Monthly Archives: September 2011

Falling in love with Fall

I just spent a perfect weekend in my hometown, North Bay, Ontario.
Not only did I eat my weight in food, down 2 or 10 beer, and spend time with my lovely family, I also got to fully experience the fall colours.
Living in Toronto, one doesn’t really get the full effect. There are trees, of course, however they seem to be very spread out. One bright red tree can be gorgeous, but it can’t compete with a whole forest full of yellow, orange and red beauties.

The trees that line my aunt and uncle's property

My sister and I headed up to our aunt’s farm with our cousin, her husband and their two little girls. We decided to head out into the trails in the bush on the 4-wheelers so we could get to the sugar maples. This area of the woods is important in the spring, as my uncle produces a very delicious maple syrup every year.
On the way, we stopped several times to take pictures and stroll around. I found an old bear skull, probably left by a neighbour who’d shot a few problem bears in the past.

Most of the teeth were still intact. Scary.

It's possible that I've become a little too obsessed with bears lately.

But I digress. The foliage was the main event. The sugar maples were the crowning glory. It was magnificent. But instead of typing thousands of words, here’s some pictures:

The really amazing thing is, the pigments that produce the yellow and orange colours are actually always present in the leaves. During the growing seasons of spring and summer, the leaves are dominated by chlorophyll, which gives them the green colour. Carotenoids, which are yellow or orange, are always present, but in lower numbers. As the sunlight dwindles towards the end of summer and into fall, the chlorophyll begins to decrease, and the carotenoids are revealed in full force. Carotenoids are also present in carrots, corn, canaries, daffodils, egg yolks and bananas, among others.

The most explosive and awe-inspiring colour, in my opinion, is fiery red:

The pigments responsible for this colour, anthocyanins, are not present all year round. They begin to develop during the late summer in the sap of the leaf cells. When the days of autumn are bright and cool, and the nights are chilly but not freezing, the brightest colourations usually develop. Anthocyanins are also found in cranberries, red apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries and plums.

At any rate, nothing compares to the beauty of this time of year in the north. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely a summer person. When it’s 35 degrees outside and everyone else is melting and complaining, I’m finally getting comfortable. Fall usually only serves to remind me that winter is coming, and that makes me feel very tired just thinking about it.
Fall in Toronto is generally overlooked as a brief transition stage between summer and winter. Patios are beginning to close up, or put out heaters. Legs go back into hiding. It begins to become difficult to know how to dress, so vast is the difference in temperature from morning to night.
But fall is also a deliciously cozy time of year. The air is fresh and clear, tinged occasionally with that smokey wood stove smell. Sweaters that have been hibernating all summer are being woken up. And the trees are ablaze with colour. I’m beginning to see the appeal. I could maybe fall in love with fall.

Just don’t tell summer I said that.


Alces Alces, we all scream for…

One of the must-sees on my list when planning for our Algonquin Park camping trip was moose. I hadn’t seen one since I was a kid. In fact, I remember one of  the last times I saw one. I was about 11 years old, and my family was heading up to our camp* on Boyce Lake, near Temagami, Ontario. We were in the boat, going up Wicksteed Lake when we spotted something swimming in the water up ahead. We slowed down to get a better look, and it was this:

A young bull moose with just a hint of impending antlers was crossing the lake!! I managed to snap this somewhat blurry photo with what I’m sure was a disposable camera. The actual print is in my treasured Box of Important Crap. We could hear his laboured breathing, see him flick his ears and cast nervous glances toward the floating thing full of gawking bipeds. It was amazing to be so close to such a huge wild animal.

The morning we set off into the park, I was practically bursting with excitement over the possibility of seeing a moose. We paddled non-stop for 3 hours from the access point to the North Arm of Lake Opeongo, and I relentlessly scanned the shoreline the entire time. Nothing.
We portaged 2.1km to the second lake, which took about 40 minutes. Nothing. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but since Algonquin Park is considered one of the best places in the world to see moose, I half expected to have them jump out at me from all directions.

It wasn’t until the second day that I finally saw one. We were portaging from Shiner Lake to Otterslide Lake, where we would set up camp. I was about 10 minutes ahead of my partner down the trail, as he was slowed down by the massive canoe he had on his head. I was trudging down a small hill at a fairly good clip, considering I was carrying a 60lb backpack, 2 paddles and a fishing rod case. My bear bell was jingling, having been annoyingly placed right beside my ear. I was huffing and puffing, and sweating and swearing, when I heard a crashing noise in the bush to my right. I stopped immediately, and spotted a large, dark brown shape about 40 feet away. My first thought was: Oh my god, it’s a bear. This stupid bell doesn’t work!! So I started talking in a loud but calm voice, so I wouldn’t startle it. HELLO BEAR. WE’RE COOL, I’M JUST PASSING THROUGH. PLEASE DON’T EAT ME, etc. At the sound of my voice, the shape lifted his head, and I saw it was actually a massive bull moose!! He had huge, perfect, late summer antlers. After having a look at me, he turned back to the plants he had been munching on. Suddenly my pack felt lighter. I was no longer tired. I stood there for about 5 minutes and just watched him, in awe.
Oh, I also took some pictures:

Sigh. The bush was so dense that I could barely make him out. But he’s in there. He’s the brown blob in the centre. And you can just see his antlers if you tilt your head and squint. Seriously though, I wish I could have gotten a better picture. It was an amazing moment. I continued on my way to the end of the trail, and 5 minutes later my partner arrived. Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen the moose. You don’t see much with a canoe on your head.

Moose are plentiful in Algonquin. In 2003, Moose survey observers determined that there were 3490, plus or minus 628. Which is a very strange number. The area with one of the highest moose concentrations in the park is Hailstorm Creek, the mouth of which  runs into the North Arm of Lake Opeongo. I had successfully lobbied my partner to camp at the site closest to the mouth on our last night in the park for this very reason. After an early supper, we set off in the canoe to paddle up the creek and hopefully see more moose. We had to portage over a beaver dam, then paddle for almost an hour through a winding wetland before reaching the actual creek. It was a beautiful evening, the water like glass and the sky ablaze. We saw an otter, who puffed and snorted at us…

Great blue herons who flew away as we approached, only to land 30 feet upstream and have to repeat the whole process over and over…

A beaver who smacked his tail in warning…

A mink who swam furiously around the canoe….

…but not a single moose. We barely had time to explore the actual creek, because we only had about an hour of daylight left to get back to camp. So we reluctantly turned around. The moose I’d seen while portaging ended up being the only one I saw during the entire trip. But I felt extremely lucky to have seen that one.

*Just an aside here: I used the term “camp” in the first paragraph. In Northern Ontario, a cottage is called a camp. The main difference being lack of electricity, access roads, and sometimes indoor plumbing. Cottages, typically found in “cottage country” like Muskoka Region or the Kawarthas, usually have satellite tv,  jet skis, and cost more than your house.

Bear With Me…

So I just finished reading this: 

Scary bedtime reading, for sure. But not as scary as having a bear rip your tent open in the middle of the night as though the tent were a wrapper and you the sweet, sweet candy inside.  To be fair, this has never actually happened to me. It has, however, happened to many other people. Just read this list of fatal bear attacks in North America. Never mind all the ones that only resulted in horrifying injury.

While camping in the interior in Algonquin Provincial Park, I had bears on the brain. When it got dark, the adrenaline started pumping. Every single snapping twig or falling leaf made me jump. Lying in the tent in total darkness, my heart all a-flutter, I anxiously awaited dawn. Do you know how hard it is to sleep when your heart is beating out of your chest?? Just ask my partner, I only woke him up every 20 minutes saying “I heard something!!!”.

But back to the book.  Stephen Herrero doesn’t mince words or spare any details when it comes to the actual injuries and fatalities. Unfortunately, the book was written in the early 80’s, and leaves out the most terrifying story of all.
*warning, this is disturbing*

A man in his early 30s and a woman in her late 40s were camping on Bates Island on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park on October 11th, 1991. This is a large island featuring many campsites, not more than a 2o minute paddle from the access point of the lake. According to investigators, the couple were setting up camp when a black bear attacked them and broke their necks. There was evidence that they had fought back (a broken paddle). The bear then dragged the couple into the woods and ate them. When police and park officials arrived a few days later, the bear was still guarding their partially-consumed bodies.

Just in case the story itself isn’t terrifying enough, let me break it down for you, so you understand why this story was running through my head on repeat during our trip:

  1. They were on an island campsite, which are usually bear-free. We mostly camped on islands.
  2. They were only a few kilometers from the dock at Algonquin Outfitters. We were way waaay into the interior of the park, where presumably there were more bears.
  3. According to the investigators, there was evidence that this bear had STALKED these people with the intent to eat them. They never saw it coming.
  4. They apparently kept a neat, clean campsite. We did everything right: no garbage or food out, no food in the tent, careful fish cleaning far away from the site, hung our pack at night. So did they.

Basically, you can do everything perfectly and use all the common sense and safety tactics in the world, but you can’t plan for a rogue bear. If a bear decides to see what humans taste like, well…you won’t see it coming either.

Speaking of common sense, here’s a little: black bear attacks are actually relatively rare. Relative, of course, to the number of black bears and the number of people entering the bears’ habitats. Prior to the aforementioned attack, the last one in Algonquin Park was in 1978 (3 teenaged boys). And the one before that? In the 1890s. The park receives over a million visitors annually. There are approximately 2,000 bears in Algonquin which is about one for every three to four square kilometres. I think the bears are showing remarkable restraint, honestly. The bear who killed that couple on Bates Island was describe by a park naturalist as “right off the scale of normal bear behavior”.  No kidding.

So with all this running through my mind, I prayed for daylight slept in a tiny, thin nylon tent virtually in the middle of nowhere for six nights.

And we never saw a single bear.

A Childhood Reunion

On a recent week-long portaging trip in Algonquin Provincial Park, I had the pleasure of meeting up with an old childhood friend, the caterpillar. As a child, I loved these little guys, and would actively seek them out in the woods around my house. I put them in boxes, pet the fuzzy ones, marveled at the big stripey smooth ones, and eventually let them go on their way. I hadn’t thought about these little critters in a long time. Then I found this guy:

I followed him obsessively for 10 minutes taking for about 3 feet. ©Kristi2011

This was one of my favourites as a kid; the Spotted Tussock Moth Caterpillar. The moth itself is fairly unremarkable, but the caterpillar is exquisite!!  Also sometimes called the Yellow Woollybear (could it be any cuter, jeez?) Although their fuzziness is almost unbearable, their hairs can sometimes irritate the skin, though I don’t remember this ever happening to me.

This really made me think about the other caterpillars I used to encounter as a young nature nerd. Have you ever seen one of these?

© Copyright Sheryl Pollock 2011

This little beauty is the Monarch Caterpillar, the very same that turns into easily the most recognizable black and orange butterfly. This was a rare find as a kid. They are soft, smooth and their feet feel like tiny bits of velcro.

Not all caterpillars were as charming as these two. Anyone growing up in Northern Ontario in the early 90’s might remember these intruders:

Copyright Greg Hume

This is a Forest Tent Caterpillar, a species that experiences a boom every decade or so, to varying degrees of horror. A specific outbreak in the early 90’s in Ontario was particularly disgusting, deforesting vast areas and blanketing towns in squirmy, fuzzy grossness. I remember the sidewalks becoming a living, moving entity. Tree trunks were wrapped in metal to prevent the little buggers from climbing them. They would drop from the branches of the crab apple tree in my front yard onto my unsuspecting head. And, unfortunately, I remember the sound they made as I ran them over with my bike. Like a squishy popping noise. I couldn’t help it, really. They were everywhere.