Weekend Walking Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary

The Canadian prairies have a long and storied history that has been felt through the countless ecosystem changes in flora and fauna, and punctuated by the lives and actions of a handful of various peopled cultures that have lived and settled here for some recent thousands of years.

I state it in this particular way to draw attention to the very idea of a nature sanctuary.

A nature sanctuary is a space that has been set aside for the specific purpose of drawing a line around a bit of the map and deciding, as much as it is possible, to pause the progression of history or preserve a piece of it.

We drove to the nearby Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary on this recent sunny Sunday afternoon to wander the trails here and enjoy the day.

The parking lot was full to overflowing.

The sun was hot but the breeze pushing through the trees was still carrying the coolness of late spring.

I turned on my camera.

Located 33 km southwest of Edmonton’s city centre, the Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary protects 348 acres of marshland, open meadow, aspen parkland and pine forest. The varied habitats of the Sanctuary attract a diversity of animals, including more than one hundred bird species, and provide excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing.

This particular nature sanctuary was a space that was new to me. I’d never made the trip out here previously.

There is a particular patch of wilderness here. It is crammed between the city-proper to the east, a trans-provincial highway to the north, and the twisting North Saskatchewan river to the south.

The land is a mix of marsh and forest and seemingly poor agricultural space because it is speckled with acreages and nature preserves and the local University’s botanic gardens.

There is a local ultra marathon that runs annually through the “river’s edge” tracing along the bottom of the above map tempting local runners with an eclectic single-track adventure on trails regularly inaccessible except with permission of the land owner.

And when I was much younger, the scoutmaster of my troop knew of a bit of land (or likely knew of someone who owned a bit of land) in this area where we frequently winter-camped as teenagers.

In short, when I think of nearby wilderness, it is this block of a few hundred square kilometers that often jumps into my mind first.

The nature sanctuary itself was only established in the late 1970s, and set aside as a block of land that has been expanded and shifted stewardship over the years.

It was hardly a pristine snapshot of undisturbed local wetland history however. The space has a multi-kilometer elevated boardwalk, picnic areas, bird houses and bird feeders, viewing platforms, plastic toilet boxes, and meandering families straying from the designated paths and being humanly-terrible by littering and trampling.

Yet an imperfect preservation is better than no preservation.

There were countless birds (and baby birds.) The elevated boardwalk was a photographic splendour. The marshland failed to excite my teenager, but I could have stood there for hours and watched the life in and around the murky waters. And spring was in its full groove on Sunday, new foliage popping from the trees, ground and swamp.

This nature sanctuary is a space that seems to have been set aside for the specific purpose of drawing a line around a bit of the map and deciding, as much as it is possible, to pause the progression of history or preserve a piece of it.

Resource extraction sites dot our landscape. Hundreds of houses hide in the woods on small plots of land just out of reach of the city. Roads and highways twist through the countryside. Jumbo jets climb into the sky on their way to explore the world as they take off from the international airport runway a few dozen kilometers away.

It has been preserved for not just Sunday family walks in spring, but to draw our attention to the long history of these spaces, to help us recall the wilderness that was and the future we might want to recapture.

If nothing else, it’s a nice place to escape the city for a few hours.

Backyard: Macro Photography

In recognition of yet-another-local-lockdown due to the ongoing pandemic, I'm doing a week of feature blog posts about living in the backyard. From May 10th through 16th, my posts will be themed around life outdoors but as close to home as possible, a few steps out the back door.

Being all-but-stuck in my own backyard for the better part of two weeks during a health crisis has provided me with ample time to enjoy my own small bit of nature.

It has also reminded me —what with the bumble bees, wasps, ants, ladybugs, butterflies, spiders, flies, and so on — that there is a lot of critter life to be found in a couple hundred square meters of suburban backyard.

Photographing backyard bugs was one of the big — ahem, small — reasons I bought myself a macro lens a decade back and really got into taking pictures of little fauna crawling around the variety of flora I’d nurtured.

As of this afternoon the blossoms are just appearing on the trees and the population of dandelions seems to be doubling daily. The sky might be a bit cloudy, but that doesn’t seem to have much sway on the action of the various insects crawling and flying around me little backyard workspace.

Capturing photos of those critters takes a particular set of skills.

Right Gear

Macro photography is more than a purpose-built lens. A macro lens is a great addition to any photographer’s kit bag, but that alone won’t get you awesome insect snaps. Setting up a shot that is in focus in in the narrow confines of a shallow depth of field on a subject that is measured in millimeters means the stability that comes from a tripod and the light enhanced by a source or reflector will do wonders for the final results.

Good Timing

Back in University I took a laundry list of coursework in both botany and entomology. All that study of plants and bugs certainly didn’t hurt my backyard photography skills, but I’d be hard pressed to say how it helped. Figuring out when the flower are open at their peak and picking the right moment on the right day to encounter the kinds of insects worth photographing is still as much luck as it is skill. It’s a good idea to keep your camera charged up as spring warms up and summer approaches, though.

Long Patience

Anyone who has ever said photographing puppies and babies is the hardest gig obviously has never tried to get a really nice photo of a butterfly. I’ve found that there are really just two approaches to taking macro photo of an insect in the wild: chase, click and hope for the best, or set up your gear, focus, and wait. I’ve lucked out with the first method, but I’ve taken some amazing pics with the latter. It does mean sitting in the grass with your finger on the shutter for the better part of an afternoon, but I’m sure the instagram likes were worth it.

Moraine Lake Canoes in Pieces

In the summer of 2018 we spent a week backpacking in the Rocky Mountains near Lake Louise, Alberta, conquering a trail known as the route to Skoki Lodge. We roughed it, camping out of whatever we lugged on our backs up the nearly-twenty kilometer hike. Dehydrated food, lightweight gear, water filtered from a mountain stream, and a couple amazing day hikes.

It was also forest fire season, so at least two days of our time in the wilderness were socked in with a thick haze of sore-throat inducing smoke that blocked out nearly all the scenery while still somehow having zero effect on the mosquito population.

for whatever one photo is worth:

After we descended the mountain, tired, sore, and smelly, we spent an extra day in the small town of Lake Louise to recover before the long drive home.

Lake Louise is a place of epic beauty.

Many people come to Canada to see the mountains and find themselves in Banff.

Banff is also a gorgeous mountain town, but it is relatively big and full of people. Touristy, with kitschy souvenir shops and parking lots and traffic lights. Some of the people who visit Banff have done their research and drive an hour down the road to Lake Louise for a day or two where a grand hotel sits at the edge of a glacial lake a the foot of a picturesque mountain.

A subset of those folks who find their way to Lake Louise take yet another short side trip and discover Moraine Lake.

It was still smoky and the hint of sun that broke through was itself threatening to duck behind the mountains for the evening when we found our way to the shore of Moraine. Our legs were still achy and tired from the previous day’s descent down from the Skoki valley. And we were not keen on driving back the narrow mountain road through the dark. We walked around the edge of the lake for a few minutes, and I snapped about a dozen photos including one of the colourful rental canoes tethered to the dock for the evening.

We went home the next day.

Weeks went by and we shared stories of our hike with friends and family.

Summer turned into autumn and autumn into winter.

Snow. Routine. Work.

I had stopped for coffee in the break area of my office. As the holiday approached and people were feeling the need for some festive fun, someone had set up a jigsaw puzzle at one of the lunch tables. I meandered over to look, and picked up the box to see what the picture would become.

The sky in that photo was a little brighter, and the canoes were arranged a little differently, but I recognized the scene immediately: Moraine Lake …in five hundred tiny pieces.

Doubled Down. Do You Carry Multiple Cameras, too?

I have a habit that I have not completely decided if it is a problem… yet.

It results in lots of great photos, hours of video footage, heaps of social-media ready content, and nary a missed moment.

It also results in a sore back, full hands, and often being the guy standing back recording the action rather than fully participating.

The maybe-a-problem is that I usually carry multiple cameras on vacation.

Actually, while these days I’m often lugging a dSLR with multiple lens, an action camera (like a GoPro) with a video stabilizer, and a smartphone (for snapshots or panoramas, and because it’s a phone), I only occasionally doubt the practicality of this approach.

After all there are some pros to having more than one camera:

The Pros.

  • I usually have the “right” camera or lens for the scene.
  • I’ve taken some amazing pictures over the years and often this comes down to having appropriate equipment.
  • All the tech I’ve invested in gets a turn.

On the flip side, I have been known to just bring a single camera somewhere so I can focus (no pun intended) on a single style of picture-taking.

This makes me think of some of the cons of carrying too much equipment, such as:

The Cons.

  • I only have two hands, and spend a lot of time switching or juggling gear.
  • It’s tough to travel light when you’ve got so much technology and an extra bag for it all.
  • I’m likely a higher target for crime or theft.
  • As a photographer I’m not growing as I’m taking the easy way out of switching to the easier equipment for the scene, rather than getting better with what I have in my hand at the moment.

And to be honest, it’s probably writing down that last one that hits me the hardest, the idea that I’m becoming creatively stagnant because I’ve shifted my focus to gear over improving my technique. Learning happens, after all, because we challenge ourselves to solve a problem that we haven’t encountered before.

I don’t want to make any grand gestures or statements here claiming to forever shift to one way of doing things, but I do wonder if I’m in good company with the multi-camera approach to photography… or if I’ve instead shifted to a kind of photographic FOMO: fear of missing out on some perfect shot.

It’s something to pause and think about next time I set out on a photogenic adventure: should I take just one camera, or a whole bag worth?