Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Holidays Everyone!!

Happy Holidays Everyone!!
Photo by Alan MacLeod. Uploaded by Mary Sanseverino
If you're lucky enough to be outdoors, you're lucky enough! Mike and I have indeed been lucky in 2010. No big trips or bike rides across a continent, but 2010 saw us out almost every weekend with friends to ramble in the mountains, bicycle the trails, photograph wild flowers, and explore new routes in our local hills.

Stopping for tea in the sun
Winter hiking with Jan and Alan.
This year I was particularly lucky in being able to escape outdoors as work became even busier than usual. I took on a directorship at UVic that keeps me tied to the office for long hours each week. I've had wonderful recognition for my efforts (was awarded a major academic teaching prize in 2010), but I'll be so glad when spring gets here and Mike and I can go on study leave. As of May 1 we're planning on spending time in Scotland where I have an appointment with the University of Glasgow. And, even better, when I return to work at UVic I'll come back at 50% time and will be just a few short years away from the holy grail of full retirement!

This past year Mike has had even more opportunity than me to get out into the hills. He's gone out several times with POP (Preserve our Parks) on route-finding and cleanup operations, put in trails with a group of retirees (he had to work hard to keep up!), and convinced friends and family to follow him into the mountains without me. Mike is the one leading the charge to find and explore "lifers" -- hikes and climbs we've never done before.

Janice's new house in Revelstoke
On the family front my sister Janice decided to try her hand at general contracting as she sold her existing duplex, bought a chunk of land, got it rezoned, got it serviced, went down to Rona Building Supplies and bought a house, had it delivered, and then constructed it. She did all this in about six months. She now has a beautiful house of her own -- no more sharing a wall with neighbours she didn't select! Check out the images at

In 2010 we were able to spend time with Mike's family. In November we went with Marion (Mike's Mom), and brother Eoin to cousin Emma Roberts' wedding in Seattle. Marion got to see her brother Don and meet her latest grandchild Taylor (Mom: Rita, Dad: Mike's brother Arthur). The wedding was a huge success and we caught up with many of Mike's cousins. Mike's brother Steve and sister-in-law Karolle made it out from Quebec, so it was almost a full family reunion. Just missing brother Dave, who stayed in Canada to guard the home front.

Lunch time in the meadow
Al, Mike, and Irene at Callaghan
Lake Provincial Park
We spent Thanksgiving at Whistler with Mike's uncle Al, aunt Irene, and cousins Charlotte and Toria -- we had such a good time we're heading back for Christmas. It's shaping up to be a Whitney Wing-ding with Whitneys arriving from all over.

2010 had a sad note as the last of Dad's brothers and sisters died this year -- Uncle Nick in early spring, and Aunt Mary later in the year. Uncle Nick was just shy of 100 and Aunt Mary was in her late 90's. Both had active, engaged, full lives . Like Dad, they never missed an opportunity to seize the day! I think we should follow their examples and make that a motto to live by.

John, Lisa, Mary, Mike
John and Lisa with Mike and Mary,
hiking on Mt. Work
And speaking of seizing -- Mike had a big event this year -- in June he turned 50. We had a birthday bash, and about 30 friends came to toast and roast Mike as he officially entered "middle age". Please feel free to refer to him in all future correspondence as 'Old Man' Whitney.

Both Mike and I were lucky enough in 2010 --lucky to have fine friends and family to share adventures with; lucky to have good health; and lucky to live in a place with wide open spaces just around the bend. And, as we count our blessings, we are lucky enough to count you as our friends and to wish you and your family a Happy New Year, and the best of what life has to offer in 2011.

Carpe diem (Seize the day)!
Mary and Mike

Looking west down Sandcut Beach

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Seizing a "Snow Day" in the Sooke Hills

On Saturday, Nov 20th we woke up to snow in the hills and decided to head out and seize the day with a winter frolic. The Usual Suspects (Jan, Alan, Mike, and me) gathered and off we went. There was a bit of discussion about where we should frolic -- Mt. Work, Mt. Wells, Jocelyn Hill, Mt. Manuel Quimper, Braden, Sugarloaf -- any of them should provide a chance for a winter romp. We settled on Mt. Manuel Quimper in the Sooke Hills and started off. We felt sure of a snowy treat, especially as we drove by the Mt. Wells and Braden trailheads. These areas were caked in snow -- the trees were laden and the peaks were rimmed in white. But, as we approached Sooke the snow disappeared -- I didn't want to go to Quimper any more -- I wanted to return to Mt. Wells. Everyone agreed, so back we went. But Mt. Braden called louder than Wells -- and I'm glad we stopped, listened, and climbed because it turned out to be a peak experience in our much-loved Sooke Hills.

Here, even in the deep coastal woods, the snow made its way down to the forest floor. Patterns of salal and sword fern embossed the snow banks and the trees seemed illuminated with new, reflected light. We made our way to Veitch Creek and crossed on a tree and rope bridge, probably laid down by some Sugarloaf climbers tired of getting their feet wet. From here we made virgin steps along the Veitch Creek path to the base of Braden.

Jan and Mike on the lower
slopes of Braden
We elected to go up the well-known southern route that goes by the waterfall, across the flower field, around the fallen Douglas Fir giant, and up onto a series of basalt ledges to the summit. But, snow turns the old and familiar into the new and unusual, and there were lots of stops to examine scenes we would have passed by without a thought in summer. Consequently, it was 1:45 before we got to the top. In these days, when the light goes by 4:30, this winter wonderland gaping would leave us little time for lollygagging.

We spent a happy half hour on the summit, enjoying the sun, staying out of the wind, playing the "what mountain is that" game (it never gets old), and planning future outings. But soon it was time to leave and we had a decision to make -- should we explore a more northerly route down the mountain, or take the south-west route? All of us had travelled the SW route several times, but only Mike had explored the northern path, and that was some years back. Time, knowledge, and calculation of available light made the decision for us -- we took the familiar SW route.

Looking south from the summit
It was the right choice; even on the familiar track we had some backtracking and route-finding. Fortuitous, as it turned out, because we found a new tea stop rock with outstanding views, came across a geological survey marker, and enjoyed the late afternoon light on the hills. We made it to the bottom of the mountain by about 4:10 pm and legged it back to the Veitch Creek crossing. The distance to the crossing was only about 2.3 km, it was getting dark and I wanted to get across the rope bridge in the light. But, our need to hurry didn't cause us to pass by two American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus -- so why isn't it Mexican Dipper?) plying the upper reaches of the Veitch. None of us had ever seen Dippers on this creek, so it was well worth a look and listen to see these aquatic songbirds dip and swim through the rushing water.

We crossed the tree-rope bridge with no problem and made it back to the car just as a full moon came peeking over the ridge of Mt. Helmcken. On the ride home we all agreed that, no matter your age, playing outside in the snow until it's too dark to see is exactly how you seize a day!

Our route:

View Snow Day on Mt. Braden: Nov 20, 2010 in a larger map

A final picture from Alan's images:
Braden Summit

Monday, September 6, 2010

Two lakes, a summit, and a new route in the Sooke Hills

Any day where I get to multiple lakes in the Sooke Hills is a good one! On Saturday Sept 4, 2010, Mike, Tom and I did an 18 km tour in the north-western part of the Hills.

We started at TLC's parking lot above the Sooke Potholes, hiking along Mary Vine Creek to Peden Lake. We normally stop in at Peden to take a decko at the lake and cabin. I've heard that King Gentian Gentiana sceptrum can be found on the lake margins, and I was hoping to see some this trip. However, as we were getting close to the cabin two hikers came down the trail. They were part of a larger group camping at Peden. We didn't want to disturb them, so passed by without visiting the cabin.

Past the cabin turnoff we took in some views of Peden from a view point above the lake. We saw Stellar's jays and Flickers in the trees and lots of fish jumping -- it was a perfect "lake in the mountains" BC moment.

We then joined the "regular" route to the summit of Empress Mountain, going up the Todd Creek trail. We were soon on the summit approach and just as we got up out of the trees the marine cloud that had blanketed us all morning cleared off -- blue skies and long views waited for us up on top.

Empress Mtn summit
Summit of Empress Mountain
At 682 metres (2238 ft) Empress is the highest point in the Sooke Hills Sea to Sea Green Blue Belt. On a clear day the views from Empress are stunning, and this trip didn't disappoint. From the top looking south you can see a carpet of green and gold running away to meet the blue-on-blue of ocean and sky.

I am so pleased the Land Conservancy and CRD parks were able to put together these wilderness jewels. The vista seems to belong together, with each peak rolling together into the next. Roads and development, no matter how well planned, would segregate and chop this area up into wilderness enclaves, separated from one another by "progress".

I know, I know -- much of this area is second growth, so it isn't as if the Sooke Hills have not known the hand of man. But, much of that logging was well over 50 years ago and the land has come back very well.

From the summit of Empress we went south over the Dumbbell Peaks. These two summits, joined by a high saddle poke up over the landscape like a dumbbell left on the gym floor. Although Mike had been here before, this was a "lifer" for Tom and me. The views, especially of Sheilds Lake, were outstanding.

Hiking the Dumbbells required about 150 metres of steep ascent through young Douglas Fir trees. Then we popped out onto the northern most Dumbbell summit. These rises are perfect examples of "balds" -- open, rocky areas where the vegetation is largely made up of grasses and mosses. The soil is very shallow and can't recover easily from disturbance. In the spring these balds are moist and green, supporting all sorts of wild flowers, Manzanita shrubs, Arbutus trees and Garry Oaks. By fall they have turned golden yellow as the mosses and grasses dry out.

Travel over these balds is delicate. We always try to hike on rocky areas and avoid dislodging the clinging mosses. Certainly this is no area for ATVs or other forms of motorized transport!

From the Dumbbells we crossed some rich salal draws and climbed up Puzzle Peak. Here the geology changed -- it was still basalt, but on Puzzle the basalt had formed into huge columns that seemed to fit together like ... well, pieces of a puzzle (okay -- at least that's what I assumed!).

Grass Lake
Grass Lake in the later afternoon sun
On Puzzle we had views down into Grass Lake, and, after a tea break, headed down to the lakeside. I was very pleased with the condition of the lake and trails around the shore. In past years these trails have been full of deep muddy ruts, caches of garbage, broken bottles, and discarded beer cans. Today the garbage is pretty much gone, vegetation is filling in the ruts, and the lake side is clean. Indeed, we even found a patch of King Gentians in bud on the shore. For me the final confirmation that Grass Lake is clean and healthy came when when we observed a metre-long water snake swimming by, resting on the water lily pads, and then slithering up onto the bank at our feet.If it's good enough for snakes, it's good enough for me!

King Gentian and cedar
King Gentian at Grass Lake
We returned to the Todd Creek drainage via the Harrison Trail. This 5 km route took us by huge basalt cliffs, through deep sword fern communities, and into heavy salal. Tom, who was walking out in front, came upon a bear in the salal, and Mike and I heard one a bit later on. Certainly there was a lot of fresh bear poop in the area.

The final adventure for the day was taking "the pipe" (the old water pipe) back to the car. Tom and Mike opted for that method of return, while I stayed on the Todd Creek trail, crossed the Galloping Goose, and ended up just outside the gates to the lower Sooke Potholes parking lot. I'll only say that I finished the hike 25 minutes before Tom and Mike -- and Mike actually fell off the pipe at one point.

I had my trusty Garmin GPS 60cx with me, so was able to make a reasonable map of the route -- I've included it below.

I very much recommend a ramble in this part of the Sooke Hills Wilderness. Even if you don't head out for the entire trip, a simple out and back to Peden Lake, or up and back to Grass Lake via the Harrison Trail will give you a good feel for the area. And, if you get too hot, you can always jump into one of the lakes and cool off with the snakes!

Sooke Potholes to Peden Lake, Empress Mountain, and Grass Lake

View Empress Mountain via Peden and Grass Lakes in a larger map

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Time, tide, and sunscreen wait for no one

Least Sandpiper
Originally uploaded by Calypso Orchid
A few days ago I decided to pack up the camera, my big lens, the tripod, and my new monopod and head out to Witty's Lagoon. I was hoping to catch a picture or two of the Dowitcher that Ian Cruickshank reported seeing on the VIBirds list. The moon was just past full, so I knew the tides would be quite extreme, and I was heading for low tide. After consulting the tide tables I set out.

I schlepped everything down the trail to the big barachois that separates the lagoon from the ocean and started to look around for a good spot to sight birds. The lagoon itself, formed by Bilston Creek and tidal action, seemed to hold the most promise.

I am not an expert at bird photography -- in fact, I'm just beginning -- but one thing I do know, good pictures of birds, in fact ANY pictures of birds, take a lot of patience. There is a lot of sitting very still, listening, watching, and waiting. Of course, you have to know your equipment quite well because there may only be one or two moments to get the shot.

Recently I acquired a 500 mm lens that is great for birds. I am too scrawny to hold the darn thing steady enough to shoot without a tripod, so any use of this lens must be accompanied by lugging the tripod too. But, the birds I'm interested in are not often found close to home, so I looked around from something that might be a bit more portable than a tripod. Friends recommended a monopod, and I thought I'd give it a try.

My monopod is made by Manfrotto, the same company that makes my tripods. This meant I was able to interchange my favourite ball head back and forth between the two. I had some luck shooting with the monopod earlier in July when I went up Scafe Hill and got lucky with some Turkey Vultures, so I thought it would work well at Witty's too.

I set up the monopod with the 500mm lens, attached the camera to the lens and ventured out onto the firm banks of the lagoon. There I spied the Dowitcher lounging under a cut bank. It was about 20 - 30 metres away.
Dowitcher at Witty's Lagoon
Dowitcher at Witty's Lagoon

I very slowly moved forward about a metre, but stopped when I came to the muddy floor of the lagoon. I wasn't about to go out on the mudflats myself -- not only would that be a bit too close to the resting birds, but we are talking REALLY muddy flats -- the dark black, stinking, oozing, full of life type of mudflat birds love.

Even though I wasn't about to venture onto the flats, I thought the even ground would make a better rest for my monopod. So, I stuck the foot of the pod just in front of me, onto the floor of the lagoon. Not a good idea -- the monopod, with about four kilos of camera on top of it started to disappear into the mud.

Within less than a second 10 cm of monopod disappeared into the ooze. In a bit of a panic I stepped forward, the better to get a grip on the shaft and pull the camera and monopod out of danger. Into the mud I went. I started to sink almost as fast as the camera and gear. To make matters worse, it seemed the more I pulled up on the monopod, the deeper and faster I sank.

I saved the day by giving a mighty yank on the monopod, hoisting it up on the bank and then using it to lever myself out of the black suck-hole I had become lodged in. What a sight I was – and talk about stink! I’m happy to report no damage to the camera or lens. I folded up the mono and used the tripod for the rest of the day – it didn’t sink nearly so easily.

In all of this the Dowitcher was giving me a decidedly cool eye -- it seemed to be saying "who is that ungainly three-legged apparition -- what a loser". It slowly and elegantly moved out of camera range and I was left with some underexposed, unusable shots.

Covered to my knees with stinking back mud I ignominiously retreated to the ocean to wash away the evidence of my clumsiness. I was able to wade across the lagoon entrance and check out the other side. The tide was still low enough that I could gain access to a sandbar way out in the lagoon entrance. Off I went, this time in search of Least Sandpiper.

I got lucky -- these entrancing little shorebirds soon became used to the large, still thing out at the end of the sandbar, and wandered out very close to me. I spent a happy hour taking images both through the viewfinder and using the back video screen.

Least Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper Feeding
The feeding and foraging behaviour was fascinating. These birds were pushing their bills through the water, and almost pointing at their food with their feet -- they always seemed to dip their bills to eat right off the end of one foot. I became so engrossed I forgot about the tide. It wasn't until the water has covered the feet of the tripod, causing the camera to tilt at an alarming angle that I looked around me -- the sandbar was pretty much gone. Hoisting the camera overhead, I splashed through the surf back to the beach.

After the lesson with the tide I reckoned I'd done enough shooting for the day and started the hike back to the car park. But, on the way there I decided I wasn't going to let a little mud deter me. I returned to the lagoon to take one more look for that Dowitcher. So glad I did, because I got a few clear shots, although at a quite a distance.

That evening back at home I noticed the last "gift" of the day -- a red swath of skin on the back of the neck. Not only did I forget to pay attention to the tide, I forgot to apply the sunscreen!

Note to self -- remember the time, especially when out beyond the tide line, and apply extra sunscreen just in case. You never know when you'll spend an hour with a Sandpiper.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mt. MacDonald Bumps

June 5 2010: Spring flowers in all their glory, stunning views in all direction, great birds, and fine company -- what more could you ask for in a ramble. Of course, there was some bushwhacking and trail making, but it wouldn't be a hike in the Sooke Hills with Mike and Mary if we didn't explore.

This trip we were accompanied by Ian Cruickshank -- young birder extraordinaire. He is working with the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas and had not been in this area before. He got some good breeding info on Ravens and Nighthawks during this adventure and will be back again this summer to check out the area more completely.

Sticky CinquefoilOur trip started with a climb up Mt. MacDonald via the eastern face. We had some interesting flowers here -- a batch of Sticky Cinquefoil Potentilla glandulosa in the Douglas Fir forest on the lower reaches, and wonderful displays of Stonecrop Sedum spathulifolium on the basalt outcroppings. Ian caught sight of an Olive-sided Flycatcher on the nest -- I can tell you , that takes a very good eye. Even with powerful binos and someone to point out the tree, these little nests are difficult to see.

After the summit we did Primus, Secundus, and Tertius Bumps. Between Primus and Secundus we were startled to discover that a huge road had been pushed into the draw between the two Bumps. Ian and I both enquired with CRD Parks and were told this was to be the new access road to the antenna farm at the top of Mt. MacDonald. The current access goes over private property, but this new road is entirely on CRD land. I'm sure this will ease any access issues the CRD might have with the private landowner. I only hope the CRD got a good price for the timber they took out for this road -- it looked to be prime Douglas Fir.

Tufted saxifrage - closeupThe route back down to the valley was interesting -- we went down on the north-west side of Tertius as we usually do, but this time there was no flagging to guide us. The marked trail is now heading down the south-west side. SW is a better path, but we wanted to pass by the quarry lake below Mt. Braden to check for interesting birds, so it was time to do a bit of route finding. With very little cussing we made it down to the Vietch Creek valley. We used one of the old logging roads to wind us back around to the flowline pipe, and from there crossed to Humpback Road through a friend's yard.

This year's spring has been quite cool and wet, but there is an upside -- the flowers stay around much longer than normal. This year the Tufted Saxifrage Saxifraga caespitosa, Sea blush Plectritis congesta, Stonecrop Sedum spathulifolium, and Small-leaved Montia Montia parvifolia were prolific -- especially on the south-western slopes of Secundus. I have never seen such richness on these slopes.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Trillium - starting to turn colour

The spring show is truly extraordinary this year! The Calypso bulbosa orchids are out in force -- I can't recall when I've seen so many healthy plants. But this year the Trillium ovatum (Western Trillium) are catching my eye. They are also out in profusion. And, during this time of the year -- late spring (at least late for us lucky folks that live on southern Vancouver Island) -- the trilliums start to turn purple with age. Sometimes I can catch them just starting to turn -- like I have this image.

Another favourite at this time of year is the Fritillaria affinis (Chocolate Lily). I am always astounded by the detail and texture on the petals of this plant. I know it is to attract pollinators -- and I think bees pay the most booty-calls to F. affinis! I'm not sure about this -- but in spending time amongst the lilies, I think I have seen more bees in the flowers then anything else.

Bees don't see colour the way we do. They don't see the colours in the red part of the spectrum, but they do see into the ultraviolet. I bet the dark chocolate-coloured patches on the flower absorb UV. I don't have a uv filter, but I'm going to get one to take flower pics --if the chocolate coloured portion of the flower does absorb UV light, then the petals of the lily must look like a huge, high-contrast checkerboard.

The bright yellow flowers of Sedum spathulifolium (Stonecrop) are just starting to show. I love the texture of these plants -- they look plump and lush.
Sedum spathulifolium
Sedum spathulifolium
Originally uploaded by Calypso Orchid

Lots more colour coming to hillsides up and down Vancouver Island -- the season is just getting into full swing. Take some time to "get out and smell (or at least look at) the flowers".

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Marsh Wren -- singing for all he's worth

New camera lens -- a 150 - 500 mm. I've been out photographing birds, and this little fellow captured my heart. Here he is, staking out his territory in the bull rushes along the shore of Swan Lake. He flits to the top of the rush and starts belting out his song. At this juncture he is probably warning all other male Marsh Wrens not to come any where close or he'll be forced to do something drastic.

I love the boldly pushed out chest, the ruffled feathers, and the full throated cry. I spent several engrossing hours watching him patrol his territory. He returned to this rush about once every 15 minutes and sang for about 5. Then he would rotate on to another perch and repeat the same process.

I may have found this a lazy afternoon at Swan Lake, but not so for this Wren. He and his compatriots were deeply involved in a tightly choreographed ballet. While this fellow was moving thought his territory at regular intervals, the same thing, on the same interval, was happening with male Marsh Wrens all up and down the verge of Swan Lake.

Amazing what one can observe when one simply sits still and looks.

More images from Swan Lake, Victoria BC

Marsh Wren    

Monday, February 15, 2010

Rambling in the South Island: The Wonder Trail to Thunderbird and Mt. Manuel Quimper

Mt. Quimper crop

For many of us in the Victoria area, the land in the Sooke Hills around Mt. Manuel Quimper, the Thunderbird Cliffs and Ragged Mountain has become a regular feature for weekend rambles. The area has a lot to offer – interesting and unofficial “trails” that require a bit of map reading skill, amazing shows of spring and summer flowers, and some of the best views in the Victoria and Sooke region.

Late afternoon light on Mt. Quimper
This summer Mike and I were busy showing Tom, a Victoria newcomer, the local hiking scene (yes, we've had him out on an ACCVI adventure to Lomas Lake – hopefully he’ll join!). We quickly powered through some of the old favourites and on June 27 we decided it was time to try something with bigger views and some scrambly bits.

Taking advantage of the long daylight we started our walk at a “civilized” hour. We pulled into the car park at Harbour View Road and were on our way by 9:30 am. Our route took us to the top of the Thunderbird Cliffs, back down, and over to Manuel Quimper. Here we went up the north east side and came down the “Mary Trail” -- named after yours truly -- on Quimper's western flank. Then we followed the Harbour Road trail back to the car.

The distance was not long – 14 km in total. We took an enjoyable and leisurely 8 hours to complete the trip. But, the hike does go up and down a bit, and, of course, bushwhacking is a given! Especially in the gully between Thunderbird and Quimper and the last 20 minutes on the western-facing “Mary Trail”. There are other trails that involve less bushwacking, particularly on Quimper. But the western flank is little travelled, especially by mountain bikers, making it prime for flower viewing in spring and summer.

The highlight of this trip is the scramble up the Thunderbird Cliffs, truly one of the premier view hikes in the area. For newcomers especially, this trip lets hikers get the lay of the land around the Victoria/Sooke Basin area.

The Sea to Sea Regional Park Reserve, and the bigger Sea to Sea Blue Green Belt is not particularly “tamed” -- not a lot of maintained trails, published trail maps, or sign posts. Mike and I, along with many of our friends, have spent time wandering around in this area using a combination of topo and compass, very old maps, 20 year old hiking books, and now GPS. We've been inventive in hunting down information too -- once I even phoned a real estate agent and inquired into the purchase of Ragged Mountain, asking for a map so we could "see for ourselves" (hey, I'd buy it if I had a spare million!). We've bushwhacked and barged our way through low spots and blow down, followed promising flagging to nowhere, pussy-footed through delicate Garry Oak habitat, and scrambled up the rocky bits-- always happy to get out and explore, and always looking for "lifers" (new places to hike).

Our first success on putting together Thunderbird with Quimper happened some ten years ago when we first gained the top of Quimper and discovered a map posted in the fire lookout. It pointed us to the Wonder Trail -- a connecting route through the area between Harbour View and Glinz Lake. Stitching together bits of trail, overgrown logging roads, and using the old water main pipe that threads through this area, the Wonder Trail makes a great entry point for Thunderbird especially. If you haven’t been in already, why not tug on the hiking boots and give it a try?

If you know more about the history of the Wonder Trail, or of any other route in the Quimper/Thunderbird/Ragged area, please get in touch -- -- I'd love to learn more about this wilderness area so close to Victoria.

More photos at Calpyso Orchid on Flickr.

Mary Sanseverino

View Thunderbird and Quimper: June 27, 2009 in a larger map