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041 Flying Squirrels, Forest Fire Records, and Van Horne Rescues the CPR

This week I take a look at one of our most secretive animals, the northern flying squirrel. It also looks like B.C. has broken a record this summer for the worst fire season on record. Finally, I’ll share the story of the Greatest Canadian Railroader, that wasn’t, well, Canadian, William Cornelius Van Horne.

Flying Squirrels

We’re all familiar with the red squirrel, that ubiquitous little scavenger that invades bird feeders and constantly chatters at us whenever we enter its forested domain. However were you aware that the red squirrel is NOT the only squirrely resident of our western forests? The northern flying squirrel shares the forest with its more gregarious neighbour but for most residents of the mountain west, these squirrels remain virtually invisible.

They range from 25 to 37 cm in length and they have a light underside and dark backs. They give birth to just a single litter each year and may live communally in the winter in order to huddle together to share warmth.

They are far more secretive than the red squirrel and are usually only active at night. Like red squirrels, their diet is very flexible, including seeds, cones, tree sap, fungi and even eggs, and nestlings.

They are characterized by a skin membrane that runs from their front feet to their back which, when stretched out, gives them a large leathery sail that allows them to fly like a furry kite from tree to tree to tree.

The proper name for these membranes are patagia. If this doesn’t give them enough of a wing, they have cartilage spurs on each wrist that can help to extend the patagia even further. As they leap from their perch, they stretch out their arms and legs and soar away.

When they approach their landing site, they’ll rapidly raise their flat tail which, in turn, shifts their body upwards. This positions all four legs forward for landing and the patagia also forms a breaking parachute to slow them down for landing.

Globally, there are 43 species of flying squirrels and in some cases, flights of up to 300 feet can be made. The northern flying squirrel averages around 20 metres, but flights of up to 90 metres have also been recorded.

If you’ve ever seen a YouTube video of humans wearing squirrel suits, you will noticed that they don’t just fly in a single direction, they can execute sharp turns by changing the orientation of their arms and legs. Squirrels are the real master at this. They can make incredibly sudden corrections and turns mid-flight, even completely reversing direction if needed.

While they’re foraging on the ground though, they’re clumsy as they collect seeds and cones to store in their caches.

Large eyes help them to see in the dark and they quietly scurry about looking for tasty morsels.

The range of the northern flying squirrel covers almost all of Canada. With the exception of southeastern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan.

Just because you haven’t seen one doesn’t mean they’re uncommon. In fact in many areas, they are very common, and like red squirrels, they’re not above invading an attic or two.

If you’re out at night and see two big eyes staring at you from the treetops, you may just be seeing one of our most secretive residents. Take a few minutes and watch, you may just get lucky and see it make a quick aerial exit.

In the winter, you will sometimes come across a set of squirrel tracks that mysteriously just begins in the middle of a field. That’s a sure sign that a flying squirrel has been passing through.

Next up…a record breaking season – for all the wrong reasons

Worst Fire Season Ever

It’s now official. 2017 already has become the worst fire season in British Columbia history – and the season isn’t even over yet.

As of Aug 16, fires had blazed across an estimated 894,941 hectares in the province since April 1 according to a CBC story. To battle these fires, the federal and provincial governments have spent in excess of $315 million dollars. That number doesn’t yet surpass the $382 million dollars spent in 2009, but again, the season isn’t over yet.

Perhaps even more important than financial costs to fight the fires, has been the loss of homes and lengthy evacuations of some 45,000 people over the course of the summer. As of August 22, there were still 3,800 people unable to return to their communities due to evacuation orders.

Currently firefighters are fighting a single fire that covers some 4,674 square kilometres making it the largest single fire in B.C. history. It was created when 19 individual fires converged to create one single monster blaze near Quesnel. From end to end it stretches 130 kilometres.

This is more than double the previous record held by a 1958 fire that charred 2,250 sq km. Province wide, there are still 135 fires burning.

This season is far from over. Many of the fires currently burning will continue until the snows of winter douse them. Let’s hope for some good solid rains for B.C. this fall.

Van Horne’s Line

The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway was an epic adventure for a small nation. There are many stories related to this line but I wanted to introduce you to one of the key characters responsible for helping us to get the job done. His name is Sir William Cornelius Van Horne.

As Canada struggled to build its railroad, the epic struggle against an unforgiving landscape and diminishing coffers made for a very difficult undertaking for a small population. We had little experience with such an immense railroad project and the politics around the construction managed to topple two governments.

As time passed, and funds diminished, the disorganization around the construction began to become overwhelming. The final straw occurred during the 1881 season where the company only managed to lay just over 200 km of track and in the process squandered $10 million. We still had some 3,000 left to finish.

It became clear that we needed to bring in a rainmaker. As it turns out there was just a man south of the border: William Cornelius Van Horne.

Van Horne had begun his career as a telegraph operator during the civil war. While working one day, a train rolled into the station and he saw the grand private car of the railroad superintendent…and he was impressed. He immediately declared that someday, he would also have his own private car. In order to accomplish this, he knew that he would need to learn everything there was about railroading; and so, he set out to learn. He began staying after work to copy the drawings of the railroad engineers…until he was caught. Fortunately for him, he was pretty good. They hired him to do their lettering from that point on, and for the rest of his life he was an amateur engineer.

He was only 29 when he got his private car, and was named the superintendent of the St. Louis, Kansas City, and Northern Railroad, making him the youngest Railroad Superintendent in the world.

Van Horne was a gambler and he never hesitated to gamble on his own abilities. He gained a reputation for taking bankrupt railways and making them pay. Since broke railroads didn’t have a lot of money, but had a lot of useless stock lying around, he would negotiate as much of his pay in stocks as possible. He could later sell them for a fortune; once he turned the fortunes of the railway around that is.

One of his contemporaries, Colonel Allan Magee stated:

“You always knew when Sir William Van Horne was approaching his office, even when he had just got off the elevator, was still coming down the corridor, but had not yet turned the corner. The sounds were unmistakable–the heavy tread, the wheeze, the shuffle, the snort, all warnings that a portentous figure was about to loom into view”

He had a reputation of being everywhere at once, and he took great pains to cultivate that reputation. At one point he learned that some of his workers were taking pillows from passenger compartments to make beds in the luggage compartment. He arranged for a telegram to meet them in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night and all that telegram said was: “put those pillows back! Van Horne”

Even though he had his private car, he would often travel 2nd class as that was the best way to see the operation of your line the way your customers saw it. On one trip, some roughians were taunting a young African American woman with a child that wouldn’t stop crying. He sat quietly until one of the youths got up and slapped the child. Van Horne, who was a man of rather generous proportions launched to his feet, grabbed the youth by the scruff of the collar and said: “Leave that child alone!” When the youth responded with: “Who the hell are you?” Van Horned replied: “Never mind! Be careful how your conduct yourself or I shall throw your off the train”

By this time the tempers were flaring, and the testosterone was pumping, but the angry stare of Van Horne caused the youth to back down. Things were very tense until they got into the next station when the youth’s sidekicks hustled him off the train. Van Horne watched as they unloaded on the platform, all the while wondering where his conductors had been during this entire time.

Suddenly one of them appeared and ordered Van Horne to duck down:  “Do you know who those men are?” he whispered…”That’s Jesse and Frank James and the Younger brothers. Lie as you are or they may take it in their heads to shoot you as the train leaves.”

The story of how the ‘super’ had bested the most notorious train robbers of all time helped to cement his reputation. It was stories like these that eventually brought him to the attention of the builders of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

When Van Horne was hired to take over the Canadian Pacific he was paid $15,000/year, making him the highest paid general manager in North America. As one author put it: -“Van Horne…took the CPR in his hands like a giant whip, cracked it once to announce his presence, cracked it again to loose the sloth and corruption and cracked it a third time simply because the 1st two had felt so good”

On Jan. 1 of 1882, Van Horne officially took over and appeared at the end of track in Winnipeg.

R.K. Kernighan wrote about Van Horne’s first visit to end of track at Flat Creek, Manitoba–the headline: “Massacre at Flat Creek”

“…when manager Van Horne strikes the town there is a shaking of bones. He cometh like a blizzard and he goeth out like a lantern. He is the terror of Flat Krik. He shakes them up like an earthquake and they are as frightened of him as if he were old Nick himself.

Yet Van Horne is calm and harmless looking. So is a she mule, and so is a buzz saw. you didn’t know their inwardness till you go up and get the feel of them. To see Van Horne get out of the car and go softly up the platform, you might think he was an evangelist on his way west to preach temperance to the Mounted Police.

But you are soon undeceived. If you are within hearing distance you will have more fun than you ever had in your life before. He calls the first official he comes to just to get his hand in and leads the next one by the car, and pointing eastward informs him that the walking is good as far as St. Paul. To see the rest hunt for their hides and commence scribbling for dear life is a terror.

Van Horne wants to know. He is that kind of man. He wants to know why this was not done and why this was done. If the answers are not satisfactory, there is a dark and bloody tragedy enacted right there. During each act, all the characters are killed off and in the last scene the heavy villain is filled with dynamite, struck with a hammer and by the time he has knocked a hole plumb through the sky, and the smoke has cleared away, Van Horne has discharged all the officials and hired them over again at lower figures.”

Van Horne met with railroad officials in Winnipeg and boasted that he would lay 500 miles of track during the 1882 season. The room was filled with echoes of laughter, but nobody was laughing at the end of the year when he had bettered that claim by some 48 miles.

J.H.E. Secretan, the man in charge of the railroad surveys on the prairies complained that: “construction was moving so quickly that grating crews passed him during the night, grading ground that hadn’t yet been surveyed”

With the efficiency with which Van Horne was laying track the railroad coffers were also quickly being drained.

As the railroad struggled to keep up with financing this breakneck pace of track laying, the 1883 season led off with a bang. They began grading in March and were laying track only a few weeks later. My the end the season they had reached the Kicking Horse Pass. During one 42 day period, they laid an average of 5.6 km of track per day. July 28 was a particularly good day with 10.3 km of track laid.

Van Horne was just the man the railroad needed, but as he pushed the crews, the finances of the railway were quickly falling into ruin. Eventually the railway would push through those financial challenges and complete the route.

William Cornelius Van Horne was the right man at the right time. We are just beginning to tell his story in this episode and I promise he will be an important part of future episodes. Suffice it to say that without his unrelenting leadership the CPR, the tie that binds this nation together coast to coast might never have been completed. Today you can see his likeness in front of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. His statue stands in front of one of the railroad hotels that he had built in order to provide high class accommodation to passengers traveling his line, but that is a story for another day.

Next week I’ll look at the completion of the line as there were still major challenges ahead of the railroaders before the last spike could be hammered.

And with that, it’s time to wrap this episode up. I want to thank you for sharing your time with me and remember, if you’re looking for a hiking or step-on guide, speaker or workshop facilitator, Ward Cameron Enterprises is your source when it comes to the mountain west. We will make sure that your western Canada memories last a lifetime.

If you’d like to connect with me directly, you can drop me a line on the contact page on this website or hit me up on twitter @wardcameron. See you next week.

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