My Answer to the Age-Old Question

“So, what do you do?”

My barber asked me this common enough question a few weeks ago. In the spirit of small talk, I boiled it down to the most basic idea of what I’m doing for the summer; I look for turtles.

He gave me a look, a chuckle, and a feeling that he didn’t take it seriously. I couldn’t blame him. It sounds too silly and whimsical to be actual work, and some of the time it is.

But I’ll explain it a little better for you than I did for the barber.

Turtle Team

Chris crossing a creek

I am one of the four proud members of the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Turtle Team, led by David Seburn, CWF’s Freshwater Turtle Specialist. Our work is focused on the conservation of Canada’s threatened turtle populations.

This involves public outreach and education, reducing risks to vulnerable populations through:

Looking for Turtles

Looking for turtles in the wetland

The wetland surveys are carried out on Crown land or the private properties of landowners who are interested in turtle conservation. Once we arrive at the wetlands, we strap on our wading boots, don our bug nets, sling our binoculars around our necks and wade out in search of turtles.

Our focus is the Threatened Blanding’s Turtle. Our goal is to protect the precious habitat in which these turtles are found. To do this, we need to find a Blanding’s Turtle, take a photo of it and record where we found it. At this point, the wetland is officially protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Easy enough, right?

Well, what if I told you that endangered is usually synonymous with rare and hard to find. Also, wetlands are usually associated with biting insects – a lot of them.

Some days we spend six hours waist-deep in muddy water surrounded by legions of blackflies and mosquitos — all trying to get a bite out of us. The sun is beating down on our heads, but there’s no way of cooling off because if we remove any clothing at all, we just provide more banquet for the bugs to munch.

And that’s not to mention the ticks. It’s been a few weeks and one of us has already been bitten by a Deer Tick, which can transmit Lyme Disease (thankfully she was fine – always immediately seek medical treatment if you have been bitten by a tick!).

© David Seburn | CWF Staff
One of two Blanding’s Turtles that we found during an outing on May 10.

Even after all of that, many times we don’t actually find a Blanding’s Turtle. It can be exhausting and extremely frustrating work, especially when you know they’re likely there, we just can’t find them. But when you do find one of these remarkable creatures, the effort is completely worth it.

The Journey’s Not That Bad, Either

Tiptoe-ing through the cattailsThe places we go to survey are undeniably beautiful, ancient and teeming with a variety of plant and animal life.

I’ve seen a community of nesting Great Blue Herons, porcupines climbing trees, a family of coyotes, a ball of mating snakes, prehistoric-looking snapping turtles the size of manhole covers, and even multi-storied beaver dams! These places are magical, diverse and incredibly important, which makes the stakes for us to find Blanding’s Turtles and protect these ecosystems even higher. Upwards of 70 per cent of southern Ontario’s wetlands have already been lost.

Although most people have a romanticized view of fieldwork, at times it can be incredibly stressful, labour intensive and uncomfortable. It’s tough and dirty work. But it is paramount to turtle conservation, and someone’s got to do it. This summer it got to be me.

upload observations to inaturalist.ca
upload observations to inaturalist.ca

You can help too! If you see a Blanding’s Turtle please report it on iNaturalist.ca. You can find out more about our turtle work at HelpTheTurtles.ca.

Old Mountains, New Perspectives

Emily Hancock is a participant in Wintertide, Group 7 of the Canadian Conservation Corps. Before joining the CCC Adventure, she hiked the US Appalachian Trail in 2017 and the US Pacific Crest Trail in 2018.

Oh, Appalachian Mountains; clear waters, spontaneous swims, afternoon thundershowers, and grassy balds.

Snickers for breakfast and a bit of humble pie as the light dies down. A trail community – floating through each other’s lives – sharing experiences but only until we cross the next peak.

This was my experience on the Appalachian Mountains just over the border. They were where I fell in love with nature, developed my independence, learned to trust my instincts, and became self-reliant.

But up north, in the snowy mountains of New Brunswick with the Canadian Conservation Corps, I learned how to rely on other people again. And I realized that I don’t need – nor want – to always be self-reliant. I re-learned the value of the shared experience, going through the tough times together, and coming out of them stronger as a team.

Winter in the Appalachians © Emily Hancock
Winter in the Appalachians © Emily Hancock

I entered the CCC Stage One with visions of learning the skills and gaining the confidence to set out on a solo winter expedition. How to build a pulk, deal with the cold temperatures, travel and navigate winter conditions. I expected to battle the frigid cold, overcome difficult ascents, and gain the confidence to venture out into the snow on my own. While I can’t deny that waking up in a canvas tent with your sleeping bag frozen through taught me some useful skills, it pales in comparison to what I was able to learn from the members of  Wintertide, Group 7 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.I watched their leadership skills develop, witnessed them trying new things, pushing themselves up mountains, climbing out of snow holes, building fires to boost morale and come together to help each other succeed. I’ve met a group of people with different backgrounds and strengths. We’ve gone from strangers to good friends. We have different views but have learned to discuss our values and see other points of views. Yes, we’ve learned how to make a route plan; but somehow that doesn’t seem quite as important anymore.

A frosty morning at Armstrong Camp © Emily Hancock
A frosty morning at Armstrong Camp © Emily Hancock

When I stumbled upon the CCC program I expected to learn about conservation and how to survive in the winter. What I’m really taking away from this is that it’s okay to rely on other people and you don’t always need to do everything yourself. You can be strong without needing to know everything and there’s more beauty in a snow-capped mountain when you’re there with others.

 

wintertide © Emily Hancock
Wintertide © Emily Hancock

I came seeking independence but I’ve learned the value of interdependence. I can’t thank the rest of Wintertide enough for being open to the experience, giving it your all, and making the cold just a little warmer. Thank you for sharing your views and broadening mine.

Tides Come in High and Low, so Does Wintertide

Lisa Chen is a participant in Group 7 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

After a week-long debate, Group 7 of the Canadian Conservation Corps has finally decided on the group name “Wintertide.”

It was argued that it was the most artistic option on our list and that we will be making waves (hopefully) in conservation. What we did not realize at the time was how tailored the name was in describing our group and what we were about to experience.

Nothing could have prepared me for the first news Outward Bound Canada delivered about our CCC wilderness journey: this is a new adventure, we’ve never offered it before.

Pre-departure route planning. Photo by Lisa Chen.
Pre-departure route planning. Photo by Lisa Chen.

With quick lessons and briefings, we were plunged into route planning, food prepping, pulk making, and tent flooring. While I was extremely excited to learn new skills, I was also exorbitantly anxious about the consequences of various decisions that we had to make.

Eventually, the highly anticipated day came when we finally left the comfort of our 1.5 weeks’ stay at Chalet Restigouche and dove into the wilderness of Mount Carleton, N.B.

From the start, I could already feel some of the biggest challenges of our trip:

Snowshoes added extra weights to our feet and widened our gaits and with loaded pulks at our hips. “A walk in the park” has just gotten much more difficult. It also did not help that the weather decided to greet us with a -30C, so while sleeping cold, getting up to use the outhouse, then tripping over someone’s feet and grabbing onto the tent’s frigid center pole was absolutely miserable.

The lows then struck us periodically when moving days were unexpectedly long, everything was perpetually wet, and extremities were diurnally cold. However, through these difficult times, we learned many invaluable winter survival skills.

At the intertidal zones, we were slammed with various levels of challenges such as struggling with frozen peanut butter and jam bagels, crossing Nictau Lake with pulks while being blasted by arctic wind, hiking up Mount Sagamook only to sink in the snow even with hiking poles and slide backwards 3/4 step for every step forward.

Crossing Nictau Lake with pulks. Photo by Andrew Stokes-Rees.
Crossing Nictau Lake with pulks. Photo by Andrew Stokes-Rees.

Finally, the highs welcomed us with exhilarating feelings as we summited three mountains and rewarded us with gorgeous panoramic views of Carleton Park from different angles.

Like waves, every one of Wintertide came in different sizes, personality, and expertise.

Like tides, Wintertide would not have been complete and be able to survive this harsh winter expedition without each individual wave.

Like tidal cycles, every high and low was indispensable to our overall experience:

The highs were our dopamine at the end of our hardships, whilst the lows and the intertidal shaped us to become more resilient and grow closer as we become interdependent on each other to survive the ordeal.

It never failed to amaze me that everyone soon fell into roles of their strengths and many would work outside their duty roster and take initiative in doing whatever needs to be done, whether it was cooking, hydro, or simply delivering water and food to those in need. Even I, the self-proclaimed weakest person (physically) in the group, soon found important jobs as the navigator, route planning, and trip recorder.

Gorgeous night sky from Armstrong Basecamp. Photo by Samuel Hoffe.
Gorgeous night sky from Armstrong Basecamp. Photo by Samuel Hoffe.

Having survived this severe winter expedition, I am confident that Wintertide will be a tidal wave in all our future endeavours.

Learn more about the Canadian Conservation Corps.

Doing the Carlton

Harry Townson-Doucette is a participant in Group 7 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

I didn’t know what to expect going in to Stage One of the Canadian Conservation Corps (CCC) but I knew I wanted to experience new things.

I thought my life was in a rut but life brought me the CCC.

I saw an ad on Instagram with someone from Stage Two tagging or measuring a snapping turtle. I thought that was super cool and something I’d enjoy doing if I had the opportunity.

When we got the email of dates and flights, I packed my gear. I got on a plane to Thunder Bay, then to Toronto and then to Fredericton, N.B. to meet up with the rest of our group at the airport.  First, we went to the store for our food for two weeks then we were off to Kedgwick / Restigouche. We got to know each other while learning first aid training and team building. We met the Outward Bound team and learned about navigation, wilderness, snowshoes, and rescues.

We started off with a short hike to Armstrong base camp in Carlton Park spending the next two days figuring out how to sleep in the cold tent.

I had never seen a mountain living in Manitoba and now I’ve summited three in New Brunswick.

There were some valuable skills we learned with Outward Bound: knots, freeze dried food preparation, taking initiative in camp, food and water preparation. We did a day of ice fishing in Carlton park and I caught my first salmon there.

When we returned to Restigouche we took leadership and education training.

Learn more about the Canadian Conservation Corps.

My Solo Experience — Winter Camping Adventure

Simon is a member of Group 7 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

 The morning of solo, we had to indicate how comfortable we were going into the overnight camping experience in our own snow shelter.

Since it was supposed to be a much warmer day and night than our previous -20 to -30 nights, I felt confident that I could resist the cold. I opted to give myself an 8/10, trying to secure myself a spot with a lakeside view.

I started digging my trenches in a spot well covered by the trees. I saw a woodpecker knocking on nearby trees. It looked really cute so I stopped to observe it. Then it suddenly came really close and started knocking on my snowshoes. This made me smile and gain energy to go back to work. When I finish digging my quinzee trench, I felt confident, and was truly enjoying my experience. However, this was quickly about to change…

Since I was quite nervous about the idea of sleeping in a quinzee, I had already planned to make a secondary shelter where I was actually intending to sleep. However, as I was perfecting my cave to give myself more room to move, it suddenly all collapsed. I would now have to rely on my quinzee to sleep.

I had to work with my knees on the snow. I didn’t like that because it meant that my pants would get humid or wet. But it was the best way to go so I kept on digging. Then suddenly, my entrance collapsed. I saw that the quinzee was still big enough for me to fit, so I dug my entrance again and managed to go deeper. As I got about a quarter in, I heard my quinzee collapse by 1-2 cm.

Everything seemed to be all right as I made it to about half of my quinzee. But then, I heard the same noise that happened when my quinzee collapsed a ¼ of the way in. I instinctively jumped out, and a second later, everything crumbled. My quinzee had a huge crack right in the middle. In the frenzy I let go of my shovel which was still under the snow. I started digging in with my gloves, and luckily found it, as I feel this is the most important of all my belongings, and the only thing I can’t afford to lose. I’m now definitely not confident anymore and pretty scared that I won’t be able to spend the whole night out in the woods.

sled sleeping outside in winter

I started working on another sled shelter. I managed to make it long enough to fit me, so I try putting my sled on top. I gathered some pine tree branches and used them to cover the entrance to my cave. I put my sleeping bag in my cave and gave it all a try. As I got in, I felt pretty squished, but thought to myself, as long as I don’t move, I’ll be just fine.

As it was getting dark, I gathered a few more pine tree branches, and then settled in my shelter. I was too uncomfortable to take notes, so the only activity I had was my rubiks cube. After solving it once or twice, I decided to try to get some shut eye. I woke up, and it was completely dark. I had to go to the bathroom….

I tried everything I could, but still didn’t manage to finish the night outside. Today, I think that this experience showed me a lot about my character, and how I handle myself in difficult conditions.

Chickadees Lead to Owls?

Julien is a participant in Group 6 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

One day during my Stage 2 field placement I was assisting the visitor safety team of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve with upgrading the signage of an unofficial trail. As it often happens within our field unit, two members of the ecological integrity team crossed path with us on their way back from an amphibian survey. We were still exchanging pleasantries when Jonas, a walking encyclopedia for wildlife, squealed with his binoculars in hand. “OWL!” A northern pygmy owl, to be more precise.

“Where?”

“Oh, I see it. Hello tiny buddy,” excitedly followed a coworker while I continued to scan the trees aimlessly, feeling somewhat stupid.

Handing me the binoculars, Jonas ultimately proceeded to expertly describe the location of the tree branch on which the owl stood still 30-40 meters away—not a small feat.

At last, I could see. Stunning—probably my first owl sighting ever. A magnificent creature.

Impressed, I asked Jonas how he spotted the owl. It turns out he had not “spotted” the owl like I thought he might have had by chance walking down the trail. No, rather, he heard it. Or rather, he heard the commotion of agitated chickadees trying to mob the owl away. That’s how he knew to look up. I learned something.

“How do you know all those things?” I keenly asked?

His simple answer: he spends a lot of time outside, observing and attuning to signs.

Are you listening?

Power of the Pack: Reflections From A Wilderness Adventure

Brock is a participant in Group 6 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

I joined the CCC program to reconnect with nature and test myself. Stage 1 did not disappoint.

Sleeping in a tent in -30C and waking up in a sleeping bag covered in ice made me feel tougher, especially when the woodstove went out in the middle of the night. It is a story I look forward to recounting for my future grandchildren until they’re sick of hearing it, as I lament the state of “kids these days.”

Jokes aside, I learned crucial skills over the course of January from knots to shelter building, animal track identification to snowshoeing, and I feel more comfortable in nature than ever. I also developed a strong affinity for cedar tea.

Dogsledding in Ontario’s Algonquin Park for the first time was an experience I will never forget. Hearing only the sound of panting dogs and the crunch of snow on an otherwise silent and frozen lake is a beautiful feeling.

I was thrilled that my co-pilots loved the dogs as much as me, and somehow we avoided falling off the sled as we whipped around corners. I took a few videos before putting the camera away, because I knew I could not capture what I was experiencing.

I was impressed by the strength of the dogs, and it took considerable effort to hold them back on the brake. Back at camp, I enjoyed chopping massive blocks of frozen meat with an axe for their dinner stew. Hearing the dogs howl together at night was worth waking up for.

brock

I’m quite happy with the quinzhee we built, which fit five people comfortably, even though it was too cold to sleep in it per Outward Bound policy. We did sleep in a tarp shelter we built one night, which was a satisfying accomplishment.

By the end of our wilderness adventure, I found myself at ease knowing that we could have stayed out in the cold longer if we needed to. I felt more competent, I trusted my groupmates, and I experienced the value of teamwork in survival situations.

brock

It took a couple of days for my hands to fully thaw after the expedition, and I appreciated the feeling of being inside playing board games in a way I never had before.

More than anything, it is my fellow Pack members that stand out in my mind from Stage 1. In many cases, I think who you surround yourself with is more important than where you are, and my CCC experience so far is a great example of that.

Through a combination of lighthearted humour and mutual respect, we quickly gelled as a group. We laughed in all conditions, learned from our mistakes and powered through all challenges presented to us.

We solved the human knot in two minutes and 22 seconds, after several failed attempts. We snowshoed almost double the expected distance to our first camp and arrived in the dark due to unforeseen changes. We played games together, cooked, danced, sang, and roasted each other in a fun way. We cut wood together, made fires, and put out fires when needed.

In most groups that I’ve been part of, either through school or sports, there is usually some discord or conflict of personalities. I was pleasantly surprised to find that any disagreements in our group were solved maturely, immediately and respectfully.

I am happy to note that we all keep in touch from across Canada when we can. The Pack is strong.

A Refreshing Experience

Giuli is a participant in Group 6 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

I am so grateful for the experiences I got to be part of in my CCC adventure.

From building a fire to doing yoga on the lake, I will cherish these memories forever.

I remember when I was crossing the frozen lake while dogsledding. I started tearing up from how beautiful and special my surroundings were. I felt so alive in that moment and wanted to hold on to it forever! It was easily one of the best moments from the expedition.

When we finished one of our many hikes, the Pack decided to stand in silence on the lake ice. It was such a refreshing experience that was needed after travel.

When we came back from our expedition and had our first shower in 10 days… that was one of the best showers of my life. NOT A JOKE!

The people I met during stage one were the best people I have ever met! Each one had something special to bring to our group.

There were tons of laughs and smiles all around, there was never a dull moment in our group. I hope we can get together again.

The opinions expressed are those of the participant and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

New Friends in The Pack

David Freeman is a participant in Group 6 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

I have never met a more diverse group of people who are also so similar in my life.

As part of Group 6 (or The Pack as we call ourselves), I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life with some of my favourite people. Even in the short amount of time we spent together, I feel like I’ve known the other members of The Pack my entire life. I guess living together and camping together for a month will do that.

The first few days of the Canadian Conservation Corps program were a bit awkward because we were still getting used to each other. We’re lucky we had facilitators Tirian and Grant during this first week.  They definitely got us more comfortable with each other faster than we would have on our own. We did a ton of team building exercises and learned different skills to incorporate in our everyday lives and use on the ten-day wilderness journey that we were about to embark on.

We went winter camping in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. It was such an incredible experience. Stuck for ten days in the wilderness with no showers was a bit strange to me but I was able to get through it with all of my fantastic new friends! I hadn’t done a lot of snowshoeing in my life so when we got there and our leader told us we were snowshoeing six km into the bush my body already felt tired.

When we got to camp, I was so exhausted I just wanted to get to bed but of course we still had to get set up and make dinner. For some reason our equipment did not want to co-operate with us and it took us a much longer to make dinner than originally expected. The second day was much easier by then I was much more used to the snowshoeing and dinner did not take us nearly as long to make. By the time the end of our journey rolled around, I think we were all experts at winter survival, snowshoeing and dogsledding.

The last week that we were together I think there was a lot of relief from everyone because we finally got to shower again! Unfortunately mixed in with all of that relief was a bit of sorrow, knowing that we had to leave each other in only a week. By the end of the last week of our Stage One journey together, we had all bonded like brothers and sisters.

Hopefully one day soon we are able to reconnect and once again be The Pack in full.

All My Love

Lesley is a participant in Group 6 of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

I fell in love.

The brisk air – a chilled, analeptic voice of indomitability.

The artisan sky – an ever-changing masterpiece of endless wonder.

The angelic snow – a steadfast enchantment of mesmerizing glamour.

The stoic forest – a vast village of kin-shipped allegiance.

The spright dogs – devoted behemoths of genuine spirit.

The enlivening people – resilient stalwarts of admired prowess.

 

How thankful am I to be smitten by such endearing facets?

 

Each breath, giving me life.

Each view, giving me question.

Each snowflake, giving me fantasies.

Each tree, giving me grandeur.

Each dog, giving me honour.

Each person, giving me grace.

 

All my love for the places I’ve been,

All my love for the things I’ve seen,

All my love for the creatures in-between,

 

All my love, for all of you.