The wind has picked up and the snowflakes are thick and heavy in the light of our headlamps. The trees are shedding the loads of snow they have been accumulating all day, showering us with wet, heavy, mini-avalanches. Although it is not cold, we have a sense of urgency about finishing our work – we have a tricky ski back through the trees to the cabin, it is getting dark and the visibility is getting worse. But we are nearly done; the camera is in place, the malodorous lure is raised high in a tree, the barbed wire is coiled tightly around another tree’s trunk, and the skinned beaver carcass has been impaled head-down at eye level above the wire. It is a macabre sight, made more so by the swirling snow and strange shadows cast by our headlamps, but it’s just another day at the office for the dedicated scientists who are responsible for wolverine research in Canada’s mountain parks.
My Wife and I have been volunteers in Banff National Park for many years and have had the good fortune to be involved in many rewarding projects. We volunteer for reasons that I think are typical; we have a passion for the outdoors, a life-long love of wild places and wild things, and a concern for conservation and preservation of our wilderness. We eventually realized that perhaps we can do more than just enjoy the parks and that maybe, in some small way, we can contribute to their ongoing sustainability, vitality and continued availability for everyone to enjoy. The volunteer program provides us with that opportunity.
And what does the Wolverine Project hope to accomplish? In their own words, “our research will address for the first time the crossing structure design requirements of wolverines in western North America. Additionally, it will provide the first information on wolverine occupancy and habitat relationships in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks”. In other words, we don’t know how many wolverines there are in the parks, or how major highways effect the population. Important stuff.
Given that a small team of scientists must maintain over fifty bait sites across Banff, Yoho and Kootenay parks, most of which are accessible only by ski or snowshoe, and that they must each be visited monthly, it seems like a natural fit for volunteer help. When Tony asked us to help them set up a site in the Ottertail region of Yoho, we thought it would be a great opportunity for us to contribute while enjoying a little adventure.
The actual site is about a sixteen kilometer ski from the highway, so an overnight at a nearby Parks Canada cabin was arranged, and four of us (my Wife and I, Tony, and retired Parks employee Ian) set off skiing about mid-morning with full packs – including one frozen, skinned beaver. The snow was falling, but there had been someone in recently so trail breaking wasn’t too bad. We arrived at the cabin in mid-afternoon, and after getting a fire going to warm the place and having a snack and some warm tea, we headed out towards the bait site to replenish it.
The bait sites consist of a stinky lure that wolverines find irresistible raised high in a tree so the wind can catch and spread the scent, a tree with a frozen beaver nailed to it, barbed wire to snag wolverine hair for genetic analysis, and a motion-activated camera to capture the action as the wolverine tears into its tasty beaver snack. It took us a while to find the site, and by the time we did darkness was starting to fall and the snow and wind were picking up, but once we started work, it went quickly. The ski back through swirling snow and darkness turned out to be exhilarating, with our headlamps casting small pools of light in front of us, the shadowy pines looming around us, and only the sizzling sound of skis on snow and the wind in the tree tops to disturb the silence.
The cabin was warm and inviting, and a nice dinner (prepared by Tony), good conversation and a cozy sleeping bag followed. The next morning, after a fine breakfast, we closed up the cabin and skied the fifteen kilometers back to the waiting truck.
It might be just another day at the office for Tony and perhaps Ian, who did many research projects for Parks Canada before retiring, but for my Wife and I, a memorable, satisfying and unique experience.
Many thanks to Tony for allowing us to participate in a project that we think is very important for Mountain Parks and the preservation of the wolverine, and for the dedication and passion he and his team have for conserving our wild places.