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My TEDx talk: You are not normal!

May 14, 2018

Lsq39939052920_135098203c_oOK, I know that’s not a normal kind of title. Let me explain…

One of the things that I love the most about my training in the Earth Sciences (PhD in Geology) is that it has given me a deep understanding of time. It really broadens how I think of things.

So instead of asking, “What is normal for how human beings live?” with a “now” kind of implied in there… I ask what is normal for humans over the entire time that our species has existed. Not just what seems normal now.


Add to that the fact that I lived for several years as a squatter, in a tiny little cabin in the woods, which gave LcP1090117me a very different perspective about what we actually need to live (and be happy), as opposed to what we now consider we must have in order to be normal.

So that’s the basis of my TEDx talk, delivered at the fantastically organized TEDxChilliwack event on April 14, 2018. My aim is just to get people to think about these things in a somewhat different way. Here’s the video, hope you like it (and if you do, I would appreciate it if you help get my message out by sharing it!)


Photo ID and DNA sampling of humpback whales, Magellan Strait, Patagonia

May 1, 2018

LHUM_5054I was helping with the photo IDs of humpback whales, to assist marine biologist Benjamín Cáceres of the Río Seco Museum of Natural History in Punta Arenas with an on-going project to identify individual humpback whales.



Humpbacks are pretty easy to recognize individually, both by markings on their tail and by the shape and markings on their small dorsal fin. We were in the Barbara Channel, in a remote part of western Magellan Strait. Benjamín was using the crossbow to fire a plug into the whale that would extract a skin sample for DNA analysis, and I was doing the photography to ID the whales sampled. (You need to know what the whale you sampled looks like – so you don’t go back and end up sampling the same one over and over!)

We named the two whales we were following Barney (for his barnacles) and Whitey.  I know, pretty original. But it just helped Benjamín and me to work together and communicate by giving them temporary names.

We got to recognize them pretty quickly – not only their tails, but their dorsal fins were very distinctive. By sampling and IDing the individuals, Benjamín and his collaborators can work out how many whales there are in the region, as well as where they travel to. It was a really interesting project for me to be able to help out with.




Birds of western Magellan Strait

April 18, 2018


OK, I was out there on a scientific expedition related to indigenous forest use – but we spent a lot of time cruising Magellan Strait to get to the various research sites – so of course I took pictures of the bird life. Albatross, petrels, skuas – how could I not get into the bird photography! Oh, and penguins too!


An albatross swoops over the waters in front of a magic Magellanic landscape.


Black-browed albatross


Southern giant petrel.


Brown skuas.


Magellanic penguins.


Brown skua – checking me out.


And just for fun… a sea lion!

Magellan Strait research on forest ecology and indigenous land use

April 13, 2018

LHUM_5112In February, I was lucky enough to take part in an expedition to the extremely remote regions of western Magellan Strait. The project, organized by the Río Seco Museum of Natural History in Punta Arenas, Chile, and under the leadership of Prof. Lars Östlund from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, was a reconnaissance study: doing a first pass study to understand the forest structure and ecology, and also documenting bark scars in the trees that are evidence of former resource use by the indigenous Kawéskar people.

We were a crew of nine researchers (hailing from five different countries), plus the boat’s crew of four, with a zodiac to get to shore. I was primarily there as the expedition photographer – but my geology background was helpful at times, and I was definitely put to work at assisting with the forest documentation (all of the different measurements take a long time to complete – I became the “volume of dead wood on the ground” specialist).

Here are some photos of the forest work we were doing. I’ll put up separate posts of some of the other photos from the trip – from penguins to humpback whales to glaciers!


Prof. Lars Östlund steps ashore at one of our primary research sites, Bachelor River.


The forest was beautiful and lush – but super hard to walk through!


Archeologist Robert Carracedo points out a shell midden – one of many! – that shows that in the past, Kawéskar people occupied and used the shorelines extensively.


Torbjörn Josefsson points out the mark indicating axe use – proving that this bark scar was definitely caused by human activity, and not by natural forest processes such as another tree falling against it.


Gabriel Zegers writes down the measurements as Lars examines a bark scar.


Macarena Fernandez records data as Samuel Roturier extracts a core to examine tree rings, and Benjamín Cáceres (background) takes measurements.


It was cold and misty (or rainy) throughout the whole expedition, even though this was the peak of summer – but what spectacular landscapes, in a region that sees very human visitors.


Southernmost backpacking trail in the world: Dientes de Navarino, Patagonia, Chile

February 28, 2018

LP1070557People call Tierra del Fuego “the ends of the earth” – but Navarino Island is even farther south, on the other side of the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia. It hosts the southernmost permanent human settlement in the world (other than Antarctic research bases), Puerto Williams, and is the last bit of land before Cape Horn.

I’ve actually been to Navarino numerous times – including to work with the indigenous Yagán descendants there, translating the book of traditional Yagán tales Hai kur mamashu chis from Spanish to English. I have long wanted to go back, though, to hike the infamous Dientes de Navarino: the southernmost backpacking trail in the world.

The trip was adventurous, to say the least… at times, actually scary. I was hiking solo, and parts of the route are not well marked: so it’s important to stay mentally present (not getting off track at all) as well as physically safe (not falling and getting injured) – or you might never be coming back down. And, although I chose to go in February, which is the peak of summer (equivalent to August back home), snow storms can hit here at any time. Which is what happened to me… so I could not go where I wanted to go, it was just too dangerous – I had to take an alternative route out.

Anyway, here are a few highlight pix, from what was a very challenging, and at times scary, trip. It’s one of my few trips where I felt there really was a risk that things could have gone terribly wrong – but thanks to good gear and good decisions and a high level of fitness, I made it back out!


Flying in to Puerto Williams from Punta Arenas.


Ascending above the treeline (which is only 500 m), Beagle Channel and Tierra del Fuego in the background.


Now above the trees and most vegetation – not much of a trail.


Little pockets of warmth if you can find shelter from the wind.


“Dientes de Navarino” are the “teeth” of Navarino: sharp and jagged.


Finally – crossing the big pass, with views to Bahia Windhond and, beyond, Cape Horn.


First camp for the night – really excited to have my new ultra-lightweight Big Agnes Copper Spur one-person tent for this trip. You need good tents here because of the crazy winds – but at the same time, you need to travel light. This tent turned out to be great for both.


Made it to Bahia Windhond, where there was a cabin and a few backpackers, for the night. The forecast was for snow, so I was a bit worried about whether I would be able to get out (back over the high country) the next day.


I hooked up with a group of Europeans the next day (it just was not safe to travel alone in that weather). We made it most of the way up to the pass, but I just did not feel it was safe to keep going up higher in these conditions – so we amicably agreed to separate. I went back to Windhond – worrying about them all night. I later found out that they holed up right near where I had left them, and had a horrible cold and wet night. (Meanwhile, I was back down at sea level – still cold and wet, but at least eating a hot meal: fresh meat caught by the local beaver trapper. Beavers are introduced pests there!)


Even getting out the next day was really hard. Two Czech guys agreed to let me accompany them out an alternative route (that wasn’t on my planned itinerary, so I didn’t have a map or information for). The going was so rough – through icy bogs flooded due to beaver activity, and windfallen Patagonian forest. We covered a two-day route in a day. My ultrarunning experience sure served me well here… I can’t explain how hard it was (hence almost no pix).


Just one example of the forest we were going through. And the Czech guys’ legs were about a foot longer than mine… really hard for me to keep up with them, with my big pack on, through this stuff.


But we survived it… here we are arriving back into Puerto Williams. One of those expedition experiences that is not so much fun while you are doing it… but you are so glad you did it after!

New anthology: In the Company of Animals

October 21, 2014

In the Company of Animals Book coverEVENTS THIS WEEK:

West coast book tour for In the Company of Animals, Feb. 25-27, with venues in Victoria, Port Alberni and Tofino!

A selection of our west coast contributors will be reading at:
Bateman Centre, Victoria, Wed. Feb 25 (starting 7:30 pm)
Char’s Landing, Port Alberni, Thurs. Feb 26 7pm
Darwin’s Café, Tofino, Fri. Feb 27, doors open 7pm for appies and “meet’n’greet,” readings at 8pm
In the Company of Animals: Stories of Extraordinary Encounters
Nimbus, 2014, 282 p.
ISBN 978-1-77108-224-2

Here’s an anthology that I am very happy to have contributed to: In the Company of Animals: Stories of Extraordinary Encounters, published by Nimbus Publishing.

This book has been in the work for years. Editor Pam Chamberlain has compiled true stories, written by a total of 37 Canadian writers, of exceptional and unusual relationships we have had with animals: both domestic and wild.

My contribution is called Frogality. It’s an essay about Kermit, a Pacific treefrog who I raised from egg to tadpole to adult. I had Kermit for a total of nine years – not at all what I expected would ever happen the evening I rescued a little mass of frog eggs from a wheel rut on an active construction site.

(And, by the way, for all of those people who think I am not a very original frog-namer: I had eleven little tadpoles-turned-frogs, and only one of them grew to look like the famous muppet, and so was named for him. It just happens that she ended up being the frog I kept. Spot and Stripe and Juancho and Pancho and the rest were all returned to the wild).

It’s so easy for us to think that small animals, especially cold-blooded and slow-moving ones like frogs and salamanders, don’t have much of an “interior” life or much intention in their actions. But over my years with Kermit, I had the opportunity to gain some insight on what a frog’s perception of the world is. And to ponder: just as there are things that we know that a frog could never come close to grasping, are there things that the frog knows that are beyond reach for us. What does the frog know?

LDSCN7182I have to admit, most of the other authors’ stories are about relationships that are somewhat more conventional than mine with Kermit. Christine Lowther, who lives in a floathouse off Tofino, writes about a seal she befriended. Farley Mowat relates the passing of his old dog. Victoria writer Anny Scoones tells of her friendship with a pig.

As I write this blog post, the book is only just off the presses. As the season turns cold and wet and dark, I look forward to settling in with it, and to reading the other authors’ stories. This book will definitely be on my Christmas-present list for this year, the perfect gift for many of my animal-loving friends. If you want to purchase a copy, you can find it in at any bookstore (in Canada) or ask them to order it in, or you can order it directly from Nimbus, or you can order it directly from me (It’s $22.95, plus shipping/GST).

The English edition of Hai kur mamashu chis / Book tour dates

August 16, 2013

WeShisEnglish first published Hai kur mamashu chis as a bilingual Spanish/English edition in Chile in 2005. That print run soon sold out. I am pleased to announce that we were able to republish it as an illustrated English-language edition here in North America for the fall of 2013.

Hai kur mamášu čis, or “I want to tell you a story,” is how the Yagán (or Yámana) people of southernmost Patagonia used to refer to their story-telling.
Hai kur mamášu čis is the time when the birds used to be humans, and perhaps also the time before there was an understanding of all that exists, of even ourselves. The deeds in these stories – the values and anti-values, the tricks and heroic actions – all lead to the transformations, to the idea of some sort of beginning.
Hai kur mamášu čis is ancient wisdom, stories passed down orally since the beginning of time by the ancestors, and passed down today through the voices of the grandmothers Úrsula Calderón and Cristina Calderón.

The grand launch of the book took place at the de Young Museum of Fine Art in San Francisco in September, with tour dates following across the country through winter 2013-2014:


San Francisco, September 6th, de Young Museum of fine arts, event info

Toronto, November 14th, Ben McNally Books, event info

New York, November 18th,  Explorer’s Club, event info

Regina, November 22nd, Sakewewak Artists’ Collective, event info

Calgary, November 25th, Shelf Life Books, event info

Vancouver, November 27th, Banyen Books, event info


Los Angeles (Santa Ana), January 25th, 2014, Bowers Museum, event info

Nanaimo, Sunday April 13, Harbourfront Library 2pm

Port Alberni, Monday April 14, Char’s Landing, 8pm

Tofino, Wednesday April 16, Darwin’s Café, 8pm

Seattle, Saturday April 26, Barnes & Noble Pacific Place, 2-6pm

Click for more info about the book: Hai kur mamashu chis: I want to tell you a story