Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Skate news for early January

Throngs enjoy a healthful Family Day skate on Ottawa's Rideau Canal Skateway in 2014. Photo: Lucy Martin

Throngs enjoy a healthful Family Day skate on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal Skateway in February of 2014. Photo: Lucy Martin

It’s time, as far as I am concerned, for outdoor winter sport season to commence. Or resume.

We had some rather good skiing in early December. But then it warmed.

I’m writing this on Jan 2nd in Ottawa, where my lawn is sadly visible through a mere dusting of snow. There’s finally enough cold in the forecast to preserve snow and ice, we just need more of the white stuff to fall from the sky.

Skating is available in some locations. I enjoyed a happy family skate at the North Grenville Municipal Centre in Kemptville on Dec 31st. Many arenas offer skate sessions for the public.

Indoor skating is reliable but it doesn’t hold a candle to the natural high of outdoor skating. Ottawa is, of course, famed for one of the best such natural skateways in the world. Alas, the Rideau Canal Skateway is not open yet. Indeed, authorities are warning the public to stay off the ice there, no matter how tempting it looks. It will open as soon as the necessary thickness is attained, and it’s well worth experiencing.

I’ve been collecting skate-themed material for the last month, to share with anyone who cares. Here’s something from a “luxury travel blog” about 6 of the best outdoor skating rinks around the world – and yes, Ottawa made that list.

The UK’s Daily Mail is always good for lavishly illustrating whatever it gases on about, as trumpeted in
these headlines:
From cruising the walls of the Kremlin to zooming past windmills: The world’s most breathtaking ice skating venues revealed

  • Adventure travel website compiled a list of the best ice skating rinks
  • Includes Lac de Joux, the largest expanse of frozen water in Europe
  • Features longest natural rink, 4.8 mile Rideau Canal Skateway in Canada 

Is Ottawa proud of it’s home-town claim to fame? Oh my, yes, you betcha! Some times in a parochial way. Ottawa’s skateway used to be the world’s longest until that upstart, Winnipeg, stole that thunder. No matter. We are still the “largest”, so there. And among the “poshest” according to this from the Ottawa Citizen, which is basically bragging about making the aforementioned Luxury Travel blog list.

Winnipeg got some notice from the New York Times for their very creative use or warming huts that are also architectural sculpture/art. And no wonder. If you thought skating in Ottawa gets cold, Winnipeg wins that contest, hands down. From the article by Elaine Glusac:

Forget customary cabins with roaring fireplaces or heat-belching furnaces. These huts more closely resemble art installations, and many, including my favorite, “Wind Catcher,” a Caribbean blue open-sided box with an orange wind funnel within, aren’t even warm. Six years ago, Peter Hargraves, a principal at Winnipeg-based Sputnik Architecture, was co-founder of an architectural contest to build inventive huts along the river rink.

“The project was selfish initially,” Mr. Hargraves said one afternoon last February as we skated the trail together. Without warming huts, he said, he’d be freezing before he finished tying the skate laces for his three children. Once he determined the city needed warming huts, the architect saw a unique opportunity.

“This is Winnipeg. We’re a winter city,” he said. “I thought, let’s enhance it.”

Enhance and embrace winter. My sentiments exactly. And there certainly was a lot to love (endure?) last year. As reported by the Ottawa Citizen:

The Rideau Canal Skateway attracted an average of 23,000 daily visits last winter — the most since statistics were first captured in 1992-93 — according to the National Capital Commission.

In its 2013-14 annual report, tabled Friday, the NCC says skateway attendance was about 1.2 million last winter, an increase of 2,000 a day over the previous year. There were 58 skating days during the season, the most since 2008-09.

Researching this subject I was happily surprised to see that Montréal is looking at opening up skating on the Lachine canal. It’s still just a proposal, but backer would like to see that happen by 2017. From the CBC:

Parks Canada officials say they are looking at the idea of opening the canal for skating, but don’t have any specific details at the moment.

Skaters also like the idea, such as Jonathan Brun who runs a website called Patiner Montreal that shows people where to find a skating rink in their area.

“Bringing people out of their homes in the winter and into a collective space where there’s a park or a skating rink is good for the community,” said Brun.

“You end up meeting your neighbours, you end up getting more exercise and enjoying the city more.”

There are outdoor rinks in Ottawa, besides the not-yet-open canal. The “Rink of Dreams” fronting City Hall and the Skating Court at Lansdowne Park are both open (and free).

Portland Ontario is once again getting ready for their big “Skate the Lake” event Sat. Jan 24th. That takes place on a large (1k) natural ice oval on Big Rideau Lake. Of course conditions vary, but that’s usually a top-notch surface. Race day features distances from 5k to 50k, for all skill levels. With no training at all, I’ve been at the tail end of the 10K distance in a previous year. (They serve snert too.) I can personally recommend it as a very warm, small-town friendly event. An embodiment of embracing winter and Canadian hospitality, really.

And we may need to embrace winter all the more poignantly. Martha Foley sent me a link to a technical study titled “Declining availability of outdoor skating in Canada” (.pdf) (by Jeremy R. Brammer, Jason Samson and Murray M. Humphries):

 Climate change is,and will continue, altering the supply of ecosystem services 1,2. Cultural ecosystem services provide important societal benefits but are challenging to operationalize 2–5. The impact of warming on these cultural activities, such as ice skating, are likely to be among the most broadly obvious and compelling impacts of climate change 6. Here we report that the availability and benefits of skating on the world’s largest outdoor ice skating facility: declined from 1972 to 2013, was strongly dependent on weather, and is projected to continue declining with an accelerated rate between 2020–2090.

OK, winter isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who love that season and all it brings, there’s even more reason to value that now and work to keep it for the future.

 Skate the Lake's excellent 1 kilometer rink in 2008. Photo: Lucy Martin

Worth the trip: Skate the Lake’sexcellent 1 kilometer rink in 2008. Photo: Lucy Martin

Across the continent with a dog and a canoe

place holder

Seven months with a canoe and a dog. That’s how an adventurer from northwestern Ontario has spent a large chunk of 2014. Mike Ranta, a 43-year-old man from the small town of Atikokan, Ontario – the “Canoeing Capital of Canada” – has just completed the adventure of a lifetime by paddling solo across North America accompanied only by his dog, Spitzii. (Spitzii is a Finnish spitz breed of dog, hence the name)

Mike and Spitzii left Vancouver, British Columbia on April 1 and arrived in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia on October 31 after travelling over 7000 km. Their route took them up the Fraser river, across the continental divide, through the Canadian prairies on the north Saskatchewan river, across Lake Manitoba and the upper Great Lakes, down the Ottawa river and the lower St. Lawrence and along the eastern coast of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Most nights they slept in a tent, sometimes at public marinas, often out in the remote wilderness and occasionally on the property of generous people they met along the way who offered them a secluded place to spend the night – and a meal. Courtesy of Mikes GPS tracking locator, his actual route can be viewed here.

PastedGraphic-2The Guinness World Records organization is expected to certify this trip as the longest solo canoe paddle ever undertaken. And it marks the first time a solo paddler has ever crossed Canada from coast to coast by canoe in one canoeing season.

So why would someone do something like this?

Mike has undertaken this trip in order to raise funds for a youth centre in his home town through a non-profit organization entitled Atikokan Youth Initiatives. And he has been spreading the word along the way about the importance of getting young people interested in exercise and outdoor adventure and showing respect for nature.

Equally importantly, crossing Canada by some means not involving an internal combustion engine (bicycle, horse, walking, wheel chair, canoe) has become somewhat of a right of passage in this country for a certain segment of the population. As someone who bicycled across Canada many years, ago I can definitely relate to that urge to prove yourself and see the country the way few others do.

I was fortunate enough to meet up with Mike on two occasions. With his large sombrero-style hat, colourful rain gear, large rubber boots, long hair and beard and booming voice, he certainly comes across as a larger-than-life individual. But he also impresses with his deep knowledge of the early history of Canada and its cultural traditions in each region he travelled on this trip. And, not surprisingly, his love for the countrys natural scenery comes through loud and clear.

Mike told me about some of his more hair-raising moments. These included a portage of over 200 kilometres along the trans-Canada highway through the Rocky Mountains in the snows of mid-April, paddling upstream on the Winnipeg River in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario against the fastest and highest water levels that river has seen since 1926, falling down a 15-foot cliff while portaging the canoe in Ontario and battling the tidal currents on the lower St. Lawrence below Quebec City – which finally caused Mike to portage by road again until he reached the Atlantic Ocean. And his last obstacles were the relentless swells and high winds on New Brunswicks east coast which forced him to portage his canoe for virtually the entire length of New Brunswick – a distance of over 200 km (again!). He finished his trip one day before a major snowstorm hit the Canadian maritime provinces.

Then there were the encounters. One night on the prairies an aggressive pack of coyotes surrounded the tent yelping at top volume, apparently intent on attacking Spitzii. Only loud banging on pots and brandishing a paddle scared them off. Another evening, after a long paddle across a portion of Lake Superior, they approached shore to camp only to be met by a very large black bear who made it plain that that spot belonged to him (or her); a quick exit to look for another camping spot was the wise choice. On the North Saskatchewan river, they came across a dead body which they promptly reported to the local police (no word on how that resolved itself). In northern Manitoba, man and dog had a frightening, extremely close encounter with a lightning strike during a thunderstorm which left Mike with a ringing in his ears for a few days. And after landing at a camping spot near Quebec city, Mike got a lesson in tidal action when he had to go for an impromptu swim to rescue his canoe which the tide was slowly carrying out into the middle of the river. Read about his own account of 5 major brushes with deathhere.



But there was also the kindness of strangers. After Mike inadvertently left his wallet containing all his money and information in the wilderness at the end of a portage, another paddler coming through the next day found it and managed to get it back to Mike with more money in it than when he lost it!

You can listen to a CBC Thunder Bay interview with Mike on his last day of paddling here.

So whats next for Mike. Well, he intends to write a book about his trip and, in 2016, repeat the cross-Canada adventure by way of a different canoe route!


Chris Hadfield’s inspiring views of planet Earth

youarehere_450A new book by retired astronaut Chris Hadfield generated chatter on NCPR earlier this week, but I want to wax rhapsodic too. What’s not to like about seeing our earth as the marvel it is?

It helps that Hadfield is a publicist’s dream come true. NASA and Canada could not have asked for a better representative. He’s built a solid reputation as a high-achiever who is funny, charming, musical and nicely down-to-earth, despite attaining world-wide fame.

If you’d like to hear more about Hadfield and the story behind the new book, here’s a long interview with Bob McDonald, long-time host of CBC science program Quirks and Quarks. McDonald, it should be noted, is a keener on space exploration, to the point where he wrote a book on a sub-set of that action: Canadian Spacewalkers.

Hadfield wrote another acclaimed book in 2013: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination and Being Prepared for Anything. Here’s what astronomer Phil Plait had to say about that book in this Slate review:

Far from being clichéd “it’s the journey, not the destination” exposition, he gives pretty solid advice on attitude, most of which runs counter to the overly-positive aphorisms you generally see.

One of my favorites, for example, was “visualize failure”. Hadfield learned that if you want to survive in space, you’d better be ready when something (or everything) goes wrong, so you’d better sweat the small stuff and figure out contingency plans for when things go south. This advice runs 180° from the “visualize success” motivational posters, which I have always found trivialize the process of achieving a goal. That kind of advice might be encouraging, but in the end doesn’t really help you actually get there. You can visualize success all you want, but when things go wrong you won’t be prepared. Far from being cynical, visualizing failure is pragmatic — it might save your life in space, but it might help you attain your own goals right here on Earth.

Another bit I liked was, “aim to be a zero”. Someone who actively makes things worse is a “-1”, and someone who actively adds value is a “+1”. But in general, walking into a new situation and trying to add value before you know the lay of the land (or worse, telling everyone how great you’ll be) can easily turn a positive value into a negative one. Initially aiming to be a zero prevents that — it’s like the doctor’s adage, “First, do no harm.” As Hadfield puts it, “You have to be competent, and prove to others you are, before you can be extraordinary. There are no shortcuts, unfortunately.” It’s very rare that someone is a +1 out of the gate, and chances are you won’t be.

I know, that’s not as inspirational as you might expect. But it’s realistic. That’s why I like it better.

The book review site Good Reads had this comment on Hadfield’s semi-autobiography from Rick

Depending on your outlook on things, this book will either make you feel like you have lived a vastly underwhelming and underachieving sort of life, full of these lost opportunities, these missed chances… or it will make you feel infinitely inspired, like you can live more and do more just be more in general, and it will serve as fuel to your rocket, to use a hackneyed analogy.

Hadfield and I are almost the exact same age. So if I make the mistake of comparing my life to his, I come away feeling very small indeed. But Hadfield philosophy would never make that mistake. No, every day (he reminds the reader) we get to make choices about what we value and how to best pursue worthy goals.

In his newest book Hadfield says something else I quite like: it would be easy to moralize about what the images have to say. But he wants the viewer to look, think and draw their own conclusions.

Lastly, if this all sounds like a giant commercial I’m OK with that because Hadfield isn’t hauling the proceeds off to the bank.

“The pictures belong to everybody. We’re donating the proceeds to the Red Cross. My motivation was not to get rich making this book. It was much more that I wanted people to see the world the way we see it from the space station and hopefully feel some of the change of perspective.”

True, some would argue the Red Cross could stand a good make-over itself. But then again, everyone can aim higher (and be happier for it) according to the Hadfield school of life.

Great Lakes from the International Space Station 2013-03-15 Public Domain NASA/Chris Hadfield - Expedition 35/Chris Hadfield

Great Lakes from the International Space Station 2013-03-15
Public Domain
NASA/Chris Hadfield – Expedition 35/Chris Hadfield

Drought, then and now

Indian Valley Reservoir, California USA - Planet Labs satellite image. The effects of California’s drought become quite apparent in this image of a reservoir in Lake County, which supplies water to nearby Yolo County. In a non-drought year the visible water covers roughly twice the area, and contains ten times the volume.

Indian Valley Reservoir, California USA – Planet Labs satellite image. The effects of California’s drought become quite apparent in this image of a reservoir in Lake County, which supplies water to nearby Yolo County. In a non-drought year the visible water covers roughly twice the area, and contains ten times the volume.

I am just back from a week in California, which is experiencing a brutal, historic drought.

As I flew there and back, the lakes, reservoirs and dams all looked like this photo: drained and still-dwindling.

Running out of water is a chilling prospect, as some well-users there are already experiencing.

Really, this is the stuff of nightmares. When you get right down to basics, water probably comes right after air as something we simply cannot live without – no ifs, ands or “should haves”.

And while California is the hapless poster child for water shortages, much of the west is hurting too.

Why is this happening? Experts weighing that question derive some conclusions from the “Dust Bowl” experienced in the 1930s. A new NASA study puts the historical record in perspective:

Using a tree-ring-based drought record from the years 1000 to 2005 and modern records, scientists from NASA and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found the 1934 drought was 30 percent more severe than the runner-up drought (in 1580) and extended across 71.6 percent of western North America. For comparison, the average extent of the 2012 drought was 59.7 percent.

In the U.S., debate about things like global warming and this recent drought tends to argue about natural or human causes. This NASA study finds both were in play:

Two sets of conditions led to the severity and extent of the 1934 drought. First, a high-pressure system in winter sat over the west coast of the United States and turned away wet weather – a pattern similar to that which occurred in the winter of 2013-14. Second, the spring of 1934 saw dust storms, caused by poor land management practices, suppress rainfall.

“In combination then, these two different phenomena managed to bring almost the entire nation into a drought at that time,” said co-author Richard Seager, professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York. “The fact that it was the worst of the millennium was probably in part because of the human role.”

The high-pressure ridge that effectively blocks wet weather may be beyond human control. But there’s hope better land use practices to combat erosion will help this time around.

Dust clouds reflect sunlight and block solar energy from reaching the surface. That prevents evaporation that would otherwise help form rain clouds, meaning that the presence of the dust clouds themselves leads to less rain, Cook said.

“Previous work and this work offers some evidence that you need this dust feedback to explain the real anomalous nature of the Dust Bowl drought in 1934,” Cook said.

Still, it’s best to not rest on those laurels.

…agricultural producers need to pay attention to the changing climate and adapt accordingly, not forgetting the lessons of the past, said Seager. “The risk of severe mid-continental droughts is expected to go up over time, not down,” he said.

If we’re lucky, then, the weather ridge could shift to allow rain and snow pack back to the parched west. And while these explanations are helpful, there may be more to the story as well.

It’s just scary, damned scary, to see what too little water can mean.

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. Dust bowl surveying in Texas, April 1935. Image: NOAA George E. Marsh Album, theb1365, Historic C&GS Collection

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. Dust bowl surveying in Texas, April 1935. Image: NOAA George E. Marsh Album, theb1365, Historic C&GS Collection

Digging into the “less is more” lifestyle

A relief of Frugality on the Ceska sporitelna building, Czech Republic. Image by SJu, Creative Commons.

A relief of Frugality on the Ceska sporitelna building, Czech Republic. Image by SJu, Creative Commons.

The list of dangerous topics best avoided in polite company often includes religion, politics, money and sex. But what would be left to blog about if we honored that wisdom?

So today I’ll hit up money. Specifically my new guilty pleasure, something called “Mr. Money Mustache“. Which comes with a rowdy working slogan: “Financial freedom through badassity”. (And I should just caution anyone who cares, he cusses sometimes. Likes to use the f-word for emphasis.)

The search phrase that took me there was “early retirement.” Retirement has different definitions and is movable target, of course. Easy for some, impossible for others. Something I like about the “MMM” website is it can help anyone (at any stage of life) re-think their relationship to money, values and thrift.

Soon I was hooked. Mind you, I’m one of those types who has to read books, watch movies, etc., in chronological order. So I haven’t even made it to the 2012 posts yet. But I really like some of his key concepts. None of them will shock All In readers, but they are worth contemplation:

~ time is a limited commodity of great value

~ relationships matter more than things

~ massive material consumption is bad for the planet and does not bring lasting happiness

~ intentional frugality can be a form of freedom

~ cycling and libraries totally rock!

~ many of the best things in life are found in nature and are free

~ most of us can find ways to spend less – which is worthwhile, if only to free up money for that which you value most

He’s also fun to read, with nods to things like the virtues of stoicism and picking good places to live.

Sure, it’s easy to find fault with his set-up. (Or his numbers. Or his advantages.) But Mr Money Mustache says the hyper-critical are missing the point:

A Complainypants looks only at results – seeing the external trappings or the successes of a particular role model’s life, and justifies why he can’t have those things. And then makes himself unhappy because of not having those results.

Instead, the Complainypants needs to think about the reward of puzzle-solving. It’s not the results that make you happy, it’s the using of your own mind and skills to advance your own cause. You won’t get any further telling me that I have failed to account for your particular life’s situation in my blog.

You will get further by figuring out how to solve the situation for yourself

There’s a whole genre of books and blogs devoted to saving money, but this one has an amusing mix of everyday-practical and broad theory. In his own words:

Mr. Money Mustache’s whole deal is that even by just paying a tiny bit of attention to the details, I find that you can have the whole middle-class lifestyle with well under a third of the standard US level of consumption.

As Mr. Money Mustache told Forbes Magazine in this 2013 interview:

It’s not like I did anything complicated or difficult to retire early. Minimize your spending regardless of your income, and then good things will happen. People in other countries write to me and say, “Do you realize how silly this is? In Germany, you’re just a normal guy. This is what normal people do: They don’t spend all their money.” But in America, the first guy not to spend all his money gets into all the newspapers.

Forbes has this slide show of 12 money tips from Mr. Money Mustache.

My own life has been a mix of economic circumstances. I didn’t come from real poverty, but at times I have had little. Now I’m comfortably middle-class, most gratefully so!

Which is to say, I know talking about early retirement as if that’s a real choice for all is insulting. We don’t all have the same education or skill sets. Mr. Money Mustache and his wife both started out as high-earning professionals. (And he still works for pleasure and additional income doing carpentry and house renovations.)

But it seems to me everyone can benefit by taking a closer look at what they have and how they use it, for maximum benefit in their lives and a lower ecological impact. And one need not be thinking about retirement to start the journey of ignoring our culture’s bad messages about spending. Learning to do more with less can be smart and fun!

Predators on our landscape

Raccoon. Photo: Eliya, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Raccoon. Photo: Eliya, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Several converging experiences over the last week got me to thinking about the role predators play in the food chain and even, it turns out, on the shape of our landscape.

It began with my hen house, led to the ridge at the top of my hay field, and ended in Yellowstone Park.

Photo: Mary Thill, Saranac Lake

Photo: Mary Thill, Saranac Lake

A few days ago, I mixed up the usual morning hot mash for my laying hens and headed out to the hen house. Shock of “things are not as they should be” when I opened the door. Feathers everywhere. Three dead hens, three seriously injured. And up in the rafters, an adolescent raccoon. I dumped the mash and ran to the tool shed to find something to encourage the raccoon’s immediate departure. By the time I returned, it had left on its own accord.

Human error. My error made it possible for the raccoon to attack the hens. The previous night, when I closed the hen house door after dusk, I didn’t notice the raccoon was already tucked in along the rafters. Over the course of the night, it must have played “catch the bird” with the hens. Not much sign of eating but lots of destruction.

I’ve learned over the years that the best defense against raccoon, fox and weasel attacks on hens is to have a way to secure the hen house door at night–plus metal stripping along all small openings so the weasels can’t, well, weasel their way in. While I am not opposed to the killing of a wild animal that is clearly rabid or exhibiting aggressive behavior around my house or barnyard, I really prefer to find other solutions. Live and let live (as long as the predator understands that the hens or lambs get to live, too).

Two (vulnerable) lambs. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Two (vulnerable) lambs. Photo: Ellen Rocco

The next night, I heard coyote calls over the ridge. With my sheep flock gone, I no longer worry about lamb safety, but as recently as last summer, if we had sheep pasturing out of sight of the house, in spite of the combination of permanent and moveable electric fencing, I probably would have walked to the back pasture to make sure any recently born lambs were safe. I never lost lambs to coyote, but neighbors who also raise sheep certainly have. Once again, solid fencing or night time housing can protect against predators.

Frankly, I love the call of coyote, even when it sets me worrying about predatory attacks. Of course, coyote, like most predators, are opportunistic. They go for the easy prey, feeding largely on field rodents and birds rather than domesticated animals.

The third episode in my predator musings came with a video my brother sent me. A long time activist on behalf of wolf protection, my brother has closely followed the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park and the ups and downs of their protected status. This video, shared below, is extraordinary because it explores how the wolves have had a much deeper impact on the ecology of the Park than we usually attribute to them. Yes, we all know that deer populations run out of control when humans are their only predator. We also know that uncontrolled deer populations destroy bird and other wild life habitat. But check out this video for a different take on the role of the wolf–a story of how the wolf’s impact on deer behavior has transformed the Yellowstone landscape.

After watching the video, I went down the hall to talk to our web guy Dale Hobson about sharing it with you. He reminded me that we have some extraordinary photos of north country predators taken by our listeners and web audiences–in the Photo of the Day albums.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Imprint of a Great Horned Owl that went in feet first to grab a mouse under the snow in Canton. Photo: Joshua Johnson, Bemus Point NY.

Imprint of a Great Horned Owl that went in feet first to grab a mouse under the snow in Canton. Photo: Joshua Johnson, Bemus Point NY.

Red fox headed home with lunch for the crew. Photo: Amy Cook, Gouverneur NY.

Red fox headed home with lunch for the crew. Photo: Amy Cook, Gouverneur NY.


“Catch of the Day,” mink with a brown trout on the West Branch of the Ausable, Photo: Larry Master, Lake Placid


Two predators go for the easy snack: bird feeders.

Unusual visitor to the bird feeder, a marten. Photo: Howard Linke, North River NY.

Unusual visitor to the bird feeder, a marten. Photo: Howard Linke, North River NY.

A rare daytime visitor to the suet feeder--a fisher--caught on trail cam. Photo: Larry Master, Lake Placid, NY

A rare daytime visitor to the suet feeder–a fisher–caught on trail cam. Photo: Larry Master, Lake Placid, NY


Geese stand their ground, a cautionary tale

These Canada geese along the Ottawa River were more used to intrusive humans.  Photo: Lucy Martin

These Canada geese along the Ottawa River seem somewhat resigned to intrusive humans. Photo: Lucy Martin

This is the time of year when all manner of critters are out and about with their offspring. And most of us just go “Aww!” when the oh-so-cute babies go by. But it bears remembering that parents can be very protective. Wild or domesticated, many animals are willing – and surprisingly able – to take defensive measures.

That point was recently driven home for Ottawa cyclist Kerry Suman, who was hospitalized for a concussion, fractured cheekbone, loose teeth and lacerations after a June 10th encounter with some Canada geese on a trail between Stittsville and Carleton Place.

According to the CBC, Suman saw a cluster of adults and babies crossing ahead of her. She thought she was gliding by at a safe distance. At least one goose disagreed:

“What I remember is the goose giving me the evil eye and then the goose wrapping its wings around my head, and I can’t see and I hear myself screaming,” she said.

The next thing Surman remembered was that she was lying on the ground and having difficulty getting up.

This got a small flurry of media attention in Ottawa, including a video report from CTV.

The majority of Surman’s injuries likely resulted from falling off a moving bike. And, for sure, that can really mess you up. But it’s worth remembering that wild things have not been raised on Disney movies where animals burst into song and frolic with us like pets.

In follow-up coverage, CBC radio’s Stu Mills spoke with birder Jeff Skevington about the topic. (I hesitate to call the topic animal attacks, because most animals don’t really want to mix it up with humans. They are usually doing their own version of “Hey, leave my family alone!”)

Skevington said birds can do more damage then one might expect: “They’re very strong – a lot of the big water fowl are. Mute swans are even stronger. It’s surprising, I mean, they have hollow bones, they’re very light, for flying. And yet they can break a bone, if they hit you right.”

Skevington says that while such encounters are rare this is the more dangerous time for that possibility, when parents are invested in protecting their young.

One last thing: anyone who thinks geese don’t deserve caution hasn’t met them up close and personal. Even domesticated geese have a pinching bite hat’s hard to ignore, for starters. Indeed, geese have a long history as being a great security force - they are territorial, formidable and can’t be bribed!

I’m sure many readers have their own stories of animal attacks, wild or otherwise. There are natural consequences for getting too close.

Mom on Mother Earth: smaller bites

Apple earth. Photo: JD Hancock

Apple earth. Photo: JD Hancock

My mother was born on April 22, 1903, 67 years before Earth Day was born on the same day. She was a “senior citizen” by the time Earth Day was established. Mom lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and because she had her children very late in life, she raised my brother and me during the tumultuous ’60s.

My mother was a fiscal conservative and social progressive. I do not think she ever used the word “environmentalist” to describe herself, but conserving was in her DNA, partially because of the world she grew up in, partially because she was not an acquisitive person. She liked ideas and books, opera and art (and Elvis Presley!); she walked all her life–right up until her death at the age of 92–and loved spending time in the country or at the ocean.

In general, her approach to life was Zen-like: live in the moment and enjoy it; do your best at and pay attention to the details of any job you take on; and, take care of the ones you love.

Some of her daily habits seem particularly timely as we face all kinds of environmental challenges, including climate change. I think this is true because my mother hated waste and, if you think about it, much of the negative impact we humans have had on the environment has to do with our wastefulness, our excesses.

Apples: no plastic packaging or artificial ingredients required. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Apples: no plastic packaging or artificial ingredients required. Photo: Ellen Rocco

Here are four ways my mother limited waste in her life–four ways all of us can reduce our own wastefulness and help Mother Earth:

1. Buy only what you need when you go shopping. My mother would say she was going to the store to buy a pair of socks and that’s what she’d come home with–a pair of socks and nothing but a pair of socks. I promise you she could spend an afternoon in Macy’s (the world’s largest department store during most of her adult life in NYC) and return with, yup, just that pair of socks.

2. Closely related to #1: Don’t worry about what “other people” have. As I recall, my mother owned the same television set for something like 20+ years. She could get PBS and the evening news on it and she didn’t care about all the other channels and shows her neighbors talked about and watched. She only acquired what she truly needed or wanted.

3. Closely related to #1 and #2: Reuse things for as long as possible, and avoid buying things that have limited usefulness. A simple example: use an old tee shirt as a cleaning rag (which can be washed and reused repeatedly) rather than using paper towels.

4. Whenever possible, walk. When walking isn’t possible, take public transportation. I can remember only a very few times that I ever rode in a taxi with my mother. We walked or took the subway or the bus. Granted, it’s easier to do this in NYC than virtually any other place on earth, but I think all of us in rural areas could do better with car-pooling or using buses and trains for long-distance travel.

None of this is rocket science, but imagine if everyone in the United States and Canada reduced their consumption of paper towels by even 50% or their solo time in a private car by a third? My mother, who was a tax consultant by profession, would always say, “it all adds up.”

Happy Earth Day.

This winter’s silver lining? Great skiing!

Herridge Cabin, one of many rustic shelters scattered among ski and snowshoe trails in Gatineau Park. Photo: Lucy Martin

Herridge Cabin, one of many rustic shelters scattered among ski and snowshoe trails in Gatineau Park. Photo: Lucy Martin

With sympathy for the majority of folks who are seriously tired of winter, it has been a fabulous season for skiing. I’m strictly cross country so I can’t speak to downhill conditions. But I imagine those have been good too.

Quebec’s Gatineau Park is a much-loved recreational mecca for Canada’s capital region, only a short hop from Parliament Hill. It’s had good snow since late November – and trail grooming is still going strong.

The National Capital Commission runs Gatineau Park. The NCC sent out this press release on Thursday in regards to what it called “an exceptional season” that’s not over yet:

Canada’s Capital Region — With recent snowfalls, the 2013–2014 cross-country ski season in Gatineau Park will continue until April. The NCC notes this season as being exceptional compared with the previous eight seasons for which records have been kept. This year, the NCC also saw an increase in the number of season passes purchased.

End of season extended: The NCC will continue grooming operations and the ski patrol service until at least Sunday, April 6. After that date, services will be adapted

Renauld Cabin. Photo: Lucy Martin

Renauld Cabin. Photo: Lucy Martin

according to the weather conditions until April 15 — which is well past the March 31 expected end of season used for planning over the past eight years. Grooming operations will not continue past April 15.

The 2013–2014 ski season so far: The season began on November 29, three weeks earlier than the 2012–2013 season. So far, skiers have had 119 days of skiing, while the previous eight seasons had an average of 113 days. More than 6,400 skiers bought a season pass this year, representing an increase of more than 9.5 percent over last year. Sales of daily passes are also up this year.

As summarized and updated by John Warren, in his weekend outdoor reports for the Adirondack region, it’s been a great year for skiing.

Lake Placid’s Jackrabbit Trail is known to listeners through NCPR postcards from Brian Mann. Here’s a summary/report from that location as of 3/27:

Continued cold since Monday mean we still have powder surfaces as of Thursday.  This will change as Friday will be in the 40s with rain, followed by clearing on Saturday and daytime temperatures again in the 40s.  Cooler and sunny on Sunday, then more clouds and chances of snow at night or shower during the day through next Wednesday.  Temperatures will still be below freezing at night, so no significant melting of the snow we have is expected – we just won’t have the nice powder surfaces.  Likely the last weekend for Cascade and Whiteface Club, but Van Hoevenberg and the Paul Smiths VIC will continue to groom.

Summary: The season that seemingly wouldn’t start, now seemingly won’t end.

Of course, the snow will melt. And the gardener in me is quite ready to see some green and start digging again. But my, my, my! What a winter it’s been for skiing!

If you ski or snowshoe, what’s the winter been like for you and where have you found the best conditions?

Skiiers take to a bench to soak up late-March sun near Herridge Cabin. Photo: Lucy Martin

Skiiers take to a bench to soak up late-March sun near Herridge Cabin. Photo: Lucy Martin

Winter robins and songbirds

Robins toughing out the winter in Wisconsin. Photo: Jonathan Bloy, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Robins toughing out the winter. Photo: Jonathan Bloy, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The arrival of red-breasted robins is generally taken as a sign of spring, something many will be eager to welcome this year. But here’s more for the “I-did-not-know-that” file: some robins stick around,  all year. Even in a winter like this one.

I got onto this topic after reading a 2/28 article by the Ottawa Citizen’s science writer, Tom Spears.

The Ottawa Field Naturalists have spotted a winter flock of about 30 robins near the Britannia Woods, and 25 robins — possibly the same group — a couple of kilometres south, on Iris Street.

The trick for the robins is to find food once the frozen ground cuts them off from worms.

Necessity has taught them to fish. In one corner of Mud Lake, in Britannia, there’s a pool of open water most of the winter, fed by underground seepage that keeps it ice-free.

Naturalist Dan Brunton says this supplies the water with oxygen and draws a huge crowd of small lake creatures — minnows, tadpoles, even aquatic insects that stay active all winter.

And robins have learned to stand at the edge of the ice and pick live minnows right out of the water.

Spears has a cute photo of a minnow-catching robin on his twitter account.

Here’s more about the American robin from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Once I started looking, I found lots of similar discussion online about robins that surprised people by staying through the winter. Here’s something written in January from bird columnist Arlene Koch who writes for Lehigh Valley Live in Pennsylvannia, “Not all American robins head south for the winter“:

This week’s column is about American robins because recently I’ve been asked several times why people are seeing robins in their yards. The answer to that question is simple. There are always robins in the Northeast every winter in spite of the fact that seeing one is supposed to be a symbol of spring.

People have been talking about seeing winter robins in Northern Ontario (CTV video report), which mentions that while annual Christmas bird counts prove this happens year in and year out, the numbers of over-wintering robins seen in, say Sudbury, remain small – averaging only one or two counted in any given year.

In the US here’s coverage on winter robins out of New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin (where the birds were observed eating insects near a river), and in the upper mid-west.

The reporting sounds similar because people are struck by the presence of robins in a very cold winter. They get noticed and discussed, as illustrated by this article out of Indiana:

Robins in January in northern Indiana, anywhere in Indiana, or in February are birds to talk about. Two days after I saw the robins in my yard, a friend told me she had recently seen a small flock of robins near her home. Two days later, I stopped at the garage where I have my car serviced, and one of the mechanics asked, “Hey, Neil, what’s with the robins?”

He, too, had recently seen robins. Later that same day when I went in the bank, two men told me they had seen a flock of robins days before.

Todd Moe chatted with naturalist Conner Stedman about bird language and songbirds that stay all winter on Friday morning. This discussion did not involve robins, but included details about other birds we can expect this time of year.

I’d be interested in hearing about what you saw this winter in terms of robins, birds and wildlife in general.