Wildflowers of James River Retreat

This blogpost submitted by | Judy Roche with input from Donna Kanter

I spy with my little eye, something that is white and purple, there’s pink and yellow, orange, blue…

Ah yes, those beautiful wild flowers of James River Retreat — did you guess?

As we meander around the retreat, we are always greeted by our beautiful wildflowers. Some are so very tiny that you really need to look to see them — teenie violets peeking through our lawns and ever so dainty white flowers —  baby’s breath or perhaps mouse ear chickweed?? Following are a few of our summer time favorites.


imageBest known of our wildflowers is the Alberta Wild Rose. This rose was adopted by the Province of Alberta to be our official floral emblem in 1930. The bees and insects are friendly visitors to this flower spreading its pollen throughout the summer season and the rose hips are fodder for our squirrels, birds, deer and moose!
There are two little white flowers at James River than might easily be confused. The photograph on the left is a wild strawberry and identification of this flower is easily made. The wild strawberry typically has five petals and it’s leaves are split into three leaflets. You will see that each of the leaflets has teeth on its edge. These plants are creeping plants and have reddish coloured runners that grow on the surface of the soil.

The abundance of these lovely little flowers provides a strawberry treat for birds, particularly waxwings, woodpeckers, robins crows and starlings.  The leaves of this plant are munched on by deer and small insects and the spring flower provides nectar and pollen for bees and butterflies. Hard working – you bet!image

Our other little white wild flower is the bunchberry. If you look very closely at this flower you will see that the center contains a cluster of tiny mini flowers. Often you will see this flower around stumps or rotting wood and it can form a low growing dense groundcover. Later in our season it will develop bright red berries which are enjoyed by our deer, grouse and songbirds.

imageOf course you have noticed the dainty buttercup flowers — they like a more moist habitat. Take a walk almost anywhere in JRR and you will discover a beautiful meadow of buttercups along your way. There are typically 1-4 flowers per plant with each flower having 5 shiny, waxy yellow petals. The plant itself can be up to a metre in height and has a thin stem which sways beautifully in a gentle breeze. Children have long known that if you hold a buttercup flower under your chin on a sunny day, the underside of your chin will be bathed in yellow light! We tried this ourselves and it’s true!

Timagehe common paintbrush flower comes in an assortment of colours from scarlet to soft pink to a buttery white. We have a small meadow in the back of our property where we have all colours of this flower and they bloom in abundance. Our colours at JRR are more pastel than one usually sees in other locations in Alberta where the more common colour of this flower is scarlet.

imageHeart Leaved Arnica — Donna helped me identify this lovely wildflower – it is a new one to me! Its habitat is moist and dry wooded areas and is more common in the western area of our province. When you spot this lovely flower it will probably be solitary to a few stems — not overly abundant but it is out there. Its stems are hairy and it grows up to 60cm tall.

imageAn all-time favorite of mine is the avens, prairie smoke or old man whiskers. These nodding, burgundy colored flowers transform into fuzzy whiskers at the end of their flowering. This wildflower is one of our earliest blooming prairie plants with low growing, fern like green foliage that turns red, orange or purple in late fall.  Butterflies are attracted to this plant but they say it is not too enticing to deer.

imageYou will find wild vetch abundant at James River Retreat. It grows in open woods, thickets and meadows and is frequently seen on gravelly soil. It has 2-9 pea family flowers per cluster and it’s fruit is a smooth, flat pod with round brown or black seeds. Notice that it has forked tendrils at the end of each leaf. Vetches enrich the soil by building up nitrates and they provide good forage for livestock.

imageThe Mountain Death Camas is another plant that Donna helped me identify. This plant has waxy, white, six petal flowers with grass-like narrow leaves and is a member of the lily family. It is quite stunning in the landscape but do note that it is slightly poisonous to people and livestock.

imageAnd of course, how about those fabulous western wood lilies (wild tiger lily). This lily is the floral emblem of Saskatchewan and is becoming increasingly rare because of over picking. Picking this flower removes the leaves which in turn means that the bulb below is not fed and that means the plant dies. This plant also does not typically survive if it is transplanted.  So, the best bet is to sit back and just enjoy it’s beauty!

These are but a few of our beautiful wildflowers at James River Retreat. Don’t you love the sweet fragrance of the clover? And do look for the honeysuckle vine and the bluebells, the goldenrod, wild geraniums, yarrow and lupines. And dandelions, we’ve got lots of them too. Mother Nature’s Garden, it’s exquisite isn’t it!


Phabulous amPhibians!

Can you identify the JRR amphibian* shown above? If in doubt, here’s a great link to the Alberta Environment and Parks blog about Alberta’s Amazing Amphibians. It’s full of information on identifying Alberta’s species of frogs, toads and salamanders – essential to our healthy eco system — and talks about the importance of monitoring their numbers and protecting their habitat. There’s even a link to report sightings of various species.

This link came to us thanks to our cabin neighbour, Vince, who recently observed that our James River floodplain has plenty of frogs this year. (Maybe that’s why we have so few mosquitoes so far this summer – touch wood, touch wood, hope we didn’t just jinx things by mentioning the m-word.)

The amphibian in the photo above was spotted last summer but early this spring we observed:


A healthy spawn of amphibians-to-be in a small pond on the south side of the retreat.


And just last weekend we observed these thriving tadpoles in the JRR fish pond.

So, it looks like it’s going to be a great summer for evening croaking choruses, a welcome – and healthy – addition to the natural soundscape of the James River Retreat.

*Ready to try and identify the amphibian pictured above? Check out Alberta’s Amazing Amphibians once more and then click here to see what we think it is. Do you agree?

JRR Day Trip: Beaver Lake

Contributed by Ken Roche, this article originally ran in the James River News, a newsletter produced by the JRR Condo Association from 2005-2009. 

The intent of the JRR Day Trips column is to capture information on the wonderful destinations around the James River Retreat. Over time, if everybody contributes, this will become a great source of ideas of ‘Things to do’ for new owners to the retreat, existing residents looking for new ideas, and guests to your cabin who are not as familiar with the area. As the Roche clan enjoys fishing and kayaking, Judy, Ken, and Brad have all contributed to this little write up on Beaver Lake.

Ahhhh, those lazy days of summer…

They will arrive, and we can hope that will be sooner, rather than later. For those fishing, canoeing and kayaking, buffs out there, I’d love to share with you, one of our favorite spots of recent times. It’s so close to the retreat, it’s downright decadent!

Beaver Lake

A little pond just north and west of James River is perhaps about a 20-25 minute drive. The lake is a right hand turn about 3km past Burnstick Lake campground. You need to watch for the sign very carefully as it is easy to miss. If you hit the blacktop, you’ve travelled too far.

You can launch a canoe, kayak, bellyboat or little fishing boat (as long as it’s powered by an electric motor). Bird watching is excellent all year and we have spotted Bald Eagles, King Fishers, Osprey, Loons, and other web footed birds we couldn’t identify. Bring your bird book!

I have found the fly fishing to be superb in early September but I have heard that spring will also provide you with lots of excitement. I’ve caught 5 – 6 lb rainbow trout that provide an awesome fight. I am a fly fisherman and have had success using green bead head nymphs and different patterns of backswimmers. I have seen many people trolling and having success with spinning rods but can’t share any personal experience.

I’m a catch and release person myself but I believe the catch limit is 1 fish over 40 cm and 1 under so if you’re lucky enough to snag a big one, you’ll enjoy a fabulous dinner I’m sure. The regulations do change so be sure and check before heading out.

In doing some research I found an article from the May/July 2006 issue of the Canadian Fly Fisher magazine that stated the following:

‘A relatively small lake, Beaver was stocked with a lighter density of trout and given delayed harvest regulations to allow trout to grow large. The results have been exactly that and the angler usage has been heavy. Rainbow trout can now be caught upwards of 8 pounds and catches in the 3 – 6 pound range are common.’

Of the nearly 300 lakes stocked in Alberta, there are a few where the low stocking numbers and limits mean that the fish grow to larger than 15″. Beaver Lake was the first of these lakes followed by Muir, Bullshead, Ironside, Police and Fiesta (the latter also very close to JRR). We now have 6 lakes that are “managed” differently. Of the six, only 2 are NO KILL. For the years 2006, 2007, and 2008 Beaver Lake was stocked with 10,500 rainbow trout ranging in size from 19 – 26 cm.

Hiking is not great around the lake as there is minimal walkable shoreline between the water and land. However, there is an open field area, picnic tables and washroom facilities if you desire to do some shoreline fishing. Having said that, this spot is much prettier from the water than from the land.

So, dream a little dream, tuck the map below out at the cabin, and take a jaunt to Beaver Lake sometime this season.

beaver lake map

Are you Bear smart?

We’re fortunate at James River to share the Retreat and the surrounding area with an abundance of wildlife. And the first long weekend of “summer” at JRR also marks the beginning of Bear Awareness Week, a good time to remind ourselves that bears – now well out of hibernation and possibly protecting young cubs – are occasional visitors that command a healthy dose of respect.

Lucky for us, there’s a local not-for-profit organization called Mountain View Bear Smart that provides a wealth of information on staying Bear Smart wherever you are in Alberta as well as a weekly Bear Activity Report for a wide area including our neck of the woods.

Mountain View Bear Smart is also hosting a Family Fun Day Saturday, May 16 10:30AM to 3:00PM at Elkton Valley Campground. The program for the day will include displays on bear and cougar biology and safety; information on identifying black bear, grizzly bear, cougar, wolf and coyote signs; crafts for the kids and a free hot dog lunch.

For more about this event, including directions to the Elkton Valley Campground, visit the group’s website. And while you’re there, consider supporting the work of this volunteer group with a donation or the purchase of a membership.

Rare moose spotted

Cabin owners and visitors to the James River Retreat regularly enjoy a variety of wildlife sightings but our newest neighbours have reported a wildlife encounter that is decidedly odd.

Hang out at JRR long enough and, if you’re lucky, sooner or later you’re going to see a moose. These gentle giants are frequent visitors to the Retreat, especially during the last 2 or 3 winters. In fact, we recently received a photo of two young moose wading through deep snow outside a JRR cabin window.

Submitted by Judy and Ken

Two juvenile moose, Winter 2015

But Donna and Brad Grandview over on Lot 41 are relative newcomers and had never seen a moose in the wild before this spring. When they came face to face to face with their very first live moose, it stopped them in their tracks.

“We came around a corner and saw this thing standing in our neighbour’s driveway, just a few feet away from us” reported Brad. She went on to describe how it shuffled back and forth a few times “as if it was getting ready to take off”. It took a second for it to sink in just what was so unusual about this particular moose and why it wasn’t likely going anywhere soon. “I couldn’t believe it” said Donna “so I grabbed my phone and took this photo.” No wonder it just stood and shuffled: it couldn’t make up its mind which direction to head.


Pushmi-pullyu moose, Spring 2015

It’s not the first outrageous springtime animal sighting at James River Retreat (see giant Easter Bunny below) but it could be the weirdest.

Giant Easter Bunny looms over JRR, Easter 2005

Giant Easter Bunny looms over JRR, Easter 2005

Embrace the dark side with your outdoor lights

One of the most beautiful views available to anyone in rural Alberta comes from stepping outside on a dark sky night and looking up at thousands of stars and the arc of the Milky Way. In cities and towns across Alberta, light pollution and trespass make a dark sky experience more and more rare. By becoming more mindful of the effect of light trespass* on our neighbours’ houses and cabins and taking three simple steps to reduce it, we can contribute to a better night sky viewing opportunity for everyone at James River Retreat.

  • When outdoors after dark, keep the use of artificial lights to a minimum. Do your exterior lights need to be on or is it just habit? They may interfere with your neighbour’s enjoyment of time away from the hustle and lights of the city and the glow of your campfire may be all that’s needed for your friends and family to enjoy the evening.
  • When exterior lights are needed, choose fixtures that limit light trespass as a courtesy to your neighbours. Use the lowest watt bulbs that will get the job done and covered fixtures that direct the light precisely where it needs to go be effective. It’s the neighbourly thing to do and it’s a requirement of our James River Retreat Design Guidelines (see below). Check out Good Neighbour Outdoor Lighting, a great reference for choosing appropriate outdoor fixtures.
  • When tucked inside your house or cabin for the night, turn off exterior lights and unnecessary interior lights. Maybe even consider drawing curtains on windows that spill particularly bright light in the direction of your neighbours.

Some of you may be wondering by now if all of this really necessary. Well, we all know what it’s like to step outside in the dark, switch off a flashlight and let our eyes adjust, gradually taking in more and more detail of our surroundings and the sky above us. Now imagine your neighbours doing the same but your bright cabin lights are a giant flashlight they just can’t turn off. It only takes a little bit of thinking and tinkering to preserve the dark sky experience over the James River Retreat. Tone down the lights wherever reasonable then step outside, look up and enjoy that infinite view.


*insufficient control of outdoor lighting to the extent that it crosses over to your neighbours’ property and affects their quality of life.

**From the James River Retreat Design Guidelines:

Outdoor lighting should provide subtle illumination for safety and highlighting of special architectural or landscape elements. In a natural setting without streetlamps even a 50-watt light source seen from an adjacent lot can become an irritating distraction.

  • Exterior fixtures must not have bright light sources.
  • Care must be taken to minimize the visibility of exterior light fixtures to neighbors; preferably choose fixtures that are opaque and shine primarily downward.

Groundhog Day

This mostly-true tale is about an alpine marmot who ventured down a mountain to experience life, albeit temporarily, as a lowland marmot or groundhog.

Once upon a time, in a month much warmer than February, a James River family and their guests spent a glorious day wandering on Limestone Mountain. Back at the Retreat at the end of their day with celebratory cold ones scarcely opened, the happy hikers heard strange sounds from the far side of the cabin. Curious, they followed the piercing whistles to the source: the engine compartment of the vehicle that had just rattled them back down the mountain. Nervously, they released the hood and, much to their surprise, a Hoary Marmot popped out. The critter froze, as if hoping the gathered crowd might take no notice if it kept perfectly still.

Earlier that afternoon the hikers had clambered over the rocks at the Limestone Lookout trailhead, laughing as they tried to photograph marmots much like this one. The earlier marmots were entertaining, even cute and cuddly-looking, when seen darting about their natural habitat but the one perched on the engine block made the onlookers keenly aware of its teeth, claws, and potential to lunge unpredictably in any direction. They retreated to consider their options. A call was placed to the Medicine River Wildlife Centre near Raven, a facility that specializes in rescue and rehabilitation of injured wildlife. And though a Medicine River staffer returned the call within minutes, the marmot had meanwhile weighed its own options and scurried off. Happy hour turned sombre when the voice on the other end of the phone line predicted the alpine marmot would not survive so far from its normal habitat. But in a plot turn worthy of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, a chance to change the story’s ending would soon present itself.

Two mornings later, the marmot was once more tucked safely under the vehicle and sounding its piercing distress call, likely returning to the only thing that smelled remotely familiar in a strange landscape. No time was wasted placing a second call to Medicine River and marmot rescuers Todd Kelly and Jen Blakely were dispatched to the scene immediately. Pulling on two pair of elbow-length leather gloves, Todd dove fearlessly under the back bumper. The ensuing tussle was deafening but man and hissing bundle of teeth and fur emerged minutes later. The marmot was transferred to a waiting crate where it curled itself into peaceful sleep even as Todd showed off the holes through both protective layers of leather and, underneath, the imprint of marmot teeth on his forearm.

marmot 2 compact

With casual instructions to return the marmot to the place where it had been “found” and then return the crate, Brave Jen and Fearless Todd returned to Raven. Hikers and marmot made the journey once more to the Limestone Lookout trailhead where the errant hitchhiker was last seen running as far and fast as possible away from the vehicle. The photogenic marmot was celebrated soon after as Mr September 2007 in the Medicine River Wildlife Centre fundraising calendar and lives on happily ever after in the retelling of this tale.

marmot 7 compact

About Medicine River Wildlife Centre

Compassionate staff and volunteers at Medicine River Wildlife Centre rescue, rehabilitate and release more than 1300 birds and animals each year and provide a refuge for those that cannot be returned to the wild. The Centre is about a half hour drive from James River Retreat; to reach it take Highway 22 north then turn east on Highway 54; watch for signs indicating the south turn onto a gravel road at Raven (Range Road 32). After 4km turn east (Township Road 360) for a final 1.5 km. The Interpretive Centre is currently closed pending an extensive upgrade but the hospital remains open for winged and four-legged patients and there is a nature trail for hikers and birdwatchers. 

For advice on dealing with stranded or injured wildlife, call Medicine River Wildlife Centre at (403) 728-3467 or visit their website.

Take a book, leave a book

Q: What’s bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a cabin?

A: It’s Little Free Library and one has found its way to James River Retreat!

Our very own Little Free Library has finally made it off the porch at Lot #12 and down to a temporary perch next to the bridge. The concept is simple: take a book, leave a book. If something interests you as you wander by, feel free to pluck it from the box and curl up at your cabin for a good read. Once you’ve finished you can return it to our JRR “branch”, to another Little Free Library or simply pass it on to someone else to read. There is no obligation to leave a book in its place but next time there are books on your shelf that you’re ready to let go, know that they’ll find good homes when you drop them off at our Library. The Little Free Library now belongs to everyone at the Retreat. Please borrow from it, add to it, report any wear and tear to the Board and, above all, enjoy it.

The Library was stocked with an armload of books when it was installed earlier this month but may take some time to catch on. It’s expected that once the community gets the hang of it, the book supply may ebb and flow but it will more or less look after itself.

The Little Free Library concept originated in Madison, Wisconsin in 2009 and ours – official charter #8382 – is one of more than 15000 established worldwide. You’ll notice that the James River Retreat branch has been temporarily mounted on a sawhorse but the plan is to dig a posthole for a sturdier, more permanent installation once the ground thaws in the spring.

Crittercam Mania

Camera traps, wildlife cameras, game cameras. All names for a potentially addictive, four-season outdoor toy: a motion- or heat-activated camera able to snap photos of wildlife with relatively little human interference. A search for “wildlife cameras” online yields an overwhelming variety of cameras at a range of prices for anyone curious about what the local wildlife gets up to when we’re not around. They’ve been a fixture at some James River cabins for years now, including one legendary setup, since dismantled, that allowed the camera owner to remotely view wildlife on his lot even when he was stuck at home in Calgary.

Below is a sampling of our favourites from various locations around the Retreat over the years. As you can see, the two-legged creatures of James River can be a curious lot while the four-legged creatures remain somewhat more aloof. If that leaves you wanting more, check out this recent article from the Calgary Herald. It gives a shoutout to the Crittercams of James River but also features some truly spectacular wildlife photos gathered on another quarter section an hour to the south of us. On second thought, maybe it’s better if we don’t always know what’s out there wandering the trails!


Hans critter


Home, Home on the James

This article originally ran in the Winter 2007 issue of the James River News, a newsletter produced by the JRR Condo Association from 2005-2009. 

Long before the Foothills became our winter playground, homesteaders on the James River eked out a harsh existence to claim ownership to their own piece of land. While some of us still live in the Retreat year round, most of us come here to relax on weekends, hardly pausing to consider the modern conveniences we enjoy at the end of a day’s romp in the snow, but settlers at the turn of the last century could scarcely have imagined such luxury.

Still, every now and then, Winter gives us a nudge, reminding us not to take our comfort and convenience for granted. Snowstorms can leave us without power, even stranded, at least until the snowplow arrives. Furnaces occasionally quit during the coldest months of the year and water pipes freeze solid. But no matter how irritating these problems are, help is only a phone call away. Blizzards? Freezing temperatures? Real threats to the very survival of those who staked claim to this land before us.


During the great influx of settlers to Western Canada in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, our retreat on the SW corner of Section 8, Township 34, Range 6, West of the 5th Meridian, was owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company and therefore not designated for homesteading under the Dominion Lands Act. But Section 7 adjoining JRR to the west and north was parceled out as three homesteads almost 100 years ago and the remnants of one of these is still visible looking west from our fish pond.


In 1911 Paul Waitaitis, a Russian-born farmer, paid a $10 fee and set about “proving up” his homestead on SE7-34-6-W5. He cleared the required 30 acres of land and planted crops on 25 of those acres. The hard-working farmer was also obliged to build a house worth at least $300 and spend a minimum of six months a year on the land. By the time he was granted title to his homestead in 1914, he had lived on the land for three years and built a log home, barn, root cellar, chicken house and two miles of rail and wire fencing. Total value of improvements as stated on his land patent application: $850.

We don’t know the end of his story but he may have left Alberta after his James River homesteading adventures to live out his days south of the border. Perhaps one day we’ll learn and share with you what happened to Mr Waitaitis after he obtained title to his homestead. Until then, when the winter sky closes in and an icy wind makes you pull your chair a little closer to the fire, remember our neighbour sitting in a log cabin beside his own fire many winters ago.

Two other homestead parcels were granted on Section 7 in the early 1900’s:

Harold Brand Holloway of Montreal was eligible to apply for a homestead parcel under the Volunteer Bounty Act of 1908 for his service in the Boer War. Mr Holloway named Henry Sherman Gwaltney of Mound, Alberta as his substitute. Mr Gwaltney “proved up” N7 and took title in 1913. William Jennings Reid, a farmer from Bearberry, was granted title to SW7 in 1914.