Stories in the Snow

As a local resident, guide for our company Earth Rhythms, and photographer, I am thrilled with the ability to share the stories I see in the snow during the winter months using the digital medium. The combination of digital image-making cameras and HD video combined with such powerful and simple to use tools like Mac OS iMovie (new version as of OS Mavericks is FANTASTIC and even easier and more intuitive to use) make it possible to share digital stories easily.

Riding Mountain National Park’s winter months offer superb opportunities to experience a national park when there are less visitors, no bugs, and using snowshoes gives you access to locations you would not easily get to in the other three seasons of the year. In addition, the snow surface itself provides an abundance of stories in the snow surface. The lack of leaves makes it much easier to “see into the bush” and see longer distances and catch sight of mammals and birds that you might not normally see.

Here is a fresh edition of Stories in the Snow – with a combination of photos and video. I hope that you enjoy!!


Snow and Hoarfrost Winter Magic

I find living in a snowy environment quite reassuring. Whether blizzard, sunlit morning, or soft snowfalls, it’s really quite magical if you pause and reflect on it for a moment. That is, a season of the year in which there are no bugs; we can walk on water; and we see the heavens at night filled with stars. Here are two images taken during the winter months: One is early morning on a very cold day (probably -20C or colder), in which we had a column of hoar frost crystals in front of our home. I am not sure what causes this kind of dazzling columnar effect, but it lasted long enough for me to have a cup of coffee and take the photo, before it dissipated. In the other photo, taken today (Dec. 4, 2013), a light snow-storm is brewing across Clear Lake in Riding Mountain National Park. Everything is muted. There is a stillness and it is cold and windy (-19C with windchill taking it down to -25C). The singular tones of this image setting are part of the great quiet and peace that I hope that we never take for granted in our national parks. Winter photography is fun. Just getting outdoors in winter is fun.

Hoarfrost crystals in the air Clear Lake late afternoon snowstorm

The art is in the creature

spruce grouse ©Celes Davar

Spruce Grouse ©2013 Celes Davar

One of my greatest joys living at Riding Mountain National Park is to head out for some “slow travel”, where I drive slowly to a random location, get out of my car and just slowly listen, walk, or snowshoe. Riding Mountain National Park  is a large national park where things become so much clearer in the months between November and April. It may be that you get to see tracks in the snow from wolves, grouse, or lynx – tracks you would never notice at other times of the year. A bird on a branch. A raven calls. Things seem to be more intense, quiet, and there are less distractions. It is a wonderfully rejuvenative time of year. Yesterday, I had a quiet encounter with a spruce grouse. The male is colourful. It’s a bird that lives in boreal (coniferous forests). Notice that this one is on a jack pine branch. This bird, as described by Cornell University’s All About Birds site is  the north-eastern species. “Two distinct subspecies of Spruce Grouse exist. “Franklin’s Grouse,” D. c. franklinii, found in the southwestern portion of the range, in the mountains from Alberta southward, has an all black tail with small white spots on the feathers overlying it. The northeastern subspecies, D. c. canadensis, has a rufous tip to the tail and lacks white spots above the tail.”

Shades of white

This is a time of year I absolutely love. It is delightfully quiet. In the last 15 years, I have noticed that we have a much greater prevalence of moisture in the winter months. This is often deposited in the form of hoarfrost, which I had previously written about. Here is a short slideshow of some recent images taken in Riding Mountain National Park. Call us if you are interested in a short outing to learn how to use your digital point and shoot, or your digital SLR to catch winter at its best. 1.204.848.4680 Earth Rhythms.

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Grosbeaks at my feeder

Evening grosbeak

Evening grosbeakEvening grosbeak

Two of the most common birds at our winter feeder are evening grosbeaks and pine grosbeaks.  The males are particularly striking in colour.  Evening grosbeaks males are yellow, black and white.  Pine grosbeaks are red, grey and white.  My interpretation of their behaviour is that the evening grosbeaks are the brash ones, whereas the pine grosbeaks are the stately ones – gentle and firm.  When they move in, every other bird moves away.  No pushing, no shoving – they just land.

Pine grosbeak Riding Mountain National Park

Male pine grosbeak

I enjoy watching both bird species at the feeder. A cup of coffee in one hand, my binoculars at the ready, and my camera with its smooth focusing 100 – 400 image stabilizing lens in the other.  Each day has its unique moments.

Unique experiences at Riding Mountain National Park in winter


Yurt at Riding Mountain National Park - 4 Seasons camping in comfort

Yurt at Riding Mountain National Park - 4 Seasons camping in comfort

Photo by Cate Watrous

The yurt in the Wasagaming Campground featured in the above photograph is furnished with comfortable and attractive furniture. Visitors need only bring their clothing, bedding and food – no fancy gear required! 

Canadians love winter. Oh, sure, we like to complain about the cold but it’s more like a comforting ritual than an out and out criticism. And most of us harbour a secret pride about the hardships we are able to endure armed with little more than a beat up old parka and a lively sense of humour. In the midst of the worst cold snaps, most of us are drawn outside for at least a taste of the biting cold and fierce wind. Then when temperatures climb back up to seasonal norms, we flock out into the sunshine with gleeful enthusiasm and speak earnestly of heat waves and of our great good fortune to live in such a remarkable place.

We are either really good sports, or slightly barmy. Regardless, many of us look forward to our winters because of the opportunities they offer to prove our mettle. Topping the list of ways to demonstrate how hardy we are, sleeping out of doors between Thanksgiving and the May Long Weekend has got to rank pretty high on the list.

Welcome to the world of winter camping. Many Canadians do not feel the need to give up their favourite outdoor adventure just because winter has arrived. So at this time of year, cold weather enthusiasts are able to indulge in a slightly cooler version of the traditional camping expedition.

And that’s “cool” as in “hip” and “trendy,” as well as “cold” and “frosty.”

Not for the faint of heart or the poorly prepared, this is nonetheless an outstanding experience for those intrepid souls seeking to try something a little out of the ordinary.

Proper planning is essential in order to make this experience as enjoyable as possible. The importance of food, shelter, and clothing increases tenfold once temperatures dip below zero.

The good news is that there are actually some things that are easier to manage in winter. Take refrigeration, for example: your food will not spoil in the heat. Campsites are plentiful. There are no bears. Disorderly neighbours partying loudly all night long are rare. You have a great excuse not to shower. Even a tent is optional.

Truth be told, your choices for accommodation are quite varied. For the “gear guy” who has a wilderness supply store bookmarked as his homepage, there are tents especially made for winter, although a standard three-season tent can be adapted to the rigors of cold weather with tarps and creative staking techniques. Or save yourself the bother of hauling anything to your destination; instead you could enclose a cooking shelter like the kind found at most campgrounds with hardware store poly and a staple gun. Several parks actually enclose some of their shelters in the winter months for this purpose. Or you could ski or snowshoe up to a friend’s rustic cottage and cozy up by the fireplace for the weekend.

Quinzees: snow homes

Are those options too tame for your boundless sense of adventure? You could always take a stab at building a quinzee which is kind of a hybrid between an igloo and a snow cave. And because of the great insulation properties of snow, you will be surprisingly comfortable in your little snow hut.

Quinzees are fairly simple to construct although they do take some time and an industrious nature. You start by making a pile of snow about 2m high by about 2.5m wide. Mix the snow by flipping every other shovelful before adding it to the pile. Then sit back and wait for the snow to “sinter,” or pack. The mixing of the snow in the piling stage facilitates the settling process which can take between one and three hours to complete. Some people like to make the pile one day and build their snow hut the next. After the snow has hardened, excavation can begin. Then with just a few adjustments for ventilation and ease of entry, you end up with a 1.8m round room with a domed ceiling and walls that are 30 to 45cm thick. Click on the following for some very helpful advice about quinzee making

Yurts: old idea, new application

If you are not a “snow palace” kind of person, you could always run out and pitch your yurt in the shelter of a convenient spruce stand. Yurt? Well, yes. I did say yurt.

Yurts are soft-shelled dwellings whose origins date back more than 2,000 years to the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. Mongolians call them “ger.” To Afghans, they are “kherga” or “jirga.” In Pakistan they are known as a “gher.” These sturdy, portable structures traditionally feature a cylindrical lattice wall topped with a conical roof made with poles, both covered by felt or skins. They are easy to dismantle, transport and reassemble. They protect their occupants from the same types of climate swings that we see here in Canada. And if you don’t happen to have your own yurt, you can use someone else’s: Riding Mountain National Park has one that they rent out year round to visitors.

Trip planning

A winter camping experience does require careful planning in order for it to be safe and enjoyable. Take the time to research your trip, let friends or park staff know of your travel itinerary, test your equipment and pack the essentials. You could even earn yourself bragging rights as a fabled “Adventurer of the Year” among your friends and family.

In Manitoba, there are as many months with snow on the ground as without. But even locked in snow and ice, the landscape still teems with life and it makes sense to get out there and enjoy the fresh air and wilderness that we are so fortunate to have in abundance out here. And in case you still need one final inducement to get you off the couch and out of doors to enjoy winter à la Crazy Canuck, here it is: NO MOSQUITOES!!


Earth Rhythms customizes winter day trips to snowshoe offtrail in search of wild mammals tracks, take part in a photographic safari, and other cultural experiences in the Riding Mountain area.