Kananaskis Area Photography Contest

I was incredibly excited to place first in the Kananaskis area photo contest, hosted by the Kananaskis Improvement District.

On top of the usual prizes, the winner of this years contest is to have their photo printed, framed and hung in the brand new Kananaskis Emergency Services Centre (aka my firehall.) KESC is to begin construction this summer and be finished some time in 2018. I am so excited to have a piece of my work hanging in the new hall. The firehall has been my second home since the moment I joined the department and I’m excited to feel like part of me will stay there even after I move (not that I have plans to move right now, just as an eventuality).

My photograph that won was taken in May of 2016, during the most incredible northern lights show that I have ever seen. It was a 10 second exposure of a show that had me enthralled for hours.

This is my winning photo (you need to see it in high res, not compressed like wordpress makes it, to really love it). This has not been photoshopped in any way shape or form, this is what the sky looked like that night.

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Lots of amazing photos were entered into the contest, and I’d like to share the runner ups:

Third-2017

Shoutout to my fire captain, CPT Corriveau for placing third with this beauty. Check him out on Instagram for more gorgeous shots: @martin.corriveau

 

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Second Place: Ernest Botham took this gorgeous elk portrait.

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And this one, the People’s Choice, was taken by another firefighter, Mr Graeme Rydl.

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Snowshoeing in Kananaskis

While I have not posted on here a lot over the holidays, it does not mean that I haven’t been super busy writing: I wrote this post last week for Kananaskis Outfitters, give it a read and check out their beautiful website if you are interested in seeing what all they do.

15781571_1248344911875257_3156321827171470706_n-300x300Snowshoeing is a method of transportation that has been around for about 4000 years, but in the last couple of years, it has definitely gained a lot of popularity! A lot of this popularity is probably because of how accessible snowshoeing is for the vast majority of people, and also how snowshoes have become easy to wear and use.

Originally designed by the necessities of living in a snow-covered world, nowadays, people mostly snowshoe for fun. Snowshoeing turns hiking into a year-round activity. Snowshoes no longer look like tennis racquets strapped to your feet; modern snowshoes are sleek and usually come equipped with ice cleats built in, making for incredible traction in even the most slippery of winter conditions.

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Kananaskis is a haven for snowshoers, offering a long snowshoeing season and a huge variety of trails. By the Kananaskis Village, there are a couple of great loops for newcomers to the sport; the Village Loops leave right from the Village Centre, and have a 2.5km option or a 1.5km option, or you can do them both for a great 4km loop. This loop has a little bit of elevation gain but remains very family friendly.

15621824_1337638826298250_6992831369302393830_n-240x300Troll Falls – An easy snowshoe for families

Another snowshoe trail close to the village that is family friendly, is the Troll Falls trail. Leaving from the Stoney trailhead, this is an easy 4km loop when done in conjunction with the Hay Meadows trail. This trail features a beautiful wintery waterfall and fantastic valley-bottom views of the surrounding peaks.

If you are willing to drive a little deeper into Kananaskis for snowshoeing, then you need to check out Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. This park offers kilometer after kilometer of snowshoe trails, with a wide range of views. On our recommended list to check out are:

The Elkwood loop starts at the Elkwood amphitheater and travels across the frozen edge of Marl lake. At 3.4km in length, and with little elevation gain, this is another great snowshoe loop for families.

 

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One of our snowshoe groups standing on Marl Lake

 


12417608_1033832390012230_6320220815210209063_n-289x300Hogarth Lakes
is another Kananaskis classic. Starting at the Burstall Pass trailhead, you share the trail with skiers for about 200m, before the snowshoe trail meanders off into the woods. This trail takes you through beautiful spruce and pine stands before taking you over Hogarth Lakes. There are always lots of tracks and signs of wildlife along this loop and one of our guides has even spotted a lynx along the trail (from a distance!).  Take a lunch or some hot chocolate along on this 4.1km trek to make the most of a beautiful winters day.
12832425_1011632558879828_5912986574658780623_n-240x300Looking for a bit more of a challenge? Then Chester Lake is for you. The cross country ski trail at Chester Lake follows the summer hiking trail, but the winter snowshoeing trail is a much steeper climb. The steep hike is definitely worth the reward! The trail deposits you on a frozen alpine lake, surrounded by fiercely beautiful peaks. Definitely take a lunch along: This 7km hike has 287 meters of elevation gain.

Snowshoe Safety

No matter how long you are planning on being outside while snowshoeing, be it a 2.5km loop or a 15km summit day, there are some very important things to keep in mind. In the winter, what may start as a simple backcountry emergency can get a lot worse very quickly. To make sure you are well prepared for any situation, there are some things that you should always carry:

  • Emergency blanket/bivy. Make sure to account for group size
  • Enough water and keep it thawed! Store it inside your pack or next to your body. It’s no good as ice
  • Snacks and food – enough to get you through an accidental night in the outdoors
  • First Aid kit
  • Hand warmers – these little packs can help if some ones gloves just aren’t cutting it
  • Spare toque, gloves and socks and an extra mid layer
  • Headlamp or flashlight – winter days are short!

Before you go:

  • Check the local avalanche reports. You can check it here. If you are in an Alberta Parks area, then the designated snowshoe trails are not located in avalanche terrain. If you are entering avalanche terrain, make sure you have the necessary training and gear.
  • Let someone know where you are going and when to expect you back.
  • Know the local emergency number: here in Kananaskis it is 403-591-7755, or 911 for life-threatening emergencies.
  • Check the local weather and dress for it. Remember to dress in layers!

 

Snowshoeing is a great activity to keep you outdoors all winter long! There is always somewhere new to explore and fresh powder to plow through! Looking for a twist on snowshoeing? Check out our Stargazing Snowshoe tours!

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Troll Falls at Night on a Stargazing Snowshoe Tour

The Most Canadian News Story…

Every once in awhile there is a news story that hits television that is so stereo-typically Canadian, it reinforces to everyone what a wild, wacky place Canada is. These are stories that lead people to believe we live in igloos, get around by dog sled and only eat poutine. This week, another of these stories made the television.

As many of you know, I call Kananaskis AB home. KCountry is a very magical place and a hub for amazing nature and wildlife stories. Since I have lived here, several wildlife videos from the area have gone viral. Like this one of two bull moose rutting or of this wolf taking down a big horn sheep on the side of the highway. So it is pretty safe to say the wildlife here is never boring. Right now the critter that is making the new is, once again, a moose.

You probably saw this story on CBC (yup, that’s right, this made national news) that Kananaskis has issued a moose warning for the Chester Lake/Burstall Pass trail heads due to a moose hanging out in the parking lot licking cars. 

Yes, you read that correctly. This moose (and her calf) are hanging out in the parking lot and licking cars. Read the CBC story here. So why the heck are these moose licking cars?

For the same reason that big horn sheep, deer and other critters are ‘licking’ the road:

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They are eating the salt. Salt contains minerals that are important to these critters, but beyond that, the salt tastes good them.

The cars are getting salt on them from driving on maintained winter roads, and the wildlife has come to expect that they can lick cars to get the salt off. To be honest, if I had to choose between licking asphalt or licking a car, I guess I would lean towards the car, so it is no wonder that the moose are doing it too.

Alberta Parks has issued a formal warning, including what NOT to do if a moose is licking your car, but I am going to give you some tips here again:

  • Don’t approach the moose; if they walk up to you, try to maintain a safe distance or stay inside your vehicle.
  • Don’t offer the moose food; they do not need to become any more accustomed to people as a food source
  • Don’t try to physically move a moose away from your vehicle. They will win.
  • Always make noise when hiking, exploring, so as to not surprise wildlife.
  • Keep your pets on a leash. A kick from a moose can kill or severely injure a dog.

If you return to your vehicle to find a moose licking it, by all means  take a picture!  I would! But do not approach the moose to do so. Make noise, be loud and be patient for the moose to move off.  Be aware of what way the moose will most likely run if it gets startled, no one wants to get run over by a moose. If everyone respects the space of these dorkily majestic animals, then everyone will be able to share the space.

 

 

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? A Look at Winter Trail Etiquette

Cross country skiers are infamous for disliking snowshoers because they wreck their trails; snowshoers think that cross country skiers are snobs. And fat bikers? Well, no one likes fat bikers. Don’t believe me that there is so much drama in the world of casual winter sports? Check out this blog post from Skier Bob. It is titled ‘Snowshoers would use the snowshoe trail if we started skiing on it.’ If you want to  really see the tension, read the comments. They are way worse than the actual article.

So would you believe me if I told you that its actually really easy for everyone to get along and all just enjoy winter trails? As someone who does all three of the above winter sports, I promise you, it IS possible. Now that there is actually snow on the ground, and winter trails are opening, it is once again time to look at some winter trail etiquette.

Don’t Wreck The Tracks

Here in Kananaskis, we take a lot of pride in our cross country ski trails. They are world class, well-groomed and, best of all, free for people to use. There is a dedicated Alberta Parks team who keeps on top of grooming the trails, and you can even check a live grooming report here. 

A groomed ski track may look like this:

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(thanks Shutterstock for the photo!)

or like this:

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(Photo by Crystal Mountain)

The first photo is of a ‘flat groomed’ cross country track. This track works great for classic and skate skiing. The second photo is of a ‘track set’ ski trail. The difference being the parallel grooves carved into the snow in the second photo. These grooves are specifically designed for the gliding of classic cross country skiing, and skate skiing will wreck those tracks. It is important to know what the trail is groomed for before going out. Most track set trails also have a skate lane, so if skate skiing, please be courteous and do not wreck the tracks.

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Here the snowshoe trail crossed the ski trail and you can see I carefully stepped over the tracks so as to not wreck them.

15267747_1312113492184117_6959736387260210962_nYou can imagine what these tracks would look like if a snowshoe-er or hiker walked through them and mashed them up; hint: They would look rough. If a cross country skier hits a mashed up bump at high speed (say at the bottom of a hill or something) they can fall or go flying. If a snowshoe trail cross a ski trail, it is best practice to step over the ski tracks, so as to avoid mashing them. If you are on snowshoes and need to follow a cross country ski trail for a bit, walk on the edge of the trail, so as not to ruin the tracks or the skate lane.

Who Has The Right-of-Way

Trails can get busy, especially on weekend with nice weather, so it is important to know who has the right of way so that nobody gets frustrated and everyone can enjoy their day.

  • If it is a cross country ski trail and you are snowshoeing (even if you are on the edge of the trail), the cross country skier has the right of way. Since you know, its a ski trail and all.
  • The person travelling downhill has the right of way. The assumption here is that they will be travelling at higher speed, and the person going uphill is probably going to enjoy a momentary break anyway.
  • Ski on the right, pass on the left. Same as when you are driving in a car.
  • Politely call out to let people know if you are approaching from the rear if you are going to overtake or pass them.

 

What About Fido

  • In some areas, particularly on groomed ski trails in provincial parks, dogs are not allowed. Always check signage for where you are skiing.
  • Always pick up after your pet
  • If your dog is allowed on the trail, check the leash laws for the area.
  • Whether you are in an on-leash or off-leash area, keep your dog under your control. They should not interfere with other peoples enjoyment of the day, or worse, cause injury to someone else.

Fatbikes

15317778_1313691058693027_298110483410022055_nAs far as winter sports go, fat tire bicycles are the new kids on the block. Mountain biking used to be confined just to summer, but now that these bikes can be outfitters with super wide tires, riding in the snow just got a whole lot more fun. But since fat bikes are so new, really only having gained popularity in the last couple of years , sometimes it seems like people don’t know where they should be riding them. So lets cover the basics here:

  • Fat bikes CANNOT go on groomed ski trails. Period. If the trail is track set, do not ride there. It is up for debate in some areas if fat bikes can ride on flat groomed trails, so err on the side of caution and don’t do it.
  • Fatbikes are generally welcome on snowshoe trails
  • Be respectful of people moving slower than you, and call out politely so as not to surprise or scare them.

Winter Leave No Trace Principles

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Leave No Trace is a fantastic organization that educates people on how to leave the natural world as nice or nicer than they found it, as well as how to enjoy it safely. You can check out the winter LNT principles here.

So as you can see, its really not that difficult to all get along outside; whether you are on skis, snowshoes or a fatbike, we are all out there for the same reason: to enjoy nature.

 

 

Oh and by the way..

If you have to pee, don’t just stop on the trail and pee on the side. Everyone who passes that point after you will have to see the yellow snow you left behind. Take at least a few steps off the trail, find some cover, or cover it with snow. We all know it wasn’t a dog when there are snowshoe or ski tracks that stop directly in front of a pile of yellow snow… Don’t be gross.

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How to dress when it’s really f@#king cold out.

15350702_10211385700987958_1567693669333532042_nThis is what I woke up to this morning. Yup, you read that correctly -28 degrees celsius, feels like -36 with the wind chill. At that temperature, exposed skin can get frostbite in 5-10 minutes. But just because it gets cold, doesn’t mean that outdoor activities suddenly stop. Unless you can go into hibernation for the winter like a bear* , you are still going to have to venture out in this weather. There are right and wrong ways to dress for this, and it may surprise you that throwing on an arctic rated parka is not always the answer. So let’s take a look at the best way to dress for different activities at this temperature.

When is a good time to wear that parka rated for -50?

If you are going to be active, then the only good time to wear a parka rated for like – 50 is when you are at…- 50. If you are going to be doing a lot of standing around, or not physically exerting yourself, then that arctic rated parka will do just fine. But if you are going to be hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, etc (i.e. any activity that is going to make you sweat) than wearing a jacket rated for that cold is going to make you sweat, which is the body’s way of cooling down. So what do you think happens when it’s -36 and your body starts trying to cool itself off? It’s not good. There is a reason Les Stroud says ‘you sweat, you die.’

 

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Yeah, listen to this guy.

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<Here I am in a Canada Goose Parka because it was -30 and I was standing around at Lake Louise photographing with the wind blowing off the glaciers at the end of the lake.

Now I’m not saying don’t buy a jacket that is rated for that cold, but know when to wear it.You definitely should not start wearing it at relatively warm temperatures. I have seen people walking around in Canada Goose jackets before the temperature is even below freezing. If you acclimatize your body to that so early on in the season, what are you going to wear when it is actually cold out?

 

From the Feet Up:

When picking out winter boots, do not treat a temperature rating like it is a set in stone fact. Temperature ratings are super subjective, depending a lot on the person and what the gear is paired with. The warmest boots I own are a pair of deer hide mukluks lined with fluffy sheepskin (these were a staple when you live in Northern Ontario). However, it is not always practical to wear them since I can’t put them in snowshoe bindings, ice cleats or damp conditions. So pick a boot that suits your activities. If you are going to be hiking, look for a waterproof boot, preferably with a removable liner (so you can wash it because let’s face it, feet stink.). The liner should be made of a dense, felted material for the best warmth. Soft and fluffy doesn’t always equate to warm, so don’t fall for that.While my Keen Elsa boots don’t have a removable lining, I find them to be incredibly warm and waterproof.

Now that you have a good boot, it’s time to look at a good sock. Wool is king when it comes to staying warm, and merino wool is the best wool on the market. Pick a thick merino wool sock, like these ones from IceBreaker and Darn Tough. I like wearing knee-high ski socks pretty much all winter, but there are shorter hiking options as well. Your winter boots should be big enough that you can wear thick socks in them and still have room to move your toes. If the boots are too tight, there won’t be any air in there and that will actually lead to colder feet.

All About The Base (layers):

If you are going to be outside all day, just throwing on super warm outwear isn’t going to cut it. You need to have good layers next to your skin. I LOVE merino wool baselayers and pretty much live in IceBreaker all winter long. Merino wool comes from special sheep in New Zealand and it is incredibly warm, yet breathable. It is moisture wicking and anti-microbial, so it doesn’t stink when you sweat into it. Try layering merino baselayer pants and a top, or a merino onesie (yup, they exist!) underneath the rest of your layers for an added layer of cozy warmth. There are different weights of wool for base layers; what you need to know is that the higher the number, the warmer they are. 260 weight merino from Icebreaker is the warmest that they make, and what I reserve for the really cold days.

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This is a merino sheep; doesn’t he look warm?

 

Stuck in The Middle With You:

Mid-layers, or insulation layers, are where you get creative based on the temperature. A basic mid layer would be something like a fleece sweater. But on really cold days, jackets like the Patagonia Nano Air, or down sweaters may become your mid layer. On really, really cold days, you may wear fleece under a down sweater/synthetic jacket, along with an insulated shell over top. For fleece, I love my Patagonia Better Sweater and Snap -T pullovers, but I also have some really nice Cloud Layer fleeces from Eddie Bauer. I own a wide variety of fleeces, since it such a versatile layering piece, and key for being warm at these temperatures. The Patagonia Nano Air hoody is one of my favorite pieces of gear: it is perfect as a stand-alone jacket most of the time, but when the temperatures plummet, it makes an incredible mid-layer.

Topping it Off:

Now it doesn’t matter how good your mid and base layers are if the wind is going to cut through you the second you step outside. Wind chill is dangerous because it removes the ‘heat bubble’, or pocket of warm air, that we naturally have around us. A good shell will keep you warm and dry in windy and wet conditions. Materials like Gore-tex (or other proprietary versions of it) are sturdy, waterproof layers that will block the wind but still let your body breathe underneath. Getting a breathable shell is vital to maintaining good body temperature. If the shell isn’t breathable, then we are back to the original Parka problem. One of my favourite insulated shells is an old-y but a good-y. The First Ascent BC Microtherm is waterproof, windproof and insulated with 800 fill down. It has kept me warm through some pretty sketchy winter conditions. See below:

 

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Photographing Ice Volcanoes along the shore of Lake Ontario in -30

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My Wilderness First Aid Course in Canmore 2 years ago. -24

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Avalanche Safety training on Bow Summit at -39

 

The Icing on the Cake:

 

Headwear. It’s so easy to get all dressed up and covered and to forget about your head and face.A good toque that blocks the wind is vital. Rumour has it that pom poms help too 😉 Just kidding, but I do love a good pom-pommed toque. Look for hats that have a good fleece lining. Keep your face covered with a balaclava or, my favorite, a merino wool buff. Buffs are super easy to throw on, put a scarf over and then pull up to cover your face as required. Also keep in mind the area around your eyes: goggles or sunglasses with good coverage are important. Get tinted/polarized ones for days on the snow, snow blindness is a real thing.

Other tips and tricks for surviving the cold:

-Pocket hand and toe warmers: don’t depend on them, but they are a nice added boost of warm

-Don’t drink alcohol to keep warm. It might make you feel warm, but it thins your blood and dehydrates you, making you colder long term.

-If you have to pee, then pee! Do not hold it in. A friend who spends a lot of time in the arctic taught me this. Don’t make your body waste energy heating the extra mass that comes from you holding in pee.

-Carry a spare insulation layer and spare socks/gloves

-Use glove liners and hat liners on the REALLY cold days.

-Carry hot drinks. This helps moral more than anything

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Stay warm out there and adventure on!

 

 

*yeah, yeah, yeah, I know bears aren’t true hibernators but it made a better metaphor than comparing people to rodents.

You know it’s cold when…

… There are sundogs outside!

So what is a sundog? It’s this:

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That beautiful circular rainbow around the sun is known as sundog and is caused by ice particles floating in the air, reflecting light (same process as a rainbow, just much colder). The ice crystals act like a prism, bending the light that passes through them and giving the appearance of a rainbow.

These don’t just appear because of the cold, but are usually visible when the sun is low on the horizon on very cold days.

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Say Hello to Snowshoe Season!

Right up until this morning, winter so far here in Kananaskis has been…well…non-existent. The lakes were still all open and snowshoeing wasn’t even a little possible. However, this morning, everyone in a mountain town woke up to a world of white!

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15338612_10211357219675943_6531228359490196435_nOnce you’ve lived here (or anywhere that gets snow) long enough, you know if its snowed over night the second you open your eyes. The quality of light filtering in through your bedroom window changes and there is a hush over the world. Its a delightful, sleepy, feeling that leaves you wanting to cuddle into a fleecy blanket with a cup of coffee just a little while longer, before venturing out into the snowy world.

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Everyone becomes a child again after a fresh snowfall; there are few things in life more fun than playing in fresh powder. As we grow older, we just change the way we play: some people ski or snowboard, and some people like to snowshoe. Now, while I love to ski, snowshoeing is just so easy to do! You can snowshoe literally anywhere, there are no lineups and you really get to enjoy the serenity of nature. So this mornings fresh snowfall found me outside, snowshoes strapped on for the first time this season! As of right now, there is about 4 inches of fresh powder at valley bottom here.

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Indefatigable and Knowing When To Quit

Indefatigable

[in-di-fat-i-guh-buh l]
adjective
1.Incapable of being tired out; not yielding to fatigue. Untiring.

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Anyone who knows me personally knows that I am stubborn and refuse to quit once I have started something. I can be hot-headed and don’t believe in half-a$$ing anything. Failure does not sit well with me.

But the flip side of that is that I have a good understanding of risk management. As both a firefighter and a guide, the core of my jobs are keeping people safe (and alive!). I will take a little more risk if it’s just myself on the line, but when it comes to hiking, I know when to call it a day. Even if it chafes me.

Knowing when to quit is a vital outdoors skill that we don’t talk about enough. No one wants to tell people about that time they almost climbed a mountain. But there are some circumstances where it is absolutely necessary to say ‘hey, this isn’t going to end well.’ Yesterday I was faced with a situation in which I could not successfully summit a mountain I had started.  The irony of the name of the mountain and the fact I had to quit is not lost on me…

14522910_10210720856047250_5325527288512167805_nI often hike alone, and solo summits are one of my guilty pleasures. I hike so often with strangers for work, that I enjoy my peaceful time to myself when I can get it. Yesterday I had decided to summit Mt Indefatigable, near Upper Kananaskis Lake. The hike is not a particularly difficult one, it’s only about 5km round trip but over 1000 feet of elevation gain. The weather was fantastic when I started, sunny and warm with only a few clouds in the sky. I was carrying a pack with everything I could need: food, water, a light rain jacket, pocket knife, first aid kit and bear spray. I was ready for the day and whatever may come my way.

I got to the trailhead at about 2:15 and started up the mountain. The day was beautiful as I made my way towards the summit. About 3/4 of the way up, the radio tower and helipad on top of the mountain calling my name, I felt the air pressure drop. It was enough that my ears were actually popping. The feeling didn’t sit well with me, even though there was not a cloud in the sky. I decided to stop for a few minutes, have a snack and some water and see what happened before I continued on. Within 5 minutes, a storm rolled in from over Mt Sarrail. I lost visibility of the top of Mt Inde and could not see Mt Sarrail across the lake. I knew it was about to get bad and I started jogging back down the mountain, wanting to be clear of the scramble before the rocks got too wet.

 

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I couldnt see Mt Sarrail across the lake.

 

The storm then proceeded to pelt me with rain, freezing rain and chunks of hail, but luckily I had turned around when I did, or I would have ended up taking shelter on the mountain until it cleared. As it was, I made it back to the trailhead in time for the sun to come out and rainbow to appear over Lower Lake. As much as I hate not summiting, I was happy to have called it quits when I did, especially after last week’s rescue on Mt Indefatigable. 

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All in all, it was a pretty great hike, despite having to turn around early. The views from Inde are stunning, probably some of my favourite in Kananaskis. On a side note, this trail is officially decommissioned by AB Parks due to bears and erosion, which means that it is not maintained. It is in prime grizzly habitat, so definitely carry bear spray and make noise. When travelling this trail, be extra sure to follow Leave No Trace hiking principles, walking in the centre of the trail, not picking flora or rocks and not creating your own shortcuts.

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In another post, I will talk about other good reasons to call it quits on a hike. What are some reasons that would force you to turn around? Share your answers in the comments below!

Here are some of my other photos from the hike:

Aurora Hunting

So some of you may have heard that the aurora borealis, or northern lights, are predicted to be epic over the next few nights. The Weather Network says:

The best nights to watch, based on the forecasts from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, are Wednesday and Thursday. Space weather conditions are expected to reach at least G1 geomagnetic storm levels for both nights, with periods of G2 storm levels between sunset and midnight, EDT, and some potential for isolated G3 storm levels during those peaks. Adjust the timing according to your local time zone.

If all those terms don’t make sense to you, never fear! All you need to know is that the next few nights are going to be wild. If you have ever dreamed of staring up into a sky of dancing lights, now is a great opportunity. It’s always nice to catch the Lights before it gets too cold.

I’m going to give you a quick run down on the northern lights, i.e. what they are and how to photograph them.

Aurora Borealis: Science or Magic?

Honestly, the aurora is a little bit of both. In technical terms, the aurora is caused by electrically charged particles from the sun hitting the earths atmosphere. This is why ‘solar storms’ cause amazing displays of aurora, more particles are flying from the sun towards the earth. Different kinds of particles create different colours of light. The typical green colour is caused by particles colliding with low altitude oxygen particles; reds come from high altitude oxygen particles and purples come from nitrogen particles.*

The aurora has entranced many different people from many different cultures, for as long as humans have written down history. There are so many incredible myths and legends in which the aurora plays a part. I had always enjoyed these stories, but it was not until last May that I truly understood them.

Last May, I saw a phoenix. Seeing this shape in the sky over me, I can 100% understand where the old Norse/Inuit/Maori legends of gods and mythical creatures come from.

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It was the night of May 7th (morning of May 8th) that I saw the best aurora that I have ever seen in my life.

I could see the lights starting to dance at about 10pm, as I was getting home from visiting with friends in Banff, so I headed down to Barrier Lake to see if I could get some good shots. Within minutes of arriving at Barrier, the lights were no longer a hint on the horizon, the whole sky was dancing!

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As I was getting ready to leave, I happened to notice that the lights seemed to be making shapes directly overhead, and lo and behold: a phoenix!

Full disclosure: the aurora does not always look like this. It is much more common, especially as far south as  we are in the YYC/Kananaskis area, to see the aurora as an arc on the horizon.

Examples of arcs:

 

Overhead auroral formations are known as coronas:

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So you want to photograph the aurora?

It’s not as hard as you may think but there are a couple things that you definitely need:

  • Camera with manual settings
  • Spare camera batteries (long exposures drain batteries. So does the cold)
  • Wide angle lens. No zoom lens, although kit lenses will work.
  • Tripod
  • A clear view to the North/North-East
  • Dark skies
  • An Aurora forecasting app/website
  • Lots of patience

Before going out, check the aurora forecast. A simple google search will bring up lots of options for aurora forecasts and all will give you the same basic data: forecasted levels of geomagnetic activity and what the aurora is doing right now.

The best time to catch the aurora is when the sun is on the opposite side of the planet. This is why it’s easier to catch the aurora in the winter, there are more hours of true darkness. It’s still possible to catch the aurora in the summer, there is just a much smaller window for viewing. It also helps if there is no moon. A full moon cast so much light, that it will interfere with your ability to see the lights.

So now that you are set up in a dark area with a clear view of the skies, what do you do with your camera? Cleary shooting on auto isn’t going to cut.

There are so many ways to set your camera to catch the lights, and no one way is right or wrong, however, there are some basics to keep in mind.

  • Focus your camera to infinity. Some lens’ have an infinity symbol, but if yours doesn’t, zoom in on a distant light (like as far away as possible, I will use stars or planets) and manually adjust the focus of your lens until that distant point is clear. Remember to switch your camera to manual focus or as soon as you hit the shutter button, you will need to re-focus your camera.
  • Use a tripod. It takes a long exposure to catch the northern lights, longer than you can stand still. A tripod will guarantee a crisp, in focus shot (if you followed the first step correctly 😉 ). It’s also a good idea to use a remote, or the self-timer function to fire off the shutter so as to eliminate hand shake from pressing the shutter.
  • Turn your ISO up. ISO adjusts the light sensitivity of the sensor in your camera. The higher the ISO, the more light sensitive it is. Some cameras handle higher ISOs better than others. The higher the ISO, the grainier the photo will get. You need to find balance between aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get a well-lit photo that retains high quality.
  • Shutter speed: If the aurora is bright, you can get away with a shorter shutter speed. Short in night photography terms being <10 seconds. If the aurora is faint, or not really dancing, I like to do a ~20-second exposure. If your exposure is too long, all the lights will blur together and you will lose the definition of the movement. If you do an exposure of longer than 30 seconds, you will actually start to see the stars move in the shot. More on star trails another time…
  • Aperture: this is the f/ value on your camera. It adjusts how much light is let into the lens. The lower the number, the more you can adjust your plane of focus. The higher the number, the more of your shot will be in focus. At f/22, everything will be in good focus, where as at f/2.8 you will have a very shallow depth of field. When shooting the night sky, you obviously want as much of everything in focus as possible, so aim for a higher f/.
  • Play with your settings! Remember, there is no right or wrong, there is just creative freedom 😉 Start out at something like f/11, ISO 1600 for 10 seconds and see what it looks like. If it’s too dark or too light, adjust. Keep playing until you get it right.
  • Composition: I like to make sure I have some earthly aspect in my photos of the night sky: a mountain or a treeline gives perspective. Once you have it down pat, start throwing in new challenges, like posing people, etc.

I would love to hear your best aurora photography tips or favourite location for aurora viewing, leave them in the comments below!

 

Looking for Larches

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In the Rockies, fall is about much more than pumpkin spiced lattes; fall is for getting outside and enjoying the sunshine/snow combo of higher elevations, getting days off now that it is shoulder season and enjoying the gold that is to be found in the mountains.

Did I say gold? Why yes, yes I did.

The larches are at their peak for colour right now and the weekend weather has been awesome, which makes this a great time to get out for a hike at high altitude to bask in the golden colour of these beautiful trees.

Larches are the only coniferous tree (cone bearing, has needles instead of leaves) that we have here that drops its needles every fall; and it does do with a flourish of colour! These trees are prevalent around 7000 feet above sea level, which means to really take them in, you are looking at a solid hike.

Or are you…

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The Highwood Pass in Kananaskis, running through Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, is the highest paved road in Canada, with the road running at about 7000 feet above sea level. Do you see where I am getting with this? 😉

There are numerous fantastic hikes along this highway corridor, and all of them put the alpine zone in easy reach, even for families with small children. Some suggestions for hikes along the Highwood where you will get some great larch viewing are:

  • Pocaterra Ridge
  • Elbow Lake
  • Ptarmigan Cirque

Some other great larch hikes in KCountry are:

  • Rawson Lake
  • Chester Lake
  • Burstall Pass

All of these hikes offer spectacular views, but to take in the larches in all their glory, you have to hurry up and get hiking! The season for colour is a very brief one out here. You can also expect to encounter snow at higher elevations, so definitely bring an extra layer to throw on, and you will probably be thankful for light gloves and a buff or toque to cover your ears.

Here are some photos from my hike yesterday up Ptarmigan Cirque:

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