Victoria – Capital City of British Columbia

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Our trip to British Columbia in August 2016 concluded with a visit to Victoria Island, the capital of British Columbia (BC).  Victoria is an island that  offers heritage architecture, colourful gardens and traditions like afternoon tea, mixed with outdoor adventure, culinary experiences, especially fish and chips.  Victoria Island is located about 100 km from Vancouver and can be reached by ferry, sea plane, tourist boats or by air.

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We set sail by the 9AM from Vancouver on the ferry operated by BC Ferries and it took about 90 minutes.  There were about 200 vehicles and 400 passengers (and a few dogs) on board.  The ferry ride offered a deck-side view of the breathtaking scenery through the Strait of Georgia.  The ferry had three restaurants with various food options and viewing platforms, both inside and outside.

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Our first halt was at the Parliament building.  Overlooking the harbour stood the statue of Captain James Cook, the first non-aboriginal man to set foot on Vancouver Island in 1778.  Many aboriginal families lived on Victoria Island, each referring to themselves by distinct family group names.  In 1843, James Douglas chose Victoria (then known as Camosack), as a Hudson Bay Company trading post.  The post was eventually renamed Fort Victoria, in honour of Queen Victoria.

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On July 21, 1871, BC became the sixth province of the Dominion of Canada and Victoria was proclaimed the Capital City.  The Parliament building to house Legislative Assembly of BC opened in 1898.  In the twentieth century, Victoria evolved as a city of government, retirement and tourism.

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We were thrilled to see the three statues located in front of the Parliament building.  They would enthrall any military history enthusiast and veteran.  The first was a statue of a soldier to commemorate BC’s fallen in World War I, World War II and the Korean war; then a statue of a Veteran Sailor and a statue of homecoming of a sailor to commemorate 100 years of Canadian Navy unveiled on 04 May 2010.

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Our next destination was Butchart Garden, surely a place for a nature lover and a gardening enthusiast.  Robert Pim Butchart, a pioneer in the North American cement industry, came to Victoria Island lured by its rich limestone deposits.  In 1904 he developed a quarry and built a cement plant.  His wife Jennie Butchart became the company’s chemist. Close to the quarry, the Butcharts established their family home with a small garden.  As Mr Butchart exhausted limestone deposits, his enterprising wife Jennie, converted the gigantic quarry into a beautiful garden.

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The renown of Mrs Butchart’s garden quickly spread. By the 1920s more than fifty thousand people visited her garden each year. The hospitable Butcharts christened their estate ‘Benvenuto’, the Italian word for ‘Welcome’.  Their grandson Ian Ross was given the Gardens on his return from World War II.  He made the garden self-sustaining, transforming the mostly neglected home and gardens into an internationally famous tourist destination.   Each year over a million bedding plants in some 900 varieties give uninterrupted bloom from March through October. Almost a million people visit annually for spring’s colourful flowering bulbs; summer’s riot of colour and fall’s russets and golds.

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The most impressive sight was of the Sunken Garden from the lookout.   The old quarry had been transformed by Jennie into a beautiful sunken garden of massive dimensions and dramatic aesthetic qualities representing exceptional creative achievement in gardening. Deep expansive walls, beds of annuals, flowering trees, unique shrubs, central rock mound and  a fountain, all added variety to the uniqueness of this marvellous garden.

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We were welcomed by the luscious scents of roses to the Rose Garden.  The flowerbeds bordered by magnificent delphiniums had roses of many varieties and bright colours.  The garden has an extensive collection of floribundas, ramblers, climbers and Hybrid Tea Roses.  Each rose variety has been marked by name, origin and year registered with the American Rose Society.

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A Torii gate welcomed us into the serene Japanese Garden.  Walkways by the side of streams and ponds guided us through many bridges. Japanese maples and birch trees spread abundant shade on to the well manicured lawns.  Jennie, with assistant Isaburo Kishida, an expert Japanese landscaper, completed this garden in 1906.

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The next stop was the Italian Garden bounded by two arched entrances. This garden was originally Butchart’s tennis court.  A splendid Star Pond adorned the centre of this garden.  It was originally designed to house Mr Butchart’s collection of ornamental ducks as he was an enthusiastic hobbyist who collected ornamental birds from all over the world.  He kept ducks in the Star Pond, peacocks on the front lawn and had many birdhouses throughout the gardens. 

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Past the Italian Garden, we entered the Mediterranean Garden.  This area had an enchanting arrangement of lush, exotic plants from around the world.  We were all surprised to see that even a banana grove could enhance the beauty of an enchanting world renowned garden.

From the Butchart Garden, we headed straight to the Red Fish Blue Fish.  It is  an outdoor waterfront eatery in a modified cargo container, standing on a wooden pier in Victoria’s Inner Harbour.  It is one of Victoria’s most cherished eateries.  There was a long queue and after about half an hour in the queue, we ordered fish and chips.  We relished the battered and steaming pieces of halibut, sitting on the dock overlooking the bay.  Indeed it was worth the wait standing in a long queue.

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Our next destination was ‘Mile 0’ which marks the start of the over 8,000 km Trans-Canada Highway that spans the entire length of Canada – from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic.  Mile 0 is also home to a statue of Terry Fox. Fox lost his right leg to cancer when he was 18 years old. He started a trans-Canada run to raise money for cancer research, beginning in Newfoundland on the East coast of Canada and was to end at the Mile 0 marker in Victoria. Unfortunately, Fox’s journey ended tragically near the halfway mark when he fell ill and passed away. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars has been raised in his name by the Terry Fox Foundation for cancer research.

With the visit to Mile 0, we culminated our exploration of Alberta and BC this time.

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Now it was time for us to catch the return ferry to Vancouver and say goodbye to the beautiful Victoria Island.  As we cruised through the Pacific Ocean, the sun was about to set and its rays painted the islands with different shades of gold. 

Temperate Rain Forests of British Columbia

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We visited the Stanley Park and Capilano Park during our visit to British Columbia (BC), mainly to see the temperate rain forests. 

How is the temperate rain forests different from its tropical cousin?

The term ‘rainforest’ implies forests in high rainfall area, making them very dense and green.  Tropical rainforests lie closer to the equator while temperate rainforests are found at latitudes between the two Tropics and Polar Circles.  This causes temperate rainforests to be cooler, have less precipitation, contain less biodiversity and slower decomposition than their tropical counterparts.  Canada’s rainforest falls between the Arctic Circle and the Tropic of Cancer, forming a narrow band along the coast of the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Northern California. Other countries that have temperate rainforests are Chile, New Zealand and Norway.

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In the morning we visited the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.  The park offers visitors a unique mix of adventure, history and culture.  The park showcases a totem pole park, North America’s largest private collection of First Nations totem poles, period decor and costumes.

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Totem pole is a monument created by Northwest Coast Aboriginal people to serve as a signboard, genealogical record and memorial.  Carved of large red cedar and painted in vibrant colours, they are usually erected to reflect the history of that lineage.  Theses poles are also erected as memorial poles, grave figures, house posts, house front poles, welcoming poles and mortuary poles.

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The entrance to the park as the name suggests is by way of a suspension bridge.  The bridge was originally built in 1889 of hemp ropes with cedar plank deck.  It was replaced with a wire cable bridge in 1903.  The bridge was completely rebuilt in 1956.  We enjoyed the thrill of crossing the 450-foot long swaying bridge, suspended 230 feet above Capilano River. The bridge offered a splendid view of the river and the forest below.

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An eco-guided tour is conducted by the Park every hour, which was very informative, covering various ecological aspects of the forest in the Park.  The guide educated us about the rainforest, trees. trout ponds and the undergrowth.

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The first stop was at a banana slug.  The guide explained that there are no earthworms in these forests and these slugs contribute to the decomposition of organic matter into humus. These slugs are covered with a special slimy coating that numbs the mouth of any predator.  Racoons roll the slugs in mud to coat them and then eat them.

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We stopped next at a nurse log.  Fallen logs are called nurse logs as they help new seedling growth by creating an elevated and moist habitat.  Decomposition being comparatively slower when compared to tropical forests, results in a deep layer of decaying organic matter that forms the top layer of the forest floor.  This gives a cushioning effect while walking on it. 

Canada’s temperate rainforest is dominated by a relatively small number of tree species because the seeds need to regenerate in the low light levels on the forest floor caused the thick canopy.  Most of the trees found in this forest are coniferous trees like the Western Hemlock, Yellow Cedar, Western Red Cedar, Douglas-fir, and Spruce.  The coniferous trees are well adapted to the temperatures and shorter daylight hours of the winter as they remain green and keep their foliage in winter which helps then to photosynthesise throughout the year.

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The thick and uneven tree canopies that cover the coastal rainforest allow little sunlight to reach the forest floor, so undergrowth must adapt accordingly.  Indeed, the ground is mostly covered by plants that do not need much sunlight, like ferns. Small trees also grow under the shade of the taller ones. In order to get sunlight, some plants grow on bark and branches of trees, where there is more sunlight than on the forest floor.

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Along lakes and rivers and gaps left by fallen trees, which lets in more sunlight in, few deciduous tree species like Bigleaf Maple, Red Alder and Black Cottonwood thrive.  

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The guide escorted us to the ‘Grandma of Capilano’ – the tallest tree in the forest.  It is a Douglas Fir, aged over 1300 years, standing tall at 76 M. 

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After the guided tour, we ascended a foot bridge for Treetops Adventure Tour – a self guided tour.  This leg consisted of seven footbridges suspended between magnificent 250-year-old Douglas Fir trees, forming a walkway up to 30 M above the forest floor.  The elevated walkway offered a woodpecker’s eye view of the forest.

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The walkway has been created without harming the trees, with no nails or bolts drilled into them.  Metallic collars hold the ends of the walkway on to trees and are moved every eight years to facilitate the tree to grow. 

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On our way back to the parking lot was the Cliffwalk.  This heart-pounding cliff-side journey took us  through rainforest vegetation on a series of suspended walkways jutting out from the granite cliff face above Capilano River.  The Cliffwalk is high and narrow and in some sections, very strong glass is all that separated us from the canyon below. The narrow walkway has fixed handrails supported by steel beams cantilevered from 16 anchor points in the granite rock face of the canyon.  Various information boards along the walkway explained the interaction between water, granite, salmon, flora and fauna.

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We then drove to Stanley Park on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean, a green oasis in the midst of the heavily built urban landscape of Vancouver.  The 400-hectare natural West Coast rainforest offered us rare scenic views of the ocean with ships anchored, mountains, sky, and majestic trees along Stanley Park’s famous Seawall.  We walked around the park on the walking track which ran all along the beach, adjacent to a separate cycling track.

Our visit to the temperate rain forest parks were both educative and recreational.  Hermann Hesse, a German-born Swiss poet once said “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

 

Whistler : Abode of the Gods

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(Image Courtesy Whistler Blackcomb)

We halted at Whistler on our way to Vancouver in August09, 2016.  Located in the spectacular Coast Mountains of British Columbia (BC), Whistler is Canada’s favourite year-round destination.  Whistler is undoubtedly the most-visited ski resort in Canada, with over 2 million visitors a year.  There are two majestic mountains with a vibrant base Village.  The facilities in the area include skiing and snowboarding, gondolas connecting various peaks, mountain biking trails, hiking trails, golf courses, restaurants, bars and accommodation to suit every budget.  It is undoubtedly the best mountain adventure site in the world.

We headed straight to the Whistler Village Centre to buy our tickets for the Peak2Peak Gondola Ride.  The area was jostling with activity, mainly by hikers and mountain bike riders.  There were many stalls offering mountain bike rentals and training for novice mountain bikers.  The mountain bike trainees ranged in age from five to over 50 years.
Whistler Blackcomb boasts of the largest mountain bike park in North America, officially opening in May each year. With over 4,900 vertical feet and over 60 descending trails spread over three riding zones, there is something to pump up the adrenaline for each level of riders.

The gondolas of Whistler Blackcomb are inspired by the ski lifts in Switzerland.  They connect the two ridge-lines running roughly Northwest to Southeast, separated by a deep valley as shown in the diagram above.

Whistler was originally conceived as part of a Canadian bid for the 1968 Winter Olympics.  Although they lost the bid, construction started and the resort opened for the first time in January 1966.  Blackcomb mountain, originally a separate entity, opened for business in December 1980.  The two resorts underwent a period of intense rivalry through the 1980s and 90s.  Intrawest, the BC real estate firm that developed Blackcomb, purchased Whistler and fully merged their operations in 2003.

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Whistler Blackcomb offered a renewed bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which they won in July 2003. They hosted the men’s and women’s Olympic and Paralympic alpine skiing events.  Over the next decade, Intrawest expanded by purchasing additional ski resorts across North America, before expanding into golf and other resorts as well.

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We lined up at the Whistler Village Centre for our journey up Whistler Mountain.  The air was a bit chilly and misty.  The gondolas were enclosed, separate for persons and equipment.  Many mountain bike enthusiasts and tourists were already in queue awaiting their turns.  We boarded our gondola for the first leg and the journey up the Whistler Mountain to the Roundhouse Lodge located at about 6,000 feet.

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Enroute we had a fascinating view of the coniferous tree tops with their young cones blooming with a bluish tinge.  It was thrilling to watch mountain bikers below, negotiating the mountain trail at a very high speed, with precision and grace.  We could also see young kids being trained on mountain biking skills by their instructors.

We alighted at the Roundhouse Lodge after a thrilling 15 minutes.  From there we had a 10 minute hike through a trail to the starting point of Peak Express for our journey to Top of the World Summit.

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The trail had an explosion of colours offered by the wildflowers growing at that altitude.  They are seen for only two to three weeks in mid-summer and we were indeed blessed to catch a glimpse of these wild beauties.  Most of these flowers are poisonous to ingest, hence are not foraged on by the deer in the forest.

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The flowers we saw were the Alpine Fireweed, a bright to deep pink flower that grows from 5cm to 3 metres.  The yellow Mountain Buttercup is primarily found in deeper soils and among bunch grasses of undisturbed grasslands. The flower has a waxy sheen to it. The Sitka Valerian grows in moist alpine meadows with flowers that are pale pink to white and form a dense, sweet scented cluster.  Partridge Foot grows in wetland areas. This shrub-like perennial has cream-coloured flowers in the summer and golden seed pods in the fall.

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The Peak Express  journey was on an open gondola and the cold winds blew hard on to our faces.  As the elevation kept increasing, the landscape kept changing.  It was a fantastic experience to view the rugged beauty of the Canadian Coast Mountains.  The wildflower meadows, boulder  filled slopes and towering peaks offered a picturesque view.

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After about five minutes we landed at the summit at about 7200 feet.  From there we could catch the glimpses of lakes under distant peaks and massive glaciers, even though there was bit of mist.  We picked up cups of hot chocolate from the coffee shop and walked to giant Inukshuk.  An Inukshuk is a piled-stone marker that looks like a man. Historically it was used in the Arctic as a directional marker but has now become an icon of Canada overtaking the Mountie.

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After spending about 15 minutes at the summit, we returned to Roundhouse Lodge on the Whistler Mountain for our ride to the Rendezvous Lodge on the Blackcomb Mountain by the Peak2Peak Gondola.  This ride was for 11 minutes and the system holds the record for the highest and longest unsupported cable car span in the world of 3.024 km. It is indeed an engineering marvel – a long steel ropeway hanging between two peaks – unsupported by any pylons.

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The Peak2Peak Gondola was completed on December 12, 2008 and can transport 4,100 people per hour between the resort’s mountains.  The cars for this leg of the ride are enclosed and can seat 12 persons.  There are some glass bottom gondola cars, but their frequency is once every 15 minutes.  The ride offers spectacular views of the village, valley and surrounding mountains – a 360 degree 3D view in fact.

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From the Rendezvous Lodge we took the Solar Coaster Express and then the Wizard Express to reach the Blackcomb Base.  The open-air chairlifts on these rides offer a unique experience than what a gondola provides as you get an aerial perspective of the ground directly below.

The Whistler Olympics project took nearly four decades, but the effort taken by the Canadian government in collaboration with business partners is clearly visible.  It has helped to place Whistler as an excellent year-round adventure destination in the world and has generated employment for the local population and businesses.   The Whistler visit showed us as to how the facilities created for a major sporting event could be exploited for the betterment of the community post event.

Silviculture : An Aerial View

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During our trip to the Rocky Mountains in Alberta and British Columbia (BC), in August 2016, we undertook a helicopter ride lasting 30 minutes over the mountain ranges and the Boreal Forests of Revelstoke, BC.  The town is located 641 km East of Vancouver, on the banks of the Columbia River.

Canada is home to 10 per cent of the world’s forest cover and 30 per cent of the world’s Boreal Forests.  About 38 per cent of Canada’s land area is forested, or about 3.4 million out of 9.1 million square  km.  92% of these forests are owned by the government and is highly regulated and monitored.  Slightly more than half of this area is classified as commercial forest capable of producing merchantable trees and has not been reserved for other uses such as parks.  

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Various government agencies  identify intended methods of cutting, reforesting, and managing timber resources within the defined area of responsibility. The forest management planning time frame considered is 200 years, representing two full life cycles, or ‘rotations’.

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Despite being the lead exporter of softwood lumber, newsprint and wood pulp, Canada harvests less than 0.2 per cent of its forest annually. On average, a tree must be about 80 to 100 years old before it is ready for harvesting.  In case 1% of trees are harvested each year, forests have 100 years to grow back before they are re-harvested. Every year is different, depending on several factors, including wildfire and mountain pine beetle activity, but the number of trees harvested each year is always much less than 1%.

While trees can now be chopped down with the help of machines, replanting must be done by hand, one sapling at a time.  Certain species, like aspen, regenerate naturally after harvesting. The number of trees in Canada works out to 16 trees for every person.  Canada also plants at  an average of more than 2 trees for every tree the industry harvested.

A silviculture system covers all management activities related to growing forests – from early planning through harvesting, replanting and tending the new forest.  Silviculture is the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, and quality of forest vegetation for the full range of forest resource objectives.  The policy guideline for silviculture in Canada is sustaining environmental and economic values for the future.  Canada’s forest management policies and practices are among the most stringent in the world.

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A common method of logging in in Canada is clearcutting – the harvesting and removal of an entire stand of trees. Although efficient, clearcutting poses a variety of environmental problems.  It can increase the harmful impact of wind and rain on local ecosystems; destroy the valuable wildlife habitat used by pine martins, caribou, and other animals; and cause soil to become dry and overheated, which may in turn increase the risk of fire or interfere with seedling growth. Logging operations can also alter the chemical and physical makeup of nearby bodies of water and affect the health of fish and other aquatic species.

Since 1949, forest companies have been legally mandated to reforest harvested areas. Reforestation must occur within two years of harvesting. Tree planting operations typically occur between May and August, when conditions are right to plant trees and promote their survival through the winter months. Forest companies monitor trees for up to 14 years after planting, and conduct all work needed to help ensure survival to full maturity and successful forest renewal.  In most cases, the logging companies are required to regrow at least two trees for every one they harvest. Sometimes companies plant 5 or 6 trees for every harvested tree. The reason for this is that many of the seedlings may not survive their first few years, so planting extra trees ensures that enough will survive to replace what is harvested.

Harvesting too many trees can be harmful to the forest, but with careful planning, harvesting trees can actually make the forests healthier. Clearing out old trees makes space for new trees to grow, continuing the life cycle.  Many animals like deer, moose, and elk prefer younger forests with  new vegetative growth to feed on.  The younger trees are less prone  diseases and invasive insects like the mountain pine beetle.

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If we only had old trees in our forest, it wouldn’t be very healthy or diverse. In the picture above, you can see patches of forest that are at very different stages of growth. There are older trees which provide habitat for the wild animals and there are young trees too.

Forest harvesting involves cutting trees and delivering them to sawmills, pulp mills and other wood-processing plants. The operations include road construction, logging and log transportation. Years of planning go into deciding when and which parts of the forest will be harvested and how this will occur, all to ensure that these activities are carried out in a manner consistent with protecting social and environmental values. The specifics of forest harvesting would depend on the region and type of forest. 

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The forest industry builds thousands of kilometres of logging roads each year.  All these roads require planning and surveying. They must be constructed to minimize erosion, protect water quality and cause the least impact on the forest growing site.

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The lumber harvested and the timber products of the industry’s mills are transported mostly by rail or road.  Waterways are also used to move lumber by floating them downstream, tied in a raft formation or by powered barges. The trans-Canadian railway line connecting the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast runs through this area.

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Forest fire is the nature’s way of deforestation.  These fires help return valuable nutrients to the soil that helps a natural rebirth.  Some pine cones need high temperatures to help burst open to facilitate the seeds to disperse.  The fires help the undergrowth exposure to sunlight, making them grow better.  Such fires naturally occur in forests every 150 to 250 years. 

Regulated and dedicated efforts by various Canadian government agencies and the timber industry can only sustain the forest wealth of the country.  The efforts are in the right direction to ensure ecological balance  and also to ensure that these forests would thrive through for future generations.

Banff Gondola, Takakkaw Falls and Duffey Lake

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After visiting the Columbia Icefields, we travelled to the town of Banff and stayed there overnight.  The town of Banff was intended to be a tourist destination from its very inception.  The town is situated in a valley in the Banff National Park, enclosed by the beautiful and rugged Rocky mountains.  The city streets are lively with tourists and is lined with top class restaurants, bars and shops.

The town boasts of the Banff Sightseeing Gondola, located just five minutes from the Town of Banff, on the shoulder of Sulphur Mountain.  The gondola ride offers a marvellous view of the town of Banff as well as the mountains around.

On the morning of August 08, 2016, we boarded a four-seater, glass enclosed gondola at the base.  The glass bottom of the gondola provided us with a 360 degree panoramic view of six scenic mountain ranges around Banff.  Below us, as we were moving up was the walking trail leading to the summit and there were many hikers enjoying the same view.

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After about 10 minutes in the gondola, we reached Sulphur Mountain at an elevation of about 7,500 ft.  It felt like being on top of the world as we stood on the spacious main level observation deck.

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We got on to the Skywalk, a kilometer long walkway, created out of cedar wood platforms and steps, leading up to the Sanson’s Peak Meteorological Station.  As we ascended to the top, it offered us with some incredible views into the valley.  There were information boards placed at all the viewing decks explaining what we were seeing in front.

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The Sundance Ranges was the most prominent of the mountains around the Sulphur Mountain, standing up majestically tall.  Sundance is a sacred ceremony for the Aboriginal people who lived and travelled through these mountains  for many centuries.  The ranges got its name from the many Sundance sites at the base of these mountains.

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On top of the summit was the Sanson’s Peak Meteorological Station.  In the early 1900’s, Norman Sanson climbed a trail up the mountain every week.  For nearly 30 years he recorded the weather data at the historic stone building that is still standing.

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From the summit we had a mesmerising view of the Moraine Lake, cupped high among the lofty mountains and the Bow River which originates from this lake, flowing through the Banff town.

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On our walk back, we were greeted by a flock of Big Horn Mountain Sheep.  They were grazing on the lichens that had grown on the piers of the wooden walkway.  There were many squirrels or marmots running all over the walkway as we descended.

After enjoying the scenic beauty the Sulphur Mountain offered, we returned to the base on the gondola for our onward journey to the Takakkaw Falls, the second highest falls in Canada.

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Takakkaw Falls, fed by the Daly Glacier, is a waterfall located in Yoho National Park, near Field, British Columbia.  Its highest point is 302 m from its base, but the water’s true ‘free-fall’ is only 260 m.  It is a major tourist attraction in the summer as the melting glacier keeps the volume of the falls up during the warm summer months.  In the fall, the water flow slows down and the raging falls narrows down to a ribbon of ice awaiting summer to set it free.

As we drove off the highway through many hairpin bends to the falls, we were greeted by the tremendous thunder of Takakkaw Falls.  The Yoho Valley access road to the falls is closed during winter due to high-frequency of avalanches.  The road is only open from June through October for the summer season.

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We left our car in the parking lot and made our way through a forest track, walking for about 10 minutes, we reached the base of the falls.  As we got closer to the falls, we were blasted by the deafening sound of the water pounding against the rocks.  The walk was enjoyable as it offered a clear view of the falls throughout and the light spray from the falls really refreshing.

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As we inched closer to the falls, we were drenched from head to toe.  The falls appeared to be in slow motion as the wind in the area literally carried the water away from the rocky face.  The falls being high, a large amount of water never reaches the base as it is carried away into a mist that creates many interesting shapes and swirls.

From the breathtaking falls, on our drive to Whistler, we entered the Lil’wat Territory.  Lil’wat is an aboriginal group of people and also one of the largest Indian reserves by population in Canada.  Líl̓wat artifacts dating back to 3,500 BC have been found in this area.  Lil’wat’s connection with the land has been both economic and spiritual, with a harmonious relationship with nature — a value that remains strong today. They harvest wild fruits, hunt deer and fish.  They have passed on their traditional arts, ceremonies and beliefs over the generation and teach their children St̓át̓imc language even today.

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We halted at Duffey Lake.  The lake is called by the Lil’wat as ‘Teq’, meaning ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck to be in the way’.  This name comes from the log jam at the Eastern end of the lake.

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The Western end of  the lake is  called Sd’akw and beyond that is the Cayoosh Mountain.

We Canadians are blessed with an abundance of natural wonders with enough lakes, mountains, waterfalls and rivers to keep us exploring for our lifetime.

Glaciers of the Rockies

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During our trip to the Rocky Mountains in August 2016, we set out from Lake Louise to visit the Colombian Icefields.  The road is rightly named as the Icefields Parkway as it offers a breathtaking view of the mountains, glaciers, rivers, waterfalls, lakes and valleys  as one winds the way up.   There is a high chance of encounters with wildlife enroute.

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After about 30 minutes of drive, we were stunned by the beauty of  Bow Lake, with its cool true-blue waters and mist overhanging the water.  It offered a perfect picture-postcard shot with Crowfoot Glacier in the background, whose meltwaters feed the lake.  Bow Lake is right adjacent to the highway and is one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park.

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After spending about 30 minutes at the Bow Lake, we drove off to the Colombia Icefield Discovery Centre to undertake out trip to the Athabasca Glacier.  The centre is operated only in summer (in winter the centre closes down) by Brewster Travel and located opposite the Columbia Icefields.

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Straddling the boundary between the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (BC), the Columbia Icefields situated on the Rockies, is the largest ice mass in North America, south of the Arctic Circle.   It is known as the ‘hydrographic apex of North America’ as the rivers emanating from these glaciers flow into three oceans – the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Arctic.  In effect it becomes the centre of water distribution in North America. Only one other similar divide exists and it is in Northern Siberia.

The Columbia Icefield, at an average elevation of about 3,000 m,  covers an area of 365 sq km and has a maximum depth of 365 m. The highest points on the icefiled are Mount Columbia (3745 m) and Mount Athabasca (3,491 m).

Six large outlet glaciers flow from the Columbia IceField – Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Saskatchewan and Stutfield Glaciers. Meltwater from the Athabasca Glacier feeds the Athabasca River which flows into the Arctic Ocean traversing about 4,000 km. Water from the Saskatchewan Glacier enters into the Saskatchewan River further flowing about 2,600 km into the Atlantic Ocean. Water from other glaciers flow into the Fraser and Columbia rivers leading to the Pacific Ocean. If these glaciers recede or disappear, it would result in a catastrophic effect on the water supply of North America.

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We boarded the all-terrain Ice Explorer – a massive vehicle specially designed for glacier travel  for the Glacier Adventure – a ride onto the surface of the Athabasca Glacier. During this thrilling trip, the experienced driver-guide shared a wealth of fascinating information about glaciers, icefields, flora, fauna and their impact on our environment.

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The Ice Explorer crawled its way up and our guide showed us the trees growing close to the glacier.  She said they were almost 400 years old.  These trees have not grown tall as they have only two to three months of growing time.  Further, the cold winds blowing away from the glacier have ensured that the branches grow away from the glacier and the side of the tree closer to the glacier is devoid of any branches.

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As the Ice Explorer entered the glacier,  we crossed the lateral moraines.  When a glacier recedes, large amounts of debris –  referred to as till – is  deposited as linear ridges called moraines.  As a glacier moves down a valley, the friction created by the valley sides forces deposition along the edge of the glacier. These depositions are referred to as lateral moraines. If a glacier is receding, lateral moraines provide evidence of how far the glacier has retreated.

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After crossing the moraines, the Ice Explorer halted on the glacier and the tourists dismounted on to the glacier to walk on the ice and fill their water bottle with fresh glacier water. It was perfect time to capture the beauty of the icefield’s breathtaking mountain setting.

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A glacier is compacted ice that is moving.  Glaciers can be divided into two zones, the zone of accumulation, and the zone of melting. Where a glacier develops near the edge of an ice field, it receives great accumulations of fresh snow. At this point the glacier appears clean and a bright white in color. The elevation is high enough and cool enough to maintain the snow throughout the year. This snow compacts as ice, which becomes part of the glacier as it moves down slope

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As the glacier flows farther away from the ice field and downhill, it becomes dirty and rougher in appearance. It is entering the zone of melting.  Meltwater streams appear on the surface especially during the summer.

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When a glacier melts more snow and ice than it receives, it begins to recede. The Athabasca Glacier is receding in length and shrinking in volume at an alarming rate. The melting rate is faster now than it has been in the last 40 years. It appears that a combination of warmer weather and a dirtier surface that absorbs the summer heat are the sources of the problem. The glacier is shrinking by 30 percent every 100 years. At this rate it would be gone in 300 years.

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We boarded the bus at the glacier for the Glacier Skywalk, operated by Brewster.  We were dropped at the cliff-edge walkway that extends along the Sunwapta Valley.  The first 400 metres of the walk was along a cliff lined with six interpretive stations and an audio tour providing education about the area.

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At the end of the walkway was  a glass-floored observation platform 280 metres over the Sunwapta Valley, that extends 35 metres from the cliff.  It offered a bird’s eye view and provided a unique perspective of nature at its finest.  Looking down was the deep valley with the Athabasca River flowing and many waterfalls that leap from the cliffs into the river.  One could see the birds flying below, feel the fresh air, relax and enjoy a one-of-a-kind experience.

 

Medicine Lake and Maligne Canyon

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On our return from Maligne Lake to Jasper, we stopped by at the Medicine Lake.  A geological wonder, Medicine Lake is perhaps best described as a sinking lake.  In summer, the lake fills more quickly than it can drain away.  The glacier melt waters flood the lake in summer, sometimes overflowing it and the body of water appears deep and expansive.  In fall and winter the lake disappears, becoming a mudflat with scattered pools of water connected by a stream.

Where then does the water go?

‘Out through the bottom’ like a bathtub without a plug. The Maligne River pours into the lake from the South and the lake waters drain out through sinkholes in the bottom. The water then streams through a cave system formed in the slightly soluble limestone rock, surfacing again in the area of Maligne Canyon 16 km downstream. This is one of the largest known sinking lakes in the Western Hemisphere and may be the largest inaccessible cave system anywhere in the world.

Summer melt water coming into the lake exceeds the amount the sinkholes can drain.  Decreased melt water in the late summer and fall means that the lake’s sinkholes can drain the lake faster than what the Maligne River can fill.  This creates the disappearing lake phenomena.

This natural phenomenon bewildered Aboriginals and other early visitors.  They found no apparent water outlet, but the lake sank in winters.  Many in the early days attributed it to some spirits or demons sucking away the water in winter.  Aboriginal people called the lake Medicine Lake because of its seemingly magical powers and the United Nations declared the Rocky Mountain Parks a World Heritage Site partly because of this unique drainage system.

Wolves in the region have figured out how to make it work for them.  They have been known to chase caribou into the muck so they get slowed down or stuck.

Prior to the construction of the road around Medicine Lake, the irregular water levels made it difficult to get visitors to Maligne Lake.  Shallow bottomed boats were employed, but they ran aground on sandbars or capsized in strong winds prevalent in the area.  In an attempt to establish higher water levels, in 1930’s, the park superintendent ordered that old magazines and mattresses be thrown into the lake to plug the drainage holes and allow the lake to fill.  The scheme failed to work,  and no one ever tried such tricks to fool mother nature ever after. 

The park officials even suggested building a dam to close the sinkholes to stem the outflow of water.  It was also given up as they realised that the sinkholes were immense and needed many truckloads of soil to fill them up.  It was in 1956 after Jean Corbel, a French scientist who concluded that a sinking river system had been created much before the last ice age. 

These cave systems till date remain the largest inaccessible cave system in the world. In case someone attempts to go down through them, they will surely find the old magazines to read when bored.

After leaving Medicine Lake, we drove down to Maligne Canyon.  The Jasper Parks have created a trail for the tourists to hike and follow the canyon as it flows down on its way to the Athabasca River which further drains into the Arctic Ocean.

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The Maligne River after draining into the Medicine Lake seem to disappear and then re-emerge 16 km  downstream near Maligne Canyon. Some geologists speculate that parts of the canyon were originally deep caves that have since been uncovered by glacial scraping and water erosion. This scraping of the caves lead to the canyons being narrow at the top and wider down below.

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Before the last ice age ended 14,000 years ago, the Maligne Valley was buried under a glacier about a kilometre thick. Glaciers moved  and the heavy ice and rock at the bottom of the glacier eroded the valley floor until it broke into the cave, later tearing the roof away. The glacial ice invaded the passage, grinding much of it away until the climate warmed and the remaining ice melted away. What was left –the geologists theorise  was the Maligne Canyon.

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Another interesting thing about the Maligne Canyon is that more water appears to flow out of the gorge than flows in at the ground’s surface. Most of the water in the canyon area flows underground through a cave system, 30 km long, that carries it from Medicine Lake 14 km away to Maligne Canyon’s many springs.

The underground system is extensive and during the 1970s researchers used a biodegradable dye to determine the underground river’s extent. The dye showed up in many of the lakes and rivers in the area and it became clear that the underground system was one of the most extensive in the world.

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Walking on the trails along the canyon was awe-inspiring.  The gorges were breathtaking, with its rushing waters and steep walls. In some places the walls narrowed, forcing the large volume of water through a series of rapids. The areas of the gorges are fenced off, as a fall here could prove fatal.

These geological wonders are one of its kind in the world and are always worth a visit.