Oceanspray – so much more than just another pretty face!

Oceanspray in Mt. Tolmie park

June 21 – the Summer Solstice – has just passed and the dog days of summer can’t be far away now. For Victoria and southern Vancouver Island the riot of Spring wildflowers found on every walk in the hills is passing. The forest is getting dryer, the grasses are turning golden yellow, and summer blooms are starting to appear. Delicate Rein Orchids, purple Harvest Brodiaea, pink Hooker’s Onion — and many more – are starting to pop up.


A bloom that comes out in profusion at this time of year is Oceanspray – Holodiscus discolor. The cascade of tiny flowers from this shrub are ones we might admire in passing, but not stop and examine for a closer appreciation.

Oceanspray - fresh blooms

If ever there was a summer to rectify that omission, 2018 looks to be it – this year’s Oceanspray display seems to be one for the record books. Shrubs all over southern Vancouver Island are dripping with cascades of blossoms. Colours range from white through cream to buffy ochre. Others, throughout the southern reaches of British Columbia and down into the Pacific Northwest, will be out soon if they aren’t in bloom now.

Oceanspray blooms - starting to age

First Nations throughout the Salish Sea and beyond are well aware of Oceanspray – adding dried seed heads to boiling water for use as a tonic. Dr. Nancy Turner, writing in Plants of Coastal British Columbia, says that the W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) and Stl’atl’imx (Lillooet) peoples waited until the flowers passed and then gathered and “steeped the brownish fruiting clusters of oceanspray in boiling water to make an infusion that was drunk for diarrhea, especially in children. This solution was also drunk for measles and chickenpox, and as a blood tonic”. (pg. 71)

Another Oceanspray attribute is the hardness and strength of its wood – it is known by many as “ironwood”. Dr. Turner notes that virtually all coastal First Nations from the Salish Sea southward were aware of Oceanspray’s versatility. They made the wood even harder by heating it – often polishing it with horsetail stems. It was used to make digging sticks, spear and harpoon shafts, and arrow shafts. The W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) and Cowichan* peoples put Oceanspray to many other uses as well: salmon-barbecuing sticks, scrapers, halibut hooks, cattail mat needles, and even knitting needles.

Next time you spy an Oceanspray take a few minutes to look it over – they are gorgeous at this time of the year when overflowing with flowers, but are well worth a look year-round.

*From Wikipedia: When the Cowichan band was created pursuant to the Indian Act, seven nearby peoples were amalgamated into one “band.” The Quamichan/Kw’amutsun are the largest cultural group, but the nation also includes Clemclemaluts (L’uml’umuluts), Comiaken (Qwum’yiqun’), Khenipsen (Hinupsum), Kilpahlas (Tl’ulpalus), Koksilah (Hwulqwselu), and Somena (S’amuna’).



The Gold Stars have arrived!

Huge excitement for me this week (Mar 26, 2015) — the Gold Stars (Crocidium multicaule) have arrived!Gold Star: a springtime study

This tiny member of the Aster family shows its golden head for a short time in Spring — usually about two weeks later than this! According to Eflora, BC’s electronic atlas of provincial flora, this little gem should be available in several places in my area — on Mt. Finlayson, and up on Mt. Baldy at Shawnigan Lake. I’d be so pleased if anyone can confirm them for me, but, I have never sighted them in these locations myself. The only place I know them to exist on southern Vancouver Island is at the NW corner of Jocelyn Hill in Gowlland Tod Provincial Park. And, that is where I take myself every Spring. This year Jan, Alan, Mike, and I thought an early investigation might be in order — and we were well rewarded. The Gold Stars are out in abundance, with more on the way.

Gold Star: a springtime studyVancouver Island is toward the northern end of this plant’s range, but it is still a mystery to me why, in the Victoria area, Gold Stars only seem to grow on Jocelyn Hill. Up on the east coast of Vancouver Island they can be found putting on a dazzling display as they carpet sandy flats above the Strait of Georgia. Dave Ingram’s Island Nature blog has directions as to where they can be found up-Island.

The Gold Star is a Yellow-Listed plant in BC — this means it is apparently secure and not at risk of extinction. However, habitat loss is a danger for this little beauty, so when rounding the NW corner on Jocelyn Hill, do take care where you step.

Crocidium Corner on Jocelyn Hill, Gowlland Tod Provincial Park.

Gold Star delight

Tips and Tricks for Photographing Wildflowers

Happy First Day of Spring!

Before getting down to brass tacks, how about a few images of wildflowers that are blooming this week on southern Vancouver Island:

Fawn Lily (Erythronium oregonum):

This lovely bloom, with its cream coloured petals, graceful stem, and fawn-spotted leaves is a favourite on Southern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. Many folks call it “Easter Lily”, because it is usually out around Easter time. This year, like many other plants, it is out early.
Fawn Lily

Small-flowered Woodland Star (Lithophragma parviflorum):

Vancouver Island, thSmall-flowered Woodland Stare Lower Mainland, Sunshine Coast, Okanagan, and south central BC all the way to Williams Lake get to see this little beauty nodding in the breeze. This member of the Saxifrage family comes on early in the Spring. A very delicate shade of feathery pink, this flower likes dry bluffs, meadows, open forests, and grasslands. On Vancouver Island we usually see it along coastal cliffs.

A few folks have asked about some simple tips and tricks for taking wildflower photos. I’ve got a few ideas to share that are not highly technical (and some are a lot of fun to experiment with).

  • The 3-P’s: Patience, Practice, Perseverance.
    Yup, the same as with anything one wants to get good at! Wind will be your nemesis, creaky bones and joints will complain as you bend down yet again for that perfect shot, and technology will change – usually rapidly. Keep calm and carry on shooting, reflecting on your work, tweaking, learning, and fine-tuning your process.
  • Get a tripod. If you don’t have one, its a great investment. Get something light and sturdy. Bring your camera with you to the photo shop when you buy one. You want a tripod that is sturdy enough for your camera’s weight. With a point and shoot this shouldn’t be a problem at all. There are even tripods (or top mounts for tripods) that work with camera phones like Galaxy and iPhone.If you aren’t sure about the whole tripod idea, just fill a ziplock baggy with rice and bring that along with you — plop the bag down on a rock, or the ground — it will conform to the land, then nestle your camera on top of the bag. The rice will make a solid support.More info on “How to choose the best tripod: 10 things photographers should look for”
  • Get a remote release. This is something that lets you release (press/trigger) the shutter without actually touching the camera. It can be a cable that attaches to the camera, or an electronic remote control. With many new point and shoot cameras the cable release might not be an option. The reason you want something like this is because with closeup photography any little movement, even as slight as pushing down the shutter, can cause camera shake. Camera shake equals blurry photos. So, with your camera mounted on the tripod, I suggest some type of remote release to guard against motion blur caused by moving the camera.Remote release systems, even cables, can be pricey, so there is another method – use the timer on your camera. Many cameras have a 2 second timer, but even a regular timer (10 seconds) will work — after all, it isn’t like your subject is going anywhere!
  • Use a light reflector. This inexpensive and light-weight item is a real help in getting ambient light into tight places, or in lighting up the underside of a plant, or even helping to balance light in a high contrast light/dark situation.I use a 22 inch disk with several different reflective “skins” I can zip into place. The reflector lets me “bounce” light into the subject. Where I bounce depends on the subject and the angle of light coming into the reflector. Of course, you can bounce a flash off a reflector, but keeping things simple, I usually stick with ambient light. Photography Life has a nice primer on using reflectors: How to use a reflector. Although they are inexpensive, you might want to try something found around the house — a bright white towel, or shirt can work, so can tinfoil, or some of that fancy reflective wrapping paper, or even a purpose for that old disco sequin dress! Be creative — however, you’ll probably need someone to help you hold these items in place. I can usually hold a purpose-built reflector myself, but sometimes I need to prop up in some way (or use one of my hiking companions).
  • Get a kneeler. You’ll be up and down a lot — get something to kneel on. Maybe a garden kneeling pad, or one of those thin blue camping foam pads. Your knees and back (and washing machine) will thank you.
  • Look for different angles / composition. Take your time with your subject. Move around the plant (although do it delicately – some plants are extremely sensitive to being touched), try a lower angle, try a higher angle. Try both portrait (higher than wider) and landscape (wider than higher) views. Snap and go is fine for capturing a sense of the plant and its environment, but to really infuse your work with a sense of place you’ve got to spend a bit of time with your subject and the environment it lives in (see the first point!).
  • Use a card for background. Sometimes you see a flower you would like to highlight in a shot. You want the entire bloom, but not the busy background of stems, grasses, twigs, etc. If you travel with a few pieces of card — they don’t have to be big — index card size or a bit bigger — you can place this behind the plant. White gives an “arty” look, while other colours can blend with the background, or serve as a good contrast to the subject. A card can also help your camera achieve focus. Sometimes the focus point in the camera can’t “grab on” to the bloom you want to capture. This is because the background is full of detail and the focus sensor doesn’t know “where to look”. If you hold a card up behind the flower, the sensor will have less clutter to sort through and will focus on the bloom. At this point you can remove the card and shoot, or keep the card in place. No card to hand – no worries — you can use your hand for the same “de-cluttering” purpose. Gently place your hand behind the subject and focus. However, you’ll almost certainly want to remove your hand before you shoot.
  • Learn about your camera. How do you get your camera into “macro”? You’ll want macro for close up shots. How do you set a focus point? Can you “underexpose” or “overexpose” (let in less light / more light) to your image? Can you take a bit more control of the photographic process — set the aperture size (size of the hole letting light into the camera), select the shutter speed (how fast the shutter opens and closes), or choose the ISO (how sensitive the camera “film” sensor is to light)? All of these things are a bit more technical than the preceding points, but as your interest in photography deepens, you’ll probably want to know more about all or some of these things. Your camera manual can help, but so can a course at your local rec centre, college, or university. Of course, you can always “ask the Google”! For example: “A Beginner’s Guide to Photography” .

Of course, the main tip is get out and have fun with your camera — who really cares whether you are shooting with the latest and greatest DSLR (digital single lens reflex), a point-and-shoot, or the camera in your phone. It’s all about being out of doors!

Glacier National Park: Abbott Ridge and on to the summit

Karen on her way to Abbott Peak

Karen on her way to Abbott Peak – the Illecillewaet Glacier to the left.

On Aug 19, 2013, Mike and I joined friends from the Alpine Club of Canada (Vancouver Island Chapter — yes, we WERE far from our home base) for a fine hike and scramble up and along the Mt. Abbott – Afton traverse in Glacier National Park. This is arguably the most impressive view hike in the Park. One doesn’t even have to gain the summit for amazing vistas of the Mt. Sir Donald group, the Bonney Glacier, the Asulkan group, and the Illecillewaet Glacier — and those are just the leviathans that are right in your face! Take a bit more time and care, gain the the summit of Abbott, and the mountains march on in all directions as far as the eye can see.

Coming down from Mt. Abbott

Coming back down from the Abbott summit

Views notwithstanding, I particularly enjoyed this hike because it closely follows the footsteps of Arthur Wheeler, who, in 1906, co-founded the Alpine Club of Canada. While I am very proud to be associated with the Club he helped found, it is more than Wheeler’s ACC affiliation that endears him to me. It is the number and quality of large format photographs he took of mountains in Western Canada that holds my deep and abiding interest. Wheeler had the good fortune to survey mountains in areas I know and love, so it has become a particular pleasure of mine to stand where he stood, re-photograph his historic images, and observe how the landscape has changed.

From 1894 until 1925 Wheeler was, in one way or another, involved in surveying and making maps of Western Canada. In those days photography came to play a major role in mapping the mountains — traditional rod and chain methods were simply too expensive. Photo-topographical techniques in back then involved taking a panoramic series of mountain landscape photos from a control point that offered excellent views of the surrounding area. The cameras used were bulky and heavy, and the images were exposed on 6 x 4 inch plate glass negatives. Wheeler and the surveys he led produced hundreds and hundreds of these plates.

Mary going up Mt. Abbott

Mary going up Mt. Abbott. Wheeler’s control station for the 1901 images was below on the wide ridge.

Wheeler wasn’t alone in the pursuit of making maps with photography in the Canadian west. Indeed, Library and Archives Canada holds over 140,000 glass plates taken from the 1880’s up until the 1950’s. The images produced by Wheeler and other photo-topographic surveyors of the day are outstanding historical documents. Each high resolution, richly detailed image presents us with a snapshot of what these majestic mountain environments looked like over 55 to 125 years ago.

I have been lucky enough for the past few years to be involved with a dedicated group of researchers at the Mountain Legacy Project (mountainlegacy.ca) whose goal is to re-photograph as many of the 140,000 historic plates as possible. Most of my field work has been in the Rocky Mountains — a truly lovely area — but not the mountains of my heart. Growing up in Revelstoke BC, with Mt. Revelstoke National Park and Glacier National Park as my playground, the mountains of my heart are surely the Selkirks.

Mt. Abbott and Mt. Afton

Mt. Abbott on the left and Afton in the middle. The Bonney Glacier to the right.

Even though Mike and I enjoy the mountains of Vancouver Island where we live, when our ACC Section announced that one of 2013’s mountain camps would be based at the Arthur Wheeler Hut (yup, the same guy), in Glacier National Park, deep in the Selkirks, we jumped at the chance to join in. A week rambling in my favourite mountains was just the way to end a summer spent in the alpine. And, our very first hike of the week was up Mt. Abbott via the ridge.

In 1901, when Wheeler was assigned to survey this area, he would have travelled up much the same route as we did — making his way out of the interior cedar and hemlock forest into Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir around Marion Lake, and finally up into alpine tundra along the ridge. Wheeler’s goal was not the peak of Mt. Abbott. His control point was somewhat lower. He must have selected it because of the spectacular view it commanded. He took images looking south west towards Revelstoke, north towards the Hermit group, and east toward the Sir Donald group. This last image set, shown here, is my favourite — the differences between Wheeler’s 1901 photo and the 2011 repeat are astounding. For example, look at the extent of the Illecillewaet Glacier (on the right in both images) in 1901 compared with 2011 — certainly a huge retreat.

Mt. Sir Donald in Glacier National Park

Mt. Sir Donald and the Illecillewaet Glacier: A.O. Wheeler, 1901,
copyright Mountain Legacy Project

Mt. Sir Donald and the Illecillewaet Glacier

Mt. Sir Donald and the Illecillewaet Glacier: Mountain Legacy Project, 2011,
copyright Mountain Legacy Project

I was pleased to make it up to Wheeler’s Abbott ridge control point, thinking what a march it would have been for Wheeler and his crew as they schlepped 25 kilograms of camera, tripod, glass plates, and survey equipment with them. My own pack was heavy enough! However, Mike and I went on past Wheeler’s control point and gained the summit of Abbott after a wonderful scramble amongst huge chunks of granite. Glaciers, neves, icefields, and high ridges opened out in front of us as we ascended. Some in our group continued from the summit of Abbott on to Afton, but Mike and I decided to return back via the main ridge. I had fun scrambling down some of the airy steps I used scrambling up!

All in all an excellent day spent with a fine group of folks in some of the most glorious mountains in the world. I think Arthur Wheeler would have been proud of his legacy — not only as co-founder of a club dedicated to preserving and promoting Canadian mountain culture and self-propelled alpine pursuits, but as the creator of stunning  photographs that let us look back and compare today’s mountain environments with those of over 100 years ago.  Here’s to you Arthur, and to the other mountain surveyors whose work all those years ago informs us so eloquently today.

On Mt. Abbott summit

Karen, Diane, Mike, Krista, Mary, Dave, Frank, and Ken. ACC-VI Section: Our motto is “Come back alive, Come back friends, Respect the land, Have fun, Get to the Top.”

Map of our route to Mt. Abbott:

More pictures from our day on Mt. Abbott

Mt. Revelstoke Rendezvous

Eva Lake looking to Mt. Williamson

Eva Lake looking to Mt. Williamson

Like almost no place else I know, rambling in Mt. Revelstoke National Park lifts me up, slaps a happy grin on my face, and makes me glad to be able to put one foot in front of the other. Okay, so it’s not full of 3000+ metre limestone monsters like the Rocky Mountains, or huge ice sheets like the Jasper Parkway. Indeed, if I drive to the summit and hike back to Miller and Eva Lakes I only put on about 400 m of elevation change over 12 km total. But I get a sense of accomplishment every time I lace up the boots and head for the summit. Maybe it’s because Mt. Revelstoke is “my” Park in the way no other place be. For me a hike here is more than a day in the hills, it is a rendezvous with memory.

Louie casting from the Eva Lake shore - 1972

Louie at Eva Lake, 1972

Mary at 15  -- Eva Lake, Mt. Revelstoke

Mary at 15 — Eva Lake, Mt. Revelstoke

Revelstoke is my home town and the Park was my playground. It’s a place of “firsts” for me: first place I put on skis – the old Mt. Revelstoke ski hill below the Nels Nelson ski jump; first place I climbed – up in “the Valley” with Bud Stovell and the Revelstoke Secondary School Climbing Club; first place I got well and truly lost – exploring the south eastern slopes with Don Daem. My first real alpine mountain hike was here too: My Dad (Louie), Don, and I hiked in to Miller and Eva Lakes in 1972. I saw my first grizzly in this Park, and had my one and only view of a wolverine in the wild at Lower Jade Lake while on an overnight trip with Mike in 2006. I also charge Mt. Revelstoke with developing my never-ending fascination for photographing BC’s native wildflowers.

Mt. Revelstoke Nat. Park: Meadows in the Sky

Mt. Revelstoke: Meadows in the Sky

Established on April 28, 1914, Mt. Revelstoke is Canada’s eighth National Park. The good folks of Revelstoke began working on the road to summit two years earlier, but it wasn’t completed until 1927. A trail to the summit was established in 1908. I’ve been on that hike several times, and I have to admit, one has to be rather “focused” to get it done — 10 km, unrelenting uphill, almost all in the trees — but the “Meadows in the Sky” at the top of the trail are glorious.

I always count a summer with a trip to Mt. Revelstoke National Park as a success. This year Mike and I had the pleasure of introducing this lovely little gem of a park to Krista, Cedric, and Diane, friends from the Alpine Club of Canada – Vancouver Island (VI) Section. In late August the Section based a week-long summer camp up in nearby Glacier National Park. The five of us decided to drive down to Mt. Revelstoke and do the Miller and Eva Lakes hike (see map below). No one regretted the choice.

Swimming at Miller Lake

Swimming at Miller Lake

Even though the outstanding displays of wildflowers were past their peak, we still had a stunning day. Miller Lake was the first destination. Needless to say, going for a dip in its aquamarine water was the first objective. Some skinny dipping was included as we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Lunch and sunning on rocks followed in short order.

Three of us decided to visit Eva Lake and meet up with the other two on the main trail later. Whereas Miller Lake lies in a talus-scooped bowl, Eva sits up high on a small plateau and commands a fine vista of the area. Both of these lakes have always been popular destinations for hikers and fishers, but my Dad always claimed the fishing was better at Eva.

Jade Lake Pass

Jade Lake Pass

Dad used to come up several times every summer to fish for cut-throat trout. In fact, it was on the trail to Eva Lake that he had his “Road to Damascus” experience. Dad had a bad smoking habit – two or three packs a day. It never seemed to slow him down, until one day in 1973, on the way to Eva Lake, Dad began gasping for breath (or “grasping” as he so aptly put it). He had to turn around and slowly make his way back to the trail-head. He had his last smoke that day. Dad would often remind me of his cold turkey conversion, declaring in no uncertain terms: “Mary, it was up on Mt. Revelstoke that I learned to Hate The Cigarette!”

All in all, a trip into Mt. Revelstoke National Park is sure to provide experiences, views, and adventures that will morph into memories. I know I’m looking forward to getting back there next year — if I don’t do anything else, at least I can rendezvous with another skinny dip in Miller Lake!

Route to Eva and Miller Lakes:

More pictures from Mt. Revelstoke National Park here.

Anna’s Hummingbirds at Oak Bay

It has been a busy spring so far and I haven’t had much chance to get out and about, but yesterday I grabbed a quick hour and headed to the Queen Mum’s Park in Oak Bay. This little green space, right beside the Oak Bay Marina, is a fine spot to get some close up views of Anna’s Hummingbirds. These colourful little beasties are feisty fliers, but in this little park it is almost guaranteed to see one close up perched on a branch.


The males are quite showy, with an iridescent crimson-purple-red crown and throat. The feathers around the throat are known as the gorget. Not sure what they are for exactly, but in the Anna’s species it is only the males that have one.



In praise of regional parks

British Columbia has 29 Regional Districts spread out across our diverse province. All of them have regional or municipal parks that protect and showcase local natural heritage. I’m lucky enough to live on southern Vancouver Island in the Capital Regional District  (CRD). We have 33 regional parks and trails covering 13,000 hectares of land and representing a number of the major ecosystems on southern Vancouver Island and in the Gulf Islands.

These regional parks are very accessible and are some of the few parks that have affordable (often free!) interpretive programs. They are wonderful introductions to the natural world and welcome almost all comers. Although I’m usually out in more remote locals, I often return to some of my favourite Regional Parks for a day of nature photography, bird watching, botanizing, and rambling. I did just that yesterday, heading out to Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park for some long exposure photography.

Sitting Lady Falls - Witty's Lagoon Regional Park

8 second exposure of Sitting Lady Falls
(ISO 50, 35mm, f/22, -2/3 EV, and two Cokin ND filters)

Sitting Lady Falls and Bilston Creek

Waterfall practice  - Sitting Lady Falls 7Witty's Lagoon - study 2Waterfall practice  - Sitting Lady Falls 2

Witty’s Lagoon is formed where Bilston Creek pours over Sitting Lady Falls into a large tidal lagoon. Named for the Witty family – 1860’s white settlers in the region – the Lagoon has an even longer history with First Nations people.

My objective was to photograph Sitting Lady Falls. This time of the year the falls is usually in full spate — gushing foaming white water down a 10 metre drop. Good time to try some long exposures.

Check out the CRD Parks page for more info on Witty’s Lagoon.

Another favourite of mine is Mt. Work Regional Park. I’ve been up it in every type of weather and enjoy the Arbutus trees, the big Douglas firs, and the troop of raven aerial acrobats who inhabit the top of the mountain. It is big mound of basalt rock that provides some lovely texture to almost any photo taken on Work’s rocky flanks and summit.

A well-worn pathMt. Work Views

Sun on the Mt. Work summit      Mt. Work, west ridge

Check out the CRD Parks page for more info on Mt. Work Park.