Sunday, October 19, 2008

Travels North

In the last three weeks, I've been to various parts of Alberta, Canada, as well as Duluth and Grand Marais in Cook County, Minnesota. All work-related but really great fun.

The Alberta trip started in the Calgary airport area, where my Canadian entourage (members of a group on wildfire called Partners in Protection) picked me up, brought me to my hotel, took me out to dinner, and presented me with goodies from the Calgary Fire Department. The next day was a journey north through Kananaskis Country (part of the provincial park system) and on into Banff. While we talked a lot of business (homes at risk from wildfire, prescribed burns in the national park, and responding to fires that might ignite wood roofs), the weather was beautiful (50s-60s with bright blue skies) and the scenery eye-popping. I realized this as we walked past some cottages in the wooded area of Kananaskis and came out to this view.

If there is one common theme of all the places I've visited where they have a wildfire risk, it is that they are all beautiful places. If it wasn't for the view, I sometimes think, we might not have a problem at all with people wanting to live in high-risk areas.

Views in Canmore and on into Banff were similarly gorgeous, especially with the fall color of the aspen glowing in the sunlight (tamarack, a conifer that turns color and loses its needles in the fall, was also spectactular). The glaciers at Bow Lake and Athabasca were unbelievable, as was the view from the top of Whistler's Mountain (arrived at by taking a little tram car up 7,800 feet). Creatures including bighorn sheep, elk, moose, and yes, a black bear, were on view - mostly far away, though the male elk was presiding and stopping traffic at the entrance to Jasper Park Lodge. (I only got brave enough to photograph him by the time he was ready to walk away. Unlike the people in the foreground, left, I did not relish a very close encounter with a male elk during rutting season).

My only moment of real concern was standing in the middle of the prescribed burn area (a meadow) in Banff National Park with the fire manager, who was holding a can of bear spray (at right). My friendly entourage, many of whom had worked the parks for years, regaled me with stories of grizzlies "coming out of their ears" in the good old days when they didn't keep their park dumpster lids sealed. I tried to stay very close to the man with the canister...

The bear we finally saw was at the treeline at Whistler's Mountain as we descended on the tram. Crammed in the middle of this metal and glass box with 20 or so people, I couldn't get a photo, but he or she was definitely discernable by the human eye as a bear - and a big one at that. Looking down from the summit was "like being inside an aerial photograph," as one of the guys put it. My brief stay at Jasper Park Lodge outside the town was really great, and I enjoyed meeting everyone at my presentation on the last day of my visit.

The trip to Duluth and Grand Marais was also scenic, though the terrain is very different. Fall color at dawn along Lake Superior was beautiful, interrupted only by the ugliness of the mining operations facilities plunked along the lake highway in one lengthy interval. Grand Marais looks like a seaside town (they don't call them the Great Lakes for nothing) and luckily we found great coffee, good burgers and a warm reception from the local County staff and property owners happy to show us all the work they had done to be safer from wildfire, including humongous piles of slash and woody debris that would be burned in February when several feet of snow would ensure a safe burning day. Judith, my Firewise partner-in-crime, got great photos of the area, the slash piles, and a pair of female moose mucking around in a roadside swamp on the Gunflint Trail. We celebrated our safe return to the big city (Duluth) by finding the only Thai restaurant downtown, that turned out to have extremely good food and possibly the best cold salad rolls (aka goi cuan in Vietnamese restaurants) I have ever eaten, and that's from a serious goi cuan fan.