Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Polar bear season

Bears typically come onto land in June, which is when the Hudson Bay has broken up considerably. Once on land, they are fattened up from eating seals and fish all winter and tend to lie low for the summer. However, once fall rolls around, the bears’ food reserves are getting low, and it is not easy for them to hunt on land, as they are more of a marine mammal than anything. This is when they migrate to Cape Churchill from their disembarking points (wherever they chose to leave the ice floes as they melt in the spring – they stay on the ice, to hunt seals for as long as they can). Cape Churchill is a piece of land geographically set-up in such a way that the ice forms here before anywhere else in the vicinity. The polar bears are eager to get back onto the ice and start hunting again. Cape Churchill is not far from the town of Churchill, so it is not surprising that all the enticing smells coming from town result in curious bears and a high density of these white furry visitors as well!
I returned to Churchill in October to work for North Star Tours as a bus tour guide and shuttle driver for “bear season”, which essentially runs from early October to late-November. It was a short work-term, but an extremely busy one! I worked literally 24-7, on-call. It was tiring, but exciting. Driving a little white mini-bus, I saw ample wildlife and met lots of interesting tourists from all over the world.
Essentially, my job was working alongside tour organizers such as Natural Habitat and Frontiers North, both which required shuttles to their tundra vehicles: Great White Bear and Tundra Buggy Tours, respectively. I gave these groups a tour of the town and area, as well as individual travelers (not part of a formal tour group). Churchill has a lot going for it, above and beyond the bears, which is I elaborated on to a point on my tours. I learned a lot from the questions people asked me, my colleagues who have worked for North Star for several years, and from personal observation. Nearly all the people were wonderfully friendly and excited to be in Churchill, which was encouraging for me and gave me the extra push for the last week or two of my high-energy job. It took some determined driving in some treacherous conditions (near zero visibility, ice and snow drifts), getting stuck a few times along the way… but I made it through in one piece!
On a particularly snowy afternoon in early November, I was digging my bus out of a snow drift when I made an unexpected find: a little black puppy in the middle of the road! Seeing she was shivering and so young, I gathered her up in my arms (with her almost getting hit by a car in the meantime), and brought her into the staffhouse I was sharing with three roommates. We gave her the remainder of a caribou bone, which she attacked with fervor. Not sure what to do with this hungry black mutt, I found out later on that day that she was from a litter born under a house, not far from where I was living. Seeing a potential bleak future for this sweet creature, I decided to keep her, and with help from a roommate, named her Kona; Cree for “lots of snow.”
Kona proceeded to accompany for the rest of bear season on some of my shuttles. She was very popular among the people who traveled with us, but preferred to curl up on my lap and sleep while I drove to our destination. She was excellent company while waiting some cold nights for a Great White Bear buggy to return from its evening tour, and an angel with everyone who wanted to kiss and ruffle her soft puppy coat. People looked forward to seeing Kona and I, their dynamic driver and companion!
She may have been well-behaved on the bus, but she certainly was trouble in the house! Aside from the usual puppy behaviour of crying, chewing things and having accidents, she thought it humorous to snatch each of my roommates’ underwear on several occasions and run downstairs for all to see! She also had a tendency of taking off upstairs and leaving a mortifying steaming “surprise” for each of them in their rooms, before I knew what was happening. She also managed to find a squeeze bottle of purple paint, which she squirted all over our carpet in the middle of the living room… Needless to say, everybody learned to keep their doors shut while Kona was loose in the house!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Keji 2008: Christmas in July

Keji has not only the well put-together species at risk program that I am a part of, but also an extensive interpretive schedule. Every day and evening there are different interpretive events – the evening programs especially, are quite entertaining (I’ve made a point of going to all of them).
On July 25th, we had a Christmas in July bbq/potluck at our place… or at least we tried to! Only two people showed up, and not for long, so the three of us headed over to the evening program that night (which my supervisor and another interpreter were in)… to make the evening a bit more interesting, I dressed up as an elf, complete with pointy paper ears, a toque, tights and bright red crocs, and paid a surprise visit to them on stage (I popped up in front of the crowd and wished the two of them a happy Christmas in July, and gave them burgers!)
The park had its 39th Birthday on August 2nd, a day full of birthday festivities. I ran one station (of four) as part of a special walk in honour of the birthday, where two team members (one blindfolded) find a tree in the forest, which was fun to watch. How it worked: the blindfolded person was led by the other team member to a tree in the forest, the person feels the tree and is led back to the starting point, the blindfold is removed and that person (without help) has to find the tree they were led to, based on touch. That evening, I took part in a species at risk play on the beach: Campsite Crime Scene Investigation (CCSI). My role was minimal, but very important because Bertha the shy Black Bear (me) came forward at the last minute to reveal the sneaky condo developer who crushed the piping plover eggs. It was a riot to watch and take part in!
Lately, the conditions have been favourable for snakes, and I’ve caught a couple of Eastern Ribbon Snakes, a Threatened species. These are black, with three yellow stripes down their back, and spend a lot of their time on the water’s edge or in the water. The snakes themselves are not very big (about the width of your index finger, with even smaller heads), and are very tricky to find and catch (cryptic). There’s only estimated to be about a hundred of them in the main area of the park, called Grafton Lake. Snakes, having no arms or legs are very difficult to permanently mark. The least invasive way to mark these ones has been to clip certain scales on their bellies to identify individuals, the codes only lasting for about a year or two (depending on the frequency that the snake sheds), which makes population estimates even more difficult. There’s so little known about this species, that everything we are collecting from the habitat they live in, to individual characteristics contribute to a greater understanding of these animals and how to better protect them.
Another snake related project that I am helping with is using coverboards. These are squares of varying material that have been placed in various areas where snakes have been known to inhabit. Not much luck yet, but we’ve been experimenting with plywood, metal, shingles, landscape fabric, and soon, cotton t-shirts. It’s being done for an undergrad thesis project, to see if snakes prefer a certain type of cover, in what kind of habitats, what species use them and in what temperature range. Data collection is the most important thing for all of the research that gets done… so lots of writing on data cards, pictures and measurements need to be done (even if we don’t find anything). What we may not find useful now, might be useful one day, for another project in the future.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Keji 2008: Sponge Bobbie Squarejacket

June has come and gone, and interpretive programs are now in full-swing! June was a busy month with preparations for summer interpretive programs and Blanding’s turtles were nesting. These turtles are really neat in that once the females mature, they continue to go back to the same site to nest year after year. Volunteers and staff go out nightly for the month, and if a turtle is sighted and lays her eggs, the nest is protected from predators with an enclosure. Hatchlings will come out in the fall, and researchers will monitor the nests once again so that they can mark and release them. Watching the Blanding’s turtles nest was a unique experience. The turtles go into a trance once they start laying their eggs, and become oblivious to all else around them. They lay typically around 10 eggs, and the whole process takes a few hours. First, she digs a hole, then lays her eggs (each time she lays one, her head juts way out, then back into her shell to squeeze the egg out), then she covers the eggs and conceals the nest so that it is practically indistinguishable from the surrounding surface. Afterwards, people sit around the campfire with a beer and snacks, which sometimes happens at a pretty late hour depending on when the turtles have finished nesting for the night.
I took a canoe training course – a level B certification is necessary for doing interpretive paddles. It was a fun day of practicing different strokes and movements in the canoe. The best part was the canoe rescue and in-water portion of the course. If a canoe is submerged, one of the methods to get it to shore is to get in it, full of water, and paddle back, which was a lot of fun! Only, I didn’t realize how large my PFD was, and after I jumped out of the canoe, the back part went right up over my head so that from behind, I looked like a relative of Sponge Bob… Sponge Bobbi Squarejacket!
My first Snake n’ Bake, Shell Raisers and Pirates of the Kejimkujik went smoothly, and the rest of the summer is looking promising. Snake n’ Bake is a hike on snakes of Nova Scotia, with an emphasis on the threatened ribbon snake. Shell Raisers is a paddle on turtles of Keji, with a focus on Blanding’s turtle research, and finally Pirates is a kids paddle (we sing YO HO, YO HO, A PIRATES LIFE FOR ME as loud as we can, or at least we try to get the kids to sing along!)
I’ve been out with researchers, learning more about their turtle and ribbon snake research. There was one day I went for a paddle with a turtle researcher doing GPS logging. We had gone up a brook and reached a point where logs were blocking our progress. I hopped out, and when it was time to get back in… I ended up teetering and falling into the brook – well, it was refreshing anyhow!
Recently, we had a big event at Keji – Blanding’s turtle release day! With over 200 people, the media and important people from all over, I ended up being part of the camera and bbq crew. I swear, I’ve never cooked so many burgers or hotdogs in my life! I was throwing hamburgers on the grill like Frisbees and yelling out “who wants hot dogs!!” to the mile-long line up for food! Turns out most people prefer hamburgers… The event was to celebrate the release of 34 Blanding’s who had been captively reared for the last 2 years (given lots of food and warmth to increase their growth and consequently their survival rates). We’ll be keeping track of their progress with radio transmitters over the summer.
I had a lovely weekend with my aunt Diane – we started off at old friends, the Kidson’s organic farm in Centreville, stayed overnight on their refurbished sailboat in the Dartmouth harbor right by the ferry terminal, toured Halifax, Peggy’s Cove and Hubbards. We visited my grandfather’s grave, shopped at Mountain Equipment Co-op and the market, sat at caf├ęs sipping lattes, drove along the coast to Hubbards, strolled around Peggy’s Cove, and rode the ferry across the harbor with a gorgeous sunset, it was quite the weekend!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Keji 2008: for the shell of it

Turtle Trivia: For those of you who don’t know what the Blanding’s turtle looks like, they have a black shell, with yellow speckles, a yellow throat and underbelly. They are a bit larger than painted turtles and do occur in certain regions of Ontario in addition to this small region in Nova Scotia. They are classified as endangered in Nova Scotia, but threatened nation-wide. I find it neat that Blanding’s turtles (and all other turtle) females have flat bellies, whereas the males have a convex belly – why is this… well, turtles have to procreate too, don’t they! Having a shell can make things awkward, so the shape of the underbelly aids in mating. There are other ways to tell males and females apart, but in addition to the shape of their bellies, the size of the tail and location of their cloaca (universal bum-reproductive hole) are the best indicators (they can breathe through that hole too). Blanding’s turtles don’t reach maturity until they are around 21 years old, and can live to be over 80. Those who actually survive that long don’t stop reproducing until death -there are no golden years for the turtle…
Hey, I think the park interpreter in me is taking over… I may be shoving too many facts your way in this email! However, it’s been enlightening getting into the mindset of an interpreter… those of us in science don’t realize how little the general public actually knows about scientific genre. I particularly realized this after a group of high school biology students came to visit for the day. Such as many people don’t know what a species at risk is, yet it’s such common knowledge for many of us who have taken biology (by the way, it means that the survival of a group of living things is at stake). We can prattle on about permeability of oxygen through derma in an anuran, when all people really want to know is that it simply means that frogs breathe through their skin. It’s taken some work to take a few steps back in order to explain things in a simpler way, and make it interesting too!
One thing that this province has, that I’ve never experienced elsewhere is… ticks!! You wouldn’t believe how many ticks I have gotten on my body since I’ve been here! The girls I live/work with call me a tick magnet, since they can’t believe how many get on me. Is there Lyme disease here? Yes! So, I check myself thoroughly after each day out in the field… I even found one that was a little too close for my liking to a rather sensitive region of my body!
I spent a weekend with a friend, Krisi and her husband, Marcus, both whom I hadn’t seen in years. They have a beautiful farm near Tatamagouche (about a 3 hr drive from where I am), which overlooks the Northhumberland Strait (right across from Prince Edward Island), with ten horses, four cats and four dogs. It was so great to see them both again, and with even hopped on one of her young horses – a gray, named Revenge. I’m sure I’ll be visiting again as the summer goes on!
Those of us involved with the turtle research got some entertainment recently, when we fed the blanding’s turtles in the Visitor’s Centre some live minnows. Their necks are surprisingly long, and for at least ten minutes, we all stood there watching the little turtles swim with all their might, with their necks stretched out as far as they could go, after the minnows: back and forth in the tank, crashing into the sides of it, and rocks within. After finally catching a minnow, it was carnage… shredded fish bits as the turtles use their front claws to tear at the food in their mouths (turtles don’t have teeth), but interesting to watch… well, at least I think it’s pretty cool! We’ve started to introduce live food to the turtles, to prepare them for their release into the wild later on this summer.
One of the researchers found an unmarked Blanding’s turtle crossing the road, which was pretty exciting… unmarked? It means that the turtle didn’t have notches engraved into certain scutes (like scales, there are 12 on either side) of her carapace (upper shell). I was able to take her into the local research facility, called the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI), and went through the works of how we monitor and keep track the Blanding’s turtles. Notches were put in with a type of nail file, so that she can be identified if caught again in the future. Her plastron (belly shell) was scanned by a flatbed scanner for pictorial reference. Turtles have rings of growth, like a tree and each is unique to the individual like a fingerprint to us. Various measurements of length, height and weight, as well as blood sampling for genetic analyses are part of the work-up. She was even outfitted with a radio transmitter, glued onto her shell by epoxy, so that researchers can track her movements in the future. I’ll be doing a fair bit of catching and data collecting on the Blanding’s turtles in the park, but who’s to say how many have yet to be found for the first time!
Well… back to ‘shellraising’ around here! (by the way, Shellraisers is the name of the interpretive paddle I’m giving this summer... it is focused on the turtles of Nova Scotia)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Keji 2008: fire, land, and water

Kejimkujik has a seaside adjunct, which is not part of the main park, but rather just over an hour’s drive away. It is right on the Atlantic coast, with white sand beaches and turquoise water. I got to spend the entire day at the seaside adjunct, with a number of other staff (new and old), which was awesome. Cormorants were seen drying their outstretched wings on rocks, and harbor seals basking on another. The day included an interpretive hike, lunch on the beach, and observations of the piping plover, a shore bird that is at risk in Nova Scotia. We were with a warden, who took the group onto the protected plover beach (closed to the public). We saw a number of pairs, and discovered a nest near the lagoon (where salt water runs in behind sand dunes, a very productive area) I’ve always been a fan of the ocean, and can’t wait to go back!
I got my first taste of Keji’s backcountry when I went out with one of the scientists to investigate a wetland area – we wanted to see if it was a fen or a bog, for water quality samples, data logging, etc. Him and I had to drive about a half hour along this unmaintained gravel road to a portage point. From there, we had to canoe to a location by gps that was taken from a satellite prior to the trip (but satellites can’t tell if an area is a fen or a bog). We had lunch in the canoe, in the middle of a lake so quiet that the loon calls were amplified all around. It was pretty neat! Unfortunately, the wetland turned out to be a fen (has different vegetation and less water in it than a bog), and we had to return with all our gear and no samples.
Keji’s visitor centre has four “head start” blanding’s turtles, which means hatchlings of these endangered species are incubated so that they mature quicker and have a head start in comparison to their counterparts in the wild. These turtles have to be hand fed every other day, which means they have to be separated and put in individual enclosures outside of their tank. They get fed frozen fish concoctions (scraped into slivers with a razor), and fish food. It’s interesting to watch them, and I have to hang around until they are done feeding, to put them back into their large tank and get fresh water from the lake for the next feeding. Blanding’s turtles are about the same size as the common painted turtle, but has a black shell with yellow speckles and a yellow throat/underbelly. I will be doing various things related to the blanding’s turtle this summer, and have been learning lots about their ecology etc.
Over the long weekend, I went out for a paddle with a few people from the area – 3 canoes. We left around 10:15pm, paddled for about 2hrs on the Kejimkujik Lake, with a portage in the middle. Canoeing on the Keji lake at night was a completely different experience. The water, already naturally dark from tannins leached from the surrounding wetlands, looked black. It looked to me like I was canoeing on top of an oil spill, and could vaguely see the ripples of the water ahead. The only sounds I could really hear were crickets and the lapping of the water, which was really peaceful. At one point, the moon was clear of clouds and was amazing with its reflection on the water.
At one end of the park, a few km’s from the visitor’s centre is an old fish hatchery, right on the Grafton River and wetland. Park interpreters and heritage presenters share this pretty old building. The fish hatchery was there before the park came into existence (back in 1967, the hatchery itself in the 1930’s). The surrounding area is a prime site for blanding’s turtles, ribbon snakes and coastal plain flora – all species at risk and this is where my office is located! It is complete with a document library, kitchen, and a fabulous view. The house I’m staying in is just beyond the entrance to the park, by the warden and ecologist buildings. There will be six of us, three rooms… one bathroom.
I had a very easy going and pleasant day with a few other parks staff at a place called the Stone Bear Lodge, on the Bear River Reserve, nearby the park. It is run by a retired Mi’kmaw chief more or less as a retreat. The day consisted of reflective talks, sage snuffing, sitting around a wood fire, interpretive walks with insight into a native view of nature and wildlife. The place was beautiful, with a lush mossy cedar/pine forest, and a brook running through it. There were several teepees and log cabins for various uses, including a traditional sweat house. All of us were somewhat surprised at how the atmosphere brought out a different side to us, revealing personal and sometimes emotional details that we often wouldn’t share with strangers, with a serene calming effect associated with it. It was like a trance came over us once a feather was passed, and words just flow out while everyone else listened and reflected. Afterwards, everyone felt refreshed and at peace with the world. This experience I had just goes to show that all of us can get quite caught up in the fast pace of the world, worry about the future, dwell in the past, but not so much live in the moment. A piece of advice to all of you – take some time out for yourself, and reflect.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Keji 2008: the end of an era

With summer rapidly approaching, and many changes in my life as of late, it’s about time that I sent an update around to all of you! Since I sent out my final Wapusk update last August, I’m sure you can imagine that much has happened since then. Leaving off from way back in August 2007, it was a long drive home, from Thompson, Manitoba to Guelph, Ontario, for more reasons than I care to elaborate on in this email. Yet, it was a pretty one, with the coniferous forest and natural landscapes on each side of our Northern route, instead of the mass urbanization seen in Southern Ontario. No doubt, it took some getting used to, back in the old routine at home, although wonderful to see family and friends again. Not long after I arrived home, I moved into an apartment with one of my previous roommates, Jill, for our fourth year at U of Guelph. We had a great time living together, with I admit, more fun and games than any other year. These final two semesters as an undergrad flew right past, and I can officially say that I have a Bachelor of Science degree, with honours in Zoology, and a minor in Psychology. What a good feeling, to be done after a stretch of 20 or so years of school. I’ve said good-bye to the good friends I made throughout university, whom I consider friends for life. I’ve come to realize that this is the end of an era… there is so much more to be seen and done in this world, so many new people to meet and a new chapter to begin in life.
Anyways, back to what I was up to over the last few months… Over the Christmas holidays, I returned to Churchill for 2 weeks. Returning was like coming home again, the familiar faces and company was awesome. The town and the people may have been familiar, yet the winter season there was a whole new experience. Daily temperatures of -25 and below kept me in 4+ layers, top and bottom, but certainly not indoors. The scenery was of course white with snow, barren and beautiful. Most of the days were sunny, and the air clean and crisp. The Churchill River was frozen over by then, and the belugas and polar bears gone. Yet, there were still some hardy animals that stuck out winter in the area. By four-wheeler and snowmobile, Leonard and I were able to cross the river to hunt ptarmigans (Arctic chickens), keeping warm with Baileys and tea. Ptarmigan was not the only interesting meat I had during my stay. Canada goose from the fall hunting season, Arctic Char from North of Churchill, and caribou steaks were part of the menu too. One weekend, three of us spent at a cabin in the bush, to hunt caribou. It was there, that I shot a caribou, for the first time! It was shot with a rifle that had a scope, something I’d never used before. The cabin we stayed in was small, but cozy with its wood stove. We melted ice from the river, to drink, and ate meals of fried balogne and potatoes, a hearty meal that tastes the best only in the bush. Spending time completely in the wilderness took some getting used to, but I believe I’m hooked – I can’t wait until the next time I get to spend a few days in isolation. Those two weeks up North were over in no time, and it was once again I left the arctic for the South, and look forward to returning again.
In March, Leonard came to visit in Southern Ontario, all the way from near Yellowknife, NWT. The three weeks he spent here were filled with activity. From nightlife in Guelph, to skiing in Ellicotville, New York, visiting in Burlington/Waterloo, Toronto Rock Lacrosse and the Toronto Hockey Hall of Fame, an NHL game in Ottawa, and a visit to the Museum of Civilization, in the Gatineau of Quebec, Leonard got the whole 9 yards of this part of Canada! We had a great time, and his visit was a great distraction from that last drag of university :)
I said good-bye to Melody at the end of March, since she has been contracted on a year’s lease to a very kind woman, named Denise. Denise aims to enjoy having a horse, and riding dressage at an immaculate private farm, not far from Guelph. I have no doubt that Melody will be in the best of care, and will be absolutely lavished with love during her stay. It will be a welcome and different lifestyle not being in the saddle, or rather an equestrian saddle, for a year. I plan to be in the seat of a mountain bike - I have yet to break it in, but I look forward to the adventures I hope to have with this cool new bike. I never thought that I would be giving up riding to any extent, but it just goes to show that life goes on and things change.
After exams, I went back to Manitoba for 2 weeks. The first weekend, in the Forks of Winnipeg. The Forks was a well-landscaped national historic site right in the heart of the city by the river. It was a somewhat busy weekend shopping and visiting others in the city, but fun! I was lucky to have had another chance to party with people from Churchill, at a wedding, which of course was a good time. After the wedding weekend, I flew to Flin Flon, Manitoba to visit with Leonard. I was in this mining town that sits on the border of Manitoba and Saskatchewan for the next couple of days. I took the time there to relax, sleep, and enjoy reading novels, watching movies and just hanging out in a quiet place, for a change. On one of those days, we took a day trip to Wanless and the Pas, which are other towns not far from Flin Flon, visited people along the way. I was in Ontario for a few days after my trip, to speak at a conference for VOICE for hearing impaired children. Shortly after, Jill and I drove East, to Nova Scotia. We stopped in Montreal to say hi to Stu (cousin) and Matt (old neighbor), stopped for lunch in Quebec City, saw the famous rocks on the Bay of Fundy (not far from Fundy National Park), took a ferry from St. John, New Brunswick to Digby, Nova Scotia and drove to Kejimkujik National Park.
So yes, this summer I will be at Kejimkujik National Park! I will be taking part in various research on species at risk in the park, and interpretive hikes/paddles. My first few days have been basically an introduction to the park and its people. It has a rather large staff for a park of its size, but naturally everyone is quite friendly. On my first day, my boss took myself and a few others on a canoe excursion on one of the rivers. It just so happened that it was a rather windy day, and being an inexperienced paddler with a flat-bottomed canoe, myself and a colleague, Heather, fought to keep the canoe upright… yet sure enough, the wind caught the edge of the canoe and the canoe tipped right over on top of me! It was somewhat of a shock going into not so warm water, but funny more than anything.
Geez… I’ve practically written a novel here, and have so much more to tell, but I’ll save that for another time. Take care guys!