Good Anger

Coal was the final straw.

I grew up in a fishing and hunting family. We spent golden days in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, from the Oldman north to the tributaries of the North Saskatchewan. Rolling, pine-clad hills, quiet trout streams, chance sightings of deer and bears — it was paradise for a kid.  In the fall Dad took us hunting pheasants on the farms of relatives east of Strathmore. In between times, impatient, I sought out the wildest places I could find and became a birder.

That was many years, and many governments, ago.  Mostly conservative governments: some good, mostly bad.  Certainly Peter Lougheed’s government was one of the good ones.  It gave us an Environmental Conservation Authority, strong environmental laws, Kananaskis Country and a Coal Policy.  Especially in the early years, Lougheed’s vision of environmentally-responsible development seemed to offer Alberta a future where nature and commerce might flourish together.

But it didn’t last.  The ECA got disbanded, regulatory agencies were de-fanged and greed took over.  It seemed like each election resulted in the “progressive” part of Progressive Conservative fading more, until it vanished altogether and we got a new creature: a “United Conservative Party.”  The centre shifted and “progressive” came to define opposition parties, not government.

What did that look like on the land?  It looked like paradise lost. 

There’s a uniquely profound sorrow that comes of having one’s identity shredded. I chose a career in biology because I’d grown to love everything natural about Alberta.  But the creeks, far valleys, shrubby corners and coulees that grew to define me were under siege from a careless capitalism that, as Oscar Wilde said, knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. By the time I retired, life had become a constant battle against what philosophers call solastalgia – the profound homesickness one gets when home is no longer there.

Native trout are gone from many of those childhood streams. Once-peaceful foothills valleys are tracked up by motor vehicles and filled with noise all summer long. Once-green woodlands are mangy with clearcuts. Prairie grassland is upside down and silent. Even the barn swallows are gone.

It happened incrementally, the consequence of inattention: Albertans’ casual assumption that home would always be there, no matter how much the governments we elected commodified it and it off in bits.

But love doesn’t offer one the option of giving up, even when one’s heart is breaking. When an angry province surprised itself by electing an NDP government in 2015, I was one of many who felt hope rekindle. Here was a government, like the original Lougheed one, that actually believed in the public interest. After three decades of promises but no action, the new government actually established new parks in the Castle River region.  Then they went on to planning for the public lands in the rest of the Oldman drainage. Recently retired, I volunteered on advisory groups working on both those initiatives. It seemed impossible, but we again had a government committed to stewardship of our best places and values.

Many of my fondest memories of wild Alberta reside in the green foothills west of Rocky Mountain House, and it’s there that the NDP government proposed to establish a Bighorn Country similar to the Kananaskis.  But that, apparently, was one conservation hill too far for the angry few who had grown accustomed to laissez-faire mis-management of public lands. In the 2019 election campaign, UCP politicians like Jason Nixon drew on that anger, magnifying it with lies, and rode it into power.

And so, in the 2019 election the NDP were swept aside and replaced by the UCP.  This was no progressive conservative party.  It wasn’t even truly conservative.  It was a reactionary party of hard-core commodifiers.  Everything was for sale.  Nothing was sacred. The public interest would be determined in the marketplace, not by policy.  

Those motivated by love of place and care for wild nature felt crushing despair as the last rules were shredded, parks put up for sale, resource protection staff isolated, and public concern sneeringly dismissed as “NDP talking points.” We’d tasted hope, and had it swept away.

And then came coal.

Since 1993 when Gail and I moved our family to Waterton, I had worked with dozens of good, decent people who loved the land in much the same way as we do.  Ranchers, farmers, Blackfoot and Stoney people, business owners, artists…they came together in various combinations to manage carnivore conflicts, restore trout streams, steer industrial development away from sensitive habitats and just generally try and keep good places good.

In 2020 we all woke up to the news that the UCP government had secretly cancelled Peter Lougheed’s Coal Policy and handed out massive leases to foreign coal companies. The entire headwaters region of Alberta — almost every inch of that childhood paradise that gave shape and meaning to mine and so many other Alberta lives — was being offered up cheap for strip mines.

That betrayal was the last straw, not just for me but for all those good people with whom I’d been so honoured to work over the years.

The worst kind of anger is motivated by hate and selfishness.  But there is a good kind of anger – that motivated by love. And it was love of Alberta that united so many people to fight the sellout of our headwaters to coal companies.  Few things have inspired me so much as seeing Albertans of every type come together to force a rogue government to step back from their plans to pillage our headwaters. The massive resistance to coal strip mining renewed my hope that we might finally be uniting into what Wallace Stegner dreamed of: “a society to match its scenery.”

Alberta has arrived at a crossroads.  It seems like everything good about this place is under threat.  Yet it also seems like we could be awakening to ourselves as a people who will fight for what we love.  Coal, in that regard, was a good thing; it woke us all up. But there is still a risk that we’ll get distracted and look away from the things we matter most.

So I ruined a perfectly good retirement and went into politics.  

I had to: it would be a betrayal of my very identity not to defend the good places, wildlife, people and enduring values of my home place. The UCP has taken us to the brink, but at least where the coal fiasco is concerned, Albertans have pulled back.  Now we need to restore what we can of our lost nature, and ourselves. We need to put our good anger to work – making the best of what remains, and what could yet be.

Solastalgia will have to wait; I’m running for office in hopes of being part of a government that builds forward from the last, desperate hope we’ve all found — for love of our home place, one another, and all our relations.

Hermit Song

Perhaps it’s just natural that a lifelong loner should have an affinity to hermit thrushes. We share a common habitat, after all — that of solitude. But that’s too facile an explanation; my love for these birds is more nuanced than that. Whatever the case, when I arrived in the timberline forest near the head of a subalpine basin the other day and stopped to listen again to the wistful beauty of a hermit thrush singing somewhere back in the dim, it evoked a host of memories and associations.

For those who aren’t loners, it might seem that loneliness would be a stranger to those of us who prefer our own company. Not really. In the late 1970s I landed what seemed the perfect job for one who likes himself better when hanging out with wild things in wild places than with others of his own species. That work — conducting inventories of wildlife populations — took me into the remote corners of Canada’s Jasper National Park where I worked alone, often for days on end. More often than not, when I climbed out of my tent or stepped out of a patrol cabin into the pre-dawn shadows to begin another day of field work, there would be a hermit thrush singing somewhere in the cool secret places beneath the trees. And late in the evening, as mystery spilled down from the peaks to darken the world, again there would be a hermit thrush, intoning its wistful benedictions into a stillness we shared.

The slow, ethereal flutings back in the woods seemed to speak of their own kind of loneliness, of nostalgic loss and poignant rememberings. I’m sure those birds sang for themselves but it was a language I felt I almost understood as I simultaneously savoured my solitude and ached with loneliness. Strange days.

Years earlier, when I was religiously memorizing the first bird book I ever bought — the first edition of Birds of Alberta, by Salt and Wilk — I had been taken by the authors’ description of the hermit thrush’s song: “Oh, heavenly heavenly…ah, holy holy…” I had yet to see my first thrush, but I was haunted never-the-less. Maybe it was those lyrics that first made me equate a shy, brown bird with the parable of human exile from Eden.

Years later, when I was discovering the timberline trails of the Canadian Rockies, I sometimes backpacked with a book to read while resting. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was a particularly favoured companion; when the larches turned gold or the meadows were brilliant with blooming glacier lilies it was easy to imagine that I was in Middle Earth. In fact, I was — because the tragedy of Middle Earth was the loss of magic from the world of men – but I was discovering places where it lingers on. Jackson Browne sang of an earth wounded by “men who tried to forge her beauty into power” and that, to me, was the metaphor that linked the Christian story of the Fall to Tolkien’s fantasy novel: the deep human flaw that makes us all lonely strangers in a world of relations to whom we no longer relate. Magic dies when one ceases to look at the living world with wonder and love, striving to hear its music and to understand how best to relate to the beings with whom we share our existence, and instead simply focus on their utility and how we might possess and use them.

What good is a hermit thrush? Wrong question.

In the story of the Fall, humans eat fruit from the tree of knowledge reserved only for God. But it’s not the knowledge that banishes Homo sapiens from Eden; it’s our reason for wanting that knowledge and the fact that it turns everything else into a mere object of analysis. We objectify the world to gain power over it and, in so doing, isolate ourselves from wonder, humility, and relationship. We make loners of ourselves, and wind up alone, on the wrong side of the gate that locked behind us when we stepped through it. To understand the parable of the Fall, the first thing is to know that it didn’t happen once upon a time; it happens every time we look at the world merely as a bundle of resources, rather than a living source of wonder and inspiration.

In Tolkien’s trilogy the elves are the ones who love song and mystery, and live in a world infused by magic. “A Elbereth Gilthoniel!” they sing in celebration of a time when all was magic. 

But at the end, they sail away into the West, taking their magic with them and leaving the world to men. It’s the same story, really.

But the magic never really left; we simply turned away from it. It lives on in an Eden from which we never departed, except in our spirits. It lives in newborn creeks that bubble out of flower-strewn meadows and tumble through forests of larch and fir; it lives among the peaks, especially when they are wrapped in storm clouds or caught in the last rays of the sun; it is in the woods, the fens, the wind, and the wild things. There’s a dark magic in the eyes of a grizzly bear when it stands to study a startled hiker, and a bright magic in the way warblers flicker through the willows. Mayflies dance in magic sunbeams. When life emerges out of winter’s icy stillness, that’s magic. When trees crack with the cold and ravens hunch themselves against the hard winter wind, that’s magic too. It’s everywhere; it’s just hard to see it through the eyes of exiles.

I wonder if hermit thrushes remember the elves, or know them still. I suspect that they are actually birds of Eden, and that the half-light in which they prefer to sing is that place that lies between the lonely, lost world of humankind and the magic from which we turned away. Perhaps, if Tolkien’s elves sailed away into the West and left only the memory of magic behind, they also left a humble brown bird to keep that memory alive in sweet, forlorn laments that make mountain shadows sacred.

If we believe that magic has truly left this world, than a hermit thrush’s achingly sweet, spiraling song might be heard as the music that arises from memories of memories of mystery.  But I think it is more than that; it is proof, in itself that magic never left our world at all; we simply looked away.  Back in the sweet, subalpine shadows of forests, those small brown birds lament our loss of wonder even while they invite us back into its embrace. 

I’ve come to the certain belief that there is no time better spent than that spent listening to the hermit thrushes who sing to us from the edge of Eden, reminding us to remember what most of us don’t even realize we’ve forgotten: “A Elbereth Gilthoniel: Heavenly… heavenly… holy…. humbly… home.”


[draft preface for a new project]

The bunchgrass prairie was brown and brittle and the leaves on the saskatoons and aspen beginning to turn red and yellow when Leonard and Leon-Adelard arrived at Fort Edmonton.  It was September 5 and they had just spent three months walking the 1300 km distance between the Metis settlement at Winnipeg and this isolated fur trading post on the south bank of the North Saskatchewan River.  The buckbrush lining their rutted prairie trail was heavy with white fruit. Plump red rose hips adorned the tangled shrubs along the river breaks. The low, clear flows of late summer made the river crossings easy and thousands of geese and cranes were gathering into noisy flocks, preparing to migrate south.

For Leon-Adelard Fafard, born and raised in southern Quebec, the wild prairies through which they had travelled must have been disconcertingly strange.  No tall forests and shady ways, no villages and farms: only space and wind.  

“Here was the least common denominator of nature,” W.O. Mitchell would write nearly a century later, “the skeleton requirements simply of land and sky…stretching tan to the far line of the sky and waiting for the unfailing visitation of wind…”

Leonard Van Tighem was even further out of his element.  Barely 24 years old, it was only a little more than a year since he had left his family’s home near Meulebeke, Belgium for the first time in his life.  It was no tentative first step, either; he had agreed to accompany Bishop Vital Grandin back across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World and serve for a few years in distant Roman Catholic missions. Bishop Grandin’s Oblates missionary order was devoted to spreading their faith into what were then considered the godless peoples of North America. Grandin had made the trip to Europe to raise funds and find new recruits; Van Tighem was one of fifteen young men who travelled back with him to New York and thence by train to Lachine, on the Saint Lawrence River.

Leonard had become friends with the Canadian-born Leon-Adelard during his first frontier winter while he built furniture and did paintings for Notre Dame des Anges church.  The following year, as part of a group of aspiring missionaries, the two young men accompanied Bishop Grandin across the Great Lakes by boat and then by land to St. Boniface, near what is now Winnipeg.  It was early June when they continued west from there — mosquito season in the tall grass prairie of the Red River lowlands.  The days were noisy with the screeching of wood on wood, as they followed a train of eighty Red River wagons pulled by oxen and horses.

It was 1875 and the Metis of the Red River colony were off to kill bison for the hide trade.  Although rutted bison trails laced the open plains, the animals themselves were already becoming hard to find because of overhunting and a deliberate campaign of extermination south of what the Blackfoot and Cree people called the “Medicine Line” — the invisible border between what were considered to be Britain’s colonial holdings and the young United States of America.  It was only five years later when the Metis did their final, futile hunt; bison had been virtually wiped out.

The wild roses were in full bloom when they set out.  The subtle sweetness of their bouquet permeated the more overwhelming odours of manure, trampled grass, alkali dust and sweat. Thunderheads dragged curtains of grey rain across the gentle swells of prairie greenery, darkening the ground with shadow, then wheeling off into distance so immense it must have been almost unfathomable for the two skinny young lads marking off each day’s endless miles.  Long billed curlews and marbled godwits came shrieking across the prairie only to veer away at the last moment, beaks open in mock threat, defending hidden nests from the passing travellers. Pronghorn antelope stared, then wheeled and dashed away, flashing their white rumps. During breaks in travel, when the cart wheels finally stopped their shrieking, the thin swirling songs of pipits and horned larks became audible in the sky above and small brown sparrows and longspurs with unfamiliar markings sang from low shrubs and grass tussocks on all sides.  It was a land rich with life but, to European eyes, empty of purpose.

Leonard had been raised in a pastoral agricultural landscape outside an ancient town.  In his youth, the Van Tighem estate had been a sprawling parkland — mowed lawns, flowering hedges and borders, Spanish conifers and summer shelters.  Neighbouring farmers grew potatoes and flax for trade and raised livestock and vegetable crops for their families. They sold their produce in nearby towns, each with church spires, cobbled streets and somber, settled families.  It was a pastoral and long-civilized country.  It was also a place in crisis, its economy suffering from potato blight and competition with the New World’s agricultural exports that were flooding Europe and disrupting markets. In the late 1880s optimism and hope were in scarce supply in the once-prosperous farm country around Muelebeke; that was one reason that Bishop Grandin had such success at finding new recruits from among the devout Catholics of the Flemish netherlands.

So, to the young Belgian, this endless prairie landscape must have seemed as devoid of civilization and meaning as it was godless.  It was the rawest of raw materials from which settlers would have to fight hard to forge some kind of facsimile of the Europe from which they were fleeing.  It seems ironic, in retrospect, that most of the settlers who followed the young seminarians’ footsteps over the ensuing half century were escaping from a continent that had failed them, yet felt nonetheless compelled to recreate a new version of it.  They could imagine nothing else. 

The future is always unfathomable, though; in 1875 there was no way that Leonard and Leon-Adelard could have pictured the unbroken plains around them as anything but an alien wilderness offering neither reassurance nor certainty. They must have lain awake at night sometimes, under that vast dome of stars, listening to the trill of night insects and the whine of mosquitoes, praying for their religious faith not to abandon them.  Because there was no going back.

They had left even the carved-out colonial farmscapes of Canada behind. The British government considered this western territory to be a hinterland, un-ceded and still occupied by godless savages.  The British had only gone so far as to grant an exclusive trading monopoly to the Hudson’s Bay Company that, until the agreement was terminated in 1870, had given the company commercial control over much of the territory.  There was no actual government presence in the west.  Or, there was none until 1874, the year before Leonard finally trudged into the company’s fort at Edmonton, only to learn that Catholics were no longer wanted there.  

“It must be remembered that up to my arrival in the west, 1875, there was no militia nor police protection in these regions,” Leonard wrote in his second codex, three decades later. “The fact is that the Catholic priest was generally the guardian of the peace, the magistrate and soldier.  All came for protection to him.  Hence it was that the famous Hudson’s Bay Company was glad to avail itself of this efficacious security; hence it was that the priest was always welcome at the home and at the table of the bourgeois de la company.”

But the first detachment of Northwest Mounted Police had arrived in the west one year previously. As the company was switching its interests from controlling the fur trade to developing land, it no longer saw the need to offer space in its outposts to the Catholic missionaries. The Methodist in charge of the fort had little love of papists. Leonard’s first job upon his arrival at Fort Edmonton was to help tear down the chapel inside the fort while Bishop Grandin concluded arrangements to secure a new site a few kilometres away at Fort Saskatchewan.

Those were horrible years for the indigenous peoples of the plains, foothills and northern forests.  Although their lives had reached a sort of material peak in the early part of the 1880s, by the end of the century destitution and ruin were everywhere.  

Fur traders had brought cooking implements, glass beads and other previously un-dreamed of riches when they began to establish outposts in what is now Alberta a hundred years earlier. Horses and firearms changed bison hunting and travel.  Trade for meat and hides turned bison from a central part of plains culture into valuable trade commodities too.  For a few prosperous decades the western tribes had mobility, hunting success and material well-being unlike anything they had experienced before.

But they also had diseases they had never experienced before. Their immune systems were not ready for the recurring waves of smallpox, tuberculosis and other European diseases that swept west across the Great Plains ahead of the white colonizers. Their increased mobility meant that tribes who had lived in relative isolation from one another now met more frequently.  Horses were valuable and valuable things are worth stealing.  Stealing creates conflict.  And the firearms that made hunting easier also made warfare more lethal, even as alcohol made conflicts less rational.  Meantime, the profits available from dead bison and beavers led to increased hunting pressure, not only among the Indigenous peoples of the region but with Metis communities farther east and the growing number of white Europeans.  

Worse, south of the invisible Medicine Line along the 49th parallel of latitude, the Americans had embarked on a deliberate scorched-earth strategy of exterminating the bison, correctly calculating that wiping out the source of their food and their culture would defeat the native people of the plains faster than genocidal wars had been able to do.  Leonard arrived in the west at a time of terrible transition.  He was part of it.

The old North Trail south of Fort Saskatchewan was an ancient route connecting river fords on the Red Deer, Bow, Highwood and Oldman Rivers. It offered a line of travel just east of the foothills, where there was good water and abundant food in the form of wintering bison herds, berries and medicine plants. It didn’t follow the easiest route from north to south but hung to the west, closer to sacred and storied landforms, glacial erratics and cottonwood groves.  The Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot) and other peoples who used the trail were never just travelling from one point to another; they were living their culture.  The landscape was full of spiritual meaning. Places had songs, ceremonies and sagas associated with them, and travelling their trails was as much, or more, a spiritual journey as a practical one.

Leonard travelled south to the Highwood River in 1883, having been fully ordained a priest and sent to help with a residential mission school the church was building at Dunbow. It wasn’t ready yet, however, so he continued further south along the Macleod Trail to the tiny settlement of Fort Macleod.  He never got back to Dunbow — instead he spent the next twenty years as a parish priest for settler communities at Macleod, Lethbridge and the surrounding area.  

The Macleod Trail was rutted deep with the marks of Indigenous travois and more recent carts and wagons.  It followed a braided way across vast plains of ripening bunchgrass, dipped into valleys full of wolf willow and wild rose, and deepened as it cut down into the valleys of the Highwood and Sheep Rivers, Willow Creek and, finally the Oldman.  To the west, the line of the Rockies etched the horizon at first until the long line of the Porcupine Hills obscured the view to what the Siksikaitsitapi still know as Miistakis, the backbone of the world. 

For Leonard, it was empty space and scenery through which he must travel before arriving at a lived-in place where there were souls to be saved and chapels to be built.  He carried in his gear a jewelled container with a consecrated host at its centre; as a priest he was deemed worthy  of stewarding his Church’s holy sacrament. Steeped since birth in the simmering cultural stew of European Christianity, in his mind there was no question that he was bringing sacredness to primitive peoples who, in his worldview, had no experience of it.  

Ironic then, that for the Siksikaitsitapi and other tribes whose home he was traversing this was not scenery; it was their holy sacrament. Spirits were in everything. Simply to be on that land was to participate in the sacred. Travel, on trails that connected places of deep spiritual meaning, was liturgy. They didn’t need to wait for a priest to build a church to find a place of worship and meaning; they lived in one. Trails like the Macleod Trail and the North Trail were laid out as much as spiritual paths as practical transportation routes.  Simply by tracing that ancient trail south across the living plains, Leonard spent the whole journey in church; he just had no way of perceiving it — just as most of his subsequent Aboriginal contacts would struggle to understand the meaning of his European church’s rites, relics and recitations.

I was born into that Catholic world half a century later, in Calgary.  My father’s given name was John Victor, derived from the birth name of Leonard’s brother, Victor, who also went by the name John Callens.  Although older than Leonard, Victor was a decade later in tracing his brother’s footsteps to Canada’s northwest territory. Victor crossed the Bow River in 1886 at the shallow ford near the confluence of the Elbow River, one of several stream crossings between the Oblate mission at St. Albert and his brother’s parish at Macleod.  Each of those stream crossings today hosts a town that grew from campsites where travellers stopped to dry out and camp after crossing good fords.  The town that grew up at the forks of the Elbow and Bow became the city in which I spent the first half of my life, long after both Leonard and Victor had been laid to rest.

Victor spent most of the ensuing decades working among the Piikani people at Brocket.  His first impression of the native people in this far place was one of deep distaste: “On Saturday we see the first tents of the savages.  They are a few poles put together and covered with linen or hides; what poor dwellings!  The savages are crawling out. How grubby and dirty are they…They have brown skins, long hairs and are wrapped in a blanket or piece of rug.  Unhappy in body and soul!”

It took many years for Victor to overcome his initial revulsion for Indigenous people.  Eventually he became close friends with some, but only those who accepted his religious faith. He frequently expressed exasperation with the laziness and disinterest of the people whom he considered his charges.  As a European, he knew what a productive life was meant to look like; he had no way of seeing any virtue in a life of hunting, gathering and strange ceremonies.  As a dogmatic Catholic, he also had no way of recognizing the deep, abiding trauma that most Indigenous people were afflicted with now that the bison were gone, their freedom lost and a growing flood of aggressive Europeans arriving to kill the prairie sod and plant the exposed soil to foreign food crops.  He believed that he offered them something they lacked: lives with meaning — farming and Catholicism — and was annoyed that for the most part they were passively resistant to it.  It annoyed him right up until his final departure back to the homeland, where he could be among sensible people again. 

The Siksikaitsitapi must have been relieved to see him go.

Leonard, working mostly among the white colonists, seems to have had a healthier attitude towards the original people of his adopted home. When Prime Minister John A. Macdonald embarked upon a policy of starving the plains people to whom his Queen had solemnly committed, by treaty, to provide food, Leonard became a passionate advocate to the Ottawa government on behalf of the desperate Blackfeet.  The government stonewalled him; Macdonald and his cronies thought hunger would force indigenous people onto the reserves and make the job of agricultural settlement less difficult.

For all that he cared about the indigenous people of this place, Leonard harboured no sentimental feelings for their past, nor for the natural condition of the lands that were the foundation of their culture. His worldview told him that western Canada was a godless, wasted wilderness; it was natural and right that Christian people should arrive at last to bring their God to the people who lived here, to plough the prairie and convert it to proper farmland, and to bring civilized order to the forests, waters and wildlife. And so, although his prejudices may have been less overt than that of his brother, they were no less devastating to the place and its people.  And he had no way of perceiving them in himself; everything about his mission and the colonial enterprise of the growing European communities of which he was a part seemed normal and right.

Leonard never went back to Belgium.  Instead, when another brother’s children were left orphaned back home and in the care of an impoverished sister-in-law, Leonard applied for permission to foster the oldest boy.  Barely eleven years old, little Joseph travelled halfway around the world to meet his uncle in Calgary in 1893.  He grew up in the company of celibate males and constant religion; it can’t have been healthy.  Leonard came to see his nephew as a kind of successor, but when Joseph went into seminary years later it eventually became clear that he was not meant to be a priest.  Instead, he went to work for the Union Bank in Okotoks in 1903.  

Seven year years later he married Janie Kelly, an Irish-Catholic farm girl from nearby Dewinton. That was the start of the family into which, 77 years after Leonard’s arrival in what would become the province of Alberta, I would be born.

[more to follow, but not soon…]

Toad’s Legacy

from Our Place/A Natural History of Home

(original version dated 1998)

“. . . On the river, when you are

finally on the river and you are alone with a friend,

you can finally

let it go, all the rancour and the displacement

it does not matter here. They say I am a newcomer

and I say to them

get down to the river and say that, watch

the ducks fly up in laughter. This friend

knows the songs of all the birds by heart,

they are part of his heart

they are the reason he has a fighter’s heart, he

stands up in the boat to see above the levees

and through the great black trees that

stand guard along the bank. We speak of

trees and mink and let it go.

“It goes by

and we drift through the world again like children,

after the first hour

we have settled in. An eagle hangs above us

like a man crucified to the sky.

There is a dead thing ahead, an elk

that crashed through the ice and turned instantly

to food for the ling, the suckered fish

following the canoe like shadows.

There is wind

there is the surface of the water rippled and stretched

by the wind. There is rot and the

smell of rot and there is finally a

blankness in the mind, it lets the eyes see again,

and the eyes look out from the dark heart itself

and they let in the timeless light of the wild.

“They see the banks of the river,

carved and broken and sometimes dropping down

like mud, pale faceless mud. They see

line of sand upon line of gravel and we wonder out loud

how long it took,

we want to know about

the writing between the lines. But we do not expect

an answer, that is not why we are here today.

We want to feel

small because then we will also feel

as large as the eagle and the white world of swans . . .”

*an excerpt from Dale (David) Zieroth’s much longer poem Columbia. Originally published in Mid-River, House of Anansi, 1976. Reprinted with permission.

On the river, as you drift around the first bend and the launch site vanishes behind cottonwoods, there is no point in worrying about time or things left undone. This is a different dimension now; the river will not be hurried. The brown water seems not so much to carry the canoe along as to hold it back, obliging paddlers to surrender to the timeless peace of the Columbia River wetlands.

Beyond the levees, screened from sight by tangles of alder, red-osier dogwood, willow and black cottonwood, the worried clamour of Canada geese and clucking of spotted frogs advertise unseen marshes and sloughs. Tracks of elk and deer pockmark muddy nicks in the river levees; sometimes bear or otter tracks appear too. Warbling vireos and ruby-crowned kinglets sing. Brown water hisses quietly in the branches of sweepers. Time slows nearly to a standstill.

My first float trip into the upper Columbia River’s riparian wilderness was in 1975. Recently-graduated, I had come to the edge of the Columbia valley to work as a summer park naturalist. The green mosaic seemed to sprawl on forever; framed by mountains, humid, fecund, chaotic with birdsong. Ospreys, beavers, startled wood ducks and watchful herons: for a biology graduate trying to imagine his future the long float among new friends was a heady experience.

At the centre of it all was my boss for the summer: a stocky man with a brush cut, jean jacket and an impish grin. Ian Jack wore the air of unassuming competence that came naturally to foresters of his generation. He told us about a writer named Aldo Leopold, recounted humorous stories about old-time outfitters and modern-day hippies, and quietly made room for each of us in the circle of warmth around him. There seemed nothing he didn’t know about birds, amphibians, bears and local history. In the evenings while we camped on old steamboat landings, his stories held us captive. As robins sang in the cottonwoods and cicadas trilled amid shadowed alders, Ian’s distinctive chuckle punctuated the quiet buzz of conversation again and again.

“Ian used to like to watch people’s behaviour on the Toad floats,” says Larry Halverson, a noted naturalist and environmental educator who lives at the southernmost edge of the wetlands in Invermere, BC. He smiles at the memory of his close friend. “He always got a kick out of how some would start in paddling like they really had to get somewhere. Usually by the third day they’d have slowed down and be just drifting. Ian’d say to me, ‘Looks like they finally found the toad.’”

The toad in question was a mythical beast Ian invented in the early 1970s. Spawned in the silty outwash of the Toby Glacier high in the Purcell Mountains west of Invermere, the great green toad was reputed to have migrated downstream to the marshes and backwaters of the upper Columbia River. The Columbia wetlands – sprawling across the bottom of the Rocky Mountain Trench from Athalmer 160 kilometres north to the town of Donald – are the longest undisturbed riparian mosaic in North America today. The toad might be anywhere in there. Those who found him, Ian insisted, were certain to obtain wisdom and great blessings.

Beginning in 1973, Ian Jack and Larry Halverson organized annual expeditions to search for the great green Columbia River toad. Naturalists travelled from all over western Canada to join local conservationists for a three day float down the river. In the middle of their motley flotilla, blinking like a mirror in the bright May sun, floated Ian Jack’s aluminum rowboat. Over the years, Ian became known to his friends and admirers as Toad, and Toad floats became less a quest for a mythical amphibian than a much-coveted opportunity to spend time with a man whose wisdom, humour and persistence will stand always as a model for those who want to make conservation work.

The river’s sleepy rhythms may seem to slow time, but they cannot stop it. On November 9, 1996, Ian Jack collapsed and died of a heart attack while chopping wood at his home at Edgewater, just a few hundred metres from the wetlands he loved. He was only sixty years old. Unlike other great conservationists who died too young, however, Ian lived to see success after spending half his lifetime fighting for the Columbia wetlands. On April 30, 1996 – barely six months before his death – the BC government had signed an order establishing the new Columbia Wetlands Wildlife Management Area.

Larry Halverson, who took over from Ian as Chief Park Naturalist in Kootenay National Park after Ian’s retirement, says that if there was any doubt about Ian’s remarkable ability to unite diverse people around a common cause, his memorial service should have erased those. “Helicopter jockeys, loggers, hippies, trappers, hunters, politicians, coal miners – people of every kind were there.” An overflow crowd of more than 250 people turned out to pay their last respects to the man who saved the Columbia River wetlands.

The odds seemed hopeless when Ian Jack first began the battle to save the wetlands. In the early 1970s, BC Hydro was determined to put those wetlands to work generating electric power. Prevailing public sentiment was that what was good for Hydro was good for BC. The few who felt differently were resigned to the view that there was little point trying to stop the energy giant from implementing the river diversion provisions of the Columbia River Treaty.

The Columbia River Treaty, signed in 1961 between Canada and the USA, set the stage for a series of dams that destroyed nearly 600 kilometres of Canada’s portion of the Columbia River. The Mica Dam, finished in 1973, backed the Columbia up into the Rocky Mountain Trench – a rift valley more than a thousand kilometres long. The reservoir flooded hundreds of square kilometres of the valley floor, adding to damage already caused by the massive WAC Bennett Dam that – farther north – had plugged the Peace River in 1968 and backed water up both the Finlay and Parsnip River valleys to flood more than 1600 square kilometres at the north end of the same Rocky Mountain Trench. At the south end of the Trench the US Army Corps of Engineer erected the Libby Dam on the Kootenay River, backing water into BC under Koocanusa Reservoir.

With most of the Rocky Mountain Trench already flooded, there was no practical way to dam the headwaters reach of the Columbia River upstream from the Mica Reservoir. But the treaty threatened it anyway.

Most of the Columbia River Treaty’s hydro power and irrigation benefits went to the United States; the big reservoirs that flooded 4/5 of Canada’s portion of the Columbia valley merely store water for American hydroelectric dams farther downstream. There was, however, one way that Canada could improve its returns: the Treaty allowed BC Hydro to tip most of the Kootenay River’s flow north into the Columbia at Canal Flats. There, instead of flowing south to turn turbines on the Libby Dam, it would flow through Canadian hydroelectric generating plants at the Mica and Revelstoke Dams.

Ian Jack knew the upper Columbia River well. He hunted ducks, geese and deer among its lush backwater marshes and riparian thickets of willow and cottonwood. He volunteered his time to build nesting platforms for geese and erect nest boxes for wood ducks and goldeneyes. In spring, when willow catkins were yellow, song sparrows and redwings shouted about the return of another breeding season, and winter-weary deer congregated on newly-green sidehills, Ian often floated down one of the Columbia’s many twisting channels with Larry, Dale Zieroth or some other friend, soaking up sunshine, counting migrants, and chuckling over his latest good story.

Most of his neighbours either didn’t know about the proposed Kootenay-Columbia Diversion, or considered it pointless to resist BC Hydro. Ian Jack, however, considered it a simple question of values. It would be a failure of ethics, he believed, were he not to do all he could to protect the wetlands from a man-made flood. And so in the early 1970s he began a campaign that culminated more than a quarter century later in establishment of the Columbia River Wildlife Management Area.

Ian’s strategy evolved as his network of contacts in the Columbia Basin grew. The Toad floats helped introduce park naturalists and representatives of the outdoors media to the place itself, building wider awareness of the ecological values at stake and deeper commitment to the cause of protection. Ian’s sincere interest in and respect for people played no less important a role, because it yielded an ever-widening coalition of concern among town councils, local fish and game clubs, environmental groups, and local businesses. Nobody, in Ian Jack’s world, was an outsider. Everybody, in his view, was an environmentalist. His knack was in helping them realize it.

The diversion seemed a simple engineering issue to BC Hydro’s planners. Ian’s understanding of biology and the intimate workings of the wetland ecosystem, however, helped him frame the issue in terms engineers weren’t comfortable with.

“Ian just kept on asking them hard questions,” says Larry Halverson, “and forcing them to go back and find answers rather than admit they hadn’t really thought about what the effects might be. For example, the Kootenay River is a lot colder than the Columbia, so Ian asked how pouring all that colder water into the Columbia River would affect warmer water fish like the pike-minnow, and the swimming and waterskiing on Lake Windermere.”

Ian’s questions echoed through the Columbia valley, awakening people to the many ways the diversion could undermine their well-being. Questions about cold water, for example, got the attention of Invermere’s Chamber of Commerce who rely on summer tourism centred on Lake Windermere. No less canny was Ian’s question about what would happen – with most of the Kootenay River’s flow diverted north – to the pollution from a large pulp mill on the Kootenay River at Skookumchuk. In the 1970s, dilution was still considered the solution to pollution – but with less dilution the pulp mill would be forced into costly technology upgrades to reduce their effluent levels. Ian’s simple question produced another influential diversion opponent.

As his coalition continued to grow, their questions became more sophisticated and insistent and the costs – both in dollars and public goodwill – continued to mount. BC Hydro began to change its tune. By the 1980s water development projects no longer enjoyed the support they had two decades earlier. Energy conservation technology was emerging as a new way for electric utilities to make money. After waffling for several years, BC Hydro announced in 1990 that there would be no Kootenay-Columbia Diversion.

But the battle was far from over. Ironically, the diversion threat had actually protected the wetlands from other dangers. As long as BC Hydro held a flood reserve on the valley bottom, nobody seriously considered draining marshes for crop land, filling sloughs to create golf courses, or developing recreational real estate. Now, with the threat of flooding gone, speculators began to look at the wildlife-rich wetlands and consider how to squeeze profits out of them.

The 1988 election of Mike Harcourt’s NDP government, fortunately, came just in time. The new government, hoping to put an end to divisive land use battles, announced a new planning initiative for every square centimetre of BC’s public land. Ian Jack retired from Parks Canada in 1992 and devoted himself full time to representing the interests of hunters, anglers and other conservationists when the Commission on Resources and Environment (CORE) turned its attention to the East Kootenay region.

Bob Jamieson, a biologist-rancher from Ta Ta Creek who coordinated the East Kootenay CORE process, says that Ian was in his element in the CORE process. “Ian was one of those rare people who crossed over the line between naturalist and hunter,” he says. “He could go out and shoot ducks in the morning, then spend the afternoon finding some rubber boas and making notes on them. He was the antithesis of the modern computer biologist. He learned from talking to the people, and he could talk with anyone.”

Ian’s sheer enjoyment of people and consistent ability to steer conversations into the realm of shared values served him well in a process that demanded long hours of negotiation among people representing a diversity of conflicting interests – from logging and mining companies, government agencies, tourism operators and chambers of commerce to off-road vehicle groups, environmentalists and hunting outfitters.

“Ian and I both worked hard to get the wetlands protected,” says Ellen Zimmerman, an eco-tourism operator from Golden, BC. She represented the East Kootenay Environmental Society during the CORE negotiations. “But we wanted a Class A Provincial Park and Ian wanted a Wildlife Management Area.”

Under BC protected areas legislation, a Wildlife Management Area protects habitat from development while still providing for recreational uses such as hunting, fishing, nature study and eco-tourism where they don’t conflict with wildlife needs. Ian preferred to keep the wetlands exactly as they were and not risk disenfranchising any of the traditional users who had, after all, played so important a role in the earlier battle against the diversion. He suspected a provincial park might result in new recreational development, more tourism, and less room for traditional users.

Ultimately, Ian’s vision won the day – and, as usual, his wisdom proved itself when a controversy over motorized vehicles erupted only six months after his death. Participants in the 1997 Toad Float – which Larry Halverson had organized in memory of Ian and in honour of his widow, Joyce – encountered several aggressive stunters on motorized jet-skis. The experience spurred several participants to start looking into the impacts of motorized boats and other vehicles on wildlife. A provincial park, with its recreational mandate, might not have supported their subsequent call for restrictions on motors. However, the Wildlife Management Area had to put wildlife needs first. The BC government quickly imposed a year-round ten horsepower restriction on motorized traffic in the wetlands.

“The order includes all motorized conveyances, including snowmobiles, quads, dirt bikes jet boats and so on,” says Dave Phelps, Regional Land Management Biologist responsible for the wetlands. “It was implemented to reduce disturbance and harassment of wintering wildlife, soil erosion and sedimentation on forage plants and invertebrates, harassment, predation on waterfowl broods that scatter after being surprised by high speed craft, egg breakage from rapid flight off nests etc. and general habitat destruction.”

It also restored the stillness.

One recent May evening, I picked my way down a narrow forest trail to Larry Halverson’s rustic cabin on the edge of the Columbia River near Brisco. A kestrel harassed a bald eagle above the cottonwoods as I unloaded my gear and strolled down to the water’s edge. A few hundred metres away, a massive stick nest dwarfed the poplar that held it. A white head showed above the rim; the eagle’s mate was incubating eggs. A pike-minnow splashed in a nearby eddy.

It had been years since I had been down to the Columbia wetlands, but as I lowered myself into the grass and looked across the marshes at mountains hazed by the smoke of distant fires, I felt the old familiar quiet seeping into me. In a world with too much change, this was a place where almost nothing had changed. Geese still clamoured beyond the alders. Warbling vireos and ruby-crowned kinglets sang just as they had every other May morning for centuries. The green world enfolded me, welcoming me back.

Last time I was here, I had visited with Ian. He was putting up goose nesting platforms. It occurred to me now that Ian had been here on all my previous visits to this place. Suddenly conscious of a deep sense of loss, I listened for the rattle of an oar against the side of an aluminum rowboat or the sound of mirthful laughter. All I heard, however, was birdsong and the timeless whisper of passing water; and after a while I realized that was enough.

The Toad was there. And he always will be.

Phantoms in Photographs

contributed by: Lorne Fitch, P.Biol.

Old photographs can speak to us, providing context for our world, and perhaps speak about us with the changes that our cumulative wishes and desires have created. I’ve pored over hundreds of photographs from local museums, provincial archives, and family albums. These are snapshots of a time—with faded sepia tones and still crisp black and white prints—that provide a record of lost memories.

The images are a window on the past, often a haunting one. In these photos are the ghosts of past landscapes, of fish and wildlife populations, and the hubris that changed, sometimes forever, the place we now live. Some might argue there are no ghosts, just fanciful tall tales to entertain and fool us into believing nothing has changed.  It would be hard to fake the stories embedded in these images.

A picture might not convey the full reality of the situation. It is just a moment frozen in time, but a story develops with the spark of that one image.

What is portrayed in the pictures forces us to come to some reconciliation with the changes that have happened, which we scarcely pay attention to, because of the passage of time and imperfect memory. Three archival photographs stand out to me, for the stories they tell about the lost worlds of earlier eras and our forgetfulness of the past.

The first image is a stark black and white winter scene in 1882. Eight bison carcasses dot the snow covered prairie. A Sharps rifle, the favorite of bison hunters, leans against one of the dead animals. Two hides lie flat, pegged to the ground, just as they would have been pulled off the animals. The date suggests the event would have occurred in the dying days of the great slaughter of Plains bison. 

It was the juncture between one form of resource exploitation and depletion and the beginning of the next. It signalled the death rattles of one economy which had sustained native people for thousands of years. Within two decades came the mining of the prairie soils for farming, the further disruption of a landscape finely-tuned to the vagaries of weather and moisture, and heartache for those settlers who believed the lies of the federal government, the railway companies, and promoters that you could get rich on 160 acres of arid land.  

When I look at the image and what message it conveys, I wonder, did we learn anything from the elimination of bison from the plains?  Was it simply the cost of “civilizing” the landscape? Has the passage of time erased any thought of the lessons we might have learned?

In The Ecological Buffalo, Wes Olson points out the interconnectedness of the prairie landscape and other species with bison—that bison defined the landscape and vice versa. Without bison, the landscape has lost a vital ingredient. What we might learn is, lose enough of the essential cogs, toggles, and gears and what is left is the ghost of a landscape. The soul of it appears to be living, but is gone in real and functional terms.

The next image is from 1902. Four men and a child pose with two long stringers of trout and an additional pile of trout on the ground in front of them. It appears to be the result of just one days fishing. Stacked firearms and cartridge belts suggest these were wilder days and you went armed for a fishing trip.

The fish are cutthroat trout, well over a hundred of them, maybe 75 kilograms in total. These were the predominantly native trout, years before the stocking of non-native rainbow trout occurred and diluted the wildness. Just out of sight is the stream these trout were yarded out of, conveniently called Trout Creek. It flows off the east side of the Porcupine Hills in southwestern Alberta.

There is a sadness in the archival image of such an exuberance of wild trout. Today these fish are categorized as Threatened, with population numbers so low as to be of major concern for their survival. To achieve a similar catch to that of the one depicted in the 1902 photograph would completely deplete the population of a single stream, maybe several streams, where the trout still hang on, precipitously, by a fin. These fish are becoming the aquatic equivalents of the bison.

It is hard for today’s anglers, and fisheries biologists, to conceive of such prolific productivity from a tiny creek that you can jump across. If you don’t know where you started the benchmark quietly moves and our goals become based on a diminished state. It sets up a sense the future is just more of the present, that we understand the laws of progress, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really needs to be done. In the politics of inevitability, as Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian terms it, we need not fear ecological collapse, we needn’t concern ourselves with inaction, and technology will solve everything.

In reality, native trout follow an annual cycle that has been forged over time, dictated by genetics, and nursed by the ebb and flow of streams and rivers. Block, modify, or tinker with the cycle and the consequences are dire. That includes turning the watersheds that sustain trout into scabrous openings and scarred earth.

An image from the Highwood River in 1911 depicts a log jam reported to be eleven kilometres long. You can’t see the river—a jumbled mass of cut logs jam the channel from bank to bank and beyond a bend in the river. The sheer scale of it suggests the resource-rich nature of the forests of the Eastern Slopes, including a cornucopia of trout.

Early federal civil servants envisioned the Eastern Slopes as first and primarily a place for watershed protection. Use of the timber was a secondary consideration, in spite of what the 1911 scene implies. Logging was selective, horses provided the motive power to move logs to the rivers, and rivers were used to float logs to sawmills.

It is likely that the early logging footprint was minimal, impacts on water quality and the hydrologic regime insignificant, although the impact of log drives on rivers might have been periodically devastating. In many ways, we are fortunate that those early loggers had only axes and crosscut saws—not chain saws, feller bunchers, bulldozers, and skidders.

Today’s industrial-scale logging, with massive clearcuts, a tangled web of roads, and a corporate and bureaucratic indifference to other forest values has completely flipped the vision for watershed protection as a priority. 

An extensive and growing logging footprint disrupts the ability of forests to capture, store, and slowly release water. Clearcuts and roads exacerbate spring floods, increasing the frequency and severity of flooding, especially to downstream communities. Sediment bleeds from these areas, increasing the risk to aquatic life, especially native trout. In large part because of this logging footprint, native trout are now mostly shadowy phantoms, up and down the Eastern Slopes. 

These three old photographs provide us benchmarks to consider. The reality is the cumulative impact of many logging cut-blocks, wellsites, roads, pipelines, dams, mines, water diversions, wetlands drained, rural subdivisions, urban sprawl, and cultivation of native grasslands has significantly changed the health, function, and resiliency of the landscape. Ecological lines in the sand may be faint, but are still real. Once these are crossed, the consequences are profound and restoration prohibitively expensive, challenging, fraught with uncertainties, and in many cases, impossible. 

When we fail to look back and recognize the intact ecosystems of the past and their abundant biodiversity in contrast to today’s depleted, damaged, and missing ones, we set ourselves up to continue the trend. We forfeit the future, mostly for an economic imperative that ignores the reality of ecological values.

Pondering those old photographs might persuade us to refrain from altering or developing some places, where past expressions of landscape integrity and biodiversity still exist. It is part of remembering our origins and who we are. Each of us harbours places and things (like photographs) that function as touchstones, sacred locations, and important memories. Whether or not these exist individually or societally they are the strands and threads that connect us with our pasts and guide us to our futures. It would be wise to keep as many guideposts as we can.

As Charles M. Russell, an American story teller and artist of the old west, asserted, “The iron heel of civilization has stamped out nations of men, but it has never been able to wipe out pictures.” The photographs are there reminding us we could, we must do better to avoid making further ghosts of our landscapes. 

All we need to do is open our eyes.

November, 2022

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a past Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

How did you treat your mother?

The windy forests of the high foothills and Front Ranges are the birthplace of rivers: rivers like the Oldman, beside whom I sit most evenings on what I’ve come to know as the whiskey chair. Sometimes I hold a glass of ice cubes flavoured with a bit of whiskey, other times a cup of warm tea or hot chocolate, but regardless of what is cradled on my lap the river is the same — chattering steadily as it courses its way between the Douglas firs that shelter me and the jungle of young poplars on the gravel island that appeared a few years ago after a larger than usual spring flood. It’s a young river here so near to its birth places; still eager and full of purpose.

Some of the floods have been larger than usual, of late. Since we took on the responsibility of caring for our piece of God’s country back in 1993 we’ve seen four “hundred-year floods”. The big ones can be horrifying in the moment — hungry, roaring surges of chocolate water loaded with flotsam, pounding against the outsides of each bend, collapsing cliffs, pulsing through the cottonwood groves and pouring across our buckbrush flats. But when they pass, and they always do, they often turn out to have given birth to millions of new willows and poplars whose seeds drifted on the June winds to light on fresh deposits of silt and gravel along the river edge. Spring floods are birth events, at least for river forests.

If Earth is our mother, she is constantly giving birth: to poplar forests along the downstream river and to the river itself along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Each spring she gives birth to billions of plants that lift green arms to the sky and push new roots deep into the living earth, making it soft. Amid all that greenery, does give birth to fawns and eggs hatch in nests. Mother bears emerge blinking from their dens, followed by newborn cubs who have never heard a river before. The river tells them of its birth, and a thousand other things a bear needs to know, as the mother planet goes spinning through the sky at this far edge of a universe that has offered, so far, no hint of life anywhere else in all its cosmic vastness. Birth might be a phenomenon that exists only here on this living planet — making it that much more miraculous.

This spring I went up into the birthplace of our home river because it’s always been a good place to be. But there were problems there; birth complications. Hiking up a newly-bulldozed road on Cabin Ridge, I saw steep sidehill cuts oozing water, the soil dark and shiny like a head wound that won’t stop bleeding. The water draining down the open faces of savaged soil collected in ditches full of silt and algae. In some places so much groundwater was escaping from the hillside that it formed rills and brooks that chattered cheerily along beside the sun-blasted road. It was a happy sound —or it would have been, had I not known what those cheery little rivulets were doomed soon to discover: that they would evaporate into nothing before they reached the valley floor.

Rivers are born of meltwaters and runoff that originate on the land. Shaded by vegetation, soaking into soft spongy soils, much of that spring runoff becomes groundwater. The healthiest rivers are those sustained by groundwater springs. Healthy land; healthy river. But the Oldman no longer enjoys that kind of uncomplicated birth because a century of resource exploitation has left the land wounded. Most recently, coal companies in pursuit of profit felt no compunction about ripping many kilometres of rough road into the mountainsides. The raw cuts release groundwater that would otherwise have filtered slowly down to the river below. The escaping water is trapped in eroding ditches and fans out across the raw scars the bulldozers left behind, where it evaporates in the sun and wind and is gone. It never even reaches the river.

The Oldman is a major tributary of the South Saskatchewan River. Monitoring has shown that the natural flow of the South Saskatchewan has decreased more than 12% in the last sixty years. A lot of that decrease is because of lost groundwater — lost to large logging clearcuts that dry out in the summer wind instead of shading moist soils beneath the tree canopy, lost to seepage from coal, oil and logging roads that slice into the slopes and sever shallow aquifers that used to connect with the river below, and lost to compacted roads and off-highway vehicle trails that divert snowmelt and rainwater — and eroded soil — straight into the river each spring instead of letting it soak in.

That quick release of spring runoff is also why we see bigger spring floods more frequently. And then the summer rivers run shallow and warm for want of what was meant to be their sustaining groundwater flow.

In September, one can forget all this. This is less a season of birth than one of quiet nostalgia, as this year’s generation of newly born birds fly south, fawns lose their spots and begin to look like their mothers, bear cubs grow fat along the river, and leaves begin to fall. The river is always small and quiet at this time of year, as its natural groundwater flows diminish. The bull trout are gone upstream to spawn; for them, at least, it is still a birthing time. For the rest, it’s a time of maturing and moving on.

I like the birth metaphor for the eastern slopes of the Rockies; all our rivers, after all, rise there. But in the face of the harm we continue to wreak upon those hills, ridges and valleys, another metaphor seems more appropriate. When birthing goes wrong, what was meant to be a time of joy and renewal becomes a time of grief and tears. Those sidehill cuts on the new roads carved so violently into the face of mother Earth glisten with water that will never reach the river. It looks not like birth or renewal; to me it looks like tears. And tears dry up on one’s face. After enough have been shed, all that remains is thirst and sorrow.

This evening, admittedly, the river showed no evidence of grief. Its faith seems boundless. Mine: not so much. We could heal those cuts, dry those tears, restore the wounded slopes and make of those river birthplaces the safe and blessed refuges a mother needs when engaged in the solemn, joyful work of renewing life and re-creating beauty. But we don’t; as if there were no longer any need for birth and renewal. As if we’ve given up.

Of all the processes that give our planet life, it seems to me that birth is among the most sacred. And of all the things that make life possible, water is the most essential. For both those reasons, the birthplaces of our rivers deserve more love, more care, fewer tears and less violence.

If we are ever judged, it seems to me that the first question might well be: “How did you treat your mother?”

Rethinking Wolves

[A talk to the Agricultural Service Boards of Alberta, January 26, 2017
by: Kevin Van Tighem]

I’m here to argue that how we manage carnivores should be based on biology, should be humane, and should advance the public interest. I’m going to focus mostly on wolves. In my view what we’re currently doing doesn’t meet any of those tests. I’ll come back to biology and humaneness but I thought I would start with some thoughts about the public interest. 

This is 2017. Alberta is very different from back when I was in diapers. 

Back then, in the early 1950s, Alberta was a predominantly rural province and agriculture was the heart of its economy. The oil giant was just starting to awaken. Our provincial government was Social Credit, a party whose roots were prairie agrarian. The Provincial Cabinet contained farmers. 

By the time, I became a young adult in the early 1970s, the urbanization of Alberta was well underway. The economy was on crack cocaine with booming oil prices. Resource industries were fast outstripping agriculture in importance. The political face of the province changed accordingly – we elected a government of mostly urban lawyers and oilmen. 

Now as I enter old age, the trend lines have taken us to yet another place. Alberta is overwhelmingly urban, the clock is ticking on the oil economy, agricultural families feel forgotten and our new government represents the socially-diverse, politically-progressive urban centers far more than the agrarian hinterland. With electoral boundary review, we’re going to see that shift to urban power accentuated. If you’re rural, that can feel more than worrisome. But Alberta is not just you, or me; it’s everyone, and most of us are urban animals now. 

So, how might carnivore management serve the public interest today? 

It’s in the public interest to keep people from being injured or killed by potentially dangerous animals. That part of the discussion goes mostly to bears, which I’ll return to briefly towards the end but today I’m focused mostly on wolves. It’s in the public interest, certainly, to ensure that wild predators don’t kill our livestock. But just last month, my MLA tabled a petition signed by over 10,000 Albertans asking for more humane and biologically-sound treatment of wolves. So, it’s also in the public interest, in 2017, to maintain healthy wild populations of those predators across their natural ranges. The petition reflected how much of our province’s population values the role predators play in nature and is concerned about wildlife ethics. There will be those who want to dismiss the petitioners as naïve, misinformed urban idealists. Some are. So, what? They are still Albertans. They are entitled to have their views respected as much as you or me. And anyway, many aren’t. My signature is on that petition and so are several southern Alberta rancher and farmer friends. 

There is another piece of the public interest that I think applies here. We hear a lot about social license in discussions about our bitumen, oil and gas industries. You can’t secure and protect markets for your goods, and permissions to operate on the landscape, if you don’t have social license to operate. Basically, people need to think what you are doing is legitimate and, if not necessary to them, at least acceptable for them to tolerate. 

Social license is an ongoing issue in agriculture too. We see it in challenges to GMOs, the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in meat production, factory-farming and so on. Those are all social license issues. When I was a toddler in the 1950s farming and ranching had no substantial social license problems; it was how Albertans saw Alberta. It isn’t like that now. 

I recently attended a meeting of the Porcupine Hills Coalition, a group of people who have pulled together to make sure the Alberta government gets its sub-regional land use plans for the Porcupine Hills and upper Oldman right (for a change.) I looked around the table and saw several cattle ranchers, some acreage owners, land trust representatives, biologists, and representatives of the major Alberta environmental groups. It struck me that I was seeing the product of a remarkable kind of social license building. 

Thirty years ago, those ranchers would not have been in the same room as those environmentalists. Thirty years ago, as one of those environmentalists, I was publishing essays like “The Curse of the Cow” calling for cattle to be pulled out of Alberta public lands and forest reserves. We were adversaries. Now we’re allies. Environmental groups, in case you haven’t been paying attention lately, are increasingly lined up in support of public lands ranching in the Alberta foothills. That’s a man-bites-dog story in the Alberta I used to know and it came about, I believe, largely because of Cows and Fish. 

Cows and Fish happened because of bold people in the ranching community and bold people in the conservation community who decided to get out of their echo chambers and into each other’s lives. The ranchers stopped making excuses and acknowledged that their cattle can do a lot of damage to creek bottoms if left to their own devices. The conservationists stopped pointing fingers and acknowledged that ranchers care about stewardship and know a thing or two about livestock. 

Most of you know the story. Where Cows and Fish projects came together, streams got healthier, riparian areas recovered, and forage production and herd health improved too. And adversaries became friends. And ranching strengthened its social license with a growing sector of society that had spent much of the late twentieth century antagonistic to it. 

I would argue it’s in Alberta’s public interest to manage carnivores not only to reduce conflicts with and costs to agriculture, but also in ways that contribute to the social license for agriculture. Agriculture is important socially, economically and, in the case of range livestock production, ecologically. But there are other ways to use rural land and if agriculture loses social license, those other land uses could take over in a changing Alberta. Already, Brad Stelfox’s analysis of economic and land use trends says that rural residential subdivision is the biggest threat to near-urban and foothills agriculture. But, at least in Cows and Fish country, the ranchers aren’t defending the land from subdivision on their own any more. 

So, I think the public interest in carnivores revolves around keeping their populations viable and visible, keeping them from depredating on domestic livestock, and strengthening the social license for rural agriculture in an increasingly-urbanized world that judges failure harshly. 

So, let’s hold that thought and move on to biology and ethics and, again, I’m going to focus mostly on wolves here because they have always been controversial and challenging, and because I’ve spent most of my adult life among and around them. 

Wolves are like us in some ways, except that none are vegan. They are strongly family-oriented, they are social and territorial animals, they learn by trial and error and apply that learning to improving their life skills, they are capable of affection and grief, and they are often very difficult to get along with. 
So: like us. 

Somewhere in deep history, that similarity led us to bond with wolf ancestors to the extent that we adopted dogs as favoured companions. But just as we are often conflicted in our human relationships, so it is with canids. We may see the dog as man’s best friend, but many of us see the wolf as our worst enemy. Many do; others sentimentalize the wolf as a wild spirit – sort of like dog-elves. 

Wolves are just wolves, but most of us simply can’t see them that way. Nonetheless, as with everything else on this planet, we have assumed responsibility for managing them. 

The smart way to manage wild animals is to be very clear on what you are managing them for, and then to work with their biology to get the results you want. 

In my view, then, Alberta is a shining example of profoundly mis-managing wolves. We have it almost completely wrong. We aren’t clear on what we are managing for, and the things we then do in the name of management have the perverse effect of turning their biology back on us and compounding the problems one might assume we are trying to solve. 

In terms of management objectives, we say we are trying to prevent wolf problems. In reality, we are trying to keep wolf numbers down. Those are not the same thing, but muddled thinking makes us equate one with the other. The wolf problems we are concerned with here, I would argue, are the killing and displacement of domestic livestock. Others might say human safety or depredation of game herds are also wolf problems. Human safety is not, although I can’t understand why. We’d be so easy to catch, it seems strange wolves almost never try. I would argue that in Alberta depredation of game herds is not an issue either, with the complicated exception of some badly-impaired caribou ranges. We have deer, elk, bighorn sheep and moose coming out of our ears compared to when I was young; where’s the problem? 

So, that leaves livestock depredation, and wolves can certainly cause problems in cattle and sheep country. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. They get killed regardless. That’s a problem. 

In the 1990s I worked in Waterton Lakes National Park as a conservation biologist. During my time, there, three young female wolves, all radio-collared, dispersed into the area from Montana (the fools: they were protected there!) and became the founding alpha females of three separate wolf packs. We called them the Belly, Beauvais and Carbondale packs based on their den locations. I tell the story in more depth in my book, but suffice it to say that soon I was working with Alberta Fish and Wildlife and the Blood Tribe on a wolf-monitoring initiative. We kept track of the collared wolf packs and also tracked livestock losses. A lot of the producers in the area figured disaster was about to befall the cattle industry as a result of those wolves. 

Alberta’s wide-open wolf-killing policies combined with a lot of local paranoia resulted in a blitz of wolf-killing. Over the next sixteen months 54 wolves were killed in the area. That included all the Belly, Beauvais and Carbondale wolves. Ironic, because those wolves were never associated with a single livestock loss, other than a possible kill of one calf in the Carbondale. Meantime, a small group of uncollared wolves – apparently four in total – killed or maimed over thirty head of cattle just north of our area in the Breeding Valley area. The last three of those wolves finally succumbed to poison because without radio collars the problem wildlife officers couldn’t locate them. They caused all the problems, but were the last to die. 

A few years later a friend of mine took over management of a large grazing coop north of the Breeding Valley area. He soon learned that he had a pack of 8 wolves in his area and that they had seven pups. As he learned his way around the landscape and its wildlife over the next couple years, he started to have some losses to wolf predation. In 2003 things got ugly; he lost 28 head that year to wolves. It didn’t help that an old grizzly was following the pack around and expropriating their kills, forcing them to kill again sooner than they would have otherwise. 

There were radio collars in that pack too, as a result of a different study. The collars enabled Joe, his neighbours and Fish and Wildlife to whittle the pack down to just four or five animals by 2005. The pack produced pups again that year. Joe knew his way around by then, so he made it a habit, which he continues to this day, to check his herds every day or two, always at a different time of day, so that the wolves are discouraged from spending time near them. He has essentially trained those wolves to avoid his cattle and it has worked. He has had only one or two losses to wolves since 2005. But he now lives in fear of losing wolves, because he knows that if that pack vanishes he will have to deal with new wolves he doesn’t know. 

Last winter one of his neighbours snared several of the pack. He is waiting to see if the survivors keep the behaviours they had before. If he doesn’t lose cattle, it will be because some of the wolves survived. If he does lose cattle, ironically, it may well be because wolves were killed. 

What Joe has learned is that wolf biology can be our friend when it comes to reducing risk to livestock. There is no wolf manager as effective at keeping wandering young wolves out of trouble as an existing wolf pack. The established pack will either chase away or kill any wanderers or, sometimes, incorporate them into the pack in which case they become part of its established behaviours. 
Wolves are good wolf managers. 
We aren’t. 

When we manage wolves by simply killing them, we can actually get some pretty perverse outcomes. 

Rob Wielgus and Kaylie Peebles, in an exhaustively-peer-reviewed analysis of kill records for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, found a result that, on first glance, seems to defy logic. They found that killing wolves results in more, not fewer, livestock depredations the following year. They had very detailed data on wolf populations, wolf pack numbers, lethal wolf removals and livestock losses. They found that for each wolf killed in a given year, there was a 4% increase in sheep and a 5 to 6% increase in cattle killed by wolves the following year, at a regional scale. 

This is similar to what John Gunson and Jon Bjorge found in Alberta in the early 1980s. Reducing a local wolf population from 40 down to only 2 reduced cattle depredations for two years – and was then followed by a significant increase as other wolves dispersed into the area. They evidently didn’t have cattle producers who rode their herds as regularly as my friend Joe does or they might have had a different tale to tell. 

Wielgus figures that what is happening is that breaking up wolf packs increases pup survival rates, can lead to new packs forming, and reduces predation efficiency. All those factors increase the risk of livestock losses. Young wolves aren’t skilled; left to their own devices they are likely to kill the easiest prey they can find. Small wolf hunting units can’t defend their kills from bears and other scavengers, so they have to kill more often than larger, established packs to get the same amount of food. Wielgus and Peebles found that wolf killing only led to reduced livestock losses in cases where more than 25% of the wolves in the area were killed in a given year, because that overwhelmed the reproductive rate and actually led to a population reduction. But, they pointed out, it’s awfully hard to sustain that level of wolf killing and neither is it socially acceptable. Wolf Armageddon is not the best way to strengthen the social license of agriculture, especially public land cattle grazing. 

In Alberta, the prevalent wolf management paradigm is that all wolves are potential livestock killers and therefore we need to keep wolf numbers down. If your objectives are to keep wolf numbers down, then you need to kill an awful lot of wolves because they breed prolifically and disperse constantly. But they’re hard to kill, so you need to use the most lethal tactics you can, regardless of whether those tactics are humane or not, and you need to get lots of people involved in the business of killing wolves. 

So in Alberta it is legal to kill wolves year-round on private property and most of the year on public property. Baiting is allowed as late as mid June in northern Alberta to improve the odds. That virtually guarantees that every year nursing pups are left to starve in their dens. Snares are not only allowed but encouraged, even though the heavy musculature and strong gag reflex in wolves means that many take hours or days to die. Snares are considered killing devices and, as such, trappers aren’t required to check them frequently. Year-rounding shooting, baiting and snaring still aren’t enough, though, so the controls on use of poisons are also pretty loose. The poison of choice in Alberta is strychnine, which causes excruciating pain and often results in secondary poisoning of other animals. It’s banned in the U.S. but not here. And just to up the ante, unaccountable third parties are allowed to offer bounty payments to encourage more people to kill wolves. I don’t need to tell you that; some of your own Municipal Districts are in the bounty business, using ratepayer’s taxes, ironically, to increase the risk of livestock losses. 

For some reason, we find it easy to absolve ourselves of humane considerations where wolves are concerned. It goes back to the intense ambivalence we feel about wolves, I suspect, but some of it simply goes to our human ability to close our minds to things that are inconvenient to think about. We think we need to kill lots of wolves, so we choose not to think about the suffering our killing techniques cause, not just to the victims but to the survivors. Because, remember, wolves are like dogs and humans in the intensity of their emotional bonds and their ability to experience grief. What an inconvenient thought – it’s way easier to think of them as dumb robots, isn’t it? But they aren’t. 

And here’s the sick irony: killing lots of wolves does not reduce wolf numbers. What it does is to increase wolf problems. Because we are maintaining a state of social anarchy out there in wolf country. Packs no sooner form and start to function than they are broken up. Young wolves lose their teachers and also lose the social discipline that kept them from breeding. We end up with more packs, younger packs, smaller packs or lone dispersers – and much greater risk that those inefficient hunting units will turn to easy prey. When they do, we have no way of figuring out which wolves were involved, because there is no pattern to things. 

That’s what we saw in the Breeding Valley area during my Waterton years – while established packs in the Waterton area lived on wild game and kept other wolves away. That’s what Joe Engelhart and his neighbours worked so hard to overcome in the early years of this century and now try to maintain: a stable, intact wolf pack they know. 

So we are not using biology to manage wolves; just the opposite. We are not managing them humanely; just the opposite. And we are not reducing livestock depredation problems; just the opposite. And yet there are many who say we need to keep on doing what we have always done to prevent the problems we are actually perpetuating. 

What might a biologically-based, humane and actually logical approach to wolf management look like then? 

It would be based not on killing wolves, but on keeping wolf packs intact so that wolves are managing wolf numbers, not us. It would put far more emphasis on prevention techniques that have been shown to work – not perfectly, but well. Those include things like actually tending one’s livestock herds (which helps not only with discouraging predators but with reducing stream damage, improving range health and getting better distribution and use of forage.) Things like the use of electric fencing and fladry for calving areas. Livestock guard dogs. Combinations of these and other techniques – using our thinking abilities rather than our instinctive reactions. 

In addition to using old and new technologies and simple brain power to reduce the risk of livestock depredations, it would be worth considering the cost benefits of maintaining a radio-collared sample in the wolf population. Not only could radio-collared wolves be useful in helping livestock producers when the wolves are in the neighborhood and might benefit from some encouragement to keep moving on, but when depredations happen it would greatly increase the ability to determine if wolves were responsible, which ones, and where to find them. Because sometimes in spite of all your best efforts, wolves will get into trouble. When that happens, it makes more sense to kill those specific wolves than to throw up your hands and declare war on all wolves again. Having radio collared “Judas wolves” makes it easier to find the right pack in a timely manner and humanely shoot them instead of having to try and get lucky with poisons, snares or other pitch-and-hope techniques that are both untargeted and inhumane. It worked for many years in northern Montana after all. 

One thing I hear sometimes in discussing these sorts of things with livestock producers is a sort of exasperation. Why should they be required to have to go to all this extra work and inconvenience for an animal they don’t own and don’t even want around? How is that fair? 

Well, wolves aren’t going away. We’ve proven that – in spite of decades of inhumane, aggressive killing, we are estimated now to have more wolves than at any time in the past half century. As long as we keep getting mild winters, there are going to be lots of elk, deer, moose and sheep and that’s ultimately what controls wolf numbers. So we’re going to be living with wolves – just as we live with poisonous plants, lightning strikes, April blizzards, rustlers and bad genetics. If you want to take live animals to market, you need to put some work into keeping them alive. Discouraging wolves and bears is part of that. Yes it might be frustrating, but it should also be a source of pride. In Alberta we live in the real world; in a whole place. 

And there is that social license issue. I don’t know many livestock producers who want other people making their decisions for them. The pressure continually builds in a changing Alberta for better wildlife management and more humane treatment of animals – all animals. A lot of Alberta livestock production depends on access to public land. The future of agriculture depends on the much larger majority of Albertans who aren’t in agriculture continuing to see it as a legitimate land use in a changing world. Investing in more progressive approaches to predator management not only makes sense in terms of being more likely to reduce depredation losses, it’s an investment in social license. 

It’s ethically right, it’s logically sensible, and it’s strategically smart. 

But I have another message for another audience too – for the people not in this room. Livestock producers don’t just produce beef or mutton or other products. They protect habitat that supports much of Alberta’s biodiversity, including many of our species at risk. Well managed public land grazing leases in western Alberta are vital source water areas in a water-scarce province. And when ranchers and farmers go that extra mile to keep wolves and bears out of trouble, especially since its their good land management that supports the elk and deer herds that attract predators in the first place, they are keeping Alberta wild and healthy. Those are all ecological goods and services for which producers get paid nothing. Most do it because that’s who they are; it’s all part of their stewardship ethic. But I think the rest of society needs to start recognizing the value of those ecological goods and services and transferring some of society’s wealth to the people who produce them. A more reliable and generous compensation program for livestock losses to predators would be a good start. Where individual producers take on extra costs for herding, electric fencing or other measures, I’m not sure those costs should come out of their pockets. Agriculture needs more than social license; it needs to be socially valued. Good land stewards should be able to generate profits from all the goods and services they produce, not just the agricultural products. We’ve seen what Cows and Fish did in changing the social landscape around livestock production and making allies out of former adversaries. Maybe it’s time for producers, Agriculture Service Boards, environmental groups and others to start looking into what a Cows and Predators program might accomplish.

Or we can just keep digging, and wondering why the hole we’re in gets deeper. 

Some useful references

Niemeyer, Carter. 2012. 

Wolfer: A Memoir  Bottlefly Press, ISBN 978-0984811304 338 pages 

Proulx, Gilbert, Dwight Rodtka, Morley Barrett, Marc Cattet, Dick Dekker, Erin Moffatt and Roger Powell. 2015. 

Humaneness and Selectivity of Killing Neck Snares Used to Capture Canids in Canada: A Review  Canadian Wildlife Biology and Management 4(1): 55-65. 

Van Tighem, Kevin. 2013. 

The Homeward Wolf  RMB | Rocky Mountain Books, ISBN 978-1-927330-83-8 144 pp. 

Waterton Biosphere Reserve. 2016. 

Large Carnivore Attractant Management Projects in Southwestern Alberta 2013-2014. Waterton Biosphere Reserve, Alberta, Canada. (

Wielgus, Robert B. and Kaylie A. Peebles. 2014 

Effects of Wolf Mortality on Livestock Depredations

Weekend at Numa Pass, 1975 (more old journal material)

June 7, 1975
Jim Mulchinock and I got underway about noon after the cougar episode. All day I kept realizing I’d seen a cougar but it’s still so strange that it hasn’t really registered. The weather was the same intermittent clouds we’ve had all week but now, at dusk, the sky is clear.
I’d forgotten how many avalanche slopes we had to cross on the trail. They’re best at this time of year while the alder foliage is still sparse and the spring beauty, white and yellow violets and clematis are blooming. We heard a lot of Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers on the way, saw small grizzly tracks at the Floe Creek bridge, two Stellar’s jays in the dense alder brush, and noticed a bit of marten sign on the first little way. Heard an olive-sided flycatcher on the way up.
A couple was ahead of us. We met them as we started up the final switchbacks after eating our lunch by a stream crossing. They had apparently walked past Floe Lake and turned back thinking it was still ahead of them, as their tracks showed later, and they told us there was a lot of snow ahead. Shortly thereafter we found it, but it actually made the switchbacks easier to cope with than otherwise since you concentrated more on each step than on the actual climb. At one point we stopped and watched a grey-crowned rosy finch preen on a fallen fir tree right in front of us. There were several deadfalls to clamber over. We heard pine grosbeaks and golden-crowned kinglets calling a lot, and at one time there were a varied thrush and a hermit thrush singing in the same place. Also several winter wrens.
We were weary and bruised when we reached the top in snow up at least to our waists. We were usually on top of it but when sank through you ran a grave danger of never being seen again. The old larches and firs in the low afternoon in the late afternoon sun, and acres of glistening snow were almost unbelievable, with the silver-blue Rockwall swirling around behind it. We plodded down the slope, opened the cabin and made ourselves at home, and now I’m too tired to care much about adding anything more to this, except that I still can’t believe I saw a cougar stalking a coyote this morning.
A porcupine has girdled a few firs and left quills all over the snow around the cabin. There were mouse droppings all over the cupboard and the food left behind by the wardens had been eaten into. We cleaned it all up, got a fire going and played cribbage for a while. After dusk the Rockwall still seemed to give off its own faint radiance, with a single star in the darkening sky above and absolute silence over the white lake and slopes below.

June 8, 1975
Floe Lake
Got up at nine and the sky was blue and it was warm out, after a night spent alternately sleeping and listening to the porcupine that lives downstairs. We tried to ski up to a snow pass southeast of the lake but ran into terrain a bit too steep for us. We saw three barn swallows patrolling through a barren valley, and several more rosy finches.
After a brief discussion we decided to explore the ridge going east from Numa Pass. There was a long plod up through the fir and larch parks, following old healed-over blazes on trees that kept getting smaller and smaller. There was some open ground near the pass and the whistles of Columbian ground squirrels were everywhere. We saw a few nutcrackers and a single raven doing stalls and spins over Numa Mountain. After a cold lunch on a cold knoll we went along a long ridge that came to a point looking out onto the Floe Creek valley and the valley of the creek you cross on the way up here. There was goat sign there. We saw robins. We could see the thread of the trail leading to Ball Pass.
Next we went across wide meadows to Numa Pass where a single coyote had recently gone over into the Numa valley. Later on we found its tracks along the edge of Floe Lake. After Numa Pass we did some of the most fantastic downhill skiing I’ve ever done, down long winding bowl-shaped valleys and down a wide talus fan that we had climbed up. We followed the creek down to the lake and found a goat with a newborn kid on a rocky outcrop at the head of the lake. The kid could hardly even climb.
At about half past five we got back to the cabin, wind-burned and happy, to find eight other naturalists getting ready to set out on skis. I gave mine away and sat down to write a while. The others saw a moose on the way up. My binoculars have condensation in the right lens as a result of one of my falls. Not amusing.
This has really been a fine day.
For some strange reason “trespassers will be prosecuted” is written on the inside of the door, where you can’t see it until you’ve trespassed.
We had a huge supper of chili and rice pudding after which there was a snow slide on the Rockwall and I slept on the porch. Grey-crowns and siskins are the commonest birds here. Globeflower buds were peeking out of last year’s dead ground cover where the snow was melted up high. We met a couple from Oregon who are spending the night in the shelter up the hill.

June 9, 1975
Floe Lake
We were all up by eight and wasted the morning gluttonously stuffing ourselves on bacon, eggs, bread and delicious floppy pancakes which were more like crepes, made by Larry. It was almost eleven before we finally got underway, and the sky was blue with the sun hinting at what it would be doing to us later.
We headed up to Numa Pass through a sparkling sunny larch park where fox sparrows sang on all sides. George and Jim passed me halfway there and got to the pass just ahead of me. Erasmus was delighted with the view and scenery – he couldn’t stop talking about it. He and Eddie were the only people who didn’t burn, and that was only because their Tanzanian skin is already pretty dark.
While cascade after cascade of snow crumbled from the sides of the Rockwall and went booming into the fans below – the boom always reaching you a few moments after you’d seen the impact – we skied and skied and skied. It was without any qualifications the best day of skiing I’ve ever had, with the sun shining and the snow granular and undisturbed and lying in long, smooth bowls.
Eventually we all regrouped and loaded ourselves up again to head down Numa Creek. There was a long run through a series of tilted bowls to the rim of a rather awesome cliff. Apparently there was a hiker last year who did himself a lot of damage going down the same cliff in the wrong spots and sure enough, we missed where the trail goes down. Instead, we found a place where the cliff was still cliff, but was covered with snow. Here we descended very nervously with me, for some crazy reason, leading. I made two and a half traverses safely, then my cockiness vanished in a cloud of wet snow as I went sliding, rolling and tumbling the remaining hundred yards down. Everybody, myself included, expected me to dead or close to it but nothing broke, although my pack picked up about ten pounds of snow.
It took us a long tedious hour before we were all down, and then we found that there was another cliff again. All this time a boreal owl was tootling disinterestedly across the valley below, completely unaware of and unconcerned by us. Other creature’s lives don’t mean much to nature, and ours are no more important than theirs. We found a long avalanche chute that was dry and followed this down to the valley floor which was, at this point, covered with a long lobe of white chunks of old avalanches, reaching up to the barren scattered rock of Numa Mountain. It was a magnificent wild place, but hard to move through. There were old bear tracks here, and the tracks of the coyote.
Here we had the problem of finding our trail to get home on. We pushed through the willow and alder thickets along the creek for about a half mile, at which point I got separated from the others. I followed the creek for a while longer but it kept getting deeper and steeper and harder to stay near, so I cut off to the right through the woods. There followed a couple miles of the most agonizing, exhausting bushwhacking I’ve ever done, walking for yards and yards on fallen logs, or splashing through mossy melt pools and springs, or getting bogged down in snow, and all the time my skis kept getting tangled in the branches overhead, until I was getting a little frustrated. And all the time I was angling farther away from the stream, hoping to cross the trail.
At length I came out onto an avalanche slope that was an utter panic of smashed, twisted, strewn-about trees. I forced my way across it diagonally to its foot without finding the trail. I struggled from its foot through an old tangled forest to the creek, without finding the trail. It was now 5:30 PM so I waded across the stream wearing my boots and finally found the trail on the other side. The others hadn’t been down it yet so I set out merrily sloshing my way toward the highway.
The scenery at this end of the trail was quite spectacular but I was pretty tired and didn’t stop too much. At the Tumbling Pass junction I stopped to gently prod a porcupine with my ski pole as he scrambled up a tree. He made a heartbreaking, bawling sound, almost babylike, so I left him alone. He’d eaten most of the plywood trail signs at the junction.
The hermit thrushes were singing everywhere but as often as not you’d only hear the loud first note and the rest of the phrase would be lost in the sound of water flowing below the trail. I kept one beady eye open every time I passed an avalanche slope (and there are some beauties here) and was finally rewarded by the sight of a black bear and three cubs, two hundred yards above me. She was aware of me, and kept her eye on me, but didn’t seem too concerned.
An hour and a half after I found the trail, George, Jim and Erasmus caught up with me and the rest of the walk was like a forced hike as twilight sneaked down from the peaks to try and trap us. We found more old grizzly tracks about a mile from the end of the trail, so that we began and ended with grizzly sign. Also lots of marten scats, a moose track and a few elk tracks.
At the bridge by the Vermilion River Erasmus pointed out a porcupine feeding unconcernedly on a little shrub on the ground. It was the first time I’d seen a black porcupine without his quills displayed, but they were up in a flash when he noticed us and then he went scurrying off into the woods.
The rest of the day was a mixture of eating like pigs, complaining of aches and pains, having showers, and going to bed. Which is where I am now as I finally get to close this slave-driving book.

June 10, 1975
Again today the coyote spent a long time making crazy sounds around the bunkhouse. Jim, Heather, Pat and I went up and saw it in the horse corral where there are also two horses., waiting to have a cougar over for dinner.

Trout Leanings

[a guest column by Lorne Fitch]

Like stalking a deer, my approach to the pool was slow and stealthy. The mountains forming the valley and the stream had an ancient quality to them and yet as I threaded my way through the willow, spruce and alder, they appeared new and fresh to me. As I peeked over a downed spruce log into the pool, a trout—the trout—aligned itself, nose into the current, the equivalent of a magnetic compass bearing.

Easing myself into the run at the end of the pool I was instantly aware of the force of the current. Unlike a sleek trout I felt more like a piece of plywood oriented perpendicular to the flow and as manoeuvrable. By comparison the trout kept its position with effortless undulations of its tail, almost heedless of the current. 

Water is denser by multiple times than air and is thus foreign territory to us air-breathers.  Being transported to Jupiter where the pressure of the overlying atmosphere and the force of gravity is greater than Earth’s might provide a comparative, crushing feeling of the aqueous atmosphere of trout habitat. It was in this wet crucible that trout took their forms, forged in a dense medium tumbling with the force of gravity, ever downward.

If trout were airplanes, they would be of the needle-nosed, svelte, ultra-maneuverable and fast, fighter jet variety. The tail is the equivalent of the jet engine, offering propulsion on demand as well as serving as a rudder. As the trout is propelled forward the dorsal fin prevents it from rolling and yawing. Twined pectoral fins prevent rolling and pitching, help the fish to turn and provide braking power combined with the paired pelvic fins. As a drag-racer, a trout’s 0 to 60 acceleration rate would be breathtaking, as is the ability to turn on a watery dime. 

The patterns on the backs and sides of trout, the blushes of color, the artful array of brilliant spots are maps of a world at its beginnings, amidst mountain building, glaciation and violent weather events. They, their kin and their ancestors were able to adapt to an environment of dramatic change, of chaos and of stunning variability. Trout have an ecological taproot thousands upon thousands of years old that anchors them to a landscape. To have survived so much, they are now at risk of having their essential landscape anchors swept away in an orgy of accelerating human land use desires. 

Trout are the oracles of their watersheds. Their presence, distribution, abundance and population viability provide both a wise and an insightful counsel, and a report card on our stewardship of watersheds. These same properties and the trends in them are also prophetic predictors of an impoverished future if we do not heed the silent messages from the trout.

Oblivious to me and the human world, the trout slipped silently under a root wad and remained there with only an occasional flick of a pectoral fin. From above it almost disappeared from view, intricately camouflaged from an avian predator. A grasshopper failed to make a leap landward, falling short onto the surface of the pool. The ripples spread out from its struggles, telegraphing to the trout that something of interest had landed.

From its lair amidst the roots the trout rose slowly. I assumed it was to get the trigonometry right—distance, vector and differential velocities. Calculations completed, then the muscular tail drove the trout upward. Mouth open, like the maw from hell, the grasshopper disappeared into the void. The trout continued skyward, escaping into another medium momentarily, until burst speed was overcome by gravity.

With a mighty splash the trout slapped the pool surface and darted into a rock cleft, out of the current. In due time the grasshopper would become trout flesh, trout energy, trout memory.

Time passed and an aspen leaf floated by, under the vigilant stare of the trout. Not a food item, not yet, but in the fullness of time as the shredders dismantled it, the leaf would have become the fuel for a caddisfly or a mayfly and them for a stonefly, all definitely trout food units.

This trout was large enough to have survived mergansers, kingfishers, osprey, mink and maybe even river otters. Beyond a certain size the risk of being something else’s dinner declines. It sat on the bottom of a pool with only two motivations—food and seasonal sex.

In the cold water of that mountain stream, with winter ice cover persisting for months, metabolism slows, as does growth. The combination lent itself to a long life span for a survivor of juvenile times. This trout, I reckoned, must have been an octogenarian in trout years.

Another grasshopper floated on the pool’s surface. It had a different shape and drifted somewhat erratically, like another trout had taken an unsuccessful bite at it. An easy meal is never something to be ignored, so the trout rose again slowly to mid-pool depth to reconnoitre. There it stopped for a moment,  pausing, ever so attentive to danger. You don’t get big and old by being neglectful of caution. Sensing no danger it accelerated and hit the grasshopper with full bore enthusiasm.

But after another skyward orbit the trout found itself attached to, impaled at the end of an almost invisible monofilament line, unable to break free. The grasshopper was a fake, an artful rendition of the real thing, with a sharp hook hidden amidst the wrapping of the fly. I admired the trout in my grasp—sleek, muscular and torsional. It was like hanging onto a writhing, greased and decompressing coil spring.

After having escaped many predators and enduring floods, drought, a forest fire in the watershed and sediment from logging clearcuts and roads, the trout had fallen prey to a two-legged predator. Later that evening I ate the trout and just as the grasshopper had become part of the trout, the trout became part of me. As the stream flowed through the trout, it then flowed through me, binding and bonding me to both.

No longer do I kill native trout, whose range along the Eastern Slopes has shrunk, populations have cratered, and all species are imperilled, by whatever the scientific designation might be. I also cannot bear the thought of killing a trout, however inadvertently, with catch and release. Admittedly, I relax this principle for catching (and eating) non-native trout, many of which compete with their native cousins.

That does not stop me from walking beside or wading in a stream, seeing the surface shimmer and dimple with the energy of the current, hoping to see a trout rise to break the surface tension. In that is enough joy, without the feeling of the tug of a trout at the end of a line. Although I miss the contest of angling in streams with wild, native trout, I realize that if catching fish is the only objective, you miss so much more of what is arrayed around you.

I still find I can make an association with trout, be continually inspired, by observing them in the riffles, beneath the overhanging banks, tucked into root masses and in the pools of crystal clear water. The way trout orient themselves, how they both resist and work with the current, their tenacity in the face of many odds, gives them a grace humbling to observe. 

It is in those wooded glens and valleys, the quiet beaver ponds, places with the backbone of the Earth exposed, where native trout still swim, that one is reminded of things older than man, of mystery and of humility. 

Trout are the embodiment of all of the elements of a stream and its watershed, writ large by their presence. They are creatures that once lost, cannot be put back together again. Cannot be made right, populations restored, even with the wealth of a thousand mines.

Taxonomists place trout in rigid pigeon-holes of the standard, Linnaean scientific classification. But there are some creatures so emblematic of their environments they might be placed in separate categories—based on uniqueness, symbolism and connectedness. For me, a biologist and an angler, trout occupy a separate place, one of the heart.

February, 2022

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired provincial Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a former Adjunct professor with the University of Calgary.

Valentines Wheat

Farmers grow wheat to feed the world, or at least that’s the way I hear it.  So it must be frustrating when they see bushels of the stuff dumped at highway verges where the roads lead up into the mountains, or spilled along the railway tracks where bears, deer and pigeons gather daily to glean the squandered wealth.  There’s something wrong with a farm-to-markets transportation system that tolerates so much wastage.  If farmers had to wait until the grain reached tidewater before being paid for what arrives, one can’t help suspecting the system would get fixed in a hurry.

I can only assume that those truckers dump grain in order to lighten their loads before they head up over the mountain passes. Apparently they get paid regardless of ultimately arriving with less in the hoppers than when they set out.  It doesn’t make much sense, but the ravens and rosy finches are okay with it.

And, to some extent, so am I.

At Gail’s request, a couple years ago, I threw a shovel and an empty cardboard box into the back of our vehicle and started watching for grain piles. Coming home from the cabin one evening I saw the telltale golden mounds at a pullout on Scott’s Lake Hill.  The wheat was fresh and dry, so I got out the shovel, loaded a few kilograms into the box and took my harvest home.

In our home, we live with the heat turned down to reduce our fuel consumption.  We spend a lot of time sitting under blankets, nostalgic for the warmth we enjoyed in our more profligate and less responsible youth.  So we cheat a little. Gail sewed some bags, filled them with the wheat I’d salvaged, sewed them shut, and they became magic bags — throw one in the microwave for a couple minutes and it warms you for an hour, wrapped around feet or under a blanket.  The grain inside may not be feeding the world, but at least it helps keep the chill at bay.

We’re an old couple now; no getting around that. Gail has gotten brittle; I’ve gotten stiff. We make strange, often-embarrassing, sounds and mutter a lot about aches and pains. Things we did and took for granted when we first met just aren’t on the menu any more. But the relationship, like the years, goes on.  This winter has been especially challenging, isolated yet again by a virus that seems likely never to go away, further isolated by one of Gail’s brittle bones having snapped when she fell in front of the mail box, and by the icy sidewalks that seem to be more a feature of winter than ever before.  Maybe it’s climate change. Maybe it’s just that we notice things differently when we age.  Whatever: we seem to be trapped indoors more often than we used to be.

The other day Gail was working on her weaving and it occurred to me that she must be kind of cold up there.  Her weaving room heats up nicely on sunny days but cools off way too fast on cloudy ones, and this was a cloudy one.  I popped one of her magic bags into the microwave and when it was done I took it up to her.  She gave me a grateful smile as I handed it to her: something she hadn’t expected. 

Later that evening, as I quietly cursed my cold feet — another feature of the aging process —after having gone to bed, Gail came in and tucked a magic bag under the covers for me.  Equally unexpected, and no less appreciated.

And that’s what it’s come to. Love evolves over time from the tireless passion of those early years, to the shared worries and joys of raising kids together, to the rekindled adventures of late middle age when the nest has emptied and the world beckons… to now, when a bag full of wheat can be enough to put that glowing ache back into the deep centre of one’s chest that reminds you of why, all those years ago when you said “I do,” it was actually the most brilliant thing you ever said.  Winter is cold and claustrophobic and there really isn’t much to talk about from one day to the next, but that magic bag says everything that matters because it was brought to you in kindness by the one person who thinks about you, and cares enough, to have made that effort. A small effort, but quietly huge.

I’d prefer more wild prairie and fewer grain fields.  If we have to have grain fields, I’d prefer to see that grain go to feed people who need it.  But even what’s wasted on the roadside can still have value.  Sometimes it can become part of the way old couples say, “I love you.”