Mist and Forest Giants: The Carmanah Valley

20150805_174648_Richtone(HDR) PROCNote: All images are digital with a Samsung Galaxy S4 camera. Film images are awaiting development.

Nestled on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, there is a photographer’s paradise that, like some fabled Himalayan Shangri-La, lies forgotten and largely unknown: The Carmanah Valley. For several hours on a recent visit, I had the entire 16,450 hectares of this coastal rain forest preserve to myself. Yet this remote area is reachable – not easily, but with a little care and determination – in a few hours from the island’s metropolitan centers.


World’s Highest Treesit, 60m (180ft), Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island, 2004


Clearcutting Protest, Carmanah Valley, 2004

Thirty years ago, protestors chained themselves to trees and lived for weeks in perches 150 feet above the forest floor to create Carmanah Wallbran Provincial Park (https://en.wikipedia.org/w…/Carmanah_Walbran_Provincial_Park), protecting the Carmanah valley from loggers. Today this wondrous expanse of West Coast rainforest (see http://www.cathedralgrove.eu/media/Save_Upper_Walbran_Valley.mov), boasting some of the largest trees in the world, dreams on in a state of neglect. Largely20150805_162327 PROC 02unfunded and completely unstaffed, its only access road was, until a few months ago, overgrown with alders and prone to landslides, and its boardwalks are rotting and covered with moss. Most notices discourage any but the most adventurous:

“…the extensive trail network … has fallen into disrepair, which makes hiking through neglected areas dangerous for visitors and for the delicate natural balance of the ecological systems that comprise the wilderness park. The wooden boardwalks have completely collapsed in some segments of the trail and are succumbing to rot in others. Whole portions of the trails are inaccessible due to the ecosystem’s dwindling ecological integrity; both the protected reserve and non-protected adjacent areas are affected by industrial resource extraction projects such as clearcutting; ….soil erosion, tree blow downs and flash floods occur.”

This seems poor treatment for a reserve containing some of the world’s largest Sitka spruce (up to 95 meters tall and 800 years old), cedar stands up to 1,000 years old, and a unique coastal forest ecosystem.

20150805_162352 PROC

For two years and five trips through the island’s maze of logging roads, I studied forest maps, mused over Google’s satellite images, quizzed anyone with knowledge of the area, and searched for directions to reach this valley. My last trip in the winter of 2014 was stymied when two massive landslides blocked the road only a few kilometers from the 20150805_190928 PROCpark. This proved a blessing in disguise, as the road has now been cleared; the worst areas bulldozed and the encroaching brush trimmed. This would have been one hell of a job and I imagine it would have required an excavator brush cutter at the very least. That gives you an idea of the scale of the job.

August 5, 2015, I finally made it, my classic Mercury with its high clearance creeping up rock-studded roads and wallowing through car-sized potholes. 123km (76miles) from my door in Duncan, and the trip takes four hours without a sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle, with speeds down to 3mph in some rough areas – protruding rocks can puncture an oil pan, and hitting a pothole at excessive speed can easily break a standard car’s axle.20150805_190651 PROCReturning home, one must cross the island on a maze of logging roads in the dark with minimal signage and no road lighting. It is easy to hit a bear or deer; I saw five of the latter and one mouse on the way home, and elk wander erratically across the road near Youbou. However, the trip itself is worth it. Much of the road is in forest, but one passes majestic 20150805_132601 PROC LOWER RES maple groves past Youbou. Part of the trip parallels the river, and one briefly encounters the top end of Nitinat Lake where windsurfers can be seen, and the water taxi leaves for the north terminus of the West Coast trail.NITINAT LAKE PANORAMA Views from the ridges are rare, but one magnificent panorama of Nitinat Lake can be seen, and one short branch closer to the park spreads out a misty vista of the Pacific Ocean, accompanied by the muted boom of distant surf. 20150805_155830 PROC

Time only permitted a two hour hike, a couple of Graphic images (still in the can), and some cell phone photos, but the park lived up to its reputation. A magnificent primeval 20150805_164641 PROCforest, giant trees disappearing into the cloud in this place of rain and perpetual mists. I saw only one other car in six hours. Where else can one have an entire provincial park to oneself for an afternoon?20150805_171908 PROC

Despite the warnings, the few parts of the park that I explored were in good condition. The trail down into the valley was graveled and well graded. As always, I carried bear spray; this is the home of many bears and occasional cougars, and one is an uninvited visitor. Boardwalks in the floor of the valley were mossy but otherwise seemed intact. I did not make it to, or past, the Randy Stoltmann Memorial grove; that is for the next trip.

20150805_174921 PROC 02

Carmanah Forest, Vertical Panorama. Samsung Galaxy 4 phone camera scanning vertically downward.

The greatest challenge to photography in such a setting is the complete inadequacy of photographic equipment to capture the sheer scope of the landscape, no matter what vintage of equipment one is using. Here, a classic medium-format press or field camera with tilt and swing may present some advantages over even a good digital camera. However, technology does present an advantage in this setting – I experimented with using my Samsung cell phone camera to do vertical panoramas, which are almost never used. This technique allowed a single sky-to-forest floor image, and the resulting distortion seemed to accentuate the enormous vertical perspective of the forest.20150805_184825 PROCThe forest floor is carpeted with fern groves and even graveled trails are overgrown with lichen and club moss.The images posted here are only an imperfect first taste; I will be back. 20150805_200908 PROC CEOn the way back, I was blessed again with a sunset and the distant noise of Pacific surf from the outlook atop the spine of the mountain ridge.

MAPS: National Topographic Series map number 92, sheets C/10 and C/15.

Stoltmann, Randy. Hiking the Ancient Forests of British Columbia and Washington. Lone Pine Publishing, 1996.
Davey, James. “The Turbulent History of the Carmanah Valley.” University of Victoria Newspaper The Martlet, March 12, 2015. http://www.martlet.ca/sports-lifestyle/the-turbulent-history-of-carmanah-valley/.

At Home with the Dukes of Hazzard: A Pathologist’s Year in Appalachia

Appalachian Mist, Outskirts of Hazard, Kentucky

Note:  All of the images of Hazard are digital (Canon A610 point-and-shoot), as I did not have a vintage camera during that trip, and many pictures were lost when my hard drive crashed in 2007.  The photographs here are those that survived, and are supplemented with images from various web sites.  This article was written after I returned to Canada in 2007


Remember The Dukes of Hazzard?  There really is a Hazard, Kentucky (one z only, thank you), and I and my wife Janie spent the best year of my professional life there.

This seldom-visited corner of America struggles with poverty and unemployment, but has given rise to one of the richest cultural heritages in the United States.  However, I am not going to talk about the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains in the morning mist, or the spring wildflowers, or the bluegrass festivals, or the Appalachian handicrafts- they are all there, and they are rich and wonderful.   Instead, I am going to focus on the Appalachian people that I met and with whom I worked, their stories, and what they taught me about myself and how to live.  And along the way, I’ll share some images that may help to bring this little-known world to life.


Appalachian Regional Health Medical Center, Hazard, Kentucky

In February 2006, I accepted a six week assignment at the Appalachian Regional Health Service hospital in Hazard, Kentucky, a major rural medical teaching center affiliated with the University of Kentucky.  The six weeks stretched into a year full of experiences and stories.  Janie, whom I left in our new house with a garage full of boxes and no blinds on the widows, finally gave up and joined me.  She made nutritious meals in the tiny kitchen of our hotel suite, made friends, and became a counselor at the rape crisis center.


Hazard, Kentucky (Courtesy www.city-data.com)


Southeastern Kentucky lives on coal.  When the world buys coal, mine shifts run twenty-four hours a day, and families eat well.  When coal sells poorly, work is scant, mines close down, and Appalachian families go hungry.  Poverty and hardship are part of life in the mountains.  Often Appalachian towns aren’t pretty; old buildings are abandoned and crumbling, paint peels from ramshackle houses, and Wal-Mart is the premier place to shop.  Yet never have I met people who have a stronger sense of their roots, their family, and their faith.

Driving the narrow back roads around Hazard, I was puzzled to see how people lived in the “Hollers” – the islands of arable land between the mountains.  Used to seeing affluent  and working-class neighbourhoods in American and Canadian cities, I noted modern, large and well-kept homes next to log cabins or rundown mobile homes.  In each of these tiny communities, a rusty sign directed me to a cemetery on a hillside above each collection of homes.  Each cemetery was well-kept, and included only a few family names. Slowly I realized that these were family communities where one or a few families lived together, rich next to poor – a testament to the strength of family in these tiny mountain communities.  I learned later that many Appalachian people will endure the regional poverty and lack of jobs rather than give up their family connections.

Hatton Family Tombstones, Kentucky Graveyard (Canon A610)

Many Appalachian towns are tiny- a collection of ten or twenty houses, a gas station and maybe a store, tucked into the bend of the river or a corner of a holler between the mountains.  They have names like “Viper” or “Scuddy” or “Fourseam”.  Many houses are old, often representing old coal company housing, and people are obviously poor.  Yet in the middle of each of these little towns is a church with fresh paint, a parking lot without a blade of grass in the asphalt, and a neatly painted sign.  In a year in the mountains, I saw only one church that wasn’t impeccably kept.  Most mountain people have deep religious faith, and “family values” has real meaning.


Appalachian Coal Camp Town, Harlan County, Kentucky (Still image from the film “Harlan County USA”)


Appalachian Baptist Church, Cades Cove

In Hazard, I met the warmest, most generous people I have ever known.   If you do not greet complete strangers as you pass on the street, you are considered rude.  Family is unbelievably important.  The waitress at the local coffee shop supported herself, her mother, and a retarded sister by working two jobs.   I don’t know if there are old people’s homes in Southeastern Kentucky; I never saw one.  Elders are valued members of the family, and Appalachian people make great sacrifices to care for them to the end of their lives.

The man who installed computer cables throughout the hospital summarized it for me when he told me,”I left the mountains and worked construction in Florida when I was younger.  I was making good money, but I didn’t know anyone.  One day I asked myself what I was doing there, threw my tools into the car, and drove back to Hazard.  I lived my first winter in a log cabin with a leaky roof, and I cooked on an old stove I found, with coal I picked up on the roadside.  I didn’t have any money, but my aunt took me in and kept me fed.  Now I got me a little piece of land. It’s mostly mountainside, but it’s mine.  If you ain’t got a piece of land, you’re nobody.  If I get in trouble, I know someone in my family will take me in and feed me.  I got a nice little house, water from the spring, and my family’s here.  What more do you need?”

I thought about how many times I’d wished for a newer car or worried about my bank account.  I doubt that I will ever think about those things in the same way again. I learned more from the people of Appalachia than I could ever teach.


My experiences were rich.  During the day,I am a night person, and an avid photographer, so I do a lot of night photography.  I can be found lurking in churchyards at midnight, taking photographs of tombstones standing starkly in the light from a single street lamp.

Shortly after arriving in Hazard, I and my camera were out one night exploring Combs, a little town that climbs up the side of a mountain to an old cemetery at the top.  I paused to take a time exposure of one street that went up the mountainside between huge maples, their bare branches stark in the illumination of the streetlights.  I noticed people peering out of the windows of the house next to me.  I could see someone making a phone call, then neighbors arrived, and soon there was a group at the widow watching me.  Finishing my exposure and not wanting to alarm anyone, I went to the gate and began to explain my peculiar behavior to an elderly woman who was just leaving the house.  She snapped “I don’t hold with that kind of stuff” and stomped off.  I was perplexed.  This wasn’t the friendly Kentucky I was used to.

I walked up to the top of the hill, finding an old shack beneath an enormous maple tree, illuminated by the light of a single lamp- a wonderful picture.  By this time, I had acquired a pack of neighborhood dogs, who surrounding me, barking vigorously.  As I was setting up my picture, a man and a woman came out of a nearby house.  The woman held back, while the man approached, asking me what I was doing.  I explained, showing him some of my pictures.  He grunted and walked off.  Once more I was puzzled, not being used to this kind of reception.

The next morning, I mentioned to the lab manager that I had been in Combs, and asked if it was safe to wander around there after dark.  She replied, “Oh, you’ll be fine.  People are good to strangers.  They just shoot their relatives.”  Then she added, “But you know, there used to be an old shack up on the top of the mountain by the cemetery, and a drug dealer used to sell his stuff out of there”.   Apparently, this was where I had been taking my photographs.  In my Doc Martens and Eddie Bauer vest, I clearly wasn’t a local.  Obviously, I was either another dealer looking to set up shop, or a government agent.  Neither was popular in that town.

I later learned that shooting your relatives is still not an uncommon way of settling family disagreements in Appalachia.  Fortunately, I was not related to anyone in Combs.

On my time off, I would spend evenings and weekends hiking the many mining roads that crisscrossed the mountaintops near Hazard.  At the end of the day, I would sit on the mountainside on the steps of an abandoned coal processing plant, watch the sun go down, then hike down the mountain listening to the cacophony of frogs, watching the fireflies and searching for glowworms among the fallen leaves.  It was there that I heard my first whippoorwill.  I collected fossils, which are plentiful in coal country, and learned about Kentucky’s native plants.  One day, I brought home a beautiful little ivy, which lived for some time in a pot in my hotel room.  Unfortunately, when I took it to my office, I was informed that it was poison ivy and was made to take it home.  I felt rejected.  By this time, I was attached to it.  I smuggled it home to Canada in a box of books and still have it.

I love stories, and was delighted to find that storytelling was a rich tradition in Hazard.  At break time, the laboratory staff would sit over coffee, telling me stories about their families and colorful characters they had known.

To understand many Appalachian stories, it is necessary to realize that this area was largely cut off from the rest of the United States until the turn of the century, when the coal companies built railroads to service the mines.  Families lived in isolation, usually one family to a “holler”, with mule trails connecting communities, until well into the 1930s.  Families were close, and members of a community looked after each other.  Unfortunately, family feuds were also common, and were often settled with bullets and buckshot.

However, if there was a problem, the sheriff might not arrive for a day, and only after someone hiked over the mountains to fetch him.  Telephones were unknown.  For this reason, people in the mountains had to know how to protect themselves.  To this day, most households have four or five guns of various type and calibers, and many children learn to shoot and hunt as soon as they are old enough to lift a rifle.  I learned from the staff that the caricature of the Appalachian granny with her double-barreled shotgun has a strong basis in fact.  Many of the older ladies in the mountains have not forgotten how to use a shotgun, and are not shy about using it on the unwary stranger who wanders into their property after dark, usually before they ask for an introduction.

My favorite story was told to me by Arthur, the cytotechnologist, who was commenting on how much he missed his “Granny Lil”.

One Saturday night when he was eleven, Arthur was staying with his grandparents, and had just gone to bed.  He noted that the little road up their holler passed within a foot of Lil’s front stairs.  Around 11:00, a carload full of local boys, all drunk to the gills, wavered up the road.  As they passed Lil’s front stairs, they all yelled out, “Y’all sleepin’ up there?”  Lil, who was somewhat excitable, grabbed up her Smith and Wesson .38 caliber revolver as she headed for the door, saying to her husband, “They’re gonna to be robbin’ us next!”  On the porch, she turned on the light so that she could see to shoot better, and proceeded to empty her revolver at the taillights of the car as it disappeared around the bend.

A few minutes later, after the car had had to turn around at the end of the road, it reappeared and pulled to a stop about 75 yards away.  All of the passengers piled out of the car, and it was soon apparent that they were both drunk and armed.  The whole group quickly began to blaze away at Lil, who, continuing to take her stand under the light, was a perfect target.

Arthur’s grandfather was terrified, and yelled, “Get down, Lil.  You’re gonna get shot”.  She totally ignored him, and, standing under the porch light, proceeded to empty her revolver at the car, calmly reloaded, and emptied her revolver again.

Fortunately, all of the combatants were fairly safe, as the occupants of the car were too drunk to shoot straight, and Lil couldn’t hit the side of a barn in broad daylight.  After a while, everyone ran out of ammunition, the car drove away, and Lil went back to bed.

I said, “But what did the neighbors think of this?”  Arthur replied that every once in a while, their dogs would start making a ruckus in the middle of the night, setting off all of the dogs in the holler.  This was more often a coon or a possum than an intruder.  Lil would jump out of bed, seize her trusty .38, and, going out on the porch, would yell, “Who all’s out there?”  Receiving no reply, she would begin firing in the general direction of the noise.  The dogs would crawl under the house, and nothing more would be heard from them for the rest of the night.  Arthur noted that all of their outbuildings were liberally peppered with holes.

Hearing the commotion, the neighbors would sit up in bed, wondering if they should go outside and check on things.  Hearing Lil starting to shoot, they would crawl back under the blankets and go back to sleep, knowing that they we safe while she stood guard.  They dubbed her “Pistol Packing Lil”, and there was remarkably little petty crime for some distance around her farm.

It is thought-provoking to note that this all happened in the mid 1980s, only twenty years ago.  Some things in the mountains have not changed much.



Map of the Harlan Coalfield

Unfortunately, other aspects of life in the mountains also have not changed.  Mining coal is still a hard and dangerous life.  After many years of coal’s unpopularity as a fuel, prosperity is returning to the mountains, mines are reopening, and mining companies once again place ads in the papers.

This is, however, a mixed blessing.  Mines that have been closed for years are now reopening- with thirty year old equipment, and mine owners who skimp on updates, maintenance and safety training.  Accidents that make national news are infrequent.  Yet talk with the wives and the children, and you hear the personal tragedies- the back that is wrenched and causes lifelong pain, the wages lost for everyday injuries, the husband crushed in a roof collapse, or the miners killed in an explosion from defective gas baffles installed by poorly trained men.  You see them one or two at a time in the halls of the hospital- the men who are missing a leg, an arm or fingers, or limping down the corridor, or hobbling by on crutches.  Fingers and toes with lacerations, crush injuries, and evidence of complete or partial amputation trickled across the cutting table as I processed afternoon specimens.  Safety citations are issued, but in reality, companies pay fines, citations accumulate, and compliance is difficult to enforce.

These abuses are not new.  Much of the history of the mineworkers’ struggles in the 1920s and 1930s took place in Southeastern Kentucky and West Virginia.  Union organizers were derided as “Commies”, “Bolsheviks” and “Red Necks”, the latter term referring to the red bandanas that striking workers often wore.  With the collusion of local police, mineworkers were blacklisted, arrested, beaten and murdered.  The “Bloody Harlan” strike of 1931-32 was just that- bloody ( see “Bloody Harlan).”  In 1932, Jim Garland, a miner and union organizer, was forced to flee Harlan County and escape north for three months.  On his return, he composed the song “”Welcome the Traveler Home”, telling his fellow miners “…I was expectin’ to be put in jail… so I composed this song”.    One verse goes:

“…When I get back to Kentucky,
And I get my .45’s on,
There’ll be another Boston Tea Party
If they try to welcome this Red Neck home…”

Another old miners’ song from the 1920s, “Red Necks”, epitomizes the violence between scabs and miners:

“Red Necks, keep them scabs away,
Red Necks, fight them every day.
Now any old time you see a scab passin’ by,
Now don’t hesitate- blacken both of his eyes.

Red Necks, don’t admit defeat,
Don’t give up this fight.
We’re goin’ to win this strike
Things again are goin’ to be all right.
You’ve got to keep the scabs away!”

There was many an organizer who made it out of Hazard alive by burying himself under the load of black gold on an outgoing coal train.

The mine owners were not the only group the miners had to worry about.  Although exact estimates are hard to come by, the mob also had their fingers in the lucrative pie of Southeastern Kentucky.

John, my pharmacist and a long-term collector of local folklore, was a gold mine of stories of the old days in the Hazard area.  My favorite was his tale of Al Capone’s visit to Hazard:

“In the 1930s, the mob was very active in the mines.  There used to be an old rooming house across from the fire station.  One night, Al Capone, visiting to direct bootlegging and the mob’s other operations at the mines, spent the night in an upstairs bedroom.  Somehow, this news reached the Hazard police, who decided to apprehend him.  After gathering in force in the fire house, they rushed to front door with guns drawn.  Bursting though the door, they were met with a shower of high-powered bullets from a military-issue machine gun mounted on the stairs.  A fierce firefight ensued.  Finally, both Capone’s men manning the gun were dispatched, and the police rushed up the stairs.  To their consternation, they discovered that a rear stairway exited from the upstairs to the river, and Capone had escaped out the back as the police were shooting it out with his minions downstairs.”

On a lighter note, crime was not always a bad thing for Hazard.  A few years ago, a local arsonist did the city fathers a considerable service.  Driving down Main Street reveals a partial block of brick buildings gutted by fire, their shells punctuated by empty windows like eye sockets in a rusty skull.  One of these buildings was the old Hazard Hotel.  This establishment, besides being he only good accommodation in the 1960s, was also home to most of Hazard’s ladies of the night.  The loss of the hotel, their main place of business, significantly diminished the sex trade in town.  However, some of the ladies, undaunted by this calamity, purchased a small Winnebago and parked it down by the river near Al Capone’s old domicile.  The locals soon dubbed it “The Shag Wagon”.  It was a fixture of town for many years until business became too profitable, when it was finally closed down by local police.

With respect to the practice of medicine, I was continually challenged by cases usually seen only in tertiary care medical centers.  Despite hard-won reforms and better working conditions, coal mining still shortens miner’s lives.  I was told by one miner that the average coal seam in Kentucky is approximately two feet thick.  To extract the coal, many miners spend their shifts lying on the mine’s floor parallel to the seam, grasping a narrow cutting machine that gouges out the coal (see NIOSH information on seam height and injuries).  Each miner at the front of the cut is teamed with a partner.  Breathing apparatus is issued, but many miners do not want to have communication with their partner hampered in any way, as the price of a second’s delay in a collapse can be serious injury or death.  Consequently, the apparatus is not worn consistently, and miners still die of black lung.  We did the autopsies, and widow’s compensation not infrequently hung on the results of our work.

Not all the dangers are in the mines.  Health consciousness is simply not a part of the culture, the result of decades of isolation and limited access to adequate health care.  The population of southeastern Kentucky is second in the nation in diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Diet is an insurance agent’s nightmare.  Salads come topped with ground cheese, and fries are commonly eaten smothered in gravy.  At Franny’s Diner in Hazard, the appetizer list includes deep-fried cheese balls.  .Keeping up on one’s vegetables, however, is not difficult – the “Vegetables” part of the menu includes macaroni and cheese.  It also lists deep fried squash, as well as some items that I didn’t know could be deep fried. .  Bypass surgery occurs in the forties rather than in the sixties.  The majority of people smoke, having started as teenagers, and this exacerbates the effects of diet and coal dust inhalation.  Most noticeable is the incidence of morbid obesity; football-shaped women and, to a lesser extent men, are common.  Changing these attitudes is difficult, and I gained a profound appreciation for the power of cultural inertia.

I asked my own doctor, a talented and dedicated young family practitioner from a nearby county, where I could find a good personal trainer.  He just smiled tolerantly and informed me that, in his opinion, a personal trainer would starve in Hazard.

However, the mountain people accept hardship, illness and injuries as part of living.  Most importantly, death is viewed as a part of life.  One day, one of the housekeepers at the hotel, who had been briefly absent, mentioned that she had attended an uncle’s funeral.  I expressed my condolences, and then asked if his death had been sudden, or expected as a result of illness.  She answered, “Oh, I think he expected it.  He went and dug his grave two days before”.  I reflected on how death today can feel like a defeat for the physician, as well as the fact that a goodly part of the cost of medicine occurs as doctors or relatives push to prolong the last few months of life.  I hope that I can deal with the inevitability of my own death with this degree of acceptance and composure.

As a result of unemployment and poverty, drugs, primarily marijuana and Oxycontin, are a significant problem.  However, the dynamics of drug dealing are complex and different in the mountains.  The State of Kentucky receives considerable revenue from coal taxes.  However, these funds, like a river disappearing in the desert, seem to leach into the ground in the more affluent and vote-rich areas of the state, with only a trickle reaching the people who earn them.  This engenders considerable bad feeling, and there is a definite lack of loyalty toward the state government.  Many drug dealers fix roads and bridges, becoming an asset to the community, and receive protection in return.  After a raid on his house revealed ten tons of marijuana in a basement vault, the largest dealer in the county escaped in his truck up a creek bed and eluded police for months.  He was thought to have hidden in caves in the mountains and to have been supplied with food by his neighbors.  He appeared regularly to give interviews with local reporters, while embarrassed police hunted him fruitlessly.

I was curious to meet local moonshiners, who are a dying breed.  However, I abandoned any thought of sampling their product when I learned that it is typically condensed in old automobile radiators.  The only scientific paper that I found on this topic reported a depressing list of trace elements, heavy metals, and toxic hydrocarbons.

My own work as a pathologist was varied, challenging, and provided an education that I have not had since residency.  Fibrous knots surrounding deposits of coal dust were common in lung biopsies.  A textbook case of bronchoalveolar carcinoma crossed my desk.  The ovoid fatty tumor I received one afternoon weighed in on the pediatric department’s scale at five pounds, and sections revealed a liposarcoma.   Greenish lumps of tissue originated from a gangrenous scrotum; I have yet to understand how one can let one’s scrotum become gangrenous.  Opening a lump of skeletal muscle from the calf revealed a mangled bullet, the result of a family disagreement.  Careful measurements with my micrometer on several axes were averaged to .25 caliber, and this was duly noted in the pathology report.

Most surprising were the gastrointestinal biopsies.  At least one in twenty showed fibrotic deposits of coal dust in the wall of the small or large bowel, a testament to the amount of dust swallowed by the miners.  To date, I have yet to find another pathologist who has even heard of intestinal coal dust granulomas, nor have I found any reference in the literature.  I came to appreciate the price of our plastics and electricity.

Yet despite these hardships, the people retain their warmth, faith and ability to laugh.  One of the most rewarding and heartwarming aspects of my Hazard assignment was the easy humor of the lab staff.  I don’t think that I have ever worked with people with whom I felt more comfortable, and we teased each other mercilessly as we worked.

I should also note that Hazard, Kentucky was the true birthplace of The Dukes of Hazzard.  When the series was running, the Dukes visited every year to participate in the Fourth of July parade.  The courageous teen who jumped into a swimming pool to rescue a drowning child was named an honorary Duchess of Hazard.  Finally, Frank Gorman, who has been mayor of Hazard for more years than anyone can remember, drives a white Cadillac convertible identical to that driven by Boss Hogg in the series.  His wife has one too.  It is also worth noting that the entirety of the road winding up to his luxurious home on Gorman Ridge, high above the town, is kept mown by hand- at city expense.

With all its many facets of humor and tragedy, violence and spiritual richness, this year was a time of great personal growth, and I am grateful that being an itinerant pathologist allowed me to have these experiences.  I look forward to more travels with Janie and my camera, and now cannot imagine working in an office in one place.

Note: All of the photographic images in this page are digital.


Watman, Max.  “Death of a Moonshiner.”  http://www.gourmet.com/winespiritsbeer/2009/03/marvin-popcorn-sutton-death.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the December 2007 edition of LocumLife magezine; a full text version appeared in the 2009 edition of the King County Medical Journal.
Fo another author who beautifully conveys the “feel” of Applalachian life, try Kelli Haywood’s blog “A Mountain Mama.”

Golden Light – Visions of the Palouse

Palouse Falls and Canyon (iPhone panorama)

Nestled in southeastern Washington is an area virtually unknown to tourists, but known and cherished by photographers across North America: the Palouse. Covering 3-4,000 square miles, predominately in southeastern Washington, but including parts of northern Idaho, and (according to some definitions) northeastern Oregon, the Palouse includes some of America’s most unique and picturesque farmland. Also the site of one of North America’s greatest cataclysmic events, it presents ever-changing contrasts, with rolling croplands, historic weathered farms, sculpted badlands, and golden afternoon light.


Panoramic View of the Palouse from Steptoe Butte. Courtesy L. Suckow, 2006

Palouse vistas are of two types: farmland and badlands. Highways through farming regions pass seemingly endless dome-shaped, rolling hills, contoured with bands of golden, green, or yellow crops, with weathered farmhouses, silos, and barns peeking over their crests, and arcs of wheat rows or stubble. This area, beautiful in its unique colours and lines, is immensely photogenic, with a new image appearing over the crest of every hill. Inns and motels here are crowded every June when the crop colours are at their best. Fifty miles or a hundred miles later, the character of the land changes: the rounded hills become teardrop-shaped as if pulled like giant taffy; at the next turn of the road, enormous arc-shaped slices have been removed from these symmetrical domes, as if a giant sampled a box of chocolates. Driving farther, ragged coulees, canyons, and potholes appear, and the land looks as if it was scoured to the bedrock by a giant claw. These are Washington’s badlands, known as the Channeled Scablands, testament to a cataclysm of Biblical proportions.

Canola Field and Farmhouse near Colfax. Voigtlander Avus, Kodak VC-160

In either area, one of the most striking characteristics of the Palouse is its ever-changing nature. Return monthly or even hourly to the same hilltop, and you will find a different image with every visit. In early summer, the Palouse is a vibrant patchwork of rolling hills, covered by multicolored fields of green spring wheat and brilliant yellow canola; classic farms, silos, and barns dot the landscape as you can see a Trailside Horse Barn or a huge silo every couple of miles and narrow roads snake through the valleys.

Palouse Farm 01 CE Incr Vibrance

Palouse Farm. Voigtlander Avus, 105mm Skopar Lens, approximately f/16, Kodak VC-160.

Later in the year as fields ripen, greens yield to a palette of rich yellows, multiple hues of gold, and the full spectrum of earth tones . All colours and contours change as the light shades from the harsh spotlight of noon to the warm hues and elongate shadows of the evening sunset.

Palouse Fields Near Colfax, Voigtlander Avus

Weathered farms and silos dot the hills and valleys, and harvesters trace dusty lines of stubble across the golden fields. Fence lines, tractors, telephone poles, solitary gnarled trees, and windmills make dramatic silhouettes against hillsides and sky.

Palouse Windmill. Digital image.

When winter comes, vibrant greens and yellows yield to browns, greys, and blacks. Lines of stubble and tractor tracks meander across hills in curves just made for dramatic black and white images. In any season, zooming into one of these vistas reveals abstract images from converging lines of sky, field, furrows, and earth.

Palouse Fields 01 B&W

Palouse Fields and Sky, Voigtlander Avus, Kodak VC-160, B&W conversion from colour image


The pastoral hills and croplands of the Palouse hide a geological mystery, and the badlands, gnawed and scoured as if by the death throes of some ancient beast, are a testament to Nature’s capacity for savagery. This story, which unfolded unfolded over a half-century of academic infighting and dogged persistence by one tenacious geologist, dramatically changed the science of geology.

The Palouse hills themselves, dome-shaped and separate, are unique and very different from the ridges and weathered formations found elsewhere in the state. Formed over millions of years, they are in reality giant dunes, formed from wind-blown silt, or loess, probably blown in from flood plains to the southwest or originating from volcanic eruptions in the Cascades in prehistoric times:

Dust Storm in Eastern Washington (NASA Satellite Image). Courtesy NASA and Hidden Journeys.

Channeled Scablands, courtesty Tom Foster’s site, HUGEfloods.com

Yet covering hundreds of square miles north, west and south of the fertile hill country, large areas of central and southeastern Washington resemble a moonscape. The first signs are hills that are gouged, molded or contoured. Deeper into the badlands, the rolling contours are pocked with deep coulees, potholes, canyons and valleys. Soon the farmlands become a barren wasteland of rocky outcrops and canyons. This territory is a vast (estimated 1,500-2,000 square miles) region, gouged, eroded, and largely denuded of soil, known as the Channeled Scablands. Characterized by steep-sided, square canyons and flat-topped buttes or mesas, this unique region includes mysterious ancient rock walls such as Dry Falls, that are reminiscent of waterless cataracts dwarfing present-day Niagara.

Dry Falls (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The landscape is littered with boulders called erratics, some very large, and most structurally dissimilar to any nearby geological structures. Other dry features include plunge pools, eroded bowls at the base of dry cataracts, that are suggestive of ancient cataracts.

missoula1For years, these structures were considered to be the result of slow changes wrought by wind and water – at least until 1922, when the persistent, creative, and irascible geologist J. Harlen Bretz drove a borrowed Model T Ford into the area he was to christen the “Channeled Scablands.” An original thinker, Bretz quickly realized that these unique features, with areas scoured free of soil down to the basaltic bedrock, could only have been created by a flood of cataclysmic proportions. Publication of these ideas, described by one contemporary as an “outrageous hypothesis”, in 1923, sparked an acrimonious academic dogfight that was to leave Bretz embattled for the next 40 years. This story has become one of the classics of modern geology and has been expertly related in a number of sources (see HistoryLink and Soennichsen). Interestingly, Bretz never seemed that concerned that the source for this mass of water had not been determined.

J. Harlen Bretz (NPS Image)

The answer to this last part of the puzzle came in 1940 from the patient work of U.S. Geological Survey geologist J. T. Pardee. As quiet as Bretz was outspoken, Pardee spent most of his career studying the deep valleys of northwestern Montana, and in 1910, based on traces of ancient shorelines on the mountains of western Montana, postulated the existence of glacial Lake Missoula, with a surface area of 3,000 square miles and containing up to 600 cubic miles of water. At the dramatic conclusion of a 1940 meeting designed to debunk Bretz’s flood theory, he quietly confounded Bretz’s critics with his presentation on giant ripple marks, particularly in the Camas Prairie region, that could only be consistent with a cataclysmic prehistoric flood. Combining Pardee’s work on Lake Missoula with Bretz’s observations led inescapably to the conclusion that this lake had flooded the northwestern states, probably as a result of the failure of an ice dam. Aerial photographs and later satellite imagery silenced the critics, confirmed Bretz’s theory, and provided the basis for interpreting similar enormous flood channels on Mars.

The wall of water that raced across northern Idaho and eastern Washington is estimated to have been 2,000 feet high and to have contained more water than the combined flow of all of the present waters of the world. It smashed its way to the Pacific Coast, covering Oregon’s Willamette Valley and inundating present day Portland under 400 feet of water. Present theories suggest that this flooding process may, in fact, have happened many times.

Even more profound than the waters’ ravage of the northwestern United States, Bretz’s flood changed forever our understanding of geological processes. At the time that Bretz proposed his theory of a catastrophic flood, geology had for two centuries been firmly rooted in Charles Lyell’s theory of uniformitarianism, which postulated that all geological processes occurred gradually over time. Acceptance of Bretz’s flood introduced the concept of intermittent catastrophic events punctuating the slow progression of geological changes.


A Palouse experience should really start with camping at Palouse Falls State Park. Pitching a tent under the shade of a tree on this grassy bluff at the lip of Palouse Canyon,

Palouse Falls Campground (Courtesy LugNutLife)

one is in the heart of land once carved and gnawed by massive walls of water, yet today one is lulled to sleep by the gentle sussuration of insects and the subdued the roar of the falls. There are excellent photographic opportunities available from the viewpoint, as well as a number of hiking trails toward the head of the falls and nearby rapids on the Palouse

Palouse Falls, 6×9 cm 1950 Baby Crown Graphic with 65 mm Schneider Angulon, XP-2 at f/16. View from visitor’s center outlook.

River. The breadth of the canyon and falls lends itself perfectly to modern panoramic digital photography (see iPhone panorama above) or ultrawide angle lenses, but less expansive yet impressive images can be obtained with modest wide-angle or “normal” lenses on classic cameras:

Palouse Canyon Looking Southward, Voigtlander Avus with 105 mm Skopar Lens, Kodak VC-160

The canyon south of the falls is bounded by private land, and requires special permission to explore (see Foster, T.). One half mile northwest of the campsite, reachable by small dirt tracks running west from the camp access road approximately one-half mile north of the park, is a miniature badlands. Time your trip to coincide with the full moon; a moonlit hike through this area is an eerie and unforgettable experience.

The canyon and falls are by spectacular by themselves, but the surrounding landscape offers a palette of flood-altered contours, from rolling virgin grassland dotted with wildflowers to teardrop-shaped, flow-contoured hills, and multiple nearby coulees and canyons. One of the closest of these is HU Ranch Coulee, formed when the wall of water rushing down Washtucna Coulee to the north overwhelmed its banks, turning south and ripping HU Ranch Coulee and Palouse Canyon out of faults in the underlying basalt. The ranch was stunning and while we were there, we found some Ranch land for sale. After all, who wouldn’t want to own a ranch in the USA? It’s always been a dream of mine!

Afternoon light, HU Ranch Coulee, just north of Palouse Falls (Digital Image)

The rolling farmlands, colours, and wonderful light of the Palouse lie just north of Palouse Falls. From the park entrance, turn right and head northwest up the narrow, twisty contours of Highway 261. In a few miles, turn right onto highway 260/261 toward Washtucna after you stop and snap a picture of the grain elevator at the junction:

Grain Elevators, Highway 261. Ensign 820, Ilford XP-2.

From Washtucna, start your exploration of the Palouse by heading east along Highway 26 toward Colfax. From Colfax, turning northward on Highway 195 leads to Steptoe Butte, an ancient quartzite island jutting out of the Columbia lava flows, and one of the main Palouse_mapattractions of the Palouse. One of the few significant elevations in this area, Steptoe Butte is the site from which the most striking panoramas of this area are taken. Turning south on Highway 195 leads to the college town of Pullman, home of Washington State University.


Steptoe Butte (courtesy geocaching.com)

The country south of the Palouse farmlands also yields valuable images. Rather than heading north to Washtucna, from the Palouse Falls park access drive south on route 261 toward the little town of Starbuck. The highway winds down through eroded hills into the Snake River canyon, with its spectacular Lyons Ferry railroad bridge (also known as the

Lyons Ferry Railroad Bridge (wide angle digital image, black and white conversion from colour original, Canon 18-55mm, equivalent to ~28mm on 35mm camera)

Joso Trestle). The bridge, built in 1912, was at its completion the longest and tallest railway bridge in the world and is worth more than a casual snapshot. Although the views of its 240 foot pillars and 3920 foot span leaping the river’s valley cry out for a wide angle lens, dramatic views can be taken even with the more limited angle of a “normal” classic camera lens.

Lyons Ferry railroad bridge, Voigtlander Bessa, Skopar lens

Returning to the campsite, the Rawhide Grill’s sign was the only sign of humanity in miles of rugged, flood-ravaged hills and gullies:

Rawhide Grill Digital

For an exceptional view of the Palouse and the canyons, watch this video taken from an ultralight trike as it soars down the Palouse River (be sure to watch in Full Screen mode):


Most importantly, remember that the key to fully experiencing the Palouse (and finding unique images) is that destinations are not important. On two expeditions to the Palouse, I have set out for Steptoe Butte three times. I have never reached Steptoe Butte, and I do not have not a single image taken from this spectacular viewpoint. On each day’s outing, I have been seduced by the line of a furrow, distracted by a shadow sliding down a valley, lured by a glimpse of a barn, or sidetracked by one of the dozens of little roads winding off Highway 26. Experience the Palouse by getting lost. Wander. Pick a road at random and explore it. Wandering this way has led me to afternoon shadows, abandoned farms, field lines arcing up rolling hills, and fascinating shadows. There are images over every rise, and undiscovered pictures around every bend:ABANDONED FARM Digital 06Fields Digital 02 CEPALOUSE FIELDS DigitalPALOUSE EVENING 01IMG_2168SUNSET ON THE LINE - RAND COLLINS 300 DPI



(All digital images)


The majority of published Palouse images focus on broad vistas of magnificent scenery, yet this area is rich with rustic small details. Pause in small towns like Washtucna, a small farming hamlet with a pub, a modest number of houses, and an air of neglect. Do not hurry through these small, 1960s-style towns in your hurry to find the real “photo opportunities.” Stop. Look in back streets, examine abandoned stores and gas stations, muse over doors and knockers and peeling paint. Stand in the middle of Main Street and look at the view down the white line.

Wandering the sidewalks of Washtucna revealed this abandoned store, with peeling paint and a back room filled with shadowy objects dimly visible through the dusty windows:

“Sidewalk Closed”, Washtucna. Voigtlander Bessa, VC-160

Farther down the street, an old Ford truck partnered a weathered gas station:


Exploring farther afield turned up an abandoned barn on Highway 26. Wandering around brought me next to the side door, held closed with chains and a bar:


Looking closer at barns, I found this hinge against faded red paint on weathered wood:


Throughout the Palouse, there are thousands of details like this, just waiting for someone with a careful eye to discover them. Remember also the the Palouse is not just about fields and farmhouses. There are miles upon miles of prairie and grassland that abound with flowers in the spring and early summer:


Silky Lupine


And remember always that the key to photography is seeing. Learn to look, and when you look, try to see. Sometimes you need to come back to the same site several times before you really see it. Enjoy the vistas, but look at your feet. See the flowers and the grasses. Follow an ant. If you climb over a rock, look at the rock. I did, and discovered a palette of colourful lichen:IMG_2100


At the risk of sounding like a travel brochure, it is only fair to include the Palouse’s cultural life – this area is more than barns and fields and canyons. With three nearby major universities (Washington State University, the University of Idaho, and Gonzaga University) plus a wealth of local and regional artists, art, music, theater, and dance flourish. The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow is the largest educational jazz festival in the world. The Dahmen Barn in Uniontown provides studio space for artists and is a major teaching center as well as a prime photographic subject. Visit the web site of Alison Meyer, one of the area’s best-known photographers, for tips on photographing the Palouse. The first Palouse Fiber Arts Festival was held in 2014. Farmer’s markets, renaissance fairs, concerts, and even a Lentil Festival fill the spring to autumn months.


I would recommend the Palouse to anyone with an eye for images. Rarely have I found a region with this degree of photographic abundance. The dry climate preserves old wooden structures, and encourages vistas populated only by grassland and sagebrush. The builders of the California megahouses and overpriced ski retreats that dot previously-remote areas have not yet discovered this quiet corner of the continent. Virtually unknown to the general public, this unspoiled area is almost tourist-free.


Rand at Palouse Falls, June, 2013


Baker, V. “Joseph Thomas Pardee and the Spokane Flood Controversy.” GSA Today v.5. no. 9, September 1995. http://gsahist.org/gsat2/pardee.htm

Barlow, C. Lake Missoula/Scablands/Columbia Flood. http://www.thegreatstory.org/scablands.html

Bjornstad, B. “Erratic Behavior.” http://www.brucebjornstad.com/#!erratic-behavior/c66t

Bretz, J Harlen. “The Channeled Scabland of the Columbia Plateau”. Journal of Geology 31: 617–649 (1923)

Foster, T. “Discover the Ice Age Floods.” http://hugefloods.com/

Foster, T. Palouse Falls and Palouse River Canyon – Whitman County Side.’ http://iceagefloods.blogspot.ca/2009/10/palouse-falls-and-palouse-river-canyon.html

Glaciers of the American West Web Site. “J. Harlen Bretz.” http://glaciers.us/jhbretz

History Link.org. “Bretz, J. Harlen (1882-1981), Geologist. http://www.historylink.org/_content/printer_friendly/pf_output.cfm?file_id=8382

Idaho Public Television. “A Palouse Paradise.” http://idahoptv.org/outdoors/shows/palouseparadise/palouse.cfm

Lee, Keenan. “Catastrophic Flood Features at Camas Prairie, Montana.” Inside Mines Web Site. http://inside.mines.edu/UserFiles/File/Geology/Camas_red.pdf

Museum of the City. “Great Missoula Floods.” http://www.museumofthecity.org/the-great-missoula-floods/

Northwest Geological Society. “Ice Age Floods Through the Western Channeled Scablands.” http://www.nwgs.org/field_trip_guides/ice_age_floods.pdf

Royal Geographical Society. “Hidden Journeys. DENVER TO SEATTLE – The Palouse at 13,000m:A Patchwork Sea.” http://www.hiddenjourneys.co.uk/Denver-Seattle/Palouse/Highest/hjp.PAL.NASA.001.aspx?mode=image

Soennichsen, J. Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood. Sasquatch Books, seattle, 2008

Soennichsen, J. Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide: Explore and Recreate Along the ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail. Mountaineers Books, Seattle. 2012.

Soennichsen, J. “Legacy: J. Harlan Bretz (1882-1981). A Scablands Geologist Whose Theory Finally Won Out.” University of Chicago magazine, Nov-Dec, 2009. http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0912/features/legacy.shtml

Suckow, L. “Hills, Grain Elevator, and Little Yellow Plane.” https://www.flickr.com/photos/walla2chick/178199167/

U. S. Geological Survey. “The Carving of the Scablands.” http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/geology/publications/inf/72-2/sec5.htm

Washington Trails Association. “Palouse Falls.” http://www.wta.org/signpost/go-hiking/hikes/palouse-falls

Weis, Paul L.; Newman, William L. (1976). The Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington: The Geologic Story of the Spokane Flood.

U.S. Geological Survey. “The Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington” Articles. “The Carving of the Channeled Scablands.” http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/geology/publications/inf/72-2/

Wikipedia. “Channeled Scablands.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channeled_Scablands

Wikipedia. “Dry Falls.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dry_Falls

Wikipedia. “J. Harlen Bretz.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J_Harlen_Bretz

Wikipedia. “Loess.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loess

Wikipedia. Missoula Floods.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missoula_Floods

Witmer, S. “Palouse Loess.” http://epod.usra.edu/blog/2010/08/palouse-loess.html

The Old Make and Break

The Old Make and Break Engine, St. Brendan’s Island, Newfoundland

Once the bays of Newfoundland and Labrador echoed with the chug-chug of these trusty little engines as they patiently pushed dories out to the fishing grounds each morning.  Now they are largely silent, consigned to the garages of engine enthusiasts  and the flower plots of retired fishermen.

Built in the 1920s and 1930s, these simple “one-lungers” worked without spark plugs or high voltage, and could stand a soaking on a stormy day without stalling.  Firing at the top of the piston travel, they were the only gasoline engines that could run equally well forward or in reverse, and needed no fancy transmissions or gear systems.

This little engine carried a boat from Maine to St. Brendan’s Island, and came to rest on this bluff within sight of the Gooseberry Islands.  Perhaps it even carried some islanders to and from the tickle between the islands – we know nothing else of its story.

If you would like to see these engines in action, see these YouTube videos:

or listen to “Make and Break Harbour” by Stan Rogers:

“Make and Break Harbour”

How still lies the bay in the light western airs,
Which blow from the crimson horizon;
Once more we tack home with a dry empty hold,
Saving gas with the breezes so fair.
She’s a kindly Cape Islander, old but still sound,
But so lost in the longliner’s shadow;
Make and break and make do, but the fish are so few,
That she won’t be replaced should she flounder.

Now it’s so hard to not think of before the big war,
When the cod went so cheap, but so plenty;
Foreign trawlers go by now with long seeking eyes,
Taking all where we seldom take any.
And the young folk don’t stay with the fisherman’s ways,
Long ago they all moved to the cities;
And the ones left behind, old and tired and blind,
Won’t work for a pound, for a penny.

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few,
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten.

Now I can see the big draggers have stirred up the bay,
Leaving lobster traps smashed on the bottom;
Can they think it don’t pay to respect the old ways,
That Make And Break men have not forgotten.
For we still keep our time to the turn of the tide,
In this boat that I built with my father;
Still lifts to the sky, the one-lunger and I,
Still talk like old friends on the water.

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few,
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten.

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few,
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten.

Taken on Ilford XP-2 with a 1950 British Ensign820 folding camera using its superb Ross Xpres lens.

This photo is an excellent example of rescuing a quality image from an otherwise uninspiring shot by means of creative, and sometimes drastic, cropping.  The original image, which included a busy upper background, perplexed me, and this picture sat in my files for two years until I re-discovered it and attempted to emphasize the critical elements.  The resulting image represents only a small portion of the original scene, and is thus of relatively small file size, but it captures the relationship of the engine to the nearby rocks and field in an interesting composition.

The Boreal Forest

Poplars, October, Fort McMurray, Alberta

THEME:  We write articles about our pictures, endlessly describing lenses, techniques, and lighting conditions, but sometimes forget to learn about the subjects themselves.  Study your subject, and your subject’s story may be the richest part of your image.  Otherwise, it’s just another pretty picture.  I discovered this when I learned about what I thought was a pretty dull piece of forest.

Compared to my coastal homeland, with its drama of mountains, enormous Western cedars, plunging waterfalls,and miles of ever-changing beaches, Alberta’s northern boreal forest seemed uninteresting.  Miles upon miles of rolling trackless wilderness, with the occasional hill, creek, or gently moving river.  Much of it, flat and boggy muskeg swarming with mosquitoes in summer, is impossible to explore.  In between ridges of black spruce, tamarack and poplar, fields of waving grass and reeds conceal four inches of water over six inches of boggy sphagnum moss.  Underneath all lies two inches of muck waiting to entrap the incautious boot. Yet having lived in the boreal woods through three seasons, I am beginning to see it as a land of subtle beauty and decorous changes from place to place, with a marsh here, a meadow there, and patches of poplar alternating with forests of spruce, tamarack and larch.

Boreal Forest Poplar Glade

The northern boreal forest, or taiga, constitutes the earth’s large land ecosystem, consisting of a broad band of mixed forest surrounding the globe in the high northern latitudes, and encompassing much of Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.  Plant species vary, but in northern Alberta, this forest includes primarily black spruce, tamarack, and larch, with patches of poplar and birch.  Despite low annual precipitation (8-30 inches/year), cool temperatures and abundant fog limit sunshine, minimizing evaporation and supporting a damp and boggy environment.  Much of European and North American taiga was recently glaciated; receding glaciers have left depressions in the

Muskeg with Marsh and Ponds

topography that have filled with water, creating vast areas of lake and bog throughout the taiga.  As a consequence of the recent glaciation, these forests are young and biodiversity is low, with limited number of species in each plant family. Soils are heavily leached, nutrient-poor, and acidic, favoring the growth of mosses and lichen on the forest floor.  Wide temperature variations are the norm, with long, cold winters and short, warm summers.

Travelling the highways and muddy service roads around Fort McMurray, I struggled to capture the spirit of this land.  Many pictures of low hills, sunset lakes and megamachinery left me unsatisfied.  Fort McMurray was dusty and uninspiring.  My vintage cameras languished in the closet, and I snapped pictures with my Droid and little point-and-shoot, not wanting to waste film.

Larch Grove

All changed when fall arrived, and the dowdy forest donned her party dress and went dancing on the October wind.  Suddenly, poplars painted the hills with broad swathes of brilliant yellow and gold.  Late afternoons became luminous as the setting sun turned glades of poplar to flame-topped candles poised above the darkening forest floor.  Only slightly less brilliant, larch groves, hidden coyly among the spruce, flared into golden prominence.

As October  progressed, the magnificence of the treetops slowly dimmed, and I sadly took my last pictures of the sunlit poplar – only to see the forest floor come to life as it became the humble forest carpet’s chance to party.  As the cascade of color slowly fell from the treetops, the dull carpet of leaves  became a kaleidoscopic array contrasting with the clean gray of fallen logs and complementing the color palette of the low-growing forest

Bunchberry, Linnaeus, and Moss

plants.  The oranges and reds of fall bunchberry blazed against the greens of moss and twin-flower (Linnaea borealis).  The greys of lichen became an important part of the color

Alpine (Bog) Blueberry and Lichen, Engstrom lake, Alberta.

palette, highlighting the orange splashes of alpine blueberry.

Browsing even a limited part of this forest floor, it was difficult to find a bad picture.  Moving close to the ground brought into focus the curved, serrated edges of two leaves sitting

Two Leaves

atop the lines of a cracked grey poplar log.  Moving away to examine the broader scene revealed the mottled silver of  a birch trunk lying beneath a carpet of multicolored leaves.

Fallen Birch and Leaves

The most wondrous part of the boreal forest, however, lies invisible beneath the forest floor.  Mushrooms and other fungi form a prominent part of the forest community, and are frequently seen poking up between the leaves and jutting out of decaying logs and stumps.

Yet mushrooms are only the surface manifestation of an enormous, complex organism living in symbiosis with, and essential to the survival of, each spruce, larch, or poplar.  Each tiny root hair intertwines with complex meshwork of fungal filaments giving the tree

Mushrooms and Moss

enhanced access to water and nutrients:   “… fungal filaments or hyphae have an intimate association with the outside of small roots of trees and greatly assist water and nutrient uptake into the roots of these host plants. ….the fungal hyphae surround the root tips and

Puffballs and Leaves

invade between cells inside roots. These mycorrhizal hyphae are much finer than the root hairs, and greatly increase the surface area available for absorption of nutrients and water from the nutrient-poor soil. In addition, the glove-like covering of mycelium provides

Shelf Fungus on Stump, Fort McMurray Area

physical protection for the delicate root tips and also a barrier to the entry of soil microorganisms. In return, tree roots …. supply essential carbohydrates and amino acids … necessary for growth of the fungal mycelium and production of fungal fruiting bodies, the mushrooms…” (see “The Boreal Forest Ecosystem).

So the next time you take a pretty picture of a sunset lighthouse, think about the lives of the lightkeepers and their families.  Do some research.  Did the keeper save a sailor in the storm of 1885?  Did his daughter grow up the only child on a remote island, the wind and the gulls for her playmates?  You may find that the glow from the clouds is not just from the evening sun, but from the story that your picture tells you.

Note:  All images for this article are digital or Droid X cell phone images, as the few vintage camera photographs I was able to take in Fort McMurray are not yet developed.


Cripps, C. C.  “Mycorrhiza.” PNW Plant Disease Management Handbook.  http://pnwhandbooks.org/plantdisease/node/1805/print

Riesco, I. L. “Root Seeks Fungus For Long-Term Relationship.”  Taiga Rescue network.  http://www.taigarescue.org/index.php?view=taiga_news&tn_ID=1103.

University of Alaska, Fairbanks (Fungal Metagenomics Program).  “The Boreal Forest Ecosystem.” http://www.borealfungi.uaf.edu/education.html.

University of Wisconsin, Madison.  “Boreal Forests, Alpine, and Tundra Biomes.”  Online course notes, Department of Botany. http://www.botany.wisc.edu/courses/botany_422/Lecture/Lect13BorForTundra.html.

Wikipedia article, “Boreal Forest of Canada.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boreal_forest_of_Canada.

Wikipedia article, “Taiga.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiga.