Notes from the Food Chain

Storm Clouds over Beaver Rock Cove, Lake Superior
Thunderheads over Steep Rock

Another guest entry from Ranger Tim, who keeps the bunnies coming back for more.

Aug 31, 8:00 pm

“Down at the beach to tend to the boats, I’m startled to find hordes of Blue Darner dragonflies zigzagging through the warm dusk air. These are imposing insects with 5-inch wingspans and irridescent bodies the colour of gun-metal. Over an average year I might see a scattered few dozen, but there are hundreds in the air now. At first I think it’s a copulatory swarm but the body contact is minimal. Turns out the aerial orgy belongs to another species, a familiar small red carpenter ant. The winged males emerge from the pupal stage all at once, and a lucky few will mate with one of the handful of queens which go aerial the same night. The dragonflies are picking them off midair, one by one, in a tremendous show of acrobatics and gluttony.

These are the same ants that have been noisily hollowing out the gable end logs of my cabin. About this time last year my cabin colony hatched inward and I spent a tedious hour with the ShopVac hoovering them alive out of the air, the wardrobe, and the bed. So I mix martinis and we go back down to the beach and root for the dragonflies.

Sept 2, 10:30 pm

Moments after relieving myself off the cabin deck, I’m sitting at the picnic table undoing my bootlaces. A young snowshoe hare lopes into the small cone of porchlight, nose and ears twitching. He is wilfully oblivious to me as he beelines for the little patch of asters and sarsaparilla that I have dampened. He starts mawing down the vegetation there, barely two paces from me.

At five minutes I find myself shocked at just how much roughage such a small animal can pack away so quickly. At ten minutes it dawns on me that he is in fact being quite selective. He snuffles around rather carefully from leaf to leaf, clipping and consuming only the most thoroughly urine-drenched of them. Cherry-picking, so to speak. The real soakers he just licks dry, presumably to stretch out the feast.

I wonder whether there’s some element in my emission that is scarce in his regular diet, a salt or an alkali or somesuch. Or maybe it’s just the good old-fashioned gobsmacking tang of ranger-piss vinaigrette that keeps the bunnies coming back for more.”

This time next week I’ll be watching dragonflies and drinking martinis with him. And peeing off the porch.

A Public Service Announcement

Another guest entry from Ranger Tim:

“This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome — there¬ís no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.” — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Cactus Ed wrote that during his season as a ranger in the sublime slickrock wilderness of Arches National Monument in Utah. Me, I’m privileged to be on my way soon to a summer’s work at my own most beautiful place.

Lake Superior Provincial Park covers 600 square miles of Northern Ontario forest and lake country. The land teems with bear and wolf and moose and beaver. It’s here that the most topographically and geologically complex expression of the Canadian Shield’s ancient bedrock is exposed along a moody, waveswept coast of the world’s largest freshwater lake.

It’s a landscape of profound aesthetic drama, and many visitors find that it speaks directly to a place in their souls, some very old place. Still, there’s always room for explanation, for unveiling of secrets; we who are entrusted with the stewardship of this unique wilderness are often called on to convey the deeper meanings and back stories in its natural and human history.

If you’ve spent time in large parks and reserves anywhere, you know that this work has traditionally fallen to the ranger/naturalist/guide, who’s walked every mile of trail, knows the name of every rock and tree and bird, and who can conjure in narrative the experience of the Ojibwe shaman, or the voyageur, or the trapper in the one-room cabin on a lonely cove, surviving his first winter alone.

But it’s gotten harder in recent years to get by on the old park interpretive staples of amphitheater slide shows, campfire storytelling, and guided walks. For one thing, operational funds in the parks service have been stagnant in the face of increasing visitorship and, in some cases, a swelling natural asset base (In Ontario, wilderness area under protection has in recent years leapt to about 13% of the province’s land mass — the highest in any jurisdiction in the world. As problems go, too much public parkland is a pretty good problem to have).

Then there’s the fact that young park staffers, passionate but perennially underpaid, face the temptations of a dynamic — and predominantly urban — private sector economy that can employ them year-round rather than according to the vagaries of the tourist season. So we suffer high staff turnover, which over the long haul robs a park of its most important soft assets: memory, knowledge, an unbroken thread of verbal tradition.

Before the tech bust sent me spinning back into the orbit of the parks service, where I cut my teeth as a naturalist in my early twenties, I managed software development teams for Fortune 50s, middleware vendors, and hot startups. It was in that professional incarnation that I was struck by the power and economy of using web-based tools to capture and present organizational knowledge and other information assets.

This summer I’m setting out to apply some of the same techniques to what is, at heart, just another information business. There’s a vast amount that’s known about Lake Superior Park, or any other public land asset for that matter, but it’s scattered and locked away in manila file folders, herbarium cabinets, racks of videos and 16mm films, shoeboxes of cassette tapes, and thousands of archive sheets of Kodachromes. And most critically, the minds of park staff and local old-timers who at any time may move off to city jobs, a mobile home in Lauderdale, or worse, some place from which there’s no return.

So I’m going to try and build the foundations of an institutional memory for the park using software tools like Wikis and weblogs and relational databases. No doubt it’ll take years, but my aim is that everything that’s known about the place, every tall tale and map and still image and video and sound snippet, makes its way into a searchable, ontologically-indexed, instantly retrievable digital form.

This central information repository will of course help future staffers efficiently do their job of conveying the significance and wonder of the park in their direct interactions with visitors. But I’m hoping we’ll also find a way to navigate the policy minefields and put the knowledge base into the public domain. The forests and the lakes and the coastline are after all a public trust, and so should be all the knowledge and stories we’ve layered over this landscape across the generations. Coming soon to an internet near you.

Anyway, enough of the utopian manifesto. Here’s the practical matter: Through a one-off windfall seeded by a former provincial government, we’ve come into some pretty first-rate digital media and computing gear. High-end DVR, film and flatbed scanners, video production workstation, fast Dell laptops. I’ve ponied up personal funds for hosting. And we’ve got a crew of bright, motivated, dynamic college kids on their way north in a couple of weeks. But we’re still tight on operating funds, and as is typical for government, what purchasing decisions there are happen glacially. So it may be a while until we get an allocation to buy the training materials I need to turn my staff into a crack media production and content management team.

Having watched over the shoulder of for some time now, I know that many of this site’s readers are accomplished designers, technologists, and digital mediamagicians. I am sure that many of you have shelves full of O’Reilly texts and the like that you have outgrown. Would you consider donating the dustier of your books to our effort? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of our training needs:

– Linux/*ux administration
– shells
– emacs, vi etc
– sendmail
– Apache
– Dreamweaver
– MySql
– Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, AfterEffects, Audition, Pagemaker

I realize that there’s a lot of good teaching material online but one of the consequences of being based out in God’s Country is the absence of anything but slow, intermittent dialup connectivity. So the dead tree editions, even if they’re a little out of date, remain the medium of choice for our learning.

If you are located in NYC, Toronto, Ottawa, or points in between, I can arrange pickup. Otherwise we might have to do things through the post. Just email tim AT finitor dot com if you have something you think we might be able to use.

I can’t offer much in return other than deep gratitude and modest recognition when we go live. My thanks to to all of you who’ve made it this far in the missive, whether you have books to give or not. And of course a big shout out to Dervala for interrupting her usual eloquence to provide me this soapbox.

“Desire is a treasure map. Knowledge is the treasure chest. Wisdom is the jewel. Yet without action they all stay buried. Hope is the pillar that holds up the world.” — Pliny the Elder


This is the Gargantua road at Lake Superior Provincial Park, wearing her winter coat. When I hiked the Coastal Trail in August, the hedgerow was thick with blueberries and mushrooms. Ranger Tim, who has a Voyageur’s heart and is slightly nuts, camped here this week and sent the photo as my Christmas card. It arrived with the greeting: “May Santa bring you the clarity of spirit to behold your blessings, and rejoice in them.”

I pass that wish on to you. I don’t find Christmas an easy time, which puts me squarely in the majority of over-sixes. So I’m grateful for this snowy reminder that today was the solstice, and it gets brighter from here.

Timber Wolf

Timber Wolf Ranger Tim is back at his soul-home, Lake Superior, and I am envious.

I’m just in from skiing to Frater. Only one face plant, on the long steep downhill from Frater Lake. I am sore all over, but feel great.

On the way in, about a half-mile from the highway, I rounded a bend and in the distance made out a tall grey shape stationary in the middle of the track. Though I’d never seen one before in the wild, I knew right away it was a timber wolf. I was sort of half expecting it, since Rick and I had seen spoor when we drove in earlier in the week.

I shuffled forward slowly until I was some 75 yards away, and he ambled forward a bit too, wondering what I was, apparently. We stood like that for about 5 minutes, just sizing one another up. He was the size of a large German Shepherd but with a wooly, delicate coat. I pulled out my camera and he immediately bolted back, like a Guatemalan cur after you’ve picked up a rock. He stopped again a couple dozen yards up the road, then when I began shuffling forward again, he moseyed casually into the trees.

I guess the thing that surprised me most was how mundane the encounter was. Some of the more romantic literature on wolves talks about something like a spark of atavistic recognition that runs between the species in this kind of one-on-one. Hairs standing up on your neck as the hunter-gatherer race memory kicks in! But all I could think was how much this critter came across like nothing more or less than a shy but dignified domestic dog. I understand now better than ever that the wolf genome lives on in dogs, and that all those centuries of selective breeding have only changed the veneer.