Sunday, July 31, 2016


A simple stone cairn lies not far from the Clearwater River commemorating what was once a vitally important link in Canada's cross-country transportation system. While having long been rendered obsolete by road, rail and air, the Methye Portage (also known as the Portage La Loche) played a key role as the link between the Athabasca River and Lake Winnipeg.  At a length of around 19km (12 miles) it the longest of the portages used in the cross-country fur-trading network, and certainly one of the most challenging.

Credit for the discovery of the portage goes to explorer Peter Pond (though certainly the local First Nations knew about the route long before Pond showed up on the scene.)  In any event, the route was only used for a very short period of time, from 1778 until 1883 when steamboats started plying the waters of the Athabasca, making this overland route obsolete.  Nevertheless, its importance remains and it was officially recognized by being appointed a National Historic Site in 1933.  The Clearwater River has been a Canadian Heritage River since 1986.  

I have a unique "claim to fame" here as I have lived in communities on either side of this portage having lived in Lac La Loche in the early 2000's and now here in Fort McMurray so I've been able to see it from both ends, or at least the communities that contained the trading posts that the portage connected.

I've seen the Clearwater from the Saskatchewan side of the border where it runs a little faster and with less meanders.  The route today is travelled mainly by adventurous canoeists and backpackers and I know there is a pretty scenic little canyon just to the east of the provincial border if I recall correctly.  I've only ever seen photos and stand envious of those who have seen the real deal.  

Aside from a few adventure seekers, the portage remains today a pretty isolated area, not very well known to the larger public and not often travelled. but it is certainly deserving of being recognized for the role it has played in the shaping or our history.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Borealis Park and The Snye

For the second part of yesterday's trip, I left the Snye for a few minutes to take a look at a small pond at Borealis Park.  It was my first time here in quite awhile and usually I can find something of interest swimming around....more grebes and common goldeneye as it turned out.

A good reminder that yesterday's retreat  from the far side of the Snye was a good idea.

Once back to the Snye, I didn't spend too much time poking around other than to spend several minutes playing hide-and-seek with a spotted sandpiper.

At the far end is a rather nice sandy area that is well-used by fishermen and canoeists.  Some threatening clouds which had been very slowly moving over us through the afternoon held off with any rain though it did make my photos turn out darker than I would have liked.

The Clearwater River looking downstream...

...and upstream...

One last photo of the Clearwater with a few residing ripples left by a jet ski that had passed by a few moments earlier.

Friday, July 29, 2016

MacDonald Island and The Snye

I was stuck at home for much of yesterday working around the house and fighting and winning a war against my washing machine so I wasn't able to get down to MacDonald Island as I had planned.  I wasn't sure if the weather was going to cooperate either but today I made up for the delay.  Officially I went down to do some birding but I also just really wanted to stretch my legs and enjoy the nice weather.  As it turned out, I spent much longer outside than I had planned but it was all for good.  After leaving Mac Island I headed over to a park and then to a sandy point where the Clearwater River feeds in to the Snye but since I also ended up taking a lot more photos than anticipated, I'll leave that part of my afternoon to another post.

The Snye.  The name always puzzled me when I first moved here.  I always heard it referred to as "The Snye" with a capital "T" and never "the Snye River."  As it turns out "snye" is not an actual name but rather a geographical term used to denote a side channel. Originally, it connected the Clearwater to the Athabasca with the main body of the Clearwater flowing north of Mac Donald Island and The Snye cutting south of the island.  In the 1960's, rather than build a bridge to the island, a short causeway was constructed at the western end of the Snye.    Under the causeway there is a small outlet under the water line so the water doesn't flood the road but there doesn't seem to be much of a flow.  The Snye lives up to its name in the geographical sense that it is a backwater though I don't see this in any pejorative sense.  Weeds notwithstanding, it remains one of my favourite places to spend an hour or three.
This photo is taken from the above-mentioned causeway.  This end of The Snye doesn't see as much activity as its eastern end which was fine with me since it meant more birds to see.....mainly widgeons and pied-billed grebes, both of which I don't see very often.

If there was one sore point during my afternoon it was this.  I'm not sure why the north side of the Snye has been so neglected.  It seems to have gotten worse since I moved here.  There actually IS a path in the weeds there....along with a park bench.  There was a time when you could cut up to the let in this photo and reach a nice grassy field but with the construction of the new stadium I found my path blocked by a chain link fence.

Honestly, some of the weeds were almost as tall as I am.  What a shame.  It's irritating to think that the city has money to burn on all sorts of things but can't do a little maintenance.  I realize things are a bit out of kilter due to the fire but this is just a tad ridiculous.  I do have some much better photos of the Snye that I will include in probably my next post.

I soon had other things to worry about other than chocking weeds as a woman called out to me that there had been a bear seen in the area.  Not wanting to cut my birding short but not wanting to end up becoming some carnivore's snack either I retreated to safer territory.

I crossed MacDonald Island to the Athabasca shore and cut in toward the bank.  I've always loved this area as it is one of the easier spots for me to access the river.  Looking back upstream the Steinhauer Bridge is visible though the photo turned out darker than I would have liked.

The next several photos are all looking downstream along the river as I walked the length of MacDonald Island toward the confluence of the Athabasca and the Clearwater.

This is a peek at Rocke Island which splits the Clearwater in to two separate channels where it empties in to the Athabasca River.

Looking downstream.  Other than a few ripples its pretty calm water this time of the year.

It's quite the distance to see this is a what a couple hundred gulls (herring gulls, I think) look like as they take off.  Mixed in among them I caught sight of a single sandhill crane amongst them.

 MacDonald Island Park.  If I'm not mistaken its the largest rec centre of it kind in Canada, certainly in western Canada.  I ducked in to escape the heat and re-fill my water bottle before heading out to explore more of the Snye (along the non-bear side, I should add) down toward the Clearwater River.  More of this in my next post.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Year For The Record Books....or at least, MY record books.


I took advantage of yesterday's fine weather to stretch my legs and wander the Birchwood Trail system a little.  It was my first time there since before the evacuation.  I was hoping to spot just one more bird species to get my year list up to the magical 50 mark, a new record for me.  

The shade brought some welcome relief from the sun and the mosquitos were enjoying at as well.  For the first half of my walk, other than a lone robin, all I seemed to see were mosquitos.  My luck changed as I got down lower in to the valley and crossed Conn Creek.  I hit a small section of trail that was teaming with chickadees.  I've always seen these inquisitive little guys as a good omen since I can usually count on seeing another species or two mixed in with them somewhere.  Chickadees just seem to get along swimmingly with most other small types of birds.  

The light was bad (and my photography skills more bad) but after waiting out a small cluster of birds until they moved into a better line of sight I managed to spy a magnolia warbler and a mourning warbler along with another one I wasn't able to identify for sure, try as I did.  But two of three isn't too bad and it was enough to bump my year list up to 50.  

May is a pretty productive month as far as racking up species for the year list goes but with the fire and all the other excitement that that entailed I'm pretty pleased that I've seen as much as I have since I've returned home.  According to Ebird, a great website I've been using this year to keep track of what I see, I'm sitting comfortably in 9th place among local birders for the year.  Not all that bad considering my skill level and being unable to do any local birding for a large chunk of late spring/early fall.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


While I was away during the wildfire I had all my mail forwarded to my parents' in Ontario.  I set things up with Canada Post to forward my mail until June 30 before resuming regular service here.  My parents collected it and sent it along and it all finally arrived here a few days ago.  Having almost two months worth of mail arrive all at once is......interesting.  Fortunately, my parents had taken out all the junk mail and since a few of my bills are always the same amount every month, I was able to keep up with things without too much difficulty.

There was one item that arrived that caught my attention in particular and that would be the brochure for the Calgary Philharmonic's 2016-17 season.  Needless to say I spent  a nice little chunk of time on my last set of days off pouring over it and checking dates against my work schedule.  I then went online and repeated the same exercise with the schedule for the Edmonton Symphony.  At the moment I'm fervently hoping that my work schedule doesn't change over the course of the next few months (and I am rather confident that it won't) because it appears that I will have lots of options for concerts for the upcoming season.  I was pretty disappointed that I missed my last planned concert down in Calgary back in May. I was actually supposed to go to Calgary the day after the evacuation.  I had mentioned in an earlier post leading up to that particular concert that the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was something I had been wanting to see since my teen years.  So I was more than a little disappointed when that concert didn't happen for me.  As luck would have it, I can make up it by seeing this piece in Edmonton next May.

Call me old-fashioned but in a world of social media and mass technology I will always appreciate the opportunity to see live music and perhaps particularly so now with all the gadgets to be found out there.  Assuming I can get out to every concert this coming season that I hope to, there are quite a few musical gems I'll have a chance to hear and experience.  Some are pretty well-known even to a person who may not overly familiar with the world of classical music, like Vivaldi's The Four Seasons for example.  But there will also be symphonies by Shostakovich, Sibelius, Bruckner, Brahms and Mahler, Bethoven's 6th and 8th symphonies, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, a couple Mozart piano concertos, both of Chopin's piano concertos, the Dvorak cello concerto, Holst's "The Planets" and Mozart's Gran Partita (one of the earliest works I'm know of that feature solely woodwind instruments) among many others.   It's quite an interesting musical palette.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sorry, But I'm Not Desperate

Have you ever gotten one of those political fliers in the mail?  I have.  Normally, I don't pay them much attention as they are full of loaded questions that reverberate within the politicians own little echo chamber.  Usually these things find their way into my recycling bin long before they ever see the inside of my house.  This particular one from my MP, David Yurdiga, however, caught my attention given the recent events that have affected us here in Fort McMurray. 

I did email my MP about it but given that he never responds to email (or at least mine) I figured I'd post a response to it here on my blog in the faint hope that the guy may actually come across it.  It's pure political pandering at its worst.  But it's also interesting to see just how these things are structured and how they operate. 

The first thing I noticed was the large header..."Canadians Last?".  So congratulations, Dave, you got my attention.  Unfortunately, things unravel from there as he tries to conflate two completely different issues, funding for climate change projects and federal relief funding for the Fort McMurray wildfire. Why not compare it with funding received by communities who have also faced natural disasters like the Slave Lake wildfire or the Calgary Flood.  Yurdiga is comparing apples and oranges here so his comparison is essentially meaningless.  While his figure of $2.65 billion is correct (I looked it up), he neglects to mention that this amount is spread out over 5 years.  If he wants to make a more relevant comparison, why not mention the amount of money his former government gave to Haiti?  That would be $1 billion spanning 2006 to 2012.  This tops the amount he claims is to be paid to Albertans.  Of course, to do so would undercut his entire argument.

As a result of the Slave Lake fire, the federal government ended up doling out $1,4 billion.  Given that the Fort McMurray fire was much larger and affected a much larger community and required more resources to fight it, we can expect the $0.3 billion Yurdiga cites to rise significantly over time.   Obviously, Yurdiga is ignorant about federal-provincial cost-sharing formulas.  (Don't worry, Dave.  I know I just used some big words there).  Rather than swallow your biased nonsense I happened to, look that up too. Clearly, the majority of the cost will be borne by the federal government given Alberta's smaller population.  Truth is, the full costs aren't known yet.  I'm curious to know what the final tally will be rather than grasping at the first figures that I come across, as Yurdiga apparently has.

On the opposite side, Yurdiga takes a swing at the PM.  Now, to be honest, I'm no Trudeau fan myself.  But, this issue has already been debated and dealt with, Yurdiga.  You're chiding the PM for not visiting an active disaster zone.  Seriously?  I note that you just mention Alberta and not Fort McMurray specifically.  Was Rona Ambrose here during the fire as well?  Were you?  When were you here?  Come to think of it......where was Yurdiga during the entire episode?  I recall seeing a lot of our Premier and Opposition Leader during this time as one would expect.  I don't know how many interviews Notley and Brian Jean did in the early days of the crisis.  I can only recall seeing one single interview that Yurdiga did, in Lac La Biche where he has an office.   He isn't exactly a smooth speaker and frankly, it was painful to listen to.  I only recall seeing my MP once (as I was also in Lac La Biche for a few days) scurrying around the evacuation centre there.  I recall seeing him staying pretty close to his handlers.  I don't remember seeing him talking to very many evacuees.  So before Mr. Yurdiga points fingers, he really should think of his own actions, or lack thereof, first.  

And finally, there is this little gem.....the loaded question at the end.  Clearly, you cannot walk and chew gum at the same time since you can either support Canadians or supporting other counties.  In Yurdiga's little world you can't do both.  While I am not going to deny that some people in our community were hit hard by this tragedy, I find the language here a bit over the top.  Certainly I'm not desperate.  Ten weeks have passed since the evacuation.  In that time, I've been back to my house, back to my work and back to my regular life.  If I was in another country (like the ones Yurdiga feels we shouldn't send money to) I'd likely be homeless, jobless and possibly even dead from cholera or typhus.  Perhaps armed militants would be inviting me to join them.  Who knows?  But what I do know, Mr. Yurdiga is that I am not desperate.  I am not a victim.  

Please DO NOT use my community as your own little personal football to pander to the ignorant for votes.  If anything, THAT is shameful.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Early Morning

Having a pretty productive day yesterday as far as tackling my list of errands, I jumped at the opportunity to head out early this morning with one of my tenants who wanted to do a little fishing at a small pond just off the highway south of town.  I haven't fished in a few years but I grabbed my binoculars and tagged along for some fresh air and to see what birds might catch my eye.

It was pretty overcast and muggy and the mosquitos were rather annoying at times but I did spot a grey jay before I even got out of the truck.  It's been three or four years since one has graced my year list so that in itself made the trip worth a few mosquito bites.

Just on the other side of the pond a small tributary of the Hangingstone River slowly loops its way northward toward town.  Venturing down into the little valley would have been a fool's errand with he amount of mud and mosquitos so I stuck to the gravel path that looped around the pond.  Accessing the Hangingstone closer to town is a real challenge due to Abasand being off limits as a result of the fire so this small tributary is the best I can do for the time being.  It seems I can't really go anywhere without seeing fire damage but the place was still quite lush.  How quickly the forest rejuvenates itself.