Thursday, September 4, 2014

August Algonquin Tracking Weekend

This is the post from our second day in Algonquin......Day one post to come soon.....
Heading out for a day of tracking
On our second day in Algonquin, we decided to stay near the research station and explore the area on the far side of Lake Sasajewun. Again, we grabbed our life jackets and paddles and pushed out onto the water, with last night’s moonlit paddle still fresh in our minds. Too bad Alexis got the leaky canoe!

Fortunately, it didn’t take too long to arrive at the northern part of the lake; and in the grassy, boggy shoreline, we found lots and lots of tracks. There were heron, muskrat, raccoon, fox, and moose and wolf – our first of the apprenticeship! For the better part of an hour, we trailed the moose and the wolf, pausing occasionally to ask, “What made the track look this way?” The variation in the substrate – how squishy it was in some places and how firm it was in others – really affected how much of the track we saw, or if we even saw one at all. Several of us stopped to take measurements; this would be a much-journalled set of tracks!

Eastern Wolf Tracks
Both trails led into the trees, and we followed using our eyes and hands, putting our new debris-trailing skills to good use. Now bear tracks were appearing on the same trail; this was a multiple-species highway. And it wasn’t just for the large: Over and over again, we found mustelid scats deposited right in the middle of the trail, a potent reminder that Martens were in the area, too.

But it wasn’t just tracks and scat we were finding. Mark was picking up Blue Jay feathers wherever he went, and on one part of the trail, we found cones from some Red Spruce. Algonquin is on the westernmost edge of the Red Spruce’s range. They are much more common in eastern Canada.

After stopping for lunch on the trail, we doubled back and went uphill into a drier area of the forest. The group was bustling along as only trackers can when Alexis called us to a halt. There was a grouse tail feather on the ground, and nearby, a wing feather! Then another wing feather and some breast feathers! Taking the tail feather, Lee gave a short talk on how to tell if it had come from a male or a female grouse; then she showed us how well the structure of the wing feathers affected airflow. Guest tracker Sue got several feathery souvenirs from that spot!

Even though it wasn’t very late in the day, it was time to start making our way back to the canoes. We cut down across the forest back to the trail we had followed to our lunch spot. It took a little while to recognize it because the sun had changed its angle, and we really were seeing things in a new light. Alexis, Tamara, Ann and Lee found an old wolf scat, and when they dissected it, they pulled out what seemed like a dew claw. When they looked closer, they discovered it was actually the toe of an unborn deer.
Ruffed Grouse Feather Site

It was late afternoon and we had returned to our canoes. We had one last goal before paddling back to the research station: otter scat. Alexis knew from years past that they liked to use the big rocks at the mouth of the narrows as a latrine. He and Christina got out on the rocks to scout, and it proved fruitful. Piles of dried otter scat decorated the rock face, some speckled with reddish-orange crayfish shells. One specimen was placed on a paddle and passed around for the apprentices to examine. What did it smell like? Fishy, of course!

Too soon afterwards, we had put away the canoes and were sitting in the research station. Our gratitudes came quickly: our time in Algonquin, the animals we had seen, the tracks we followed, the moonlight paddle and the moon. Then there was a little packing up, cleaning up, lots of hugs and warm goodbyes. This was a fantastic weekend for us all, and I can’t wait to go back in February!
By:  Christina Yu - 2nd year Tracking Student

Urban Edible and Medicinal Plants Class 2014

We spent the last few days in High Park with the Urban Edibles and Medicinals course.  What a weekend! We started on Friday night with introductions to each other and to some wild plants. First was some plants made into teas, one with Lemon balm and one with Red raspberry.  Then we made some infused oils, breaking up some St. John’s wort that was harvested from a family acreage-great to be used in a healing salve for wounds. The flowers of Common elderberry were put into a tincture with some vodka, in preparation for cold and flu season in the winter. Alexis’ slideshow highlighted some key harvesting tips, especially the golden rule: “make sure you have 100% identification before you harvest something”. We also learned about some of the key medicinal plants in our area, including Burdock, Red clover, Dandelion, Coltsfoot and Milkweed.


Saturday started with a field guides primer, including how to use using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and what books were great to get started with. We set to the trail with our field guides and hadn’t even gone very far when we saw a broad-winged hawk just ahead of us on the trail.  As a jogger scared the bird from it’s spot, instead of flying away, the hawk perched right above us and ate it’s meal, likely a small songbird.  We continued along the trail and found some False Solomon’s seal, Wild sarsparilla, and Mayapple, as well as some other common deciduous forest plants. After lunch we considered why it is that invasive plants species like Garlic mustard have come to our areas and talked about making pesto with the stems. The day culminated with a Sit Spot and Fox Walk in a quiet forested area where we each spent a little time with one plant.  We walked out to our spot slowly, took our time coming back in and had a nice moment of contemplation before we shared some stories and ended with some gratitude.


Sunday was Harvesting Day! The morning started off with an excursion to harvest plants to take home with us. We made some teas from Red raspberry, White pine, Wood sorrel and Bee balm.  They were put on top of Alexis’ pick-up truck where lots of passers by were curious of the colourful glass jars as they steeped in the sun. A Sassafras tree was spotted as we started an afternoon walk with some tree ID, including some deciduous, opposite-branching trees like Maple, Ash, Dogwood and Horsechestnut. We looked at several pines trees and headed into a Black Oak Savannah, a unique ecosystem in these parts and a highlight of High Park.  Certain species grow here that are rare in Canada including the Cup or Compass Plant and Butterfly weed.  We did an awareness activity where we were challenged to find a plant that we had been introduced to while blindfolded –opening up our senses beyond simply using sight to get to know a plant.  Returning to the sun teas we’d made in the morning, we tasted them all, including some teas left out overnight-to see the difference in steeping methods.  There was a toss up for favourite tea between Red raspberry and the moon steeped White pine “Moon Pine”. We shared a round of gratitude before our circle broke for the day and we headed home, hopefully to dreams of Stinging nettle and Yarrow to keep ourselves motivated to keep working with the plants. 

Post by Alex Thomson - Earth Tracks Intern 2014