Hardisty Nature Trails

In the part of east-central Alberta where we live the land is flat, but 30 kilometres to the east, the town of Hardisty is nestled into the rolling hills of the Battle River valley. Hubby and I love to hike, so we were delighted to learn recently that a system of trails is under development in the area surrounding Hardisty. Of course, exploring them became a priority!

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In 2019, when the Hardisty and District Development Group was formed, they polled area residents asking what they wanted to see in their town. Brittany MacMillan, of BAM Fitness, was quick to respond. “More walking trails!” was her proposal. “We can get you the equipment and the manpower if you show us what your vision is,” she was told and from there the project took off. By October 2019, a map had been finalized, permission granted, and the cutting of trails began. By the following August, the final loop of the river trails was finished. Trail cutting, clearing deadfall, installing gates, building benches, and much more has all been done by volunteers from the community. Plans for this year include adding signage and extending the trails into more treed areas. Another loop is also in the plans which will join the river trails to two other loops including one that circles Hardisty’s nine hole golf course.

This morning, on what promised to be the hottest day so far this year, we set off to explore the river trails. If only a train had come by at just the right moment, this would have been a perfect photo!

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Though we were barely out of town, it seemed as if we were much further away. We were surrounded by nature and couldn’t hear anything but the occasional bird. 

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In those areas where the leaves are coming out on the trees, their brilliant green was striking against the bright blue sky. 

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In many of the open areas, leaves are just coming out on the silver willow bushes. In another couple of weeks, their strong spicy scent will fill the air. 

Trail maps are available at businesses around town, but I printed one from the Hardisty Nature Trails Facebook page. We got a bit confused at the far end of the trail and may have walked right off the map, but we were ready to turn around at that point anyway. According to our GPS, we walked exactly 5.0 kilometres (3.11 miles) in total. On our way back, we stopped and enjoyed our lunch sitting on this grassy patch beside the river. 

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We look forward to returning to explore the other trail loops at a future date. It’s wonderful to have something like this so close to home! 

My kind of birthday

If the weather permits and we’re not travelling, I usually like to play a round of golf on my birthday, but today I decided that I wanted to spend some more time hiking and kayaking instead. I just can’t get enough of the glorious fall weather that we’ve been enjoying and what could be better than spending it out in nature?

Big Knife Provincial Park on the Battle River is one of our favourite places within an hour of home, especially at this time of year. The campground closed in early September, but the park gates are still open which means that the hiking trails and boat launch are still accessible.

For today’s hike we decided to take a path less travelled. In fact, the trail that we chose doesn’t even appear on the park maps. I think it’s really just an animal trail that is occasionally used by humans. We first discovered it several years ago when we were doing some geocaching in the park, but we hadn’t hiked it again since then.

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The trail begins with a fairly steep climb to the top of the bluff shown above and then follows along the ridge. 

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Apparently, I took more photos looking back than ahead!

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The path eventually leads to The Hoodoos, a mini badlands area, and then joins the River Flats trail system . 

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If this is what 68 looks like, I’m good with it!

After hiking part of the River Flats trails and having our picnic lunch along the way, we headed for the river and launched the kayak. When you’re on a hiking trail, a river, or a lake, there’s no Covid, no politics, no racism, no hoaxes or conspiracies. There’s just you and nature; just beautiful peace and quiet!

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We spent three hours paddling. Every time we’ve been on the river in the fall, we’ve seen a blue heron. I always hope that we’ll be able to get close enough to get a good photo, but they’re very elusive, taking flight as soon as we get anywhere near. Today, it was almost as if the heron was playing with us. Every time we got close, it flew a short distance upriver and then appeared to be waiting for us to catch up. We never did get close enough to get the picture I was hoping for though!

This muskrat, on the other hand, was quite unconcerned with our presence. He was sunning himself in this same spot when we passed by on our way up the river. He slipped into the water and disappeared, but when we returned, he’d obviously decided that we were no threat and continued to sunbathe while we stopped to take his picture. In fact, if you zoom in, you’ll see that his eyes are even closed! 

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We got back to town in time to clean up and go out for supper. That’s definitely my kind of birthday… a day in the great outdoors and no cooking! 

Sharing spaces

Big Knife Provincial park, less than an hour from home, has become one of our favourite places to get away from the busyness of life. We’re just back from enjoying three days of peace and quiet there. 72 hours without cell phone or internet. No news. No politics. Just us and nature!

We certainly weren’t alone, however. We shared our camp spot with a very busy pair of yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I’m not an avid bird watcher, but these two piqued my curiosity and I had to do a bit of research as soon as we got home. Here’s what I learned.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a medium-sized woodpecker that breeds in Canada and the north-northeastern United States. It makes two kinds of holes in trees to harvest sap. Round holes extend deep in the tree and are not enlarged. The sapsucker inserts its bill into the hole to probe for sap. Rectangular holes are shallower, and must be maintained continually for the sap to flow. The sapsucker  laps up the leaking sap and any trapped insects with its specialized, brush-tipped tongue, and eats the cambium of the tree too. New holes usually are made in a line with old holes, or in a new line above the old.

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That’s Mr Sapsucker in my photo. His Missus looks almost the same except her bib is grey instead of red. With thousands of trees in the area, why they chose one in the middle of the campground, I’ll never know, but they were clearly quite comfortable sharing space with us. Apparently, our trailer was in their flight path between this tree and the woods surrounding the campsite, but Mr quickly took to flying directly under our awning even when we were sitting there! Thankfully, there were no collisions as he went back and forth all day long!

We also shared our space with chipmunks and squirrels who checked the site from time to time to see if we’d left anything edible lying around, and a couple of rabbits who just passed on through.

One of the things that we love to do at Big Knife is kayak on the Battle River. Yesterday, we discovered the spot where Big Knife Creek feeds into the river, so of course we had to explore it. The slow moving creek was shallow in spots, but navigable. We went as far as we could (up the creek with a paddle!) until a huge fallen tree blocked our pathway and we had to turn around.

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Pristine, untouched wilderness!

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We quickly discovered that even here we weren’t alone. This time we were sharing space with beaver. Lots of beaver! They obviously weren’t as comfortable as the sapsuckers were with the idea of sharing space with us though. As soon as we got anywhere close, tails hit the water with thundering splashes and they disappeared below the surface. I managed to get a picture of this one just before he gave his warning shot and disappeared from sight.

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One more time!

Every fall, regardless of how many times we’ve had the trailer out over the summer or where we’ve taken it, I yearn for one more camping trip. When September arrives, however, the calendar starts to fill up and it doesn’t always happen. The weather didn’t cooperate when we planned on going earlier this month, but this weekend we finally managed to squeeze in two more days of camping, hiking, and kayaking. Now I can clean the trailer out and get it ready for winter without regret.

Big Knife Provincial Park, located in central east Alberta where Big Knife Creek flows into the Battle River, takes it’s name from a native legend. Two hundred years ago, the Blackfoot and Cree who inhabited the area were bitter enemies. According to the story, Big Man, a Cree, and Knife, a Blackfoot, fought near the banks of the creek. Apparently, both warriors died in the battle. In spite of this somewhat bloody history, the park, which is less than an hour from home for us, is now a lovely place to retreat from the busyness of life.

After setting up camp on Friday morning and having an early lunch, we set off to hike the 4.7 km River Flats trail. Beautiful views like these ones whetted my appetite for getting out on the river!

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Unfortunately, it started to rain shortly after we got back to camp and we spent the remainder of the afternoon in the trailer playing crib! As we ate supper, the clouds parted again and the sun came out, so I decided to go for a quick paddle before dark. Richard’s back has improved, but he’s not taking any chances with it yet, so I was on my own in our son’s single kayak again. When I set off shortly after 7:00 PM, the river was bathed in golden evening light.

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Soon afterward, I accidentally took a wrong turn leaving the river’s main channel and I ended up spending most of my time in a shallower dead end backwater. That wasn’t all bad. The quiet arm of the river was bustling with beaver activity! I lost track of how many I saw and how many tails slapped the water when I got too close!

An hour after I set off, the river looked like this and I had to boogie to make sure I got back to the boat launch before it was too late to see anything at all!

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After breakfast yesterday morning, we ventured out to hike the park’s longer trail system, the 5.8 km Highlands Trail. This one climbs out of the river valley and follows a ridge above. I love this view of the meandering river below.

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The Big Knife trails are far from challenging, mostly level, grass covered, and well maintained.

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With the abundance of rain that we’ve had this year, everything is very green, a beautiful backdrop for the fall colours.

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The beavers weren’t the only ones busily preparing for winter. It seemed that almost every Canadian thistle along the trails had a bee busily gathering nectar and they were completely oblivious to me and my camera getting up close. There were clusters of little purple flowers everywhere and just as I stopped to take a photo of one, a bee decided that it wanted to be in that picture too.

In the afternoon, I was back out on the water. The Battle River flows so slowly that looking at it, one might wonder if it moves at all. The fact that I paddled upstream for an hour and a half and returned in an hour, even though I spent some of that time drifting, proves that it really does! The push ups and planks that are part of my daily exercise routine definitely pay off, but by the time I spotted the bright yellow buoy in the distance that marks the location of the boat launch, my arms were ready to say they’d had enough!

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Now we’re busy cleaning out the trailer and getting it ready for winter. If we do get out for any more hiking or kayaking this year, it will be as a day trip.

Back to school week

I loved seeing all the back to school photos on Facebook earlier this week. Here are three of our littles.

photos: Melaina Graham

The campground attendant at Camp Lake Park near Kinsella, Alberta was happy to take our “what retired teachers do on the first day of school” photo shortly after we arrived there on Tuesday morning!

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We had the campground almost entirely to ourselves and we thoroughly enjoyed the solitude. We spent Tuesday to Friday relaxing, reading, going for walks, and exploring the lake by kayak.

Although the colours of fall aren’t as spectacular here as they are in eastern Canada, I still find them beautiful, especially when they’re reflected on the water.

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While we were out on one of our walks, we came across this critter sunning itself on the grass.

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It barely flinched even when I got up close and personal with my macro lens.

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Thankfully, it was a harmless garter snake, the only kind common to this area!

This little chipmunk was curious enough to stick around while I snapped a quick picture too.

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We saw plenty of wildlife while we were out on the water. The ducks ignored us unless we got too close, but the Canada Geese set up quite a squawk if they spotted our UFO (unidentified floating object) anywhere in their vicinity! The lake was calm on Tuesday and Wednesday, but there was a strong breeze blowing on Thursday so we stayed close to the sheltered edge of the lake and that’s when we saw the most wildlife. The muskrats and beavers didn’t stay still long enough for me to get any pictures, but these three white-tailed deer watched us approach and only started moving toward the bushes when we got quite close.

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Now we’re home and unpacking the trailer as this was the last time we’ll have it out this year. On Monday it goes to Camrose for repairs as a result of the golf ball sized hail that hit while we were camping at Bottrel on August 1st. The insurance adjuster found a bit more damage than we had noticed initially, but thankfully it wasn’t enough to keep us from being able to use it for the rest of the season!

Real date

Since yesterday’s dream date post captured the interest of so many readers, I thought today I’d share a real date that Richard and I went on on a beautiful fall day. We live in a tiny town of just over 800 people. It’s a two hour drive from the closest major city and an hour from a town large enough to have a movie theatre and a choice of restaurants. If we lived in the city there would be a myriad of things to do on a date, but out here coming up with creative date ideas is much more challenging.

Known as a flip-a-coin date or a penny date, this concept is a simple one that works just as well in the countryside as in a city, perhaps even better. Here’s how it works:

  1. Pack a picnic lunch.
  2. Grab a coin. HEADS is right; TAILS is left.
  3. Choose a number. This will be the number of times you turn before you reach your destination.
  4. Every time you approach an intersection, flip the coin to determine which way you’ll turn.
  5. Once you reach the number that you chose in step 3, look around and find a spot to enjoy your picnic.

Since we didn’t want to spend our time driving around and around our tiny community, we drove to the nearest exit from town before flipping the coin the first time. The countryside in our area is criss-crossed with roads, most of them just a mile apart, so we chose a number large enough to take us some distance from town. Though I don’t remember for sure, I think it might have been 20.

We were hardly out of town when we stopped to watch a huge flock of snow geese landing on a pond. It was like a magical dance!

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As we wandered the backroads we passed a few old abandoned buildings including this one, the old curling rink which was moved out of town when a new recreational centre was built in the early 1960s.

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At one point, a right turn followed by three lefts in a row took us in a complete square back to where we’d been not long before. Fortunately, the next flip was a right and off we went in a new direction!

Soon after we made our final turn, we spotted a secluded clearing overlooking a field of ripening grain.

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It was a perfect spot for our tailgate picnic!

Now, with spring finally on the way, geese are flying overhead again. When the last bit of snow has melted away, the muddy roads have dried and leaves are back on the trees, I think we’ll try another flip-a-coin date. I wonder where the next one will take us?

Nature photo challenge

A week ago, a friend and former student of mine nominated me to take part in a Facebook nature photo challenge. The idea was to post one nature or wildlife photograph every day for seven days and to nominate one other person on each of those days to take up the challenge.

I am very much an amateur photographer. In fact if there was a word for less than amateur, that would probably be me, but I love playing with my camera and once in awhile I even manage to take a really great photo. I’m quite certain that that’s because I’m fortunate enough to live in the age of digital photography and cameras that make all the tough choices for me!

Accepting the challenge sent me out into that bright, sunny January morning with my brand new camera in hand. At -5ºC, it was unseasonably warm, and since I live on the edge of a very tiny town, a few minutes of crunching over the newly fallen snow took me to an area where it was easy to snap several nature shots. Next, the challenge sent me searching through my older photos for some of my favourites.

For those of you who aren’t my friends on Facebook, here are my seven selections:

#1   This is my favourite shot from that sunny winter walk. The seeds against the brilliant blue sky hold hope of spring and new life to come. 

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#2   This one was taken on a hike in the hills near Hardisty, Alberta in late September.

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#3   I’ve always said that you can take the girl away from the ocean, but you can’t take the sea salt out of her blood! A series of nature photos from me wouldn’t be complete without at least one ocean scene. This one was taken at Porteau Cove Provincial Park on Howe Sound, just a short drive north of Vancouver, BC.

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#4   This is probably my all time favourite macro photo.

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#5   I love the colours of fall. Though they’re more subdued here on the prairie than in some other parts of Canada, there’s still much beauty to be found at that time of year. This one was taken on a hike near Gwynne, Alberta.

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#6   I wanted to include at least one photo from our international travels in this series, so here’s The Old Man By The Sea on the Pacific island of Saipan.

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#7   Choosing the final picture for this seven day challenge was difficult as there were so many possibilities! I finally chose this one because nature isn’t always beautiful scenery. Sometimes it’s weird & wacky creatures like this mantis that  I also photographed on the island of Saipan!

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All of these photos were taken with easy to use Canon point and shoot cameras.

Springtime in Alberta

I’m suffering from severe envy. The day before yesterday was, of course, officially the first day of spring. Over the past few days, I’ve read several blogs celebrating the joys of the season each one complete with gorgeous pictures of flowers and trees in bloom.

Though I’ve never been to the Netherlands, I immediately think of tulips when I think of that country so it was no surprise to me when many of Malou’s colourful blooms were of that variety. She’s the writer of Going Dutch and a fabulous photographer. Caroline writes From a Tuscan Villa but her beautiful pictures of plum trees and magnolias in bloom reminded me of springtime in Japan. Even Maggie in Ontario has been posting gorgeous pictures of spring flowers on her blog, Living Life in Glorious Colour.

Why am I so jealous? Well, see for yourself. Here’s springtime in Alberta… our second snowstorm this week!

Very little colour here! This isn’t unusual for March in Alberta but is it any wonder that I’m dreaming of flowers and envying those who are already enjoying them?

Unlike the dry, powdery snow of winter, this time of year brings wet, sloppy snow heavy with much needed moisture. After a winter with very little snow, the farmers are happy to see it but I’d much rather it came as rain. Bring on those April showers please! And with them, a few flowers would be nice!