The Season of Lights

All photos in this article were generously shared with us by Neil Zeller Photography

There is a certain raw beauty to be found most days at the James River Retreat but some of the most spectacular sights can only be experienced after dark. The yellow reflection of a pair of eyes peering at you through the trees, the Milky Way spilling across an inky black sky and, every now and then, a magical display of the Northern Lights.

Of course, it’s not magic at all that creates these light displays on our horizon. The Aurora Borealis – known in Canada as the Northern Lights – occurs when solar winds are pulled into our atmosphere by earth’s magnetic force. These winds create collisions between charged particles and atmospheric gases, the colours varying with the gases and the altitude at which the winds occur. The palest of greens – more like white with a subtle tinge of greenish light – is the most common colour you’ll see with the naked eye at the Retreat and is caused when particles collide with oxygen at lower altitudes; a hint of pink at the lower edge means flashes of nitrogen. Reds means the winds are occurring at a higher altitude. Blues and purples come from hydrogen and helium but they’re difficult to see at night with the naked eye. That’s the basic science of auroras, now back to the awe of viewing them on a cold winter’s night.

Actually, it doesn’t have to be cold or even winter for auroras to occur but cold and clear often go hand-in-hand and dark skies make for the best viewing. Step outside any clear night from now until mid-April and there’s a chance you’ll see the Northern Lights. If you want to improve your chances a little more, try the University of Alberta’s AuroraWatch website or even subscribe to their free alert service for the best odds. Auroras may be seen anytime after dark but peak hours are from 11pm-2am. I’ll often see a subtle glow on the northern horizon by about 10pm. This tells me I should keep checking over the next hour or two to see if anything develops before I turn in for the night. That said, auroras can start with little warning. One memorable Christmas Eve, we had the telescope set up to view the rings of Saturn. When we eventually returned to the cabin to warm up, I glanced over my shoulder one last time only to catch perhaps the most breathtaking display we’ve ever seen at James River.

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Viewing the Northern Lights above the Retreat is memorable enough but for the photography buffs in the crowd, I asked professional photographer Neil Zeller if he would share some tips for capturing those memories with a camera. Neil is a Calgary-based photographer whose work includes the stunning photos attached to this article; this is what he shared with me about photographing auroras:

Is it possible to capture auroras with a digital point and shoot camera or will I need something more sophisticated?

To capture the aurora you will need a camera that has the ability to set the ISO, Aperture (F stop) and shutter speeds manually. Most cameras have these capabilities. Certainly digital SLR cameras are ideal with their larger sensors and simple adjustments , but many point and shoot or mirrorless systems can be manually adjusted. Take a look at your camera’s manual under ISO, Aperture and Shutter speed adjustements.

Do I need any special equipment beyond my camera?

A tripod is vitally important. Because you are exposing your images for longer than 1/60 of a second, there is no way you can hold still to create a sharp image. You can rest your camera on something solid as well, but it’s still easiest to use a sturdy tripod.

A remote cable, switch or the ability to use your camera’s delay function is needed. This allows you to be ‘hands off’ when shooting the night sky and avoid any unnecessary camera shake via pushing the button. The 2 second timer will work as well.

What length of exposure will I need to capture an aurora with my camera?

This depends on the intensity of the auroras. Modern cameras have the ability to see things the human eye can’t. A 5 second exposure with a mid level DSLR (a canon rebel t4i for example) camera will produce incredible results and a 30 second exposure of a seemingly black night will show clouds, stars and other things that are invisible in to your eye. A typical starting point for me when shooting the skies north of Calgary would be ISO 1000, F2.8 at 30 seconds. This allows me to ‘see’ on the back of my camera what is actually out there in the sky. If my exposure is too bright, I would adjust my shutter to 15 seconds and shoot again. If you find the image noisy or grainy, you can adjust your ISO (your camera sensors sensitivity to light) down to 800 or 400. With my pro level camera, I can shoot relatively noise free up to ISO 3200 and shorten my shutter times down to a second or two to capture very fast moving aurora.

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Are there any other settings I’ll need to play with besides exposure?

If you leave your Aperture ‘wide open’, that is, on the lowest number, you are allowing the most light in. It is like the iris of your eye and you have a better chance of seeing in the dark when this is as open as possible. Some lenses start at 1.2, but most are 2.8 to 4.0 as a starting point.

ISO is the sensitivity to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive. But be warned if you get too high, you will introduce artifacts or ‘noise’ to your image. Some is ok if that’s what it takes to get a good image of the aurora, but too much will ruin your photo.


Thanks, Neil, for sharing your photos and tips. If these photography tips have got your shutter vibrating with excitement, you’ll want to check out Neil’s Yukon Aurora Workshops departing February and March 2015 for aurora viewpoints even further north than ours.

We hope this article inspires you to take a moment on your next visit to the Retreat to bundle up, step outside after dark and look to the north for a sign. But first-timers, know this: what starts as a subtle glow on the horizon can build into ripples, spikes and swirling bands that fill the sky and keep you rooted to that spot well into the night, not wanting to look away, even for a second.

Look up, waaaay up

Calgary astronomer Alan Dyer describes backyard astronomy as “a hobby that provides endless enjoyment as you learn to appreciate the beauty of the sky above you every night.” With the coming of the season of long, dark skies over James River now is the ideal time to indulge in such a hobby and getting started is as easy as stepping outside after supper and looking up. The overhead views are spectacular!

Those interested in learning a little more about that view do not need to spend money on fancy equipment to get started. According to Dyer, a good book and a pair of binoculars can, in fact, be better tools for the beginner than a telescope. He suggests that a pair of 7X50 or 10X50 binoculars is ideal for observing the surface of the moon, star clusters, nebulas and even galaxies. He recommends making it a goal to find the Double Cluster, Pleiades, the Orion Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy – objects that I have managed to find with even lower power binoculars than he suggests. Books such as Nightwatch by Terence Dickinson, The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Dickinson and Alan Dyer or Gary Seronik’s Binocular Highlights: 99 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users can then help you to identify what you are seeing through your binoculars and understand “how it all fits into the big picture of the universe”.

For further information see 10 Steps to Successful Stargazing by Alan Dyer or visit the SkyNews website for more astronomy tips and a weekly viewing guide to the night sky.

There’s GOLD in that thar river!

This article originally ran in the Summer 2006 issue of the James River News, a newsletter produced by the JRR Condo Association from 2005-2009. 

Want to make your fortune in the James River?  It will take some back breaking work but there is gold to be found if you’re willing to work for it. But first we need to work our way upriver…

There is gold to be found in a number of rivers originating high in the foothills and mountains to the west of the James River Retreat. The sandbars of the North Saskatchewan River contain fine flour gold – pinpoint size grains – in almost economic quantities. In fact, the North Saskatchewan was actively panned and sluiced by hardbitten dreamers a hundred years ago and you’ll still find a few at it today. The Red Deer also holds flour gold, as does the James, just not quite as much. How the heck did it get there? And how can we get some?

It all began 250 million years ago when volcanic activity from Kamloops to Field injected quartz veins containing gold into the bedrock. As the bedrock broke down over eons, gold weathered out into the sand and pebble bars forming occasional “placer” deposits. Over millions of years these bars were buried several thousand metres deep, squeezed into the hard sandstones and conglomerates rocks of the Cretaceous Mannville formation and eventually uplifted in mountain building. Glaciation and endless erosion is weathering out the fine gold from those bars again. This second generation placer gold has been ground fine, traveled far, and is remarkably pure. The large surface area relative to the pinpoint size and long period of exposure has dissolved out the associated silver, copper etc that reduces native gold’s purity, so that this flour gold is about 98% pure.

Gold in the James River small0001cropped

But how do we get our hands on some? Find a big, fresh gravel bar near a high flow area of the river (lots to choose from). Shovel endless buckets of coarse gravel into a gold pan (less than $10 for a good black plastic pan at a hardware store). Swirl and swish that rock out until you have a teaspoon of blackish grit left. Save that grit. Now repeat the shovel, swirl, swish and save about 20 times until you have a good handful of grit and pan that down to a teaspoon. Guaranteed, you’ll see pinpoint pricks of buttery yellow gold warmly glowing in the sun against the black plastic of the pan. Outstanding, exhilarating, invigorating, but not too economic. An hour’s work will generate less than a few cents worth of gold. But it’s the real thing, and it’s in our very own James River.

Adapted from an article submitted by Nick Wemyss, passionate geologist, gold panner and, as a former cabin owner at James River Retreat, a part of our lore.

Fire Lookouts of Alberta

About 40% of wildfires within the Forest Protection Area of Alberta (which includes James River Retreat) are spotted each summer by observers stationed at 127 fire lookout sites. The lookouts are either alpine cabins located on mountaintops or steel towers built on high ground in the forest. The dedicated observers who staff these lookouts work for 30 to 180 days depending on their location and the season’s fire hazard. Each lookout operator keeps watch over an area slightly less than the size of Prince Edward Island. Complete observations of the area surrounding the lookout are made at least three times a day on low fire hazard days and almost continually during the day when the threat is high.

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Limestone Mountain Fire Lookout, almost 50km due west of JRR, is nearest and dearest to us. Limestone Mountain can be seen from the Retreat and on a clear day with a good pair of binoculars you may be able to spot the lookout cabin at the summit.

With their spectacular views, lookouts make great day hike destinations and Limestone Mountain Lookout is no exception. For a great summer/early fall hike, check out The Passionate Hiker’s blog for a description of the road leading to the trailhead and the hike itself. If you go, remember that the lookout is the private residence of the staffer assigned to Limestone Mountain and you should keep a respectful distance unless invited to visit and sign the guestbook. And it never hurts to take along some fresh fruit or veggies and maybe even some chocolate as a gift for the dedicated soul who watches over our retreat for signs of fire.

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Want to learn more about fire lookouts in Alberta and other parts of North America? Check out the website of the Forest Fire Lookout Association where you can find information galore, copies of Fire Lookout Hikes in the Canadian Rockies by Mike Potter (which includes another description of the Limestone hike) and other interesting reads.


Pond Party* Saturday, August 16

*and by Party we mean Work Party!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

That’s the day we’re going to tackle a couple of projects down at the fish pond. The plan is to bury the hoses to the aerators and possibly remove the remaining posts from the dock. This flurry of activity is expected to take a few hours of our Saturday afternoon.

Further details will be posted at a later date.  To volunteer, complete the form below and your name will be forwarded to our Pond Party Hosts Marcel and Brenda Lee Gagne.

Wildfire Season Starts Early This Year

The Alberta Sustainable Resources has declared another early start to wildfire season this year. This means that from now until October 31, any outdoor fire at James River Retreat other than a campfire requires a permit, no matter how small. A shocking 76% of Alberta wildfires in 2013 were caused by people and that’s a substantial increase over previous years. Combine that with the fact that half of last year’s wildfires started in the month of May alone and it becomes even more timely to talk about how we all can reduce the risk of wildfire in our community. There are several excellent resources available for download from the Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Development website including The Homeowners Firesmart Manual. From managing potentially combustible vegetation and building materials around your cabin site to building a safe fire pit, this publication is full of useful tips designed to protect your cabin from wildfire. For information on fire bans and maps showing locations of current wildfires throughout the province, the government publishes Wildfire Status and Situation Reports here. And, yes, there’s an app for that, too. Those with Android devices can download it here and iPhone users can find it in iTunes here.

Take Me to the River: A JRR Streamflow Advisory Primer

Anyone who has spent time by the banks of the mighty James knows that every season brings changes to our river but none more dramatic than the high water season of late spring and early summer. So when snow starts melting at the higher elevations and the rain clouds begin to gather to the west, it’s good to know where to turn for up-to-the-minute information on water levels in the Red Deer River basin in general and the James River in particular.

Turns out there’s an app for that, the Alberta Rivers: Data and Advisories App launched today by the Alberta Government to provide information for watersheds province wide, including flood advisories and forecasts. The app is currently available for download to android devices with an iPhone version expected to follow within a few weeks.

Meanwhile, regardless of what devices you may or may not carry with you during the day, there are some useful websites you’ll want to bookmark to stay on top of James River streamflows. Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development’s Advisories and Updates page is your jumping off point for Advisories and Warnings currently in effect (high streamflows, flooding and ice jams) as well as Alberta Emergency Alerts. The link to River Basins Maps and Data is also interesting and informative, allowing you to access graphs and tables of river flows and levels. First select the Red Deer River Sub Basin and from there you’ll be able to view information on river flows and levels, precipitation and more.

Canine or Feline: can you tell the difference?

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

The James River Retreat is home to a wonderful variety of wildlife, human and otherwise.  Sightings over the years include black bears, beavers, coyotes, red foxes, deer, moose, elk, wolves and even a domestic black cat that, from a distance, had us stumped for a time. Not all animals at James River like to be seen and the fresh mud along the river bank is a great place to look for signs of our more furtive neighbours.

We recently came across the track pictured below a short distance upriver from the bridge.  We immediately set about trying to figure out what animal left it behind.  It’s trickier than you might think. The size of the track – slightly less than 10cm long – seemed right for a large dog, large coyote or small wolf.  But members of the dog family usually leave claw marks, especially in soft mud like this. Members of the cat family have retractable claws that rarely register in the tracks they leave behind.  Could this track have been left by a cougar, lynx or bobcat?

We went to a favourite website – Beartracker’s Animal Tracks Den – to help us solve the mystery.  This website contains a wealth of information on animal tracks of all kinds and features an article on how to tell the difference between feline and canine tracks.  We think this track was made by a cat – perhaps a small cougar – and there are three things we looked at that helped us to decide:

cougar tracks

  1. No obvious claw marks
  2. Two front toes are not lined up – one sits further forward
  3. Imaginary lines drawn along the ridges between the two pairs of outside toes intersect in the middle of the heel pad rather than at the top of it.

Looks like we may have a new neighbour, folks.  Check out the tracking website some time and see if you agree.  Maybe one day if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to add “cougar” to our list of animal sightings.  From a safe distance, of course!

There have been multiple cougar sightings nearby and inside the Retreat since this article first appeared, including the one pictured below. The youngster was photographed by Liz and Bob Moore on the riverbank below their place last summer.

 Photo: Liz and Bob Moore

For more information on safe recreation in cougar country and signs that a cougar is in the area, visit Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development’s webpage Recreation in Cougar Country or download Alberta Park’s Preventing Conflict with Wildlife: Cougars.