Once in a Blue Moon

2010 started under the lunar shadows of an auspicious occurrence, a blue moon on New Year’s Eve, not to be repeated again until August 2012. This unusual celestial event, a second full moon in a calendar month, got me thinking about some of the exceptional local nature experiences that happen “once in a blue moon”. Sometimes perceived as commonplace to us, these are truly rare for many people around the world.

How many places in the world can you walk out in your backyard and see nine grizzly bears in one day? While hiking on the Mountain Lakes Trail (which I prefer to call Heiko’s Trail, in honour of this man’s amazing achievement constructing this community treasure) the group I was hiking with spotted a mother grizzly with two full-grown cubs flipping rocks, licking up insect larvae on a distant slope. To avoid encountering the foraging Ursus we circumvented them hiking high up on the Three Sisters west face. Dropping over the pass, bear spray at the ready, we crested a ridge only to come face to face with a different young mother with small cubs galloping off into the forest below. Half way into the journey with grizzlies behind and ahead we hollered ‘yo bear’, consciously making our presence know. While on a ridge above Island Lake we spotted another mother with two cubs in a meadow off in the distance.

Respect for coexistence, vast tracks of wilderness, variety of habitat to support grizzlies lifecycle requirements, and space from human bear conflict, will ensure my grandson can see these majestic creatures when he is old enough to venture on the trail.

Grounding me to the amazing natural heritage of the Elk Valley, yearly I pilgrimage to the oldest living things in the area, ancient trees. With a heart of gratitude for nature’s services, I am enveloped in a magical landscape, thick carpets of velvet green moss, abundant lichen, and dark moody air. I take a deep breath and reflect on the memories that linger at their base.

If trees could talk, what stories would they tell? Who walked beneath the Ancient Morrissey Cottonwoods? Ktunaxa on their way to collect huckleberries or medicinal plants? Michael Phillips prospecting for gold in 1873? Chinese railway workers laying the CPR line in 1898? Lumberjack’s high grading timber in the early 1900s? Internees walking to the Morrissey camp during WWI? How did this forest inspire them?

The giant Western red cedars up in Island Lake’s Cedar Valley Old Growth Reserve have lived twice as long as the Morrissey cottonwoods. They were seedlings before the discovery of the America’s. Behind my house on Dicken Road, a grand paper birch, the biggest I have ever seen in the Rockies, grows next to a stump, remnant of the 1908 Fernie Fire. These splendid old-growth, arboreal specimens are unique reminders of the resilience of nature. Visiting them, I listen for their wisdom to guide us toward a sustainable future.

Directed by the solar cycle, spring starts with a visit to my favourite wildflower sites, stimulating nature’s song. Delicate white trilliums, under soft, shaded conditions, incite a quiet gentle lullaby. Splendid pink patches of fairy slipper emitting a delicate aroma are embraced by Vivaldi’s Spring. Later in the summer hiking through carpets of wildflowers on the Lizard Range a full symphony of colour, texture, and movement dances across the horizon. With development and urban sprawl, many native plant communities are paved over, plowed under or ripped up by motorized vehicles. These patches of native flora are a gift to our valley’s visual splendor.

Seeking an auditory connection to the past, I head west each spring to experience the unusual sounds of spring. It is rare to hear the yodel of the Western meadowlark, but can be heard commonly in the Rocky Mountain Trench. A male singing his heart out transports me immediately to my youth in Saskatchewan riding my pony across the native prairie grasslands. Soft “cooing” of the threatened long-billed curlew males instantly attracts the attention of not only female curlews. Not to mention the cacophony of sound in the Fernie forests as songbirds sing in the hurried frenzy of mating and defending territory.

In 2010 make a resolution to plan nature encounters in your backyard. Plan to share these “once in a blue moon” experiences with friends and family. Storytelling builds a common culture of connection to place, reverence for the splendor of nature and a place for all living things in those memories.