Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sudden Entropy

Physics was never my strong suite but I seem to remember that entropy refers to disorder in the Universe (and to the natural tendency of that disorder to increase).  Two days ago, while crossing the Great Plains, a large insect splattered on my windshield, leaving a yellow smear just below the visor.

Within a millisecond, chemicals that had comprised an organism capable of flight, sight, digestion and reproduction were now a lifeless film, rapidly drying in the sun and wind and soon to join the free organic and inorganic compounds that are distributed in our air, soil and water.  One day, perhaps next week or thousands of years from now, they may contribute to the structure and function of other living organisms (bacterial, vegetative, human or otherwise).

Indeed, life resists entropy, producing order from chaos.  Protected by a cellular membrane (or by a multicellular "skin") from the external environment and governed by genes, the chemicals of life produce the specialized structures and metabolic processes that ensure survival, foster growth and enable reproduction.  At death, whether the process is gradual or sudden, that protection is lost and the relentless march toward disorder continues.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tragedy on Mount Ontake

Japan sits at the intersection of four major tectonic plates, making that country especially prone to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity.  Indeed, subduction volcanism produced the Japanese archipelago as the Philippine and Pacific Plates have been forced beneath the Eurasia and North American Plates, respectively.

Two days ago, just before noon, Mount Ontake erupted, pelting the summit with rocks and up to two feet of volcanic ash.  A popular site for hiking, especially during the autumn color display, this 10,120 foot peak (125 miles west of Tokyo) was crowded with visitors at the time of the eruption; at least 36 hikers were killed and many more were injured.  Unfortunately, recent quakes in the area were not thought to portend an imminent eruption and access was not restricted; now, further eruptions are anticipated.

Direct evidence that tectonic activity continues to mold our planet, this tragedy is also a reminder that volcanologists cannot yet accurately predict when eruptions will occur.  Mount Ontake, long dormant and once thought to be extinct, had its only prior documented eruption in 1979 (though a minor one followed in 1991 and the release of steam was observed in 2007).  Individuals who live in subduction zones (Indonesia, the Aleutians, the Cascades, the Andes and others), those who reside near hotspots (Hawaii, the Yellowstone region, northern Arizona) and those who inhabit rift zones (Iceland, East Africa, the Rio Grande Valley) cannot become complacent, even after long periods of regional volcanic inactivity.  After all, our human lifespans are but an instant in the geologic and tectonic history of Planet Earth.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Cuivre River State Park

The West Fork of the Cuivre River rises south of Benton City, Missouri, while its North Fork rises west of Bowling Green; these primary forks join north of Troy, Missouri, and the Cuivre River continues to flow southeast and then eastward to join the Mississippi.  Just east of Troy, Cuivre River State Park spreads across the Lincoln Hills, bisected by Big Sugar Creek, a tributary of the Cuivre River; the latter runs along the southwest edge of the Park, where it has eroded steep bluffs of Mississippian limestone.

Acquired by the Federal Government in 1934 and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the refuge was initially managed by the National Park Service; in 1946 that Recreation Demonstration Area was signed over to the State of Missouri and has since become one of its largest State Parks.  Characterized by rolling, forested terrain, broken by lakes, prairies and stream valleys, Cuivre River State Park harbors karst features (springs, caves, sinkholes) that characterize much of Missouri.  Forty-two miles of trails provide access to the refuge, some of which are open to trail bikes and horseback riding.

Yesterday, as we arrived at the Park's Visitor Center (via Route 147 north from Missouri 47, east of Troy), a barred owl was calling from the adjacent forest.  On our hikes, which included the Frenchman's Bluff Trail, a portion of the Lake Lincoln Trail and a hike to the scenic Shady 80 Lake (in the Northwoods Wild Area), a variety of woodpeckers (pileated, red-bellied, red-headed, hairy and downy) provided a steady background chorus of calls and drumming, joined by the intermittent thump of falling acorns.  Unfortunately, as the afternoon temperature rose into the lower 80s (F), gnats became a major nuisance and, of course, we forgot the insect repellant.  Just another reminder that Midwest hiking is best enjoyed from mid October to mid April (a personal recommendation that I often fail to heed).

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Short Carefree Life

Walking to the University yesterday morning, I came across a young American toad, smashed on the pavement of our street.  Conceived during a watery orgy in April, he hatched within ten days and survived up to two months as a tadpole, dodging predators such as fish, water beetles, bullfrogs, aquatic turtles, snakes and herons.  Crawling onto land, he then made it through the summer, feasting on a wide variety of insects and invertebrates while escaping the notice of raccoons, hawks and terrestrial snakes, only to succumb to an automobile.

We humans, expecting to live 80 years or more, find the death of children and young wildlife especially sad.  Yet, most American toads live less than a year in the wild though, in captivity, they are capable of living 30 years or more; those lucky enough to escape accident or predation for two years are mature enough to breed.  This young toad, having lived for almost six months, had already survived six lifetimes of the flies buzzing about his carcass; were it not for an unfortunate misstep, he may have lived for five years and produced thousands of offspring.

It's a dangerous world out there, even without the added risk of human activity.  On the other hand, this young amphibian had no worries during his brief life; oblivious to the presence of predators and unencumbered by the anxiety, guilt, regret and mysticism that haunt the life of humans, his was a short but carefree existence.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gray Wolves in North America

Natives of Eurasia, gray wolves (also known as timber wolves) spread to North America via the Bering land bridge during the Pleistocene Ice Age.  By the time European settlers reached our Continent, these hardy predators had spread throughout much of North America as they shared the range of their favored prey species (moose, elk and bison).

Decimated by hunting, gray wolves were nearly extirpated from the Lower 48 by the early 20th Century; only a small population remained in northern Minnesota.  Protection was initiated in the 1970s and gray wolves were added to the Endangered Species List in 1974; better yet, in 1995, wolves from Canada were reintroduced in Idaho and in Yellowstone National Park.  Since that time, others have wandered down from the north, appearing primarily in the Great Lakes Region and the Rocky Mountain corridor; isolated sightings (usually of solitary males) have occurred across the northern U.S. and the U.S. population of gray wolves will surely increase in the coming decades (especially in areas with large populations of moose, elk and deer).  Indeed, in light of their success, gray wolves have been removed from the Endangered Species List (a decision opposed by conservationists); currently, the Canadian population of gray wolves is estimated to be 60,000 while, in the U.S., it is near 10,000 (2/3 of which are in Alaska).

While there have been a few sightings of gray wolves in New England, most wolves in southeastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. are eastern wolves, a species native to North America that has heavily crossbred with coyotes.  Leaner and smaller than gray wolves, eastern wolves feed primarily on white-tailed deer.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Eagles in the Fog

Following a chilly night in Central Missouri, banks of dense fog enveloped Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area yesterday morning.  As the fog began to lift and drifted toward the wooded hills, the scene mimicked that of a wildfire, with clouds of smoke shrouding the bluffs.

From those clouds, two adult bald eagles soared into a patch of blue sky, cavorting above the floodplain and giving every indication that they appreciated the crisp autumn air as much as I did.  Farther south, another bald eagle chased an osprey from the refuge and a fourth lounged in a cottonwood, watching a trio of pied-billed grebes as they dove for their breakfast.  Other sightings included northern harriers, great blue herons, great egrets, wood ducks, killdeer, belted kingfishers and restless flocks of red-winged blackbirds.

By mid morning the fog banks had burned away and bright sunshine bathed the refuge, highlighting the early autumn colors that paint much of the landscape.  Within a week or two the waterfowl migrations will commence, peaking in November as a diverse assembly of grebes, ducks and geese stop to rest and feed along the Missouri River.  Of course, the resident eagles are looking forward to their arrival as well.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

White Snakeroot

By late summer, white snakeroot begins to appear in our flower beds and along our wood borders in central Missouri, adorning the property through October.  This native herb, up to five feet tall, is characterized by pointed, oval-shaped leaves with serrated edges and showy clusters of tiny white flowers that each produce a small, dark seed.

Found throughout the eastern half of North America, the foliage of this plant is toxic to livestock, especially if consumed in large amounts or regularly over an extended period of time.  Its poisonous compound, known as tremetol, causes anorexia, listlessness, tremors and ataxia in affected animals; humans who consume milk produced by poisoned cattle or goats may also become ill (in some cases fatally).  Indeed, during the 1800s, thousands of American settlers may have died from "milk sickness."

Since we do not munch on the white snakeroot in our yard, we are not a risk from this toxic herb.  This is especially fortunate since it spreads by both seed and subsurface rhizomes, making the plant difficult to eradicate; those who wish to make an attempt are advised to pull up the plants when they first appear (i.e. before flowering begins in late summer).

Monday, September 22, 2014

American Mountain-Ash

On our recent travels through southern Quebec, American mountain-ash trees were abundant, their clusters of bright red fruit adorning both rocky hillsides and lake shores.  Unrelated to ash trees, mountain-ash is a deciduous shrub or small tree (generally under 40 feet in height), represented by 80 species worldwide.  American mountain-ash is native to the Appalachians, the Great Lakes region and eastern Canada while Sitka mountain-ash is found in the Pacific Northwest.

Mountain-ash is a member of the Rose Family, closely related to crabapples, wild plum and hawthorne trees. Their white flower clusters appear in late spring, after the pinnately compound leaves have fully formed; the bitter, bright red to orange fruit clusters mature by October and remain on the trees (unless consumed by wildlife) through the winter.

Deer, moose, fishers, red squirrels and snowshoe hares browse on mountain-ash while their berries are consumed by a wide variety of birds, including grouse, thrushes, jays and waxwings.  Humans have used the wood of mountain-ash to construct poles and barrels and the tree's vegetation and berries have been utilized for a variety of medicinal purposes. For most humans, however, as we found in Quebec, the primary gift of these attractive trees is the beauty that they bring to the the rugged landscapes of our northern latitudes.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Reptile Season

Reptiles, the last major group of ectotherms (cold-blooded animals) to appear on Earth, evolved in the Carboniferous Period, about 300 million years ago (MYA).  Equipped with protective scales and shell-covered eggs that could be deposited away from water, reptiles were able to colonize the drier landscapes of our planet.  Turtles and crocodilians appeared in the Triassic Period, some 200 MYA, in concert with the first dinosaurs and earliest mammals; current evidence indicates that dinosaurs, like birds and mammals, were endotherms (warm-blooded creatures able to inhabit colder regions of the globe).  Among the last reptiles to evolve were snakes and true lizards, both of which arose during the Cretaceous Period, about 100 MYA; some of these more modern lizards bear live young rather than laying eggs.

Early to mid autumn is often the best time of year to observe reptiles in the American Heartland.  Chilly nights make them sluggish, diminishing their hunting ability and forcing them to bask on logs, fenceposts, rock piles, trails or roadways to warm up in the morning sun.  In addition, they will soon be entering hibernation and meeting their nutritional needs becomes especially important.

For both of these reasons, reptiles of the Temperate Zone are more conspicuous during the first half of autumn than they tend to be in late spring or summer.  Box turtles appear on roadways, snakes slither across trails during our morning hikes, lizards scramble up fence posts or scurry across rock piles and aquatic turtles crowd stream banks or gather on dead limbs that jut from ponds.  It is, indeed, reptile season in the Heartland.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Pigeon Hawks

Merlins are small, powerful falcons that summer and breed across Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest and New England.  Heavier and slightly larger than kestrels, these raptors were once known as "pigeon hawks," not because they prey on pigeons but, rather, since the two birds have a similar appearance in flight.  Relatively uncommon in other areas of North America, merlins are best observed during the spring and fall migrations across the Heartland or in winter throughout the American West and Gulf Coast region.

Merlins prefer open, coniferous woodlands where they utilize the abandoned nests of crows, magpies or other raptors.  They feed primarily on songbirds and shorebirds, which they usually attack at high speed, but also consume large insects.  During the breeding season, pairs often hunt together; after the first scatters a flock of songbirds or shorebirds, the second zeroes in on an individual target.

During our recent travels in Quebec, I encountered more merlins than I have seen anywhere else on the Continent; while several were perched on trees or poles, one attacked a flock of sanderlings along the St. Lawrence Estuary and another streaked across a trail near Cape Gaspe, ambushing songbirds that foraged in the coastal thickets.  Once prized by falconers, merlins were significantly threatened by the use of DDT in the early 20th Century; their population has since rebounded and, like peregrines, they have begun to nest and hunt in northern cities.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Culture & Abuse

The domestic abuse that is causing a "crisis" for the NFL is certainly not unique to that organization.  Indeed, the scourge of abuse occurs in all segments of American society and in all cultures across the globe.  Most cases are not reported and, unfortunately, those that are may not be prosecuted.

While domestic abuse is widespread in human society, certain cultures tolerate its presence more than others; one might argue that some cultures actually encourage its practice, either by demeaning women and children or by refusing to criminalize the behavior of abusers.

Hopefully, the current spate of cases in the NFL and the initial missteps in dealing with them, will call attention to both the high incidence of domestic abuse in human society and to the legal and financial consequences of that crime.  The loss of millions of dollars in salary and endorsement income by those players convicted of abuse may discourage others from engaging in such behavior.  Ending domestic abuse in other segments of American society will take a concerted effort by law enforcement, health care professionals, employers and the friends and relatives of victims.  The decision to prosecute this crime must not depend on the willingness of victims to press charges and should ignore whatever "cultural norms" are proclaimed by the perpetrators.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Life in the Big City

After more than a week of exploring the spectacular landscapes and natural ecosystems of southern Quebec, we are back in Montreal, awaiting our flight to the U.S.  Montreal is a large city with all the amenities and challenges of a modern urban center.  As a naturalist, I relish the opportunity to visit wilderness areas, nature preserves and wildlife refuges but, contrary to what some may imagine, I prefer to live in a large city.

Those who live in large urban areas have a closer connection to other human populations across the globe; this results from both close access to modern worldwide aviation and the cultural mix of our cities themselves.  Of course, large cities also face a wide variety of challenges, including industrial pollution, traffic congestion, homelessness, strained healthcare and social service systems and urban blight to name just a few.  On the other hand, those who live in cities have the opportunity to participate in the resolution of those problems and to ensure that the freedoms of human society are in balance with the rights of the individual.

As one who is devoted to conservation, I know that the policies and funding so vital to that cause are generated in urban centers.  Furthermore, the urbanization of human populations serves to reduce our impact on natural environments, protecting them from suburban sprawl and the excessive utilization of resources such as trees and water.  I'll take the city with all its warts and challenges; hopefully, in return, unspoiled wilderness will be protected for both the benefit of humans and the welfare of natural ecosystems.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

West from Perce

Following our tour of Bonaventure Island, we headed west on Route 132, hugging the north shore of Chaleur Bay.We soon crossed the lowlands of the Gaspe Peninsula with its sandy beaches and summer resorts, devoid of the mountain landscapes that characterize most of southern Quebec.  Once we reached New Richmond, however, the mountains reappeared, angling in from the northeast and enveloping the west end of the Bay.

At Matapedia, we turned inland, climbing northwest through the beautiful Matapedia River Gorge that slices through the arcing Appalachian ridges.  After a night in Amqui, we continued north and then westward, headed for the scenic canyon of the Rimouski River, a protected landscape of towering cliffs, rich northern forests, cascades, whitewater rapids and an impressive suspension bridge that offers hikers unique views into the canyon.

From there our day got less interesting.  Attempting a short-cut to another National Park, we became hopelessly lost in a network of graveled logging roads.  Fortunately, a French-speaking road crew managed to provide us with vague directions and a hand drawn map; within another hour, we were back on a paved surface but far from our original destination (and we didn't even see a moose!).  On the positive side, we opted to spend the night along the spectacular south shore of the St. Lawrence Estuary; tomorrow we'll return to Montreal, completing our fascinating circuit through southern Quebec.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bonaventure Island National Park

Following a 24-hour delay due to rain and high winds, we climbed onto a crowded tour boat to Bonaventure Island National Park, off Perce, Quebec.  The island is renowned for its spectacular colony of northern gannets (the largest in North America and the second largest on Earth), which attracts serious birders and curious tourists alike.

Before docking at the island, the boat approached Perce Rock, a massive sea stack (an erosional remnant) just offshore, and then circled Bonaventure Island, providing close views of grey seals, the gannet colony and other seabirds; a few distant whales were also observed.  Once ashore, we joined parades of visitors along the trails before arriving on the east coast of the island where overlooks offered breathtaking views of the gannet flocks, backed by the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Such close access forces the visitor to accept the true nature of massive seabird congregations, including the incessant noise and the intense odor of dead fish, guano and decaying chicks.  One also encounters swarms of flies that descend on these colonies and the scavengers (ravens, bald eagles, gulls, red fox) that take advantage of weak, injured or dying gannets.  Though we understand that their behavior is instinctual, we can easily imagine that the adult gannets are relieved to escape this mayhem as they set out to fish over the clear blue waters of the Gulf.

Northern gannets arrive on Bonaventure Island in April and the chicks all hatch within a one month period, from late spring into early summer; by late September, these summer residents will begin to leave and all are gone by mid November, off to winter on the open ocean, from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Atlantic White-Sided Dolphins

On our last day at Forillon National Park, the winds had subsided and both Gaspe Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence were relatively calm.  We thus decided to take a whale-watching cruise and spent more than two hours off  Cape Gaspe.  During that time we saw a good number of fin, hump-backed and minke whales; the most fascinating spectacle, however, was provided by a large pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

Native to the cool waters of the North Atlantic, from the Mid Atlantic States to northeastern Europe, these sleek, gregarious dolphins complement the crisp, invigorating environment in which they live.  Adults weigh up to 500 pounds and may live for 25 years or more; mating occurs in summer and the calf is born 11 months later, staying with mom and nursing for up to 18 months.  Feeding in pods that may consist of sixty or more individuals, white-sided dolphins often feast in the company of whales, consuming squid and a variety of fish.  As with many species of dolphins, the presence of a boat seems to stimulate acrobatic activity, as it did today.

In comparison with the more southern, bottle-nosed dolphin, the Atlantic white-sides have a blunted snout and clean-edged black and white markings.  Since today's cruise provided my first exposure to these northern hunters, I hesitate to draw too many conclusions; nevertheless, they seemed to be more agile and energetic than their warm-water cousins.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Forillon's Spectacular Vistas

This morning, as yesterday's cold front pushed out to sea, bright, chilly sunshine bathed the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula and strong northwesterly winds raked the region, generating whitecaps across Gaspe Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Taking advantage of the cool, sunny weather, we opted for hikes to two of Forillon National Park's most popular overlooks.  The first was a 4 mile loop hike across Mont Saint Alban, 283 meters, which rises at the base of the Park's narrow eastern peninsula.  From an observation tower atop the peak, visitors enjoy a spectacular panorama of the Park and adjacent landscapes.  To the north is the rocky coast of Cape des Rosiers with its attractive lighthouse while, to the northwest, the Appalachian Chain curves along the coast of Gaspe Bay.  The rugged cliffs of Cape Gaspe loom to the ESE and the jagged coast and islands near Perce rise above the mouth of the Bay to the south.  Of course, one also enjoys a broad vista of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, plied by ships, whales and seabirds; unfortunately, no whales were observed in the turbulent waters today.

Our second hike, along the final two miles of the International Appalachian Trail, took us out to Cape Gaspe and its lighthouse.  From that lofty overlook, at the easternmost portion of the Gaspe Peninsula, visitors enjoy broad vistas of both the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Gaspe Bay.  During the warmer months, squadrons of northern gannets sail above the cliffs, on their way to and from their roost on Bonaventure Island; harbour and grey seals feed in the surf below and whale watching is a popular seasonal activity at the Cape.  On our return hike we encountered a half dozen porcupines, fattening up on berries before a long winter grips the Park; in two days at Forillon National Park, I saw more porcupines than I have at any other nature preserve in North America.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

East to Forillon

On this cool, rainy day, we headed east on Quebec Route 132, hugging the south coast of the St. Lawrence Estuary.  Curving southeast along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, we stopped at times to peruse the choppy waters where flocks of gannets dove for fish and mixed flocks of black guillemots and common eiders fed near the shore.  Ring-billed, herring and black-backed gulls gathered on the beaches while cormorants favored rock outcrops that jut above the sea; despite numerous attempts, we failed to spot any whales.

By early afternoon, we entered Forillon National Park, established in 1970.  The Park occupies the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula, lying between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Gaspe Bay.  The easternmost section of the Appalachians forms the backbone of the Park while sheer rock cliffs between Cape Bon-Ami and Cape Gaspe yield spectacular vistas and provide ideal nesting sites for sea birds.

Tired legs and the inclement weather put hiking on hold for the day but we enjoyed a visit to Forillon's Interpretive Center and surveyed the seascapes along the northeast coast of the Park.  Among other highlights was the sighting of three porcupines (at different locations in Forillon), apparently stirred from their forest haunts by the cool, wet weather.  Skies should clear by tomorrow and we plan a loop hike through the center of the Park; perhaps we'll encounter a moose or two.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Parc National de la Gaspesie

Driving east from Mantane, Quebec, one soon encounters side ridges of the Northern Appalachians, some of which end abruptly at the edge of the St. Lawrence Estuary.  At Sainte Anne des Monts, we turned south, climbing into the Appalachians via Route 299 and soon entering Parc National de la Gaspesie, greeted by a high wall of peaks.  After curving along the banks of the Saint Anne River, we stopped for hiking recommendations at the Parc's Visitor Center.

On our first day in the Parc, we hiked to the summit of Mont Ernest-LaForce, 820 meters, which offers a panorama of the high ridges; many of the peaks exceed 3000 feet and a few top out above 4000 feet.  After descending from that spectacular vista, we hiked to the western edge of Lac aux Americains, a scenic mountain lake, backed by a horseshoe of rugged cliffs and peaks.  Finally, an evening hike took us along the beautiful Saint Anne River, with its cascades, whitewater rapids and calm, clear pools.

Following a night at the Gite du Mont-Albert (the Parc's lodge), we set out for a loop hike this morning.  The first section took us across the eastern flank of South Albert Peak on the Serpentine Trail; we then descended through the scenic Diable Creek Valley to beautiful Lac du Diable before returning across the rocky crest of Mont Olivine (670 meters).  Red squirrels scolded us along the way and a variety of northern forest birds were encountered, including common ravens, black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos; of course, within a few weeks, many of these birds will trade the pristine mountain forests for suburban neighborhoods in the U.S., there to spend the colder months.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Parc National du Bic

Leaving Quebec City this morning, we headed east on Route 20 through a landscape of dairy farms and hay fields, broken by riverine woodlands and wetlands.  An hour into our trip, we began to encounter domes of early Paleozoic limestone, rising above the St. Lawrence Valley and poking above the estuary waters as islands of barren rock.

Further east, we entered Parc National du Bic, which stretches along the south shore of the St. Lawrence Estuary.  Trails lead down to the tidal flats where harbour and grey seals bask on the rocks and where a variety of sea birds feed in the shallows. along the shore or out on the deeper waters; among today's sightings were northern gannets, common eiders, great and double-crested cormorants, a red-necked grebe, great blue herons, semi-palmated plovers and a host of gulls.  After perusing the scenic bays, we opted for a hike up Pic Champlain which rises to an elevation of 346 meters and provides a spectacular view of the St. Lawrence Seaway, from the Parc National du Bic to the Laurentian Mountains, north of the estuary.

Following a night in Mantane (in a hotel overlooking the vast Fleuve Saint Laurent), we'll head inland tomorrow for a two day exploration of the Gaspe Peninsula's rugged backbone, the northernmost segment of North America's Appalachian Range (and the corridor for the International Appalachian Trail).  More on that saga in the coming days.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Tale of Two Quebec Cities

Our trek across Quebec, Canada, has begun.  Yesterday afternoon, we landed amidst rain showers in Montreal, which sits in the scenic St. Lawrence Valley, a landscape of lakes, meandering streams, floodplain farmlands and wooded hills.  Montreal, itself, is not unlike many large river cities in the U.S. and, despite its beautiful setting, has the usual mix of shining skyscrapers, artsy neighborhoods and industrial corridors.  We stayed in an old hotel along Rue Saint Dennis where a three-day street festival was underway, an annual celebration of the new school year.

This morning, we headed east on Route 20, destined for Quebec City.  The highway curves south from the St. Lawrence Valley, crossing farmland and moose habitat and offering views of the Adirondacks and Northern Appalachians to the south and southeast.  Quebec City, first established as a protected seaport in 1608, sits atop granite bluffs, north of the River.  Old stone buildings and narrow, cobblestone streets remain along the waterfront, now a mix of restaurants, pubs and shops.  An incline leads up to La Citadelle and Old Town Quebec, which are rimmed by a boardwalk that hugs the cliffs, offering spectacular views of the St. Lawrence Valley and of the Laurentians and northernmost Appalachians to the east.

Quebec City, though crowded with tourists on this mild, late summer weekend, is one of the most scenic urban areas that I have yet to encounter.  Clean and inviting, it is close to the fabulous natural ecosystems of both the St. Lawrence estuary and the Laurentian Mountains, not to mention the natural wonders of the Gaspe Peninsula that we plan to explore over the next ten days.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Nature of ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, destroys the function of motor neurons, nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord with skeletal muscle (muscles that are under voluntary control); it does not affect cerebral function or peripheral sensation.  Most cases begin with weakness in an extremity while about 30% begin with "bulbar symptoms," such as slurred speech or difficulty swallowing; in either case, the muscular dysfunction gradually spreads and eventually impairs the patient's ability to eat and breathe without artificial assistance.  The majority of ALS patients succumb to the disease within three years while some cases progress more slowly and a small minority of patients experience a temporary or permanent halt in its progression; ALS may develop from early adulthood through advanced age and, in younger age groups, is more common in males.

According to the ALS Association, the disease affects 2 in 100,000 Americans; about 5600 new cases are diagnosed each year and, at any given time, approximately 30,000 Americans have the disease.  Ninety percent of ALS cases are sporadic while 10% are inherited; several genetic abnormalities have been associated with the disease though their specific effects remain poorly understood.  Other clues to the pathophysiology of ALS are an increased concentration of glutamate in the brain and abnormal accumulation of specific proteins in the motor neurons, apparently reflecting defective transport within the neuronal axons.  The incidence of ALS is significantly higher in athletes and military Veterans, raising the suspicion that brain trauma or other environmental factors may play a role in the disease; indeed, the incidence of ALS in Italian soccer players was found to be 11 times that of the general population.

Many researchers suspect that ALS is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.  Genetic research, linking specific gene abnormalities to motor neuron dysfunction, likely offers our best hope for treatments that will prevent, ameliorate or cure this devastating disease.  Donations to support that research may be directed to the  ALS Association.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Focused Killer

Wildlife was not especially abundant or conspicuous at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, in central Missouri, on this hazy, late summer morning.  A few horned larks foraged along the entry road where a small flock of red-headed woodpeckers moved among the adjacent trees.  Within the refuge itself, great blue herons patiently stalked the pools, clouds of red-winged blackbirds roamed the grasslands, aquatic turtles basked on the remnants of drowned trees and a lone bald eagle surveyed the floodplain from the top of a cottonwood.

Then, as I rounded a bend, I spotted two raptors on the ground, apparently battling over something in the road.  As I pulled over and grabbed my binoculars, the smaller combatant, a sharp-shinned hawk, gave up and flew from the scene.  The larger one, a Cooper's hawk, remained on the road, hunching his back and spreading his wings to hide the prey and assert his dominance.  As I inched closer in my pickup, he began to yank feathers from the victim, a red-winged blackbird, before tearing into its carcass.  Determined to retain his prize, he seemed oblivious to my slow approach and did not fly off (with the meal in his talons) until I was within ten feet of the killing ground.

Those of us who regularly visit nature preserves know that the diversity and abundance of observable wildlife varies tremendously, often having little relationship to the weather conditions or the time of day.  Yet, we almost always experience some unexpected sighting that makes the visit especially memorable.  This morning, a determined and focused raptor provided that memory.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Laurentides of Quebec

The Laurentides, also known as the Laurentian Mountains, run across southwestern Quebec, from the area northeast of Quebec City to the region north of Montreal; the highest peaks are in the eastern section of the range, including the summit of the Laurentides, Mont Raoul-Blanchard (3855 feet).

Like the Adirondacks of New York, these ancient mountains crumpled skyward during the Grenville Orogeny, some 1.2 billion years ago, as the eastern and southern margins of Laurentia (proto North America) collided with other continental plates during the assembly of the supercontinent Rodinia.  During that period, the range stretched from what is now eastern Canada to Texas and northern Mexico; most of the range has since been obliterated by erosion and buried by younger sediments.  Of course, the Laurentides themselves were significantly diminished by the erosive power of the Pleistocene ice sheets.

A number of parks, resorts and wildlife reserves are spaced along the forested corridor of the Laurentides, offering a fabulous diversity of outdoor recreation.  Unfortunately, our upcoming travels will take us south of these mountains, though we will surely glimpse their eastern summits north of the St. Lawrence estuary.  The scenic ridges, sparkling lakes and whitewater streams of the Laurentides are reason enough for a second, future visit to Quebec.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The St. Lawrence River

The St. Lawrence River of eastern Canada flows northeastward for 744 miles, from the eastern end of Lake Ontario to the North Atlantic Ocean; however, the river's entire watershed is more than 2500 miles in length, from the streams of northeastern Minnesota through the Great Lakes and thence on to the Atlantic.

The basins of the Great Lakes were scooped out by the last of the Pleistocene Glaciers (the Wisconsin) as it plowed southward 70,000 years ago; as the ice began to retreat, the basins filled with meltwater and drained southward through the Mississippi River System.  Once the glacier retreated farther into Canada, however, the Upper Midwest rebounded from its weight and, by about 12,000 years ago, the Great Lakes drained northeastward via the St. Lawrence River.  Between Lake Ontario and Montreal, the young river's course is broken by numerous islands and rapids, forcing the construction of locks and channels to permit navigation from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes.  Below the narrows at Quebec City, the St. Lawrence begins to widen and deepen, entering an ancient geologic graben in the Precambrian granite; the vast Canadian Shield, scoured by the Pleistocene glaciers, ends along the northern shore of the river's broad estuary while the Northern Appalachians curve in from the south, terminating as the core of the Gaspe Peninsula.

In the coming weeks, my wife and I plan to explore the valley of the St. Lawrence, from Montreal to the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula.  We look forward to mild September weather, colorful autumn foliage, spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife (including, hopefully, a variety of whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence).  As an added benefit, I should get plenty of opportunities to practice my French.  A plus tard!