Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Rock Glacier - August 24, 2008

Rock Glacier is not as hike as much as it is a chance to see some wildlife not normally spotted on your typical hike. Near the Highwood Pass area, the conditions and altitude around the Rock Glacier mean wildlife sees about 3 months of warm conditions, and spends those 3 months preparing for the other 9 months of winter.

The Rock Glacier is exactly what it sounds like -- a slow moving pile of rocks that gradually moves over time. More specifically, it is a scree slope that has water within and underneath. The constant freezing and thawing of the water creates the movement.

A rock glacier on its own really isn't much to look at -- however it's the perfect habitat for an alpine critter called the pika.

At first a pika looks like a squirrel or chipmunk, but it's actually related to rabbits and guinea pigs. They can be spotted by their rounded ears, if you can spot them at all! Their brownish-grey fur makes them tough to see in their chosen home of rock and boulder piles.

Even if you can't see them, odds are you'll know you're among pikas when you hear their "squeaks", which sound suspiciously like a squeeze toy. They use this squeak to communicate, and I swear, to throw off friendly neighborhood hikers hoping to catch a glimpse.

Pikas are busy creatures during summer months -- their favorite diet is dried grass, and they spend their days collecting fresh grass and laying it out in the sun to dry, before storing it away for the long winter. This makes the Rock Glacier a great place to sit back and spot a pika preparing for winter.

As we approached, we saw life right away, but it wasn't a pika. It was a Golden Mantle Ground Squirrel, hoping to cash on friendly humans:

It didn't take long for us to see our first pika. This guy didn't seem to care at all about the humans nearby and just carried out his chores. If you looked away at the wrong time, he'd be across the rock pile and lost to your eye in seconds flat.

Here's a shot of the outside of one of the "dens", complete with grass laid out to dry in the sun:

More pikas in the rocks. Looking at these photos after the fact was a little like playing "Where's Waldo?". Sometimes I didn't know if I'd lost the pika, or if the critter had run out of the frame before I took the shot...

Rock Glacier is not a hike or a walk, but if you're in the area driving around or hiking a nearby trail, it's absolutely worth the stop just to watch a little beast we rarely get to see.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ptarmigan Cirque - August 24, 2008

Ptarmigan Cirque - Highwood Pass: Take Highway 40 south past the Kananaskis Lake turnoff to the Highwood Pass day use area. Trail head is the same as interpretive trail. Highwood 40 is closed at the Kananaskis Lakes junction from Dec 1 to June 15.

Ptarmigan Cirque is an amazing hike for so many reasons. On paper it doesn't look like much -- it's short (4.5 km total), the incline isn't much (225m), and the drive out to the Highwood Pass can take a good couple of hours from the city area. But everyone should do this hike at least once -- and preferably during wildflower season.

For starters the trailhead is beside the highest paved pass in Canada. This hike starts from an altitude of 2206m/7239 ft. And that 225m in altitude gain? That's pretty much all in the first kilometer. Suddenly, it's no walk in the park.

But the big draw of this hike is the terrain. You start from sub-alpine, and hike into true alpine terrain, the land of former glaciers and hardy vegetation. Even from the trailhead, one can tell that only the stronger trees, plants and critters survive. This particular area and altitude sees snow approximately 9 months out of the year (as evidenced by photos taken in late June).

The hike leads into what can only be described as a high plateau in the mountain, almost a bowl among the peaks, and is utterly unique.

The trailhead is shared with a short interpretive walk that is also worth the drive. The walk explains the climate and issues surrounding life in such an area:

The trail splits from the interpretive walk, crosses the highway and immediately begins the sharp ascent. It can a tough go -- especially if you're not used to high altitude -- but you're rewarded pretty quickly. This is looking across the highway, west:

I first encountered these flowers -- known as Chalice Flower or Western Anemone (Pulsatilla occidentalis) while hiking near the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park. Their life is fascinating -- they exist mostly in alpine areas with short summer seasons. They bloom as small white flowers, and are covered in small hairs to protect them from the cold.

The bloom only lasts a short time -- maybe 2 weeks -- and then it is replaced by the "pod" seen here, known by many names such as "mops" "shaggy heads" "towhead babies" and my favorite "hippies on a stick". There were hundreds on this particular hike, and I picked this one because it looked, for the moment, almost entirely perfect:

After the climb, the trail meanders slowly toward the "bowl". As it transitions from sub-alpine to alpine, it almost seems like you're walking through a slowly rising meadow:

Looking south at the Highwood Range:

Nat and I are usually first on the trail, but this trail runner beat us to it. On the first photo I zoomed in on the man in red, but then I took a shot from a normal range, just to see the enormity of the area we were in (click on the second photo to see the man in red):

Though it was late in the season -- especially in a climate like this -- there were plenty of flowers along the trail. These Alpine Forget-Me-Nots (myosotis alpestris) were plentiful:

Another look down the Highwood Range from higher up the trail:

More wildflowers -- and a pretty one I just can't seem to identify. I'd like to call it a type of Cinquefoil, but it also resembles a buttercup. I'll keep looking. The distinctive star shape really caught my eye:

Even in late August, there were plenty of streams and falls throughout the meadow. I'm itching to hike this area come spring!

Another look at the "bowl". The trail makes it way through and over boulders and little creeks, but it's generally a flat meadow. The trail follows a "U" shape to the back of the plateau and around the other side to the front. All of this was carved out by glaciers:

Looking west:

Nice shot of the "bowl" from a spot near the end of the "U":

Pretty sure this is Slender Beardtongue (penstemon procerus). Stunning colours:

Sometimes those short hikes turn out to have the most interesting sights.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Winter Vacations and Local blogs

I've been off on a winter adventure the past week -- hubby and I, plus Nat and her hubby all traveled to Kimberley, BC for snowshoeing, skiing and general German food goodness. It was a nice chance to spend some time elsewhere, enjoy the outdoors, and see some of the beautiful countryside of the East Kootenays of British Columbia. I'm very partial to the Crowsnest Pass area, but this time we drove highway 93 through Radium, Invermere and Skookumchuck (*love* that name), and it was absolutely beautiful! We'll be back soon, in fact, I'm already looking up the summer hikes in the area!

In the meantime, I thought I'd mention a couple of excellent area blogs I've been reading, both covering the Alberta Rockies. HikeAlberta covers trails largely in the Banff, and, being far more technically advanced than I, includes GPS maps. Kananaskis Trails Blog is relatively new to me, but has been an invaluable resource for trail information and news.

The hiking posts will continue (still recapping from summer!), but now that I've discovered snowshoeing, I just have one more thing to keep me outdoors on the weekends....