointed. It isn't the total revelation that converting from SD to HD was, but it has been close to that experience.

Having a light weight rig was my goal and I have managed to achieve that. The GH4 body weighs in at a mere 560 grams (about 1.25 pounds). I bought two lenses - a Lumix Vario G 14-140mm /F4.0-5.6 which weighs 460 g and a 100-300mm/f4.0-5.6 lens, which weighs 520g. With both lenses, I am looking at a total of less than 3 and a half pounds and I have the option of just taking the one wider lens which would make it only two and a quarter pounds. There is a 2x crop factor involved with the micro 4/3 sensor which makes (with both lenses) my effective focal length 28 mm to 600mm .

The GH4 is a decent stills camera, too.
I am not going into a lot of detail here, but the Ultra High definition 4:2:0  video can be saved to the new high speed SD card (class 10, UHS 3) in either AVC, MP4 or MOV formats. At 24 frames per second you can shoot true 4K (4096 x 2160). I will probably be shooting in 30 fps UHD (3840 x 2160). The versatile camera has many excellent features which I won't go into here. I recommend that you check out Dave Dugdale's great review if you are interested at
The GH4 takes photos in jpeg and raw formats of various quality or both at once.

The GH4 also is a decent still camera but it is heavily designed around the video side, which suits me. Moving from a video camcorder to a DSLR means that I will need to modify my shooting style and some beloved features have been surrendered (though some of them may be retrievable with options). For one thing, I don't have a power zoom (a feature standard on any camcorder). For wildlife video this is a bit awkward and makes it harder to remain still while filming. I have worked at this though and still managed to capture some good video. I have purchased a tablet and downloaded the excellent free app which allows you to remotely operate and view the GH4. One major change involves the use of neutral density filters, which is a necessity when shooting video. It has devolved from flicking a switch (with my camcorder) to physically having to mount one on the lens or remove it depending on the lighting. I have managed to whittle my kit down to an ND8, circular polarizer and UV filter with a couple of adapter rings to get the combinations I want.
With practice, I have managed some wildlife footage (still taken from UHD video)
 Suffice to say that like any of my video cameras, I will have a light setup and a heavier setup (in the future) if I am to continue to use my GH4. I can think of many configurations. For my crossing of the Rocky mountains, I have bought a small Rode stereo microphone which mounts in the hot shoe. I am looking at a very lightweight fluid head and carbon fiber tripod to complete my rig. Some extra batteries and some extra memory should complete this simple setup.
Ultra High definition video is great for landscapes (still taken from UHD video)
I am confident that the added bonus of UHD quality will allow me to capture the plants, animals, geology and beautiful landscapes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in a manner that will do them justice. I'm looking forward to sharing my experiences.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

A Brief History of Video - Part 1

As detailed in several of my blogs, I have been on the hunt for various pieces for my ultra-light backpacking trip (which is to happen this July). In the past, video gear has been problematic. A dozen years ago I hauled my heavy Canon XL1s through the front ranges of Banff National Park. With the lens, extender, batteries etc. I was forced to carry at least another ten pounds in addition to my already too heavy backpack. Luckily for me, "the times, they are a changin". To an outsider my choices might look somewhat like a devolution, but the output tells another story. I will give you a brief history of my video cameras.
Standard definition beginnings

In 2002, I purchased my first camcorder (the Canon XL1s). It was expensive, but quite a good camcorder for its day. It's highlights included interchangeable lenses, magnesium alloy body, balanced microphone inputs, Firewire capture and digital video format(which was quite new at the time). I fell in love with the XL1 when I saw it staring back at me from the cover of Videomaker Magazine in the late 90's.

The weak points of the camcorder were its viewfinder (definition too low and hard to tell if you were in focus) and the medium ( the mini DV tape and transport were high maintenance and unreliable). It recorded decent 4:3 (720 x 480) standard definition NTSC interlaced video. If you don't know what I'm talking about, just think of the old television you had in your living room (your old CRT) and that will give you an idea of what the output was like. It produces DVD quality video. The Canon was a good camcorder for its time, which was all too brief or perhaps not brief enough - depending on whether you are looking at money to replace it or the quality of video. It has now become an expensive paper weight, but it still looks very cool!

 High definition age
With the happy advent of high definition video, I eventually was able to purchase my very capable Sony PMW-EX1r camera. It has an excellent quality flip-out monitor (as well as decent EVF) and the days of tapes were gone. It shoots to interchangeable SxS memory cards. The HD format was like a dream for me! It was much more filmic in its look and feel. The 16:9 (1920 x 1080) high definition progressive video (think of your newish flat screen TV) was like a dream, after the limitations of shooting in standard definition. It outputs Blu-ray quality video. It also is a much more complicated camcorder and it took a great deal of time to master all of its settings, features and possible color profiles. I can't recommend Doug Jensen's (Vortex Media) guides and video enough for anybody who wants to delve into these sometimes muddy waters.

There are so many excellent features with the Sony that it is hard to know where to begin; time lapse, cache recording, focus peaking, zoom focus, shot transition, zebra pattern, color profiles to name a few... I managed to integrate most of its features into my shooting style over time. Its weak point is the slower bit rate of its 4:2:0 35 Mbps data rate and its MP4 encoding, which isn't quite up to broadcast standards. However I have realized that for a relatively small investment, I could purchase an Atomos Ninja and take advantage of the EX1r's 50 Mbps 4:2:2 10-bit output and record to industry standard Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD HQ codecs. That would substantially increase the lifespan of this excellent product. Unfortunately weighing in at almost 7 pounds, my Sony isn't conducive to a good ultra-light weight backpacking experience! So I had to look further afield for a solution.

 next time Part 2 The Panansonic Lumix GH4 UHD camera