Saturday, July 4, 2015

Smoke Around Thickwood

It seems I jumped the gun a little bit the other day about the haze we have been getting from all the forest fires.  While it did clear up for a bit, a shift in the wind brought it back yesterday.  We're having a good bout of off and on rain this today though which my lawn I'm sure really appreciates.  I took a break from my book early yesterday evening to take a stroll around my neighbourhood.  I'm not sure how well I was able to capture the conditions here but I did my best.

From my backyard deck...

Signal and Wolverine looking east...

At Westview School looking west...

Eastbound Thickwood at Signal...

Thursday, July 2, 2015


Thankfully the air seems to be clearing up here after a few days of thick smoke brought on by numerous forest fires in Alberta and Saskatchewan.  I'm sure by now most people have heard of the disruption brought about by this.  Fortunately, we seem to have escaped the worst of it here.  If you've seen satellite photos of the smoke in the media in recent days, Fort McMurray lay just to the south of the worst of it.

The morning sun on Monday and Tuesday had a pretty striking orange/red hue to it as I waited for my bus to work.  Monday was the worse day in terms of visibility (to me anyway) and air quality.  I considered not going in to work on Tuesday but since it was my last work day I opted to power through it.  There was a bit more of a breeze which made it more bearable and of course I drank water frequently through the day so in the end it wasn't as bad as I feared it might be.

This is the worst I've seen here for smoke since the summer of 2011.  THAT was a long, dry summer and definitely the most smoke I had seen up to that point in my life anyway.  I was actually starting to see more blue skies yesterday and that trend continued today.  We still have high heat as we've been experiencing plus-30C weather for a few days now but that looks to be coming to an end in a couple more days.  Things will cool down and become a bit more bearable in time for me to head back to work.

Overall, we've been pretty lucky here and we haven't seen anywhere near the number of evacuations as they've had next door in Saskatchewan.  I lived there for a year in the early 2000's and visited a few communities so it was sad to hear the difficulties they are going through.

So in case you're seeing news reports and hear mention of Fort McMurray, I can assure you I'm doing fine.  I'm missing not having air conditioning at the moment, but certainly not facing anywhere the challenges elsewhere so I can count myself to be quite fortunate.  Having my front yard burned to a crisp from this mini-heat wave doesn't seem like such a big deal when I consider the larger picture.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Most Welcome Side-Effect

A nice thing about my weekend stroll to along the Clearwater River to visit the marine museum was discovering its potential as an area for bird-watching.  I'm not sure why I've overlooked this shoreline until now.  The river does parallel a busy road but it was weekend traffic when I was down there so I didn't find it too bad.  It's a bit scruffy and overgrown and I believe there are future plans to turn this in to a more park-like setting.

As mentioned in my previous post, I was on my way to a new museum and I had a couple other errands to run to I didn't spend too much time doing any serious bird-watching.  I DID however, get a good view of a White-crowned sparrow which I was able to add to my birding list for the year.  White-crowns are interesting to me as I do generally record where my sighting are made and while I don't see them very often (usually just a single sighting a year), they seem to pop up in random places around town when I least expect it.....very unlike the ubiquitous House Sparrow or Chipping Sparrow.  My first ever sighting here was in my own backyard, followed by no sightings the next year followed by a random sighting along a Thickwood trail least year and now this one.

This little guy showed up at an opportune moment as it now means that my 2015 birding list has now surpassed my 2014 list and also tied my 2013 list and I still have half a year to go!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Northern Alberta's Marine Heritage

Generally when you think about Northern Alberta, the idea of a ship yard doesn't exactly spring to mind.  And yet Fort McMurray is home to the only remaining shipyard in Alberta.  Granted there isn't all that much left to see of the yard itself which is why I find our newest museum so fascinating.  The Fort McMurray Marine Park Museum just opened last month and I had a chance to head down and check it out this morning.  

In this first photo you can see part of an old Northern Alberta Railways caboose built in 1899.  To the right, the Radium Scout (more on this one later.)

The recently-constructed visitors centre is designed after the old 1925 railway station that once stood in Waterways.

This is the bridge of the "McMurray".  Built in 1955, it was eventually assigned to push a giant dredge along the Athabasca.

And this is the dredge, known as Dredge 250.....all 250 tons of it.  I'm not certain exactly when or where it was built but it was only decommissioned in 1996.

This fuel barge acted as a storage vessel for the dredge.

Here is the Miskanaw Barge which accompanied the CCGS Miskanaw (see below).  It serviced the coast guard ship from 1962 until 1996.  I was told that this vessel is still in full working order.

Also still in full working order is this coast guard vessel, the CCGS Miskanaw.  It was built in Vancouver and plied local waters, placing and maintaining lights and buoys to assist with river traffic.  After it was built it couldn't exactly be sailed here from Vancouver given that Alberta is land-locked so it was taken apart, shipped by rail and then reassembled here.

The Miskanaw I greatly enjoyed because I was able to climb aboard and explore.   Walking along the deck of a ship sitting on dry land was an odd experience I must say.  I certainly got a better understanding of just how spartan living conditions were.  The one thing that surprised me was that there was no interior hallway access.  This room (and indeed all of them) opened up to the outside of the ship.  The quarters were quite tiny.  I'm not sure why I didn't just open the door to take a photo here but it does give you an idea of the cramped quarters.  I did try lying down on one of these bunks and while I'm not overly tall myself (I clock in at 5'10) I did find it a bit of a squeeze.  I counted two rooms with double bunks and two rooms with singles giving you a crew of 7 when you include the captain.

....whose quarters right behind the bridge weren't really any more spacious.

The view from the bridge....

Here is the "McMurray" taken from the bridge of the Miskanaw.

The oldest ship on display is the "Radium Scout", built in 1946 in Edmonton for the Northern Transportation Company.  Like the Miskanaw it was also shipped up here in pieces and then reassembled.  It was kept on display over at the local heritage park and now calls the marine museum its new home.

So there you have a taste of our newest museum honouring our local heritage.  It really is a great place to visit on a sunny day as it was this morning.  It definitely helped give me my local history fix as the heritage park and museum is undergoing extensive work after the devastation of the 2013 flood.  I've been told that this park should be opened again next summer and I can't wait to see it again.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Last Weekend's Bird Tally

It was after doing my write ups about my trip to BC that I realized I failed to mention the birds that I saw so I will make up for my somewhat embarrassing oversight here.  I should start off by saying that I was very pleased with my excursion tally.   Prior to my trip I had a total of 18 birds recorded for the year.  When I do my big spring outings and see 10-12 species during the course of a day, I consider that a pretty good day.  For this trip, I figured seeing 15-20 species, which I felt was quite doable, would have me over the moon.  So how did I do?  I saw a total of 26 birds on this trip alone (including one bonus in Jasper town site).  Many of the birds I saw were ones I had seen before, however, I DID see 6 species I had never seen before in my life.

Here is my list below, more or less in the order I saw them.  Those in bold type are my "first sightings".

Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Slate-coloured Junco
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Common Raven
Black-billed Magpie
House Sparrow
American Robin
Chipping Sparrow
Canada Goose
American Coot
Blue-Winged Teal
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Red-wing Blackbird
Ruddy Duck
Mallard Duck
Black-capped Chickadee
Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Rock Dove (in Jasper)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

My Trip to Valemount, BC - Part 3

I was excited my second morning to see that the weather had improved.  I had much better views of the surrounding mountains now. 

(This last photo below was taken later in the day when the weather started to close in again.  I'm pretty sure that's Mount Terry Fox here.  Apparently, the views are amazing and their is a great trail to the summit which I would absolutely LOVE to do in the future.)

The sunny skies also ensured I'd wouldn't be eaten alive by mosquitos during my much-anticipated visit to Cranberry Marsh.  The marsh actually began as a lake which was partially drained when the railway was routed to the east of town.  Thankfully, wiser heads have prevailed and the RW Starratt Wildlife Refuge was created out of land mostly donated by a prominent community member and former bush pilot, RW Starratt upon his death in 1971.  A 6 km trail takes you around the marsh.  No steep climbs this time but a few mosquitos to deal with.  But then, it IS a marsh.  Valemount is surrounded by no less than three mountain ranges, the Rockies to the east, the Cariboo Range to the west and the Monashees to the south.   On a clear day, the backdrop is quite stunning.

Canoe Mountain, marking the northern-most point of the Monashee Mountains, is very prominent to the south of the marsh.

There really IS a small family of American Coots in there somewhere, I promise.

I love this view and I could have stayed there all day.  I'm sure I spent well over an hour on the dyke that runs along the west side.

Along the south side of the marsh I crossed a small bridge and soon passed the remains of an early homestead constructed in 1927 by one Eric Swanson.  A foundation and a wooden outbuilding are pretty much all that remain today.

Eventually, I worked my way around to the west side of the marsh to a road which I took back to town.  Along the way, I passed the canoe launch.  The photos just don't do it justice.  It was absolutely gorgeous.  A wide-angle lens would have been a big help.  If you canoe at all, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more scenic put-in.

Spot the deer?

Spot the ground squirrel?

Because I love to do things backwards for some reason, I ended my second day by visiting the short trail behind the Visitor's Centre that I had initially planned to do the day before.

Valemount Visitor's Centre

A short 0.6km stroll (a walk in the park compared to the previous day-and-a-half) takes you to a salmon spawning ground.  Along the way I passed this really strange grass on both sides of the path which imparted a very odd visual effect that I'm not sure I quite captured with the camera.

At the end of this short trail I found a salmon viewing platform, a great vantage point from what I've been told once the salmon begin to arrive here in late July.

This isn't the viewing platform but a small bridge over the creek.  Considering Highway 5 passed over the creek right behind me it was fairly serene.

(Swift Creek with Mount McKirdy in the background)

From the salmon viewing platform I followed a path under the highway and along the creek, eventually ending up at the small rapid where I had started my hike the previous morning.

So my little adventure came full circle though I hadn't really planned it out.  It is kind of nice though to take a mini-vacation, refresh the senses and just have your legs take you where they will.  All in all, I enjoyed my time in Valemount immensely.  With a bit of luck I'll make it back before fall to see the salmon run.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

My Trip to Valemount, BC - Part 2

Here is Part 2 from my trip to Valemount.....

Having refreshed myself (and dried out a bit) from my hike, I headed over to the community museum which is housed in a former railway station.  The structure (with the exception of the storage shed, which was a 1950's addition) was built in 1914.  This isn't the station's original site as it has since been moved a couple of times over the intervening years.

Initially located about 2km away at a place known as Swift Creek, the station played its role in the Robson Valley until 1927 when it was moved to a spot just across the road from where it now sits.  (The post office and school also used to be located along this stretch which used to be the main thoroughfare of the community.)

It station remained there until 1981 when the CNR announced it was no longer able or willing to maintain it.  Fortunately, the good citizens of the town stepped in.  It was purchased for $1, lovingly restored, and moved to its current locale across the street.

The museum is well worth a visit.  Not only does it display many railway artifacts from days gone by but it also features displays about the town's history (I got a kick out of the old organ), First Nations and Japanese internment camps.

The outdoor displays were quite interesting.  Not being a train expert, I've never seen a contraption quite like this (though it gave me some interesting ideas!)


As a railway town, the area saw its share of tragedy with the Canoe River train crash in 1950, killing 17 soldiers from CFB Shilo en route to the Korean War and leading to big changes in how the Canadian rail system operated.  As an interesting side note, the sole individual charged in the crash, a young telegraph operator, hired future Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to defend him.  Dief was able to secure him an acquittal.

The disaster is commemorated locally by this marker at the Legion as well as a sign by Cranberry Marsh.

This artillery piece sits in front of the Valemount Legion.  Unfortunately their small museum was closed by the time I got  there.

Mount McKirdy graces the skyline to the west.  Fortunately, the weather was to cooperate more the following day. allowing for some much better photo opportunities.  I should say that I'm horrible at telling mountains apart.  In a perfect world,  they would all have large red dots in the sky to help identify them and make it easier for people like myself.  I do have to give a nod to the anonymous man in the white pick-up who stopped and identified this peak for me.

By this point it was mid-afternoon and I retired to my hotel to recharge the batteries and gear up for some bird-watching the following day.