Adventures for Wilderness
 
 

A glorious day in an ever-diminishing special ecosystem: Hiking the Milk River Ridge

Written on June 3, 2022, by

AWA has had a long involvement with Southern Alberta’s Milk River Ridge, not least through board member Cliff Wallis’ membership on the Milk River Management Society. So it is always a memorable day when he is able to take us on a tour of this amazing ecosystem. On May 20 he was joined by Cheryl Bradley, another Alberta naturalist with many years of expertise in this grasslands area, as they graciously contributed their expertise to make our “Botany, Birding, and More” exploration of the Milk River Ridge a very special adventure indeed. Chris Saunders and Lindsey Wallis took photos and jointly wrote this story from the field trip.

When most of the group left the meeting place in Lethbridge in a severe storm featuring lashing rain and very strong winds, few thought this hike would go ahead. However, Cliff, our self-proclaimed “Sunshine Superman,” assured everyone the weather would change for the better. As the group drove south along Highway 4 the rain continued but after turning west and south on gravel roads it stopped.

Fourteen hikers and a stuffed wolf carried by our youngest naturalist set off to the south-southwest up the ridge from a point about four kilometres from the Taylor ranch house. This is in the eastern portion of the Milk River Ridge. There was no rain but a fierce wind was blowing from the north, making the right clothing essential. It has been a very dry spring in the area and the grassland plants were just beginning their spring growth. Along with the hike leaders Cheryl and Cliff, there were a number of other experienced naturalists in the group. As a result, there were plenty of sightings of plants and wildlife together with extensive discussion. One highlight was an “up close” view of a large porcupine seeking shelter from the wind in a clump of low bushes. A herd of deer were also spotted on a far ridge, silhouetted against the sky.

Lunch was held at an impressive viewpoint at the top of the Ridge, where the snow-covered Sweetgrass Hills in Montana could be seen clearly to the south east. After lunch, on the descent, there was a brief squall of ice pellets driven by a strong wind that drove the hikers back to the trailhead like horses to the barn. Amazingly, this was the only precipitation the group experienced during the hike.

On arriving back to the vehicles, an intrepid few drove further west to the Sandstone Ranch to search for the fuzzy-leaved purple jewels that are the rare hare-footed locoweed. The group combed gravelly slopes above the sinuous river valley and one appeared… and another… and another! A good colony of these threatened plants were found, as well as larkspur, flax and other hardy natives. With the sky clearing, a prairie falcon was seen making trips back and forth to what may have been a nest on the other side of a sandstone outcrop. The same cliffs held two other apparently disused raptor nests, as well as a colony of cliff swallows.

A glorious day in an ever-diminishing ecosystem that is so special in both the micro and macro views.

Finding Spring Wildflowers on the Ghost’s Lesueur Ridge

Written on June 1, 2022, by

Hike leader and longtime AWA friend (and past board member) Heinz Unger has lived in the Ghost/Waiparous area for many years, so he knows the Ghost watershed like the back of his hand. Who better, then, to lead a cool spring hike up the area’s Lesueur Ridge?

Despite the poor weather forecast for Sunday May 29, five intrepid hikers turned out for the loop hike up Lesueur Ridge. Although spring is coming late this year, the aspens were just leafing out in the brightest possible green, and the fescue meadows were greening up, too. There were still lots of prairie crocus in the shade and many bright Goldenbeans. Lots of short-stemmed shooting stars grew in abundance and we also saw some small mountain avens and a few yellow locoweeds.

The trail was steep but easy to walk because it was so dry. The hike down to the valley trail was equally steep, then followed by an easy walk through mixed woods and past gnarly old Douglas firs. And the views from the top were great, with lots of snow still on the mountains to the south and west, and dark rain clouds in the north. But the weather was actually quite nice, even a bit sunny, and only for the final 15 minutes there was a light drizzle to see the group back to the trailhead.

A Return to Our Roots: Climbing Stairs on Earth Day

Written on May 21, 2022, by

For over 25 years, AWA’s signature Earth Day event was the Climb for Wilderness, when Calgarians would gather to climb stairs and raise money for Alberta’s Wilderness. This year we were excited to return to those roots with a “Climb Stairs and Cycle on Earth Day” Adventure! AWA board member Chris Saunders set to the task of creating and coordinating this adventure and talks about how it went. Thanks to participant Laszlo Jamniczky for the photos!

On Saturday April 23rd 2022, the nearest Saturday to Earth Day, 18 participants set out to test their endurance skills against a course of outdoor staircases, with a series of short cycle rides in between. The age of the participants covered a broad range, from 3 years old to late seventies. The bikes used by the participants had a similar range from sleek lightweight racers to steady roadsters. Most of the participants arrived at the starting place on their bikes.

The course started at the Ukrainian Catholic church in Renfrew where there was a very large staircase to be ascended and climbed to kick things off. Group then cycled east along footpaths and quiet roads to do several more staircases in Renfrew. After that the route went south along the Nose Creek pathway and onto St Patrick’s Island where some unusual steps were climbed and descended at the “mound”. After the staircase at the Bridgeland LRT station the route took the group to couple of staircases in the south western part of Bridgeland. Then a lengthy cycle west along the Bow River pathway brought the group to the large staircase at the Calgary Curling Club. The group tackled the staircase successfully and then cycled up the path to the top of the bluff. Some tiredness was setting in at this point but most of the group continued on by cycling east across Centre Street to a staircase in Rotary Park. The final stretch was further east and involved a series of four staircases in Regal Heights each of which drop down to land near Edmonton Trail. Having completed that test, all that was left was a simple ride back to the Ukrainian church in Renfrew.
Throughout the course the event coordinator spoke to the group about AWA’s work and some of the challenges facing Alberta’s wilderness.

The event was a success in that all participants enjoyed the event and a significant amount of money was raised for Alberta Wilderness Association through sponsorships and donations. The coordinator is considering holding a similar event next year in a different part of the city. Watch out for the posting in early 2023.

Winter Hike on Waiparous Creek

Written on March 15, 2022, by

By – Peta Stuart

It’s your AWA trusty reporter, checking in after a great Alberta Wilderness Association Adventure along Waiparous Creek led by Mr Heinz Unger.

Our drive west toward this area afforded snow-capped Rocky mountain views; of particular note, the curiously-shaped Devil’s Head mountain. We had a sighting of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and passed the Jumping Pound plant flares tickling the sky.

Our destination, Waiparous Creek, is steeped in history. The First Nations considered this place an important winter hunting ground. According to the book Place Names of Alberta, the name Waiparous is a corruption of the Stoney Indian name meaning “Crow (Indian) scalp” (Karamitsanis 1992).  The Simpson and Palliser Expeditions of 1841 and 1858 both mention the confluence of the Waiparous Creek and the Ghost River.

The Eau Claire (there is a Waiparous trail with this moniker) Lumber Company harvested lumber in this area in the 1920’s. Logs were flushed down the Waiparous Creek and Ghost River. Remains of the temporary log dams can be observed along Waiparous Creek.

Our hardy group of hikers donned ice cleats and filed behind Heinz along the (mostly) frozen river. Beautiful sandstone walls line the creek. The river ice sparkled under bluebird skies. On the way to see the confluence of Waiparous Creek and the Ghost River, we identified cougar (Felis concolor) prints in the snow. We also noted a stonefly adult (Plectoptera) wiggling across the snow in search of a mate. These ancient insects have been around for 300 million years.

The Waiparous Creek area is in the montane zone. The forest is mixed conifer – in particular white spruce (Picea glauca) – and a smattering of deciduous trees. We noted at least two kinds of juniper peeping from the snow; the prickly common juniper (Juniperus communis) and the creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis).

The moist banks of Waiparous Creek are a perfect home for the evergreen Stairstep moss (Hylocomnium splendens). Each branch along this feather moss main stem represents a year’s growth. We also noted the delicate dwarf scouring rush (Equisetum scirpoides) that grows alongside a natural spring; at first it looked like a patch of grass. We had good discussions comparing the Waiparous natural forest to a large tract of unfortunate Fire Smart forest that stretches far from human habitation.

Thank you to Kris for bringing up the rear! The Unger family treated us to a delightful end-of-adventure with mulled cider and sweets, overlooking a panorama of the Waiparous to the Rockies, and cohosted by a pair of ravens (Corvus corax). Keep this natural area safe!

Reference: Ghost River State of the Watershed Report, 2018

Recapturing the Feel of the Native Prairie: A Fall Ramble on Nose Hill

Written on February 13, 2022, by

One of Canada’s — and indeed North America’s — largest urban parks, Calgary’s Nose Hill is an incredible treasure that we are lucky to have. AWA member Wendell Koning went along on our Fall Ramble on Nose Hill Adventure in October 2021 and expresses his appreciation:

On the morning of October 21st, about 15-20 of us gathered in the early morning sun, to learn more about the botany and geology of Nose Hill Park. The park is found in the northwest part of the city covering 11 sq km. From the top of the hill, on the plateau, one can get awesome views of the downtown to the south; the airport (airplanes coming and going) to the east; and the Rocky Mountains to the west. And in some parts of the park, namely in the many valleys, you can feel what it was like 200 years ago, to be all alone on a native prairie!

Christyann Olson, recently retired Executive Director of AWA, gave a brief overview about the AWA and the history of the park. We had two specialists for this tour, Karel Bergmann, a very experienced botanist, with a wealth of local and international knowledge, and senior geologist Tako Koning, who is passionate about all things geology.

The two specialists worked in tandem – Karel would show us various plant species and how they are adapted to their specific environments, and then we’d stop at rocky outcrops including some massive rocks known as glacial erratics, to learn more about glaciations, rock striations, and the various fossils that could be found (sorry, no dinosaur fossils at Nose Hill, but plenty of other types!).

And at the same rocks or nearby rocks, Karel, an expert on lichens, pointed out the myriad of lichen communities attached to the rocks. Lichens are a life form that we often pass by without noting, even though some display an incredible mix of colours.

The tour ended too soon but I’m sure all participants would agree that we gained new, very entertaining, and super-informative perspectives on this beautiful and pristine urban park.

Thanks to Karel and Tako, and thanks to Christyann Olson and the AWA for organizing!

Alberta’s Unique Paleoecological History: Dinosaurs and Badlands

Written on October 22, 2021, by

For the second year, AWA was thrilled to be able to offer a special treat: an exclusive audience with Dr. François Therrien, Curator of Dinosaur Palaeoecology at the Royal Tyrrell Museum; followed by a hike to explore the bonebeds at Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. This year’s outing on July 16 and 17 was coordinated as a joint endeavour by Christyann Olson; along with Rob and Tjarda Barratt, who recount:

Dinosaurs and Badlands (take 2!), was another very informative and enjoyable Dinosaurs and Badlands Adventure this year that we coordinated with Christyann Olson. On the evening of July 16th Dr. François Therrien, Curator of Dinosaur Palaeoecology at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, delivered an excellent presentation via Zoom on Alberta’s wealth of dinosaur fossils with emphasis on the Albertosaurus bonebed in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. The next day Rob led us on a hike to the bonebed.

François Therrien’s presentation: “Albertosaurus Bonebed in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park”

François’ presentation on the abundance and diversity of dinosaur fossils found in Alberta was captivating. Alberta is among the top five places in the world for dinosaur fossils. François explained that a combination of two conditions are required for dinosaur fossils to be found: first, rocks must be of the right type and age that formed when dinosaurs were alive, and second, these rocks must be exposed at the surface. Alberta has the perfect combination of both, and that is why it is so rich in dinosaur fossils. François described the many important dinosaur discoveries made in Alberta over the past 120 years, with emphasis on the Albertosaurus bonebed originally discovered in 1910. The full significance of the discovery only came to light after Dr. Philip Currie, then of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, resumed excavations in 1997. The diorama at the entrance of the Royal Tyrrell Museum is based on the fossil record from the Albertosaurus bonebed.

Hike in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park

Under cloudy and smoky skies, we met at the upper viewpoint of Dry Island Buffalo Jump Park with its glorious views down the Red Deer River valley. Christyann, Rob and Tjarda explained the significance of the park and need for conservation of its fragile lands, it’s diversity of plants, birdlife, butterflies, native treasures and paleontological sites.

As we walked and scrambled down fascinating badlands, crossing millions of years of geological history, we tried to imagine the lush subtropical forests and flood plains that existed during the age of dinosaurs 70 million years ago. At the bonebed, where we stopped for lunch, we posed for a photograph at the exact location of a photo taken 111 years ago by Barnum Brown’s expedition in 1910. It was with the aid of this old photo that Dr. Philip Currie located the original quarry in 1996. While most of the fossils have now been excavated and removed, there are still scattered fossilized bone and wood fragments to make a visit to this site well worthwhile.

We ended the hike with a scramble through dense bush. Then we refreshed ourselves with sweet juicy watermelon at the picnic site near the river’s edge and took time to look at old photos while talking about the day’s Adventure. We made some great new friends that day and the success of the day’s hike was evident in all the happy faces!

Effects of a 2020 Forest Fire, One Year Later: Ghost Wildfire Exploration

Written on October 13, 2021, by

Wendell Koning is a Limnologist / Water Quality Specialist, recently retired after 20 years with Alberta Environment and Parks. He thus provides a unique insight as he discusses his experience on the August 11 “Ghost Wildfire Exploration” Adventure coordinated by Heinz Unger:

In August 2020 there was a small forest fire of about 200 ha that burned in the upper Ghost River watershed. Then in September-October 2020 there was a much larger fire in the watershed that consumed 3500 ha. Many of the inhabitants in the watershed were put on high alert for potential evacuation. In the end evacuation was not required, but the fire was extensive. So, it was with much interest and anticipation that 8-10 of us signed up to be part of this AWA tour led by local inhabitant, and (uber fantastic) AWA volunteer, Heinz Unger and son, Kris.

We met on the morning of Aug 11, 2021, off Highway 40 where it intersects with the Transalta Road (this was located about 30 km northwest of the turn off onto Highway 40 from Highway 1A, i.e., northwest of Waiparous). We then carpooling to complete an additional 16 km on the gravel Transalta Road. We parked in the Ghost valley and then walked along the valley bottom (flood plain) of the North Ghost River to the Black Rock Mountain trailhead area which was burned, and there we explored the area in detail.

Our specialist on the tour was Professor Edward A. Johnstone of the UofC Biosciences Department; his area of research is primarily in the contact between the geosciences and ecology. Professor Johnson had us spell-bound several times when we stopped for site-specific observations coupled with much fire theory, fire behavior modelling, and meteorological science of fires. The trip lasted MUCH longer than was estimated for the tour, as the discussions continued and continued, they were delightful!

It was very interesting to see how after just one growing season, much greenery was coming back. We walked through heavily burned areas and, in some places, just meters away, the land was untouched by the fire, perhaps due to specific slope or aspect, or wind variations at the time.

Fires are a natural part of our forest ecosystems, they result in the beneficial release of nutrients, and opening of the forest canopy for new growth, – and therefore can result in a greater biodiversity within a given area. Forest fires occur from two sources, 1) – natural sources, namely from lightning strikes; and 2, from human activity, either intentional (arson), or more often, unintentional, for example, campfires not fully extinguished; from tossed cigarette butts; or from sparks and heat from the hot exhaust pipes of motor vehicles.

Currently, are we experiencing more forest fires now? Yes, a) climate change is real and having an affect (more heat, more extended periods of high-pressure systems), and b) as per earlier, there are more people living, working and recreating in the forest areas resulting in more human-caused forest fires.

Are forest fires hotter today than in the past? We hear that fire suppression for the past 100 years (our current form of forest management) has resulted in buildup of more brush, more fuel for fires? Apparently, not, since along with the additional growth (fuel buildup) in the forest understory due to longer periods between fires, there would be additional death and decomposition. However, the Alberta “Fire-Smart” program which includes promotion of removal of brush etc. from wooded areas inhabited by humans – is excellent, effective, and very appropriate for those who have cabins and houses in the woods, in rural or wilderness areas. See: https://wildfire.alberta.ca/firesmart/default.aspx

The tour was 100% first class, I’m sure I speak for all the attendees, we learned a ton – and it was fun! Kudos to the AWA for highlighting this issue via the Ghost Watershed Tour.

An Amazing Adventure for a 40th Birthday! “40/40/40”

Written on October 13, 2021, by

Lindsey Wallis chose a truly unique way to celebrate her 40th birthday: “Forty kilometres by bike. Forty pitches of climbing. All in forty hours.” Read on to hear how it went!

Thanks to everyone’s donations my 40/40/40 adventure has raised $5,701 for the Alberta Wilderness Association in support of their conservation work here in Alberta.

The actual adventure was spectacular, I couldn’t have asked for better weather, or a better team to help me succeed. Big thanks go to Keith Brodsky and Leslie Gerin, who provided a home base for my support team and outfitted me with some of the last minute things I needed. Also, Sarah Elmeligi, Shy Weeks and Kyle Eustace who joined me for different legs of the adventure and kept the stoke high and making me laugh, even when I was sooooo tired.

In the end I cycled 44 km and climbed 42 pitches of 5th class in 36 hours. I even got 4-5 hours of “sleep”! We started from Castle Junction at 6:30am, and biked along the 1A to Guide’s rock, where Kyle and I climbed 18 pitches on three different routes. Then we returned to our bikes (and the horrendous mosquitoes) and continued biking along the Vermillion Lakes road to the town of Banff where I stopped about 7 pm for a mandatory refuel (beer and chocolate croissants from Shy) in the park by the river before Shy tagged in and we biked to Rundle and climbed 6 more pitches on the route Sunriser at sunset. By the time we rappelled back down it was dark and we hiked down to our bikes by headlamp where we made a quick dinner and crawled into our sleeping bags about 1 am. The next morning the sun (and mosquitoes) woke us up early and after a much needed coffee were on our bikes for a short ride along the golf course in Banff to the next climb. After not enough sleep (I need my 8 hours!) the approach hike felt extra steep and the seeping wet rock extra slippery. I’ll admit that I didn’t have too much fun on this climb. But the day still had one more climb in it, as we cycled around the golf course loop and back to where we bivied and climbed the last 9 pitches of the day and the adventure. The sun was scorching hot but the rock quality was amazing and the climbing and views spectacular. The rappels felt extra long as we got closer and closer to that long awaited victory beer! Down and back at our bikes the mosquitoes were once again horrendous as we packed our bikes for the last time and rode the few remaining kilometres back to Banff, taking a much deserved dunk in the river on the way there.

Thanks again to everyone for your support. You really make a girl feel special!

Rewards Await Those who Persevere the Rain: Plateau Mountain Bike and Hike

Written on October 8, 2021, by

The initially-inclement weather made the July 11 trip to Plateau Mountain a true Adventure! However as coordinator Chris Saunders relates, those who stuck with it were well rewarded:

Plateau Mountain is truly a gem in Alberta’s wild spaces inventory. There is a band of bighorn sheep that one can almost always count on seeing and almost always at this time of year, a bounty of alpine flowers in bloom. Today some rough spring weather made the rough road leading to the top of Plateau Mountain a bit of a struggle! However, at the top of the first ridge we walked through a flower meadow – the flowers were past their prime due to the early spring melt but the view was an impressive canyon overlook. The rain became heavier and the risk of serious lightning meant we thought we should shorten our visit to the top of Plateau Mountain, so the group cycled back to the gate and the safety of our cars. With a bit of patience we waited out the storm and the rain stopped and the clouds moved slowly to the south.

Those who had not given up on the day cycled back up the road with me. By the time we reached the top of the highest ridge the skies were blue and there was no evidence of the earlier rain. In cycling south along a road maintained by the oil and gas company that operates the two gas wells on the ridge, we encountered the band of bighorn sheep for whom the flat tundra terrain of the plateau is home. We stopped to see spectacular views off to the south east and south west at end of the ridge; as well as to the east in a middle section.

Cycling north along the ridge we were on an old road which is rapidly being naturalized and reclaimed by the vegetation. Here too the flowers, which at this time of year can be spectacularly beautiful, were past their best. On the return journey along this road we saw, within a few yards of us, a band of about 20 male bighorn sheep of differing ages: a wonderful sight.

The fast bike ride down from the plateau was negotiated safely and we got back to our cars for a safe drive home after a satisfying and physically challenging ride up and hike along Plateau Mountain.

Learning about Alberta’s Nature and History: Cochrane Ranche Adventure

Written on October 5, 2021, by

On a warm and sunny July 22, Margaret O’Regan led several schoolchildren through Cochrane Ranche on a nature-filled adventure learning about Alberta’s history. Here’s how it went:

What could be better than time spent with a bunch of lovely kids hiking in a gorgeous valley, through the tall conifers with their gnarled roots, up along the ridges overlooking the valley, and spending time at a museum of western heritage (The Stockmen’s) that allows kids to touch everything, and even to try on cowboy hats, boots and chaps? In my books, it was a great adventure. From the kids’ point of view, I think it was pretty good too. They all seemed to have fun.

At the outset, equipped with magnifying glasses, they were very enthusiastic about checking out the finer details of flowers, leaves and seed heads, conifer needles, bark and lichen. They were eager, looked out for each other, and shared their discoveries with each other: the shimmering spider web, the water striders, slugs, insects, a dead bee (that was taken home by one young adventurer to be added to his collection of bees – dead ones), the insect that looked as pretty as a butterfly but lay its wings flat like a moth (a buttermoth perhaps?), the raven calls, and grasshopper chirrups, the feel of sticky tree sap, and the scent of wild thyme. They helped each other clamber up amongst the great roots of the tree known as the Grandfather Tree (why not Grandmother?), each one testing their own capacities; they got dirty, washed hands in the stream, chased uphill and down. At the museum, they dressed up in cowboy gear, posing for photos, and took in the displays of everything and anything to do with ranching, including some incredibly ornate saddles, horseshoes that seemed impossibly large, and beautiful bronze statues. Following that, the Man of Vision statue, standing on a cliff overlooking the valley, is a natural magnet: here the kids posed for photos with the huge metal horse. Close by, the wooden stairway that descends into the valley was the last chance to use up some energy before reaching the end of our adventure: the kids challenged themselves to climb as fast as possible down and up the steep steps. Some of the kids went up and down multiple times! Though we didn’t see any of the herons, hawks or owls that live in the valley, we did get a peek at an owl’s nest hidden amongst the branches of a big spruce, and the kids each got to bring home an owl pellet (courtesy of a local wildlife refuge) to dissect in quieter moments at home. I am so impressed at the good humour, curiosity and caring that the kids displayed throughout our adventure. They certainly made it a trip to remember!

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