Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Insects: Three names bad, two names good?

Emerald Ash Borer, in-your-face view. Photo: Macroscopic Solutions, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Emerald Ash Borer, a three name pest right in your face. Photo: Macroscopic Solutions, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Lawn, landscape, and garden season will be here any day. Or so we hope. As a card-carrying pessimist, the arrival of spring naturally brings to mind the critters that will soon come out of the woodwork (literally in some cases) to complicate those activities.

Ruminating about insect pests, particularly invasive species, it occurred to me there is a painless way to evaluate them for damage potential. I’m calling it the “Insect Pest Three-Name Litmus Test.” Here’s how it works: When you find an unknown insect in your garden, lawn, tree or shrub, key it out. What’s it called? Specifically, how many names does it have?

It must be one of those inscrutable laws of nature, like how an object (such as me) at rest likes to stay at rest. Stuff you drop tends to fall down, not so often up. Energy can change form but can’t be created or destroyed. Evil, more often than not, uses three names.

Think about notorious villains: John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wayne Gacy, Attila the Hun, Cruella de Vil, Vinnie The Lawyer, Big Bad Wolf. Three names. Lots of people have three names, but they don’t get in your face with all of them at once. I see my middle name as a kind of spare, in case my first name wears out or gets copyrighted or something. If “Paul” becomes the intellectual property of some corporation, I’ll dust off my middle name, but until then I won’t rub everyone’s nose in it.

In contrast, look at our heroes — Jesus Christ, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Neil Armstrong, Ralph Nader, Gandhi, Buddha, Martin Luther King Junior. I’m just establishing a pattern here.

The natural world bears this out as well. A great white shark will eat you, but a basking shark won’t. Black widow spiders are deadly. Wolf spiders, while hairy and uncomfortably large, are completely benign. European red elderberry, poisonous. Black elderberry, safe to eat. Eastern coral snake, venomous. Milk snake, not. The relationship is undeniable.

Now consider the bad actors of the insect realm — emerald ash borer, which will eventually destroy New York State’s 900 million or so ash trees. Spotted-wing drosophila, which discovered in northern New York in 2012, decimates fall raspberries and late-season blueberries. God forbid we ever get the Asian longhorn beetle, which has the potential to destroy almost every hardwood species we have.

Tomato hornworm needs a middle name. Suggestions?

Tomato hornworm needs a middle name. Suggestions?

Brown marmorated stinkbugs will be in New York’s North Country within a few years to munch on fruit of all kinds. Greenery of all kinds, too, come to think of it. Colorado potato beetle, hemlock wooly adelgid, eastern tent caterpillar, striped cucumber beetle, sirex wood wasp, viburnum leaf beetle, western bean cutworm — the three-name list of evildoers is endless.

But check out the names of beneficial insects — Praying mantis. Ichneumon wasp. Syrphid fly. Lacewing. Honeybee. Ladybug. Dragonfly. Scientific proof — need I say more?

Not only does the Insect Pest Three-Name Litmus Test rhyme, it is revolutionary in its simplicity. Three names; probably bad. One, two, four names; probably good, or benign at the very least.

I don’t want to hear a dang word from anyone about tomato hornworms, squash bugs or flea beetles, because I plan to lobby the appropriate agency to get middle names for those few spoilers. I expect a Nobel in Science for this, or at least a spot in the Science Hall of Fame, or whatever they have.

Now I’m thinking, maybe I should switch to decaf.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Night skies alert: Northern lights!

St. Patrick's Day Green Aurora Last night Earth experienced a geomagnetic storm and aurora were visible in the Northern U.S. states. These images of aurora were captured on March 17, 2015, around 5:30 a.m. EDT in Donnelly Creek, Alaska by Sebastian Saarloos. These aurora might have been caused by the fast solar wind streaming from two solar coronal holes. Image Courtesy of Sebastian Saarloos.

From NASA’s website:  St. Patrick’s Day Green Aurora
Last night Earth experienced a geomagnetic storm and aurora were visible in the Northern U.S. states. This image was captured last night around 5:30 am in Donnelly Creek, Alaska. These aurora might have been caused by the fast solar wind streaming from two solar coronal holes. Photo: courtesy of Sebastian Saarloos.

I’ve only seen displays of Aurora borealis (“Northern lights”) in person once, years ago, when we lived in Kars, Ontario. A thoughtful neighbor ran over to say we should come look.

Standing in our yards, the display was fairly subtle, ripples of undulating light in mild color bands. Didn’t matter. It was still breath-taking.

Would I like to see more? Absolutely! So here’s hoping that a media alert for night skies this week could pay off. CBC is talking it up “Northern lights to dazzle in skies across Canada: Aurora borealis may be visible as far south as northern California“.

A large G4 geo-magnetic solar storm was noted Tuesday morning (EST), which produces more of the energy that makes the effect in our atmosphere. Tuesday night reports and images of northern light activity were extensive and exciting. Tonight’s prospects (Wednesday) could still be good too.

The Canadian Space Agency’s website on Northern Lights includes links to a live AuroroaMAX HD camera in Yellowknife that (weather and conditions permitting) can be viewed tonight. Want to photograph what you see up there? Here are some tips for doing that.

There’s lots more at the Space Weather Prediction section of the National Oceanic and Atmospherics  (NOAA).

Did any readers already experience this Tuesday night? Sadly, this has already peaked. But let’s hope there will still be more left to see!

For sub-arctic birds, the North Country is Florida

Given the prolonged deep-freeze we’ve been having, it’s hard to believe vacationers are flocking to the North Country for its comparative warmth. When the mercury (or whatever that red stuff is in today’s thermometers) drops down and stays there a while, several arctic and sub-arctic bird species shift farther south to “tropical” climes such as ours.

Gray jay.. Photo: Cephas, creative Commons, some rights reserved

Gray jay.. Photo: Cephas, creative Commons, some rights reserved

The first time I saw a gray jay, I thought a blue jay must’ve gone through the wash with a little bleach. Dark gray above with a lighter belly, the bird also known as the camp-robber, Canada jay or whiskey-jack is about the size of a blue jay, but a little more puffy-looking and lacking a head crest. They’re cute as a button, and will eat from your hand if you let them.

Be careful; gray jays are in the crow family, a clever and highly curious clan. They’ll graduate from eating crumbs out of hand to nicking your sandwich or even flying into the kitchen if the door’s open a bit too long (happened to me). Still, they’re adorable, and I love seeing them.

Red crossbills aren’t as bold, and since you won’t find them hanging around your compost pile or kitchen door, you’re less likely to encounter them. Native to boreal spruce-fir forests, they specialize in extracting seeds from cones. I’ve seen them on Adirondack roadsides, presumably picking up grit, and once stopped to examine a road-killed specimen.

Red Crossbill male. Photo: Eugene Beckes, creative Commons, some rights reserved

Red Crossbill male. Photo: Eugene Beckes, creative Commons, some rights reserved

If you’re lucky enough to spot a crossbill, you might think it’s in need of an orthodontist. As their name implies, crossbills have a lower beak, or mandible, that crosses to either the right or left (in equal numbers, I’m told) of the upper one. This helps them pry apart the scales of cones to winkle out the seeds that lie between the scales.

In sub-zero conditions it seems like nothing’s more uncomfortable than cold feet. Two birds of prey that visit us in winter, the snowy owl and the rough-legged hawk, have found a solution. In addition to vacationing here in the “warm” south, their other secret to surviving winter is to sprout feathers on their toes.

Rough-legged hawk. Photo: Eugene Beckes, creative Commons, some rights reserved

Rough-legged hawk. Photo: Eugene Beckes, creative Commons, some rights reserved

As you drive along northern NY State’s roads this winter you may notice—in between whiteouts—hawks perched here and there on utility poles or in trees, hunting rodents and rabbits. If you’re lucky you may get to see one hovering or even swooping down on prey. A high percentage of these are rough-legged hawks. (Most red-tail hawks, our most abundant hawk species, go farther south during winter.)

One of the largest of hawks, rough-leggeds have wingspans of 50 to 60 inches, and are one of only two hawk species to have home-grown down boots. Their plumage pattern varies a lot, but generally their wings are white underneath with some dark areas close to the body and possibly dark wingtips. They have one or two dark bands near the tip of an otherwise white tail.

Snowy Owl. Photo: Larry Master

Snowy Owl. Photo: Larry Master

One of the most picturesque and recognizable winter visitors is the snowy owl. The male is nearly pure white, while the larger female has some brown scalloping on her chest. Like most owls, snowies have feathers right to the ends of their toes. On their native arctic tundra, snowy owls feed mostly on lemmings and small rodents. But because they’re the heaviest owl species, they can take down some good-size prey, including ducks, geese, muskrats and raccoons.

Maybe we could learn some tricks from these hardy vacationers. Wear down-filled clothing, including boots. Definitely go south for the winter. Mooching food from neighbors is optional.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Firewood bugs me

It’s economical, sustainable and keeps you in shape, not to mention that nothing feels as good as a seat by the woodstove on a sub-zero night. What’s not to like about heating with wood?

Certain things do bug people. The mess, for one. Stacking and splitting can get old. Adjusting the ‘thermostat’ may involve a trip outside to the woodpile. And occasionally, unexpected guests arrive.

Locust borer in the firewood. Photo: Susan Adams, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Locust borer in the firewood. Photo: Susan Adams, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Firewood, I’ve discovered, comes from “trees” which are covered in “bark,” under which insects can live and thrive. As the wood you bring inside warms up, it feels like winter’s over to these critters, who sally forth gleefully. Insects and homeowners are inevitably both disappointed.

The good news is you can take steps to discourage critters from making your woodpile their condo to begin with. Also, most of these guests are merely a nuisance. The bad news is, well, they’re a nuisance. The two types of firewood crawlies are shelter seekers and wood borers. Both kinds of stowaways usually head for a window where you can let them out or…whatever you want to do with them.

Shelter-seekers just need a place to crash for the winter. They’d be as happy under brush or leaves as in your firewood pile. These include wooly caterpillars, ladybird beetles, and non-insects like spiders and centipedes.

Wood borers range from less than one-eighth up to three inches long, but most are on the small side. The largest are roundheaded borers. The pine sawyer and its similar, sinister cousin the Asian longhorn beetle are examples. Flatheaded borers include the bronze birch borer and the invasive emerald ash borer. Like all bark beetles, the ambrosia and elm bark beetles are small and don’t enter the actual wood.

With some notable exceptions, wood borers seek dying or just-killed trees, sometimes arriving to lay eggs hours or minutes after a tree is felled. They rely on the phenol signature of a dead or dying tree, and they don’t need social media to keep up on news. They do need moisture, though, which plays into control options.

If conditions are right, it’s possible for particular insects to cause trouble. Tiny powderpost beetles (one-sixteenth of an inch) can infest bare hardwood in high-moisture environments. In the heating season your living space is too dry for them to survive. But firewood stored in a warm basement could be an issue if the joists are unpainted hardwood, which is sometimes the case in very old homes. Carpenter ants also need moisture to set up housekeeping. Unlike termites, they can’t eat wood, and can only make nests where moisture has initiated decay.

No matter what kind of wiggly passenger you see on firewood, never treat it with insecticide. Burning insecticide-treated wood poses a real health risk to those in the home.

The key to critter prevention is this: If they’re not in your firewood, they’re not getting inside. And they only like firewood if it’s damp. Seasoned wood that’s been stored off the ground and out of the weather is less likely to harbor insects. Keeping firewood out of garages and basements is highly recommended—ideally it should be stored away from the house in a non-attached structure.

If you cut your own wood, timing can help. Trees cut between late autumn and early spring, especially if the wood is split right away, are less likely to garner wood-boring insect eggs. However, even if insects get a start, they’ll perish when the wood is fully dry.

For more information contact your Extension office. In St. Lawrence County, call (315) 379-9192 or email We’ll help you work the bugs out of heating with wood.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Emerald ash borer: Public Enemy No. 1 for Invasive Species Awareness Week

Seems odd to put National Invasive Species Awareness Week smack in the middle of winter—whose idea was that anyway? This year it’s February 22-28. Wouldn’t it be better to move it to summer when more invasive nasties are around? Of course, summer’s a busy time, and maybe all the good time slots were reserved for Hamster Appreciation Week, National Lawn Edging Week and the like.

An ash tree killed by emerald ash borers. Photo: Penn State, Creative Commons, some rights reserved. Inset: Emerald ash borer. Photo: StopTheBeetle, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

An ash tree killed by emerald ash borers. Photo: Penn State, Creative Commons, some rights reserved. Inset: Emerald ash borer. Photo: StopTheBeetle, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

One of the invasive species that deserves our attention is the emerald ash borer (EAB). Having eaten its way through the Great Lakes states and portions of the upper Midwest, the EAB is on a fast track to northern NY State. Since its discovery in 2002, the emerald ash borer has stripped cities and villages of all ash trees. Dorothy wouldn’t recognize one of these “emerald cities.” Treeless neighborhoods in places like Fort Wayne, IN, or Dayton, OH are a far cry from the emerald city of Oz.

The EAB is a very small (3/8” to ½”) bullet-shaped beetle that would be easy to overlook if not for its bright, metallic, emerald-green “paint job” with copper highlights. The beetles themselves do little harm, but their immature stage (larvae) feed on cambium tissue of ash trees, girdling and thus killing them. Aside from the relatively few ash that will be treated with insecticides through the estimated15-year duration of an EAB infestation, NYS will lose its 900 million ash trees.

With EAB closing in from the west, south and north, there’s no way to keep it from reaching northern NY. In fact, given that it’s been found in southern Ontario just across the St. Lawrence River, its arrival will be sooner rather than later. They’re quite capable of flying over the river and into our woods, and you can bet they won’t check in with the Border Patrol.

To prepare for the inevitable appearance of this insect, communities need to find how many ash trees they have in order to calculate and plan for removal costs. An ash tree survey would also identify the ash trees of good health and form to preserve. While a few towns have tree inventories, most don’t, and some of those may welcome volunteer help to survey ash trees.

While many signs of EAB damage manifest during summer, there are a couple of things to look for in winter time. Extensive but shallow woodpecker feeding in late winter, especially on the south and west sides of the trunk, may indicate an EAB infestation. Report all suspected cases of EAB activity to the NYSDEC or your Extension office.

Early planning and community involvement are the keys to weathering the EAB storm with as many surviving ash as possible and without breaking the bank. The first step is to become educated about EAB.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County is offering an Invasive Species First Detector training in Canton February 26 from 12:00-4:30. The training is free and open to the public and will cover emerald ash borer as well as hemlock woolly adelgid and Asian longhorn beetle. To register or get more information call (315) 379-9192 or email

“The same program will be offered at the Watertown CCE office the following morning, Friday February 27. To register or for more information in  Jefferson County, call (315) 788-8450.”

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County

Mudpuppies – and mudpuppy nights in Oxford Mills

Necturus maculosus maculosus - Common mudpuppy. Image: National Park Service, Creative Commons

Necturus maculosus maculosus – Common mudpuppy. Image: National Park Service, Creative Commons

The email from NCPR’s theater critic, Connie Meng, was headed: “mudpuppies”.

Any guesses as to what that is?

The name took me back to the signature desert of a restaurant where I once worked, the”mudpie“. (Which I would have liked more, had it not featured coffee ice cream.)

But apart from that decades-old memory, I hadn’t a clue.

It turns out Connie was sending me a heads-up for a local event featuring an amazing amphibian, Necturus maculosus, nicknamed waterdog, or mudpuppy.

And still I had no clue. What the heck was that?!

Internet to the rescue. To my unscientific eye, they look like small, round-cornered alligators, sort of. Definitely big enough to really notice, some are said to live as long as 30 years (!).

Here’s more from National Geographic:

Mudpuppies, also called waterdogs, are one of only a few salamanders that make noise. They get their name from the somewhat embellished notion that their squeaky vocalizations sound like a dog’s bark.

Among the largest of the salamanders, mudpuppies can exceed 16 inches (41 centimeters) in length, although the average is more like 11 inches (28 centimeters). Their range runs from southern central Canada, through the midwestern United States, east to North Carolina and south to Georgia and Mississippi.

Mudpuppies live on the bottoms of lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams, and never leave the water. They hide themselves in vegetation and under rocks and logs, emerging at night to feed on whatever prey they can catch, including crayfish, worms, and snails.

And? So? What makes that a local event, for the depths of February?

Well, it turns mudpuppies are mostly nocturnal and there’s an excellent spot to count and study them in Kemptville Creek, near a small dam site in Oxford Mills, Ontario. Indeed, it’s such a good “come & see” location that there’s sort of a mudpuppy party on many Friday nights – yes, in the winter, when they are reportedly more active. (Another “?!”)

For those so inclined, mudpuppy night can even include dinner at the well-known Oxford Mills destination restaurant, Brigadoon.

This Friday night the Macnamara Field Naturalists Club (based in Arnprior) is making that outing a group activity, as they’ve done in past years. Here’s a really interesting YouTube video from 2013 in which “…members visit an icy stream in mid-winter to watch Necturus maculosus (Mudpuppies) go about their business unperturbed by the cold or the watchers.” The weekly event is put on by area naturalists, Fred Schueler and Aleta Karstad. (Learn more about their work at

Here’s another video of observing mudpuppies in Oxford Mills, from this CBC news item, also from 2013.

There’s no need to tell readers it’s been pretty cold this week. I haven’t decided if I am going on Friday or not. But I’m writing about it now, should others be interested. (Note: Friday night looks warmer than earlier in the week, when I am writing this post.)

Quite apart from that Oxford Mills/citizen-scientist event, what’s your experience with mudpuppies?

Do you know them well? Or, as in my case, are they a whole new discovery?

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