Fall Musings on Seasons Past

[Note: The following was first published in the October 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

As fall approached, I found myself juggling e-mail messages from my moose hunting buddies planning our annual calling-season trip. I’ve been drawn for antlered moose this year and there’s much discussion about where we should camp, who is going to bring what, and who should be my moose-hunting partner. Along with the e-mails, we’ve been passing back-and-forth digital maps of the area we want to hunt, maps easily made and modified using Google Earth. The maps provide relatively up-to-date information on the terrain, roads and trails, and thus where favourable hunting areas might be found. We can also mark on them the areas we want to look at. Once finalized, we’ll download copies of the maps to our smartphones and tablets that we can use when we are out of Internet access.

Paper versus Digital
All this reminded me how long our party has been at this moose-hunting business. I counted back and determined we’d been at it for 45 years. Some of the members of our party have changed but the party itself has been around for those many years. Of course, the Internet, e-mail and Google haven’t been around near that long. Indeed, in the early years the planning was done mostly over the phone and sometimes in face-to-face meetings.

paper digital maps

Maps come in many forms these days to help you plan your trip.

In those years we had to depend on paper topographic maps for information. We purchased them at outdoors or map-specialty stores at some expense. If we weren’t quite sure where we were going, we needed a lot of maps. Although the maps were accurate in terms of terrain, they weren’t up-to-date in terms of current roads and cutlines, some maps using 20 or more years-old information. So when we got on the ground, we often found things to be different, such as new development roads, pipelines and cutover areas.

We still use those paper maps, and they are good backups to have if digital gadgets fail, but we get a lot more current information from our digital maps. New forestry cut blocks, petroleum development roads, new and old cutlines all become evident from the Google satellite images. Granted, the data is sometimes two to five years old, but better than 20 or more years.

I also print out the digital maps in case there is a problem with the devices or it’s just inconvenient to use them. Battery power is always an issue with smartphones, tablets and GPS units. Sometimes it is quicker to look at a printed document and not bother with fumbling with screens that can be difficult to see in bright light.

All that said, I find myself taking a variety of navigation tools with me when I’m hunting. I’ll use the topo maps and tablet in camp and the truck, and haul my printed digital map, compass and GPS with me when I’m on the trail.

As I’ve mentioned before in this column, I think use of map and compass should be practised at every opportunity. Basic navigation/orienteering skills should be fundamental to using the other devices. Not only are they more reliable but also your skill in using them helps you understand what you are reading on your digital device.

Saving Memories from Data Rot

Moose camp, Berland River

Old photographs help preserve your memories, dragging up stories you thought you’d forgotten.

Going over 45 years of memories also causes me to go back and look at some of the photographs I’ve gathered over those years. Looking at old photographs is one of the best ways to rekindle memories, dragging up stories you thought you had forgot.

When I first started taking photographs as a teenager, the popular image medium of the day was 35 mm color slide film, Kodachrome or Ektachrome being the most popular. Before you could see your work, you had to take the exposed film to a lab; and a few days later receive a box of 2 x 2 inch slides, each slide encasing a frame of the processed film showing a positive color image. The slides were made to fit in certain projectors for viewing on reflective screens or walls. You could also make prints from them but projecting the slides was how the images were most often seen. I have a few thousand of these slides packed in metal boxes and stored in my cool basement. I store them that way because light and warm temperatures affect the inks in film and the colors change over time. Although the slides are ageing slowly, they are ageing. I’ve noticed slight color changes in the oldest ones and I’ve been scanning the most important slides to digital as I come across them.

Over time the popularity of color slides faded in favor of color negative film, such as Kodacolor. You did not make slides from this film but did make positive prints. Although I preferred slide film for my presentations and publications, I also took my share of color negative film and have albums full of prints. Like slide film, photo prints also age and should be protected from light and warm temperatures. You can scan the prints to digital but it is better to scan the negative; and photo-scanning software will turn the negative image to a positive digital one.

Which brings me to the present day when digital photographs are the main way images are recorded these days. I have an array of digital cameras for recording images in a variety of situations, and my digital library expands daily. So, my collection of photographs involves slides, prints and digital files. I transfer the slides and prints to digital on an “as needed” basis, but in the back of my mind I worry about the digital. The problem is that digital files also age.

It’s called “data rot” (“data degradation” or “data decay”), and occurs when the medium upon which you are storing the data (hard drive, flash drive, SD card, CD, DVD) degrades over time. Everything ages. Agents of decay include: warm temperatures; radiation from the sun, other light sources and background radioactivity; and pollution and oxygen in the air. These slowly change the chemical structure of paper, film and digital media. I’ve noticed some of the data files I’ve stored on old media have changed. Some of the manuscript files I wrote decades ago have been corrupted and many are unreadable. The colors in some photographic files have faded; details and sharpness have declined; and others just can’t be read anymore.

Another problem with digital is that the technology and media used also changes over time. Think of the floppy disk, the first medium used to store programs and data when personal computers first came on the market. Unless you have an old computer with a floppy drive, you can’t read those disks anymore. As well, newer software versions might not be able to read the files recorded under older software.

The way to fight data rot is to periodically transfer files to fresher more up-to-date media and software. This takes discipline and some time. It is also a good idea to make hard copies of important files as backups. Eventually, you have to decide what is really important to keep, not just for you but also for the people who will follow you and might want to know who you were and what you did. What media will they most easily be able to access and see?

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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The Capacity to Carry

[Note: The following was first published in the September 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

We’ve seen the signs on the sides of trucks specifying the maximum weight the vehicle can handle safely. Likewise, certain containers label the maximum volume or weight they can transport safely. We’ve also seen signs in auditoriums or theatres expressing the maximum number of people the room can safely hold. These maximums are the “carrying capacities” of these chambers and vessels.

The concept of carrying capacity is also used in population biology, including wildlife biology, to describe the maximum number of a particular species a certain prescribed habitat can hold without affecting the health of that population or habitat. For example, 100 square kilometres of prairie habitat might have a carrying capacity of 400 white-tailed deer. Now, one must keep in mind we are talking about capacity here, the maximum number the habitat can support. The actual population figure is most likely significantly lower as a result of many factors.

yarded deer

When snow gets too deep, deer yard-up, only going to a portion of the food available in their winter habitat.

The amount of food in a habitat is the chief factor used to calculate carrying capacity. Knowing how much food a deer or moose requires each day and comparing that to the amount of browse available in winter or green vegetation in summer can give you a rough estimate of the gross carrying capacity of that particular environment for each species. But of course, other factors come into play. There might be two species of deer competing for the available food. Likewise, moose and other animals compete with deer for certain foods. All animals compete for space, particularly if certain food items are found in small patches.

Another factor might be snow depth. Even though a habitat might have lots of good winter food, the snow depth can cause deer to “yard-up” and only go to the few areas where the deer fed prior to the snow becoming too deep for travel to other areas. The result can be that many deer starve despite the carrying capacity being high.

Time of the year is also important in determining carrying capacity. A habitat can support many more individuals in the spring and summer when a lot more food is available, and indeed that is when young are born and populations increase. In winter, however, there is a lot less food available and populations are lower as a result of predation (hunting), migration or disease/starvation. Hence the ultimate carrying capacity of a habitat is the winter one.

So, at first glance the concept of carrying capacity can seem quite simple but in practice quite complicated. Where the concept gets intense is when a species-at-risk confronts dwindling habitat. A case in point would be our woodland caribou. Now, I know I harp on caribou a lot in this column, but I feel our treatment of woodland caribou represents our true attitude toward our environment; that is, the caribou are nice to have as long as they don’t get in the way of our perceived prosperity (ignoring the fact that the caribou and our environment are part of that prosperity). And that is how we let the A La Peche and Little Smoky caribou herds go to the edge of extinction: we drastically cut the capacity of their habitat to carry them. Resource extraction companies were allowed to mow down critical caribou winter habitat (contiguous old-growth forests). The new government has realized this shortcoming and is attempting to do something about it. But its draft range plan for the two herds falls far short.

well site construction

Resource development sites and their infrastructure eliminate habitat and reduce the carrying capacities of many species.

Instead of increasing the carrying capacity for the caribou as quickly as possible, it allows logging and energy development to continue in “historic” areas. In place of increasing capacity by allowing a significant amount of habitat to develop, the new plan calls for 1) the wolf cull to continue, 2) the numbers of moose, deer and elk to continue to be lowered, and 3) the construction of a 100 km2 “caribou rearing facility” to increase caribou numbers under protected conditions, releasing yearlings to the outside where little new habitat will be available for them. If you don’t increase the carrying capacity of these areas, what’s the point?

Perhaps it’s time to admit defeat with these two herds. If maintaining our rate of resource extraction in these areas is so important, perhaps we should write-off these herds, wait until actual new habitat develops in 50 or more years and then repopulate the caribou with introductions from the northern herds where more protection is to be provided. If we’re not going to be serious about protecting these animals and their habitats, why spend all this time, money and effort?

Of course, I know why. It has to do with the so-called optics of the situation. The government doesn’t want to go on record as abandoning their responsibilities to a species-at-risk. So, culling wolves and building a rearing facility shows they’re doing something even though it’s not near enough to bring these herds back from the brink.

Human Carrying Capacity
Discussions about carrying capacity, especially among population biologists, often go to the “elephant-in-the-room” that few other people wish to discuss; that is, human carrying capacity. Just how many people can Alberta, Canada or this old Earth carry? As many know, the human population of the earth exceeded 7 billion not too long ago; and that population continues to grow, as the number of human deaths does not keep up with the number of births. Despite what some economists would have us believe, the human population cannot grow forever. There is a limit.

Eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote in his 2003 book, The Future of Life, that the gross human carrying capacity of the earth is around 10 billion people, provided that every bit of arable land on the planet is put into maximum agricultural production and all people become vegetarians (a lot more vegetarians can be supported than meat eaters). Of course, that’s not going to happen. Over the last few decades much cropland has been paved over, contaminated, and lost to climate change (e.g., desertification, floods, rising sea levels), and meat eating is an important component of many cultures.

As we approach or exceed our carrying capacity, life will not be that comfortable for more and more people. Indeed, we are already seeing this in terms of increases in worldwide poverty and violence, and the number of people migrating from distressed areas. So, what is a carrying capacity that will allow most people to live comfortable lives? Good question and there is much debate about the answer. Some believe it is 3.5 to 4 billion people, or the population of the earth back in the 1970s. Others believe it could be 5 to 7 billion people, provided we can maintain our current agricultural production.

One thing that is becoming obvious is that the denser our population becomes, the more people will see a degradation of their quality of life. We are already seeing that here in Alberta in terms of outdoor activities: fewer opportunities in fishing and hunting, overused wild regions, competition for space with resource extraction companies, and loss of species like the woodland caribou.

It need not all be gloom and doom. We can still make changes to ensure a better future for our children but we need governments to recognize the problems and make the hard decisions.

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Recovering Grizzlies and Caribou

[Note: The following was first published in the August 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

I have often pointed out in this column, one of the chief sources of our problems trying to conserve our renewable resources, like fish and wildlife, is our ever-growing human population and its increasing demands on our environment. Two recent examples of how we are trying to cope with this reality are the announcements made this June about the province’s threatened grizzly bears and woodland caribou.

Grizzly Bears

grizzly bear tracks

Grizzlies are seldom seen because they prefer to avoid human activity.

On June 1, the province released a draft 2016-2021 Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan (to replace the Alberta Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan 2008-2013). The public had until July 15 to provide input to the plan, online through a survey. One thing that was not on the table for discussion was the resumption of a grizzly bear hunt. The government cancelled that hunt in 2006 and it is doubtful it will be reinstated any time soon. The Threatened designation for the species would first have to be removed and that won’t happen until the population increases substantially. And that’s not going to happen until the province gets a handle on all the habitat destruction and fragmentation that is occurring in grizzly range.

The draft plan looks at these issues, as did the 2008 plan. The difference is the draft plan is providing more detail. For example, the 2008 plan designated seven grizzly Bear Management Areas (BMAs) to tailor management to specific geographical units containing distinct grizzly bear populations. During implementation of that first plan it became obvious that access of motorized vehicles into the habitat was a chief factor in grizzly bear deaths (e.g., vehicular accidents, increased access for poachers, accidental shooting of grizzlies by black bear hunters, self-defence kills). So, each BMA was divided into Core and Secondary Zones to better manage roads and vehicular access. Apparently there would be more restrictions on motorized travel in core habitat areas than in secondary ones.

As well, since the publication of the 2008 plan, there were increases in the number of conflicts between people and grizzlies on private land adjacent to public land on the eastern slopes of the Rockies. So it became necessary to better define the BMA boundaries and divide the BMAs further into Recovery, Support and Habitat Linkage Zones, which crisscross the Core and Secondary Zones.

Confused? Well, I certainly am. These complexities of subzones are going to require a manager, enforcement officer or recreator to have a map and GPS to determine just where he or she is and what rules apply.

Another change from the 2008 plan is the downgrading of motorized access restrictions from Open Route Density Thresholds (which included trails as well as roads) to Open Road Density Thresholds (which would only include roads). In other words, there would be no restrictions placed on Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs) that leave the road. A motorized vehicle disturbs wildlife of all kinds, whether on a road or off, and indeed increases the chances of bear mortality. Off-road densities need to be established in the core and support zones. It seems those concerns have been put on the shelf. Why? If we are really trying to increase grizzly numbers, these densities need to be addressed.

The draft plan focuses a lot on reducing human-caused mortality and that is indeed important. The Bear Smart program would be enhanced and more specialists in human-wildlife conflict management would be hired to educate both bears and humans. This should reduce the conflicts and bear mortality, but that is just one aspect of grizzly bear management.

If we want these bears to increase their numbers, habitat protection and enhancement should be more front-and-centre in the new plan. However, that might mean the curtailment of some petroleum and forestry projects.

Woodland Caribou
On the heels of the announcement of the draft grizzly bear plan, on June 8 the government released a mediator’s report with regard to protecting woodland caribou, along with a draft range plan for two herds near Fox Creek and Grande Cache. Why a mediator’s report? It appears the government wanted to bust up a “policy logjam,” the previous government caused, with regard to meeting an October 2017 federal government deadline to file a recovery plan for the threatened species. Using a mediator to bring all the concerned stakeholders together and develop a mutually acceptable plan was a solution to break that jam. The government has accepted the mediator’s recommendations and states it intends to move forward with them.

The highlights of mediator Eric Denhoff’s recommendations include:

  • Protecting 1.8 million hectares of caribou range in northwest and north-central Alberta (Bistcho, Yates, Caribou Mountains and Chinchaga herd ranges).
  • Restoring 10,000 kilometres of “legacy” seismic lines in the Little Smoky and A La Peche caribou ranges.
  • Establishing a 100 km2 “caribou-rearing facility” in the Little Smoky range.
pump jack

Petroleum development and service roads are some of disturbances that affect the viability of grizzlies and woodland caribou.

Protecting the range in northwest and north-central Alberta is really a no brainer. It’s the “low hanging fruit” that previous governments should have “picked” a long time ago. If they had protected caribou range in the foothills outside of Banff, the Banff herd would not have been extirpated. Similarly, if they had protected the caribou ranges in northeast Alberta, oil sands development would have been a lot different and perhaps more acceptable to the world at large. What’s curious in this report is that there is no mention of how the northeast caribou ranges should be managed. Have they been written off?

The most controversial portion of the plan is the establishment of a 100 km2, fenced caribou rearing facility in the Little Smoky caribou range. The Little Smoky and the adjacent A La Peche caribou herds are perhaps the most precarious herds in the province (outside the oil sands). Over exploitation by petroleum and forestry have destroyed much habitat, exposing the herds to increased predation. The province has responded by waging a war against the wolves in this area and lowering the numbers of moose, elk and deer to curb predation on caribou. As I have stated before in this column, I would favor a temporary wolf cull if 1) habitat protection and restoration occurred at the same time and 2) no poison was used. It appears the government has finally got the message at least concerning habitat restoration. The wolf cull will continue but efforts will begin to restore habitat.

But is it too late? The reason I ask is that you know a population is in trouble when you go to extremes to maintain it. The expensive wolf cull and now this expensive experiment in fenced-rearing are indeed extremes in managing wildlife, indicating to me that it may be too late to save this herd. I hope not. I hope we can bring the Little Smoky herd back. But I have hunted in that area and know there is a long way to go.

Alberta is truly at a crossroads with these two plans. Both plans illustrate how difficult it is to balance a healthy economy with a healthy environment, as demands increase on both. The two plans stress the need for consultation between stakeholders and governments. The real difficulty comes in making the trade-offs that ensure long-term benefits for all. If we want to see grizzly bears or indeed hunt them, we might have to give up motorized access to certain areas. If we want to see caribou on the landscape, we will have to better manage and indeed curtail our resource extraction.

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Recovering Fort McMurray

[Note: The following was first published in the June 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

As I was writing my June column, the forest fires west of Fort McMurray flared and invaded the city. My daughter was living and working there and of course was part of the evacuation. Fortunately, she lived on the south side of town and did not have to endure much of what many had in order to leave the city—none-the-less, a very stressful time for all involved, including we outsiders who were waiting for word about loved ones caught in the crisis. As of this writing our daughter is safe with her family in our home, and for that we are grateful.

Over the last few days, we have been hearing many stories of courage and generosity on the part of so many people. What was particularly amazing to me was how 88,000 people were successfully evacuated from the city with no loss of life to the fire. As Albertans, we should be very proud of our fellow citizens, especially first responders, who stepped into the fray and ensured the safety of all. We should also thank the many people in communities across the province who opened their homes, businesses and community centres to the evacuees, ensuring everyone had a place to shelter and decompress. As well, the Alberta and federal governments deserve praise for not hesitating to bring the resources needed to safeguard citizens and fight a monumental fire. I have never been more proud to be an Albertan and Canadian.

Charles Lake

The author’s daughter Joanne with a northern pike she caught out of Charles Lake north of Fort Chipewyan.

As a result of all this, I lost my focus on the subject I had been writing about, and instead decided to discuss what Fort McMurray has meant to me over the years and why I think she will recover. While listening to CBC radio’s excellent and continuous coverage of the catastrophe (much appreciated by evacuees and their families) and waiting for Joanne’s text messages describing where she was in the long line of evacuees driving south on highway 63, my thoughts drifted to the many experiences I have had at Fort McMurray over the years.

The first time I visited was in the mid-1970s when I worked for a biological consulting firm on a major gas pipeline project in the Arctic. We had hired Contact Air, out of Fort McMurray, to provide us with planes and pilots to fly aerial surveys of caribou and muskoxen along the proposed pipeline route. I had the good fortune of flying with one of Contact’s owners, the legendary Jack Bergeron. Jack was quite a character and he made the many hours we spent in his airplane anything but boring. He taught me a lot about bush flying, and perhaps most important, navigating in the Arctic. We had many adventures I won’t forget.

Because our surveys were based out of Resolute Bay, NWT, I only visited Fort McMurray once during that time, and unfortunately didn’t see much more than Contact’s hangar at the airport. At that time, Fort McMurray was a town of just a few thousand people with oil sands development just getting underway.

I had a better look at that town several years later when I drove up with a group of fishing buddies to fly into some lakes on the Canadian Shield north of Fort Chipewyan. If memory serves, Contact Airways flew us into those lakes (although I believe Jack had moved on to other adventures flying wildlife surveys in Kenya). At that time, we spent a night at a hotel in town and were able to do a little looking around before our flight the next day. The town was obviously growing and thriving as more petroleum companies were realizing the oil sands’ potential. We visited the local sporting goods store and picked up some lures. I remember the affable owner regaling us with stories of the legendary fish we were going to catch. Sure enough, we indeed caught many large pike and lake trout, and saw some amazing country.

Heritage Park Shipyard, Ft. McMurray

Fort McMurray’s Heritage Park reminds visitors that the city is much more than petroleum development. It includes a shipyard museum where historic dredges and other river boats are on display from a time when the river was a major means of getting supplies to northern communities.

I returned to Fort McMurray over the next few years to fly-in to other lakes on the shield with various people interested in seeing what the north could provide in terms of adventure and excellent fishing. We either flew out of the Fort McMurray airport to Fort Chipewyan, where a floatplane waited to take us to our lake, or we flew from the floatplane base on the Snye waterway in Fort McMurray directly to our lake. Each trip was a special adventure that embedded many fine memories in my mind.

On one trip I took my young daughter Joanne along so that she could have a taste of northern Alberta. This too was a special trip, made even more so by seeing my daughter catch some really big pike and wrestle with them while waiting for her old man to take pictures. You can’t put a price on those memories.

Now, over the last couple of years, it was Joanne who showed her mother and me around the ever-growing Fort McMurray: the new state-of-the-art airport, the Oil Sands Discovery Centre with its oil-sands tour, Heritage Park with its displays showing visitors that the city has a long history; and where to eat, where to sample craft brews, where to walk dogs and hike trails. We came to know the city pretty well, and met some pretty interesting people along the way.

So, it was with a heavy heart that we watched Fort McMurray take the hit it did during the first few days of May. What many who haven’t visited the city do not understood is that Fort McMurray is so much more than just “an oil town,” where you come to make your fortune. It is also a gateway to some magnificent northern country and adventures, and a vibrant community of people who want to make social and cultural, as well as financial contributions to society.

That is why I got upset when I read about some recent, insensitive social-media postings about Fort McMurray “getting what it deserves” from the fire because of the contribution oil sands development makes to global warming. Anyone who regularly reads my writing knows that I’m a firm believer in man-caused climate change; and yes, the oil sands operations add to the problem. But so do we all! Every time we drive our vehicles, fly in airplanes, heat our homes, lubricate a hinge or buy something made of plastic, we emit carbon and create the demand that causes the oil sands to be developed. Yes, we need to reduce carbon emissions, the sooner the better. But until we do so without catastrophically upending our economy, we will be using oil and gas. As well, we will be challenged by more catastrophic wildfires and storms. We can’t stop them from coming, but we can learn to deal with them and reduce their consequences.

Of course, the crisis in Fort McMurray is not over and there is much work to do. But it will be done. People will return and rebuild their lives. Fort McMurray will be different but I can’t help but feel it will be better. Its citizens will have a new unifying sense of themselves that will spur the city along. We are all facing challenges in this new world forming around us, and Fort McMurray will show us how to be resilient.

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Finding Our Way

[Note: The following was first published in the May 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

We shared Eskimo Tea under tarps wrapped around our two snowmobiles. We had boiled the tea on a small stove we’d hauled for the purpose. What made it “Eskimo Tea,” as described by my Inuk partner David Nanuk, was the two tablespoons of sugar spooned into each cup. David insisted there was no better way to have tea in the Arctic, and after the day we had had, I had to agree.


On the arctic tundra, Inuit experienced in traditional skills can find their way from the orientations of these hard-packed snow ridges (in this case, Mapsuk).

The early June day had started out nice enough, as we tracked a herd of caribou to its calving ground as part of a study of caribou movements in relation to a proposed gas pipeline. After a few hours spent watching the herd from a blind in some rocks, David interrupted my observations to inform me a storm was approaching and we should get back to camp. The approaching clouds from the west didn’t look too threatening; but after several weeks on the tundra with David, I had learned to respect his knowledge.

Sure enough, as we made our way back, following the faint traces of our morning tracks across the wind-blown, hard-packed snow, we suddenly found ourselves in a whiteout. Everywhere we looked all we could see was white — no distinction between sky, ground, or any sudden drops or hard objects ahead. Indeed, I nearly ran into David’s snowmobile as he stopped to suggest we wait out the storm.

So, we tied the tarps around us and boiled the tea. The wind and snow blew hard, shaking the tarps and making me realize how vulnerable we were, exposed to what nature could throw at us. Although we each wore parkas and insulated pants to keep warm (David in traditional caribou hide, me in modern down-filled cotton and nylon), it was obvious we needed to get to better shelter if we were going to survive.

Finally after a couple hours, the wind subsided, the land became distinct from the sky, and we decided to continue on our way. My problem was how we were going to navigate under the low overcast sky that obscured the sun and landmarks. David told me just to follow him, and of course I did.

Wrottsley River Camp

Our camp on the Boothia Peninsula in early June was often fog bound.

Now in those days (the 1970s) there was no GPS and a magnetic compass was useless because we were close to the magnetic pole. I carried a cumbersome solar compass that could determine direction from the position of the Sun in the sky, provided you knew the latitude and time of day. It was difficult to use but accurate. However, on a sunless day, it was also useless. I had no idea what David was using because our tracks from this morning were gone. He kept driving ahead and I followed. In a few hours our camp appeared out of the fog and cloud.

When I asked him that evening how he knew which direction to follow to find our camp, he said he was following what his father had taught him about the hard snow ridges we bounced across throughout the day. They indicated the direction of the prevailing wind or that of the hills and other obstructions redirecting that wind. I asked him how he could put all that together over the considerable distance we travelled. He said, “You have to live here.”

I was reminded of that experience when I read an article in the New York Times about some scientists trying to preserve “The Secrets of the Wave Pilots” (March 17, 2016). The piece described the legendary Polynesian sailors who first traversed the vast expanse of the Southern Pacific Ocean over 2,000 years ago. They did so without a compass or other instrument and very few landmarks. Yet, they regularly traveled over the horizon to the next island using techniques that have, until now, defied scientific explanation. Today, less than a handful of the people who occupy those islands have the knowledge of those “old ways” to navigate. These scientists sought out one such sailor to prove the validity of the technique and preserve it from extinction.

Much like David using the snow ridges, wave pilots use the complexity of ocean waves to determine the direction to be sailed and the proximity to land. They do so by sight and feeling the swells of more subtle waves through the hulls of their sailboats. To learn these techniques, the pilots have to serve long apprenticeships under elder master pilots. The scientists believe that such skills are a combination of learned and inherited elements.

Most wildlife species, especially those that migrate, have ways of orienting themselves with the planet to find their way back home or indeed fly thousands of kilometres to breeding or wintering grounds. The methods vary, depending on the species. Some use the earth’s magnetic field, others the position of the Sun or Milky Way. Whichever method they use, the information is used to calculate their position on mental maps handed down through the generations in their genes. For example, some populations of the monarch butterfly migrate from Mexico to Canada and back again over five generations. Each generation only lives long enough to make a portion of the trip but passes along the map of the trip to its offspring to complete the next portion, and so on.

Smoky River Valley

Until GPS units became commonplace, we depended upon our mental maps to orient ourselves with landmarks, the Sun or the direction North indicated by a magnetic compass.

We humans might have similar “dead-reckoning” capabilities handed down to us through our genes. For example, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been lost; i.e., not sure how to get back to my vehicle or camp. In all cases the Sun had been obscured and I had been involved in tracking an animal through the bush. Without the Sun I had been “momentarily confused” until I took out my compass and determined that the route I was following was a wrong one.

When we have a point of reference, like the Sun, a landmark or a compass to point north, we can recalibrate our mental map and picture in our minds how to “get back to camp.” Each recalibration strengthens that map and our ability to use it. We most likely received the format of that map from our ancient ancestors who depended on such a map for their survival and indeed our own existence. Although we pass that map format from generation to generation, elders must teach each generation how to use it, or the knowledge of it could be lost. For example, David told me that much of the knowledge he had learned from his father about living off the land in the Arctic was not being passed to people younger than himself because they had been taken from their families to go to residential school in Yellowknife at the age their fathers would have passed that knowledge along.

Closer to home, many of us no longer carry or know how to use a magnetic compass or find north using the stars. We’ve come to depend upon mobile devices, like smartphones and GPS units to find our way. As a result, few of us get lost but we’re also not using our mental maps like we used to or passing on such knowledge to our children. That could be a problem if our devices or the systems that support them should fail. Perhaps we should be learning the old skills as well as the new.

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Arctic, Camping, Canada, Environment, General, Woodcraft | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Crowded Lakes

[Note: The following was first published in the April 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

You’ve had a long week at work and you’re looking forward to the coming weekend when you can take the family out on the lake to do some fishing and enjoy a summer day on the water. You rise on a beautiful Saturday morning, pack the gear and head out. Arriving at the boat launch you are surprised by the number of boats and trailers ahead of you. You realize it’s going to be an hour or more before you get on the lake. Once on the lake, your idyllic vision of what a day of fishing should be is marred by the noise from several oversize speed boats, wake action from those boats violently rocking your boat and the hijinks of a few who don’t respect the rights of others wanting to enjoy the lake peacefully.

Wabamun Boat Launch

The Village of Wabamun launch can be quite crowded on summer weekends.

Sadly, the above scenario is becoming more common on recreational lakes across the province. As more and more people poured into Alberta during the past economic boom, more and more boats were purchased and hauled to lakes. The problem is the number of lakes in Alberta is finite and more boats means more crowded lakes, at least on the weekends. Over the last few years, it has become an issue for many people who use lakes and for local municipalities who have to deal with the conflicts and attempt to mitigate them.

Wabamun Lake
For example, Wabamun is a very popular recreational lake less than an hour’s drive west from Edmonton. It is relatively large and has many amenities and services for people coming to enjoy the lake: a provincial park with day-use and campground, a year-round village with the usual visitor services (food and hardware stores, restaurants, accommodations), several summer villages, and about 20 boat launches of varying quality around the lake.

Wabamun Boat Launch

The Village of Wabamun manages its launch so that boats can be launched and loaded efficiently. The village is planning to expand the launch.

According to a 2013 Parkland County study of boat launches on the lake, the most popular launch was at the Village of Wabamun (49% of users responding to a survey) on the east end of the lake. This is a double-vehicle, concrete launch with pull-through parking for 14 vehicles with trailers, and overflow parking for another 50. There is an adjacent timber pier with floating boarding docks. The village charges a $15 a day ($300 a season) for use of the launch.

The second most popular launch was at the Summer Village of Seba Beach (19%) on the west end of the lake. The single launch consisted of gravel access to natural shoreline. Vehicles with trailers were banned from the adjacent parking lot, forcing boaters to park on the streets. Last year Seba Beach closed the launch because of the congestion and the conflict between residents and people parking in residential areas. The closure pushed boaters to less desirable launches around the lake, causing congestion and conflict at those locations.

Fallis Boat Launch

Many boat launches around Wabamun Lake are ad hoc on unstable shoreline going into shallow water.

Wabamun Lake Provincial Park at the east end of the lake was the third most popular launch site (12%) in the 2013 study. In light of the shutdown at Seba Beach, I assume the provincial park launch is now the second (or the first) most popular. It includes a double-vehicle concrete launch and an adjacent concrete hand launch, with associated floating docks. This site has the largest number of parking spaces for vehicles and trailers on the lake (140 pull-through stalls), plus a large day-use area. The park maintains the site and does not charge a fee for use.

On any given weekend in the summer with half-decent weather, it doesn’t take long for those 140 parking stalls at the provincial park and 64 stalls at the village to fill up. In Wabamun, vehicles with boats have on occasion lined-up nearly out to the highway. Because of the congestion, the village has employed monitors to direct traffic at the launch ensuring boats are launched efficiently. However, vehicles and trailers late to the game are parking on side streets, again creating conflict with residents.

Rich's Point Boat Launch

Some more established launches on Wabamun Lake have a few amenities but little parking.

This crowding on weekends prompted Parkland County’s 2013 boat launch study. It recommended the launches at Wabamun village and the provincial park be upgraded to better handle more boats and vehicles, and that an additional launch site be developed on the south shore of the lake. Although user surveys indicated an improved launch was needed on the west end of the lake, the report stated the Seba Beach site was not suitable because of poor shoreline conditions, shallow water depth and little space for future development (forecasting the launch’s closure). Although there are many other launch sites around the lake, most are ad hoc—not developed or with minimum facilities, few parking spaces, shallow water or unstable shoreline.

Boat Carrying Capacity
Crowding at launches is one thing but boat traffic on a lake itself can be a problem of its own. Just how many boats can a particular lake of a particular size sustain before such traffic starts affecting the health of the lake and everyone’s enjoyment of it? Good question that has been asked many times across North America but no universal answer has been provided. The boat “carrying capacity” of a lake is the maximum number of boats the lake can handle before damage to the health of the lake occurs. It can also be defined in terms of the different kinds of boating activities on the lake. For example, kayak and canoe use is generally incompatible in the same area of a lake where there are personal watercraft, speedboats towing water skiers, or fishing boats travelling to a fishing area. Likewise fast moving boats are incompatible in areas where fishing boats have stopped to fish.

The size of the lake, its depth and major use are also factors in measuring the boat carrying capacity. For example, a lake far from major cities might attract mostly fishing boats. Fishing boats are generally less obtrusive because they usually don’t speed and tend to be smaller in size than boats used for speed or towing skiers. Canoes, kayaks and rowboats are the least obtrusive but even they have a limit based on the fact that most users prefer some solitude.

The wake a boat or personal watercraft makes can also affect a lake. They have little affect in water over two metres in depth but in shallow water a boat’s prop wash and its wake can disturb sediment on the bottom that becomes suspended in the water and eventually settle on underwater plants (that supply food and habitat for fish) or fish spawning areas. Wakes can also disturb nesting birds, like grebes, which construct nests in the vegetation along the shore and cannot tolerate those nests being flooded from waves.

Water pollution is also an issue with boats. The pollution made by older, 2-cycle motors is well documented. Twenty-five to 30% of the fuel is not burned but injected into the water. Newer 2-cycle motors expel less fuel, but the much heavier 4-cyle motors are best at preventing this direct pollution.

Many lakes in the U.S. and Canada have had some success zoning lakes, where shallow water, sensitive wildlife areas, special fishing areas and approaches to launches are marked on the water (usually with buoys) and boats are required to slow down or not enter these areas. Perhaps it’s time to start zoning our lakes and enforcing regulations that control the boat speed in certain zones.

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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The Costs of Climate Change

[Note: The following was first published in the February 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

The Paris Climate Change Conference last year was indeed a milestone along the long road of nations becoming aware of their responsibilities to protect our environment and future. Many countries stepped up, but the big question remains: will it be enough? Only time will tell.

What we do know is that the changes to our climate coming in the next 30+ years are already cast in stone. Our carbon-emission reductions today will have little impact on the climate until about 2045. In the mean time we need to know what’s going to happen locally in the next 30 or 40 years, so we can adapt and hopefully mitigate the consequences. More specifically for the readers of this magazine, how is climate change going to affect our fish and wildlife, and the future of fishing, hunting and trapping?

2013-09 Meredith-LakeLandPark-2

Our changing climate will affect our recreational opportunities; we just aren’t hearing how much.

Although the Alberta government has published an extensive plan to reduce carbon emissions, there is little published on what our environment and economic outlook will be over the next 30+ years as a result of the coming changes to the climate. That is strange because there is a lot discussion in the carbon-reduction plan about the costs of implementing the reductions but nothing specific about the costs to the province if no reductions are made. Possibly studies are underway or being contemplated, but until they are published, we can turn to the work of one of our neighbors and perhaps extrapolate what they have found to Alberta’s situation.

In December of 2015 the Montana Wildlife Federation published “The Impact of Climate Change on Montana’s Outdoor Economy.” Power Consulting Inc. of Missoula conducted the study using detailed versions of the global climate models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to predict what will happen in Montana and its regions in the next 40 years. The following is a brief summary of some of the findings.

Temperature: The report predicts the average temperature in Montana will rise 2 to 3 degrees C (4-5º F) by 2055. The change will be greater in winter, rising 3.5 degrees C (6.5º F) in the northeast portion of the state. As well, the study predicts there will be 20 to 40 (depending on the region) fewer days when temperatures will be below freezing. On the other hand, the number of days when the temperature will be above 35 degrees C (95º F) in summer will increase by 5 to 15 days.

Precipitation: Montana is predicted to receive 3 to 6 percent more precipitation overall, with the northeast portion of the state receiving an additional 6 to 9 percent. More precipitation will fall in winter and less will fall in summer, with precipitation in western Montana being 10 to 15 percent higher in winter and 5 to 10 percent lower in summer.

As a result of Montana being warmer in winter, less of the precipitation will fall as snow, thus reducing the snowpack in the mountains. This will reduce water flow in streams in summer, with the runoff occurring much earlier in the spring. Snowmobilers, skiers and other winter recreationists will have to recreate in much shorter and warmer winters with far less snow.

Forests: Increased temperatures and changes in moisture regimes will put stress on many native trees. Diseases will increase, as will pests, such as bark beetles. Species compositions will change as tree and shrub species better able to handle the warmer and drier conditions replace those that can no longer compete, such as white bark pine.

Grasslands: The report states: “The grasslands of Montana will convert to sage brush and other scrub brush dominant species.” This will further push wildlife into the mountains and change movement patterns for species like elk and pronghorn antelope.

Wildfires: The area burned by wildfires in Montana will double between 2015 and 2055 as a result of the stress placed on vegetation from higher summer temperatures and limited moisture. Indeed, the fires might well be the agents of change on the landscape as invading species out-compete the former native species to occupy the burned-over lands.

Fish: As a result of earlier snow melt and less runoff in late spring and summer, stream water temperatures will rise, putting stress on fish, especially cold-water fish, such as trout. This will open the streams to invasive species that can better handle the warm temperatures. Anglers will have to change their expectations with regard to what is caught and what can be harvested.

Wildlife: Migrating wildlife, such as elk and mountain sheep, will stay in the high country for longer periods of time as they seek cooler temperatures than what they are experiencing at lower elevations. They will be less likely to be pushed down by early winter snowfalls. Migration patterns for both big game and waterfowl will change as species adapt to the changing conditions. Hotter and drier summers will mean less forage. Hunters will have to change their habits and expect lower success rates. Although trapping was not mentioned in the report, one can assume that furbearers will likewise have to adapt to the changing conditions and generally move higher in elevation to follow their habitats.

Economic Costs: The majority of the report focused on the economic costs of these impacts on Montana’s outdoor economy, including outdoor recreation (tourism, wildlife watching, national park visits, fishing, hunting, winter sports), forest-based activities (wildfire control, forest loss) and the impact of wildfire on residences within the “urban-wildland” interface.

In Montana, the recreation-tourism sectors are responsible for over $2.3 billion in labour earnings per year and about 42,000 jobs. The report estimated a total of about 11,000 jobs would be lost in the next 40 years, with a loss of $281 million in earnings per year. Wildlife watching, hunting and fishing will lose some 6100 jobs, with a loss of $149 million in earnings. More specifically, the report estimated that 1800 jobs and $48 million in labour earnings would be lost as a result of reduced sport fishing activity and 1600 jobs and $39 million in labour earnings lost in big game hunting.

2010-04 Meredith-Jasper-AthabascaRiver

How will shorter, warmer winters affect the mountain snowpack and water flows in our rivers?

Now, comparing Montana to Alberta is a bit of a stretch. Montana is a little over half the size of Alberta with a population of about 1 million people compared to Alberta’s 4.2 million. Our economies are similar except agriculture leads the economy in Montana, where oil and gas dominates Alberta’s economy. With the boreal forest, Alberta has a lot more forested land. We are north of and tend to be cooler than our southern neighbor, although climate models predict our temperature increases will be larger. As well, our public lands are managed much differently. So, we cannot make direct comparisons from the Montana report to what might happen here. But we can use the report to indicate, in a general sense, what we could be seeing in the near and distant future: changes on the landscape, loss of fishing and hunting opportunities, and loss of jobs and income in certain sectors of the economy.

We are already seeing changes on our landscapes: increases in the number and severity of wildfires and extreme weather events, warming of lakes and streams. Shouldn’t we know more specific information about what’s coming so we can plan our futures and mitigate the consequences of the changes where possible?

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta, Alberta Outdoorsmen, Climate Change, Conservation, Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment