This week I start with a quick primer on playing in the mountains during buffaloberry season. I examine at an ancient archaeological site discovered off the coast of British Columbia that helps to rewrite the story of the migration of North America’s first peoples. I begin to tell one of Canada’s epic adventures, the building of the western railway. I explore golden eagle migrations through the Rockies and finally I discuss British Columbia’s plan to abdicate responsibility for managing wildlife by privatizing it out and funding it with hunting revenues.
Quick bear and buffaloberry primer
Just when I thought I was done scripting this episode, conservation officers closed a large part of Canmore due to numerous bears feeding on buffaloberries in the area. This is only the first of numerous closures over the next 6-8 weeks as the berries are only found in the low valleys of the Montane and Canmore and Banff occupy much of the available habitat.
Essentially, the Montane only accounts for around 4% of the mountain landscape and people have impacted 80% of that. Here are a few quick tips on bear safety during berry season.
Bears feeding on buffaloberry go through a hormonal change called hyperphagia. It’s basically a hormonal imperative to binge. Essentially, they’re stoned so they’re not the vigilant animal that we’re used to encountering.
As a result, we need to be vigilant for the bear. If you’re jogging with earbuds or riding fast and quiet, it’s very easy to have an unwanted close encounter at this time of year. Slow down and pay attention.
Sometimes the best way to spot a feeding bear is to NOT look for the bear, look for a bush that is moving when none of the others are.
Remember that there are still hundreds of open trails in the area. Just think high! When the bears head to the valley, head to the higher elevation trails like Ha Ling, Lady Macdonald, Heart Mountain, Tunnel Mountain, Edith and Cory Pass. It doesn’t mean that you won’t encounter a bear, but you can dramatically shift the odds in your favour by moving into areas they are less likely to be currently frequenting.
Make sure your bear spray is on your body and that you know how to use it. If it’s on your bike or backpack and you become separated, then you don’t have bear spray.
If the area has a warning or closure, try to go somewhere else. If you do hike or bike in an area with a warning make far more noise than usual to make sure that the zoned-out bears hear your approach.
Let’s stay safe out there and make sure the bears do too.
Ancient archaeological Site found on the Coast
For as long as I can remember, archaeologists have been talking about the ice free corridor that ran from Alaska, across the Bering Strait to Russia and all the way past Calgary. We were told that this was the route that the ancestors of all the first nations on the continent would have taken as they migrated from Asia to the new world. Back in episode 6 (www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep006 I talked about some chinks in the armour of that tried and true theory.
Two studies cast some serious doubt on the ice free corridor migration. In one study, researchers looked into a large glacial lake called Lake Peace that sat smack dab in the middle of the corridor. It would have completely blocked the route of any traveler looking to make their way through the corridor.
As they examined the sediments below this lake, they learned that food animals like bison and jack rabbits didn’t show up in the sediments until around 12,500 years ago. They theorize that the landscape did not support enough food for anyone migrating through the area before that time.
The lack of food resources would have stopped any large scale migration. By the time this route would have opened up, archaeological sites farther south would have made these travelers followers rather than leaders.
Other studies have shown possible human sites in Monte Verde South America at least 15,000 years ago and in Florida 14,500 years ago. It seems there must have been another way to get south.
A second study looked at bison populations through the ice free corridor. Researchers investigate 78 skulls from now-extinct steppe bison and examined the mitochondrial DNA. They also carbon dated the fossils.
Prior to the opening of the corridor, both populations had been separated for a long enough period to be considered different genetic populations.
It wasn’t until 13,000 years ago that the two groups of bison began to intermingle. The fossil dates also imply that the corridor opened up from south to north as opposed to the other way around. Based on the dates of some of these other sites, like Monte Verde, people had already made it south of the corridor by that time.
Scientists have long speculated about a possible coastal migration route, but for years, there was not a speck of evidence of an actual coastal migration. Part of the reason is likely that some areas would have been submerged by rising ocean levels as the glaciers melted.
Finally, recent discoveries off the coast of British Columbia have found a 14,000-year-old site on Triquet Island, a lonely island some 133 km north of Port Moody which is located on the north end of Vancouver Island.
14,000 years makes this site one of the earliest cultural sites on the continent, with the exception of a few already mentioned in this story. It also shows there may have been a viable coastal route long before any ice-free corridor opened up.
The first nations that call Triquet Island home are the Heitsuk Nation. For generations, their oral traditions have talked about an area of land that never froze during the ice age. The Hietsuk stayed there as a refuge during those years. For the Heitsuk, it is an affirmation of their long-held oral history.
It is also yet another example of first nations oral histories proving to be more factual than some of the western histories. After all, it was first nations stories that led to the discovery of both of the lost Franklin ships over the past several years after remaining hidden to history for more than 170 years.
The site revealed fish hooks, spears and fire making materials. All it took was a small amount of charcoal from one of the fire pits to carbon date the site.
One of the most puzzling parts of the story is that in the area of Triquet Island, the ocean levels remained fairly consistent over the millennia. This allowed for the island to remain inhabited throughout many thousands of years.
As archaeologists excavated through the layers of dirt, with each representing a layer of time, they could see an evolution of hunting and fishing techniques.
The research was led by Alisha Gaubreau, a Ph.D. student at the University of Victoria, along with a scholar from the Hakai Institute. This research organization focuses on long-term studies of remote areas of coastal British Columbia.
This is an amazing discovery and may help to spur a flurry of new studies across a variety of scientific disciplines as researchers try to ferret out additional clues to potential coastal migration routes.
Does this mean that nobody walked through the ice-free corridor – absolutely not. They may not have been the first to see the lands south of the corridor, but I still like to think of them as the first Calgary Stampede.
A Ribbon of Steel was just a National Dream
When we look at the opening up of western Canada, two great events stand out. The fur trade which opened a vast land to exploration, and the Canadian Pacific Railway. This ribbon of steel really is the tie that binds this nation together and without it, Canada might not exist…at least not in the way it does today.
Prior to our building an all Canadian railway, a lot of talk drifted north from the U. S. about annexation of the Canadian west. One American politician was elected with the rallying cry of 54-40 or fight! Forget the 49th parallel, they wanted everything up to the 54th. That would have put a real dent in western Canada especially when you realize that communities like Banff are just on the 51st parallel.
When we hear about the ‘Oregon’ territory, it was NOT the state of Oregon, it was a much larger area. It included present day Oregon, Washington and the lower half of British Columbia. It was much later that the various states were delineated.
Well lucky for us, but unlucky for Americans, American intentions were diverted south by the Civil War. What that horrible conflict did for Canada was it bought us time, time to cement our sovereignty over our western lands.
Prior to B.C. joining confederation, it had already experienced a gold rush in 1858 that saw some 30,000 prospectors flood into the territory. As a result, the British government created the colony of B.C. that same year. Just 6 years later, in 1964, they instituted a kind of representative government. Simultaneously the colonies in the eastern part of British North America were talking about Confederation.
A legislative assembly with a regional governor was established in 1866 which placed Victoria as the capital. Some debate occurred in British Columbia about joining the fledgling nation of Canada in order to provide some security against American aspirations in the western portions of North America, especially after the U.S. purchased Alaska in March of 1867.
While there was support in B.C. towards joining Canada, there was also some staunch opposition. However in 1869, when Canada purchased Rupert’s Land and the Northwest Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company, suddenly the new nation was right up to the eastern boundary of the colony.
A three person delegation was sent to Ottawa and after some heated debate, politicians in Ottawa did what politicians do, they sat down with their counterparts from British Columbia and they began to make promises. They said: “if you join Canada we’ll build you a railway” and British Columbia said ‘sold’. In fact, they joined Canada so fast that they joined as a full province on July 20, 1871, when this country was just 4 years old. That may not sound impressive, until you realize that Alberta and Saskatchewan did not become provinces until 1905, more than 30 years later.
Nobody knew better than British Columbians how important this link with the rest of the country would be, but also how impossible it would be to build. The government dispatched an army of surveyors across the western wilderness in order to find a route for the transcontinental railway. Pierre Burton in his book The National Dream stated: “no life was harsher than that suffered by members of the Canadian Pacific Survey crews and none was less rewarding, underpaid, overworked, exiled from their families, deprived of their mail, sleeping in slime and snowdrifts, suffering from sunstroke, frostbite, scurvy, fatigue and the tensions that always rise to the surface when weary dispirited men are thrown together for long periods of isolation, the surveyors kept on, year after year
Pierre Burton in his book The National Dream stated: “no life was harsher than that suffered by members of the Canadian Pacific Survey crews and none was less rewarding, underpaid, overworked, exiled from their families, deprived of their mail, sleeping in slime and snowdrifts, suffering from sunstroke, frostbite, scurvy, fatigue and the tensions that always rise to the surface when weary dispirited men are thrown together for long periods of isolation, the surveyors kept on, year after year
“No life was harsher than that suffered by members of the Canadian Pacific Survey crews and none was less rewarding, underpaid, overworked, exiled from their families, deprived of their mail, sleeping in slime and snowdrifts, suffering from sunstroke, frostbite, scurvy, fatigue and the tensions that always rise to the surface when weary dispirited men are thrown together for long periods of isolation, the surveyors kept on, year after year
They explored great sections of Canada–the first engineers scaled mountains that had never before been climbed, crossed lakes that had never known a white man’s paddle and forded rivers that were not on any map.
They walked with a uniform stride developed through years of habit, measuring the distances as they went, checking altitudes with an aneroid barometer slung around the neck and examining the land with a practiced gaze, always seeing in the mind’s eye the finished line of steel–curves, grades, valley crossings, bridges and trestles, tunnels, cuts and fills”
Seventy-four thousand kilometres of Canadian wilderness were surveyed during the first 6 years of the survey. Of that, 12,000 was properly charted.
Many of the people we refer to as ‘surveyors’ were really just the first step of the process. Men like A.B. Rogers really should be referred to as the pathfinders. A long line of others would need to follow their footsteps once a route was determined.
First came the axemen who cleared the route of brush, making way for the chainmen. They would break the line into 30m or 100-foot sections and place a stake at the end of each section and labeled with how many chain lengths it was from the start of the division.
Behind them came the transit men. They’re the mathletes of the crew. They’ll look at each bend in the route and estimate the angles of the turns. They note river crossings, changes in landscape and obstacles the route may encounter.
And finally, come the levelers who placed elevation benchmarks every 1,500 feet or 457 metres.
By 1877, 25,000 bench marks had been placed and more than 600,000 stakes had been pounded in by the Chainmen.
It wasn’t long before the chief surveyor, Sandford Fleming found it difficult to find men that were tough enough to endure the challenges of survey life. By mid-summer 1871, he had already dispatched some 800 men on 21 survey parties but many of them were unfit to the task. As he wrote:
“Many of those we were obliged to take, subsequent events proved, were unequal to the very arduous labour they had to undergo, causing a very considerable delay and difficulty in pushing the work.”
He also had to deal with political meddling and nepotism. He was constantly pressured to hire family members or friends of eastern politicians.
With unfit and incompetent men in the wilderness, entire crews simply abandoned their posts when the going got tough. In the season of 1871-2, two parties simply quit and wandered home when the temperatures started to get cold.
The surveyors traveled through areas where the local first nations had never before seen a white man. On surveyor, Henry Cambie came across a group of natives that would simply not believe that hair actually grew on his face.
Another surveyor accepted a seat on a bear skin rug next to a young native woman, not realizing that that was the equivalent of a marriage proposal. After a few tense negotiations, he managed to trade her back to her father for a nice ring that he had been wearing.
In the winter of 1875-6, the expedition of E.W. Jarvis in the Smoky River Pass in the Rockies really highlighted the hardships these surveyors endured. In January, Jarvis, along with his assistant C.F. Hannington and dogmaster Alec Macdonald headed out from Fort George with 6 natives and 20 dogs.
The weather dropped to -47C. One evening Macdonald knocked on the door of their winter shack completely encased in ice from head to toe. Another day, as they got the dogsleds ready to go in the morning, the lead dog stood up, gave a feeble tail wag and then fell over dead with his legs frozen solid right up to the shoulder.
They carried few supplies and just two blankets each and a thin cotton sheet for a tent. After a time, they began to suffer from ‘mal de raquette’ or snowshoe sickness which left them lame simply from walking hundreds of kilometres in large snowshoes.
As can often do in the mountains, they experienced a brief chinook wind on one occasion with the temperature increasing from -42C to +4C in a single day. The sudden change left them exhausted.
Another morning, they were mushing along the frozen surface of a river when they had to stop suddenly when they found the entire dog team on the thinly frozen overhang of a waterfall. Beneath their feet, the river plunged 65m.
Another evening, they made camp beneath the beautiful blue of a glacier. In the middle of the night, huge blocks of ice broke off of the glacier and came crashing through their camp. They described:
“masses of ice and rock chasing one another and leaping from point to point as if playing some weird, gigantic game”
Surprisingly, even though a chunk of limestone more than 3 metres thick bounced past them, they were left somewhat dazed but even more surprisingly, unharmed.
By March, their dogs were dying on a daily basis and the men began to believe that they would never see their families again. At one point Hannington wrote in his journal:
“I have been thinking of ‘the dearest spot on earth to me’ – of our Mother and Father and all my brothers and sisters and friends–of the happy days at home–of all the good deeds I have left undone and all the bad ones committed. If ever our bones will be discovered, when and by whom. If our friends will mourn long for us or do as is often done, forget us as soon as possible. In short, I have been looking death in the face…”
In the end, though they did survive. Hannington had lost 15 kg and when they finally reached Fort Edmonton and received fresh food and water it brought on spasms of dysentery and vomiting as it had been so long since they had eaten proper food.
In the end, they covered 3036 km over 162 days on the trail. Fifteen hundred of those kilometres were done on snowshoes with the final 530 carrying all of their supplies on their backs because, by this time, all their dogs were dead.
Usually, about this point, people come up with a pretty good question…why? Clearly, the work left a little to be desired and the pay, well the pay was even worse. The answer to that question can also be summed up in one word – immortality. They hoped that somewhere along the way their name would linger on a map or, hope beyond hope, that they would go down as the man who had found the route through which the transcontinental railway would pass.
We’ll continue this story in future episodes.
People often have a vision of the mountains with eagles soaring overhead and wolves howling in the distance. These idealized pictures often hide the harsh realities of mountain life. It’s a tough place to earn a living. In 35 years of guiding, I have yet to hear a wolf howl, lots and lots of coyotes, but nary a wolf. Never has a cougar crossed my path, wolverines, yes, but no cougars.
The mountain landscape is a place of secrets with animals and birds constantly striving to survive in a landscape that constantly conspires against them.
Travel to the north coast of British Columbia and you’ve entered the land of milk and honey for many animals and birds. You’ll find yourself tripping over bald eagles and great-blue herons. The density of black and grizzly populations can be an order of magnitude higher than it is here simply because there is more food.
Golden eagles are a northern specialist. They thrive in high latitude landscapes hunting many of the small game animals that share their environment. They are also the most popular avian national animal. Golden eagles are the emblem of Albania, Germany, Austria, Mexico, and Kazakhstan.
They are an exciting siting in the Canadian Rockies, but in 1992, biologist Peter Sherrington stumbled upon something truly unique on an outing in Kananaskis Country in March of that year.
As he looked up from the top of a small summit, he noticed a tiny speck high above him. As he studied it, he realized it was a golden eagle. Cool, I’ve just won the wildlife lottery for the day. Before long though, there was another speck, and then another. Any time you see a single golden eagle is exciting, but to see more than one, astounding. By the end of the day, he had counted more than 100.
It didn’t take Sherrington long to realize that something was out of the ordinary. As he put it in a recent story in the Calgary Herald: “Every time we looked up, there were more golden eagles,” he said. “Everybody thought of the mountains as barriers, but we established they were very serious avian highways.”
Sherrington has spent every spring and fall since staking out the area as the research director for the Rocky Mountain Eagle Research Foundation. Now at age 72, he has the opportunity to share the spectacle with thousands of visitors each year that flock to the area to see the spring and fall migrations of golden eagles.
Just how many eagles pass through this area every spring and fall? When the foundation first began tracking eagles, there were some 4,000/season. Last year only saw 2,500. In fall of 2007, they witnessed almost 5,500 golden eagles.
According to Sherington, this is “the greatest eagle migration in the world, and it’s right on our doorstep. It truly is a world-class phenomenon.”
The drop in numbers of the years that the foundation has been counting the eagles is a reflection of the environments that they call home. They overwinter in the states where they are occasionally captured in traps meant for coyotes. However, it may be more a reflection of snowshoe hare populations in their summer homes in the far northern areas of Alaska and the Yukon.
It won’t be long before the eagles begin to point south at the end of the summer nesting and hunting season. If you’d like to volunteer with the foundation or learn more about their work, you can visit them on their website at www.eaglewatch.ca.
Next up, British Columbia abdicates its responsibility for managing wildlife
New BC Wildlife Agency Announced
Conservation organizations in British Columbia are reeling after the provincial government announced the creation of a new Wildlife Management Agency to be funded by hunting revenues.
In late March 2017 the B.C. Government announced that all the revenue from hunting licenses would be reinvested into wildlife management in the province. B.C.’s Minister of Forests, Steve Tomson called it “a significant investment and significant initiative on the part of the provincial government”. He went on to state: “This will have great benefit for wildlife populations and wildlife management in British Columbia. It will benefit rural communities throughout the province,”
Along with a proposed budget of $5million in the first year and revenues of 9-10 million on subsequent years, $200,000 was budgeted as part of a consultation process to determine the structure and priorities of the new agency.
British Columbia organizations related to hunting are applauding the move, including the B.C. Wildlife Federation, Guide Outfitters Association of B.C., Wild Sheep Society of B.C., Wildlife Stewardship Council and the B.C. Trappers Association. All five agencies signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate in supporting the new agency.
Not a single, not consumptive conservation organization has stepped up to support this new agency. As a biologist, this seems like the hunting groups are lining up to manage the organization and that seems a little like the fox guarding the chicken coop to me.
Time and again, hunting organizations focus only on huntable species. How do we protect the remainder of the 136 species of mammals, 488 species of birds, 20 amphibians and 16 reptiles?
On June 27, twenty-three organizations focusing on protecting wildlife in British Columbia sent an open letter to the province. The organizations include the B.C. SPCA, Bear Matters, Get Bear Smart Society, Humane Society, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Defense League, Wolf Awareness Inc and Zoocheck Canada, amongst numerous other stakeholders.
In the letter, they state:
“The wildlife of the province belongs to all British Columbians and has by law been held by the government in trust, to conserve the wildlife itself, and to ensure the rights of all members of the public. The British Columbia Wildlife Act states that “Ownership in all wildlife in British Columbia is vested in the government.” That means that elected representatives can be held accountable for their wildlife decisions through general elections and in courts. Indeed, a groundswell of public unhappiness with the way our wildlife has been mismanaged (grizzly bear trophy hunt) was a significant issue in the recent election.” It continues
“In announcing the proposed new agency, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett stated in the media that “The government is afraid to manage wolves, or afraid to manage grizzly bears in some cases because of the politics of that. Hopefully, an agency that is separate from government can make decisions that are in the best long-term interest of wildlife and just forget about the politics and do what is best for the animals.”
The letter continues: “We are sorry to learn that Minister Bennett believes our government representatives cannot apply the wildlife laws and science in an unbiased manner, since we believed that’s what they were elected to do. However, they are accountable to voters, whereas an independent agency would not be. It would have no duty to represent all British Columbians, and would be far more susceptible to influence by special interest groups.”
Finally, the letter calls for the government to:
- Cancel the plan for an “independent” agency.
- Increase the wildlife management staff and funding of government ministries.
- Recognize that BC has a biodiversity crisis; it requires a shift in focus from juggling numbers of game animals for hunters, to applying the science of ecology.
- Recognize that all British Columbians are stakeholders in our wildlife. All interest groups should be equally empowered. Only about 2% of the total BC population are registered hunters, whereas a huge majority of British Columbians care about the welfare of our wildlife and ecosystems.
A wildlife agency that is not tied to the government for accountability would mean that there was no requirement for the province to intervene in wildlife matters. It creates a situation where special interest groups can move in and manage based on their own agenda.
In addition, if the funding is based upon hunting revenue, there is an inherent motivation to increase that revenue by granting more hunting permits. It’s a negative spiral that could easily result in priorities being shifted away from things like wildlife viewing and towards consumptive uses like hunting and trapping which fund the program.
Numerous studies have shown that wildlife viewing brings in much more money to the provincial coffers than does hunting. This is particularly true for iconic species like whales and grizzly bears.
Birding as well is a huge economic driver. And generates 10s of millions of dollars annually to the B.C. economy.
Under the species at risk at, the B.C. Government is required by law to develop recovery plans for designated species. They cannot simply sidestep federal law by saying that we aren’t in charge of wildlife anymore.
I stand with these organizations against a government that is abdicating its responsibility to manage wildlife in a sustainable way. If you want to get involved, send a letter to your MLA if you live in British Columbia. Every voice counts.
And with that said, it’s time to wrap this episode up. Thank you so much for sharing your time with me and I hope you enjoy these episodes. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button at the top of this post if you haven’t yet added us to your podcast play list. Here at Ward Cameron Enterprises, we specialize in creating Rocky Mountain Memories. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like us to help make your visit the trip of a lifetime. We do only one thing here…we sell wow.