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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

Sorry for the confusion, website redesign taking place!

December 5, 2012

Hello everyone –

Please bear with me as I redesign my website. The pages will all still be here – but they may be a bit more difficult to find over the next few weeks as I rearrange things.

The blog, for now at least, is going to be relegated to the back-burner… archived for the moment. I stopped blogging “temporarily” a year ago. But blogging is quite a time commitment, and I think I am better off placing my writing in other venues that get higher readership. (And heck, I am getting a bit frustrated with that “every writer should have a blog” line – I think there are too many blogs and not enough readers!)

If you want to keep track of my recent writings, check out some of the publications that I am a regular contributor to:

The Guardian (UK):

The Tyee (Canada):

RunLiveLearn (USA) – I am the regular “Trails” columnist:

And, soon, I will also be a regular contributor to FullStop literary mag (USA):

So, changes you can expect to see to this site are: the blog will become lower-profile (well, an archive, really); there will be more about me and my writing interests and my current projects; and there will be a much better archive of my published materials (pdf files of my publications) that you can download and look at.

As I said, I’ll be working on this site re-design over the coming weeks. Please let me know if you have any suggestions – what you would or wouldn’t like to see here! Cheers!

Sweet poison: How sugar is killing us (and especially our children)

September 28, 2011

Sugar – the poison that almost no one talks about – has been in the news these past weeks.

CBC News told us how Canadians consume an average of 26 teaspoons of sugar a day.

The Atlantic magazine published an infographic of what the avergae American consumes each year – which includes 142 lbs of “caloric sweeteners,” 42 lbs of which are corn syrup.

And an American survey showed that parents of fat or obese children don’t want people to call their children fat or obese. (Umm… sorry, then do something about it).

OK, the word “poison” may seem extreme – but read on. All things in moderation. At the high quantities that most North Americans are consuming sugar these days, sugar is a poison.

How shameful it is that our current generation of children is the first that will not live as long as their parents! And that their parents are the ones who are actively doing this to them, by loading them up with sugar.

In Canada, childhood obesity has nearly tripled in the past 30 years. In Japan, childhood obesity has doubled in just a decade – while the incidence of adult obesity has remained steady. This is because, while adults continue to eat their traditional Japanese diet, children in Japan are now being raised on our heavily marketed sugar-heavy “western” diet.

Yes, we can blame the food manufacturers and marketers. But even more, we can blame ourselves. No one is forcing any of us to eat what they are packaging up for us.

Manufacturers are slipping fructose into products that normally did not use to contain added sugars, such as pretzels and hamburger buns. The effect of this is not only to add extra calories to the product; the biochemical effect of too much fructose is far more sinister.

Fructose makes the insulin receptor in your liver stop working, so that insulin levels rise throughout your body. This interferes with brain metabolism of the insulin signal, which then affects the brain’s detection of a hormone called leptin. Leptin is what signals to you that you have eaten enough. Leptin also makes you feel like burning energy. If your brain cannot detect the leptin, not only do you feel like you are starving, and just want to eat – you also don’t feel like exercising.

So the effects of all of this added fructose on our diet are far greater than just the added calories. The whole fructose/leptin/insulin connection is explained in detail in a great ABC Radio interview with Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology at the University of Southern California, SF. While the podcast of the program is not available online, the transcript is. I highly recommend that you take an hour of your life to read it – it will more than come back to you!

So what strategies can we take to avoid added sugars, and especially sugars? Well, the time-consuming one is to do a lot of research, learn what you can and cannot eat and what all of the variants of ingredient names are, and meticulously read ingredient lists.

The easier strategy, though, is just eat food. (I go pretty much by Michael Pollan’s definition of “food”: If your great-grandmother would have known what it is – an apple, a potato, a cut of meat – then it is food. If she would not have recognized it – a Twinkie, a McNugget, a Cheeto – then it is out).

I’ll admit it – I was addicted to sugar throughout my childhood, my teens, my twenties. It was used as a reward food in our home. Saturday was known as “candy day.” If we had been good that week, we got a chocolate bar and a can of pop (sadly, that is now daily fare for so many North American kids). Even after I left home, sugar remined a reward food and a comfort food for me – a treat for completing a big university assignment, or to cheer me up if I was feeling down.

Through my thirties, I decided to cut down on the sugar. I honestly cannot say what really motivated me to do that. I guess I started noticing that I would feel lethargic after a big chocolate chip cookie pig-out. And the logical side of my brain started to realize that sugar had not been available in such quantities for the bulk of humankind’s existence – that our bodies were not evolved to eat it – and I wondered what it might be doing to me.

And now, I rarely eat sugar. Yes, it took years of willpower to get to this stage – but I have broken the addiction. It is no longer a matter of willpower. I no longer desire it. Truly!

That whole sugar/insulin/leptin cycle makes complete sense with my personal experience: I crave good healthy foods, I have no desire to overeat, and I have the energy and desire to exercise. I eat a fair amount of fat in my diet (mainly olive oil and other “healthy” oils), and I have been maintaining my weight for a decade now – in fact, just found out this summer that I have even lost weight – without trying! I have more energy I than I have ever had and, at age 47, I am in the best physical shape of my life!

In that radio show, Dr. Lustig calls fructose a hepato-toxin, or liver toxin. “We’re being poisoned to death,” he says. “That’s a very strong statement – but I think we can back it up with very clear scientific evidence.” He goes on to talk about how children are now being diagnosed with Fatty Liver Disease – a disease once only found in alcoholics. To me, this is not only scary, it is inexcusable behaviour on the part of their parents – their supposed care-givers and nurturers.

Read that transcript. Stop poisoning yourself. And, especially, stop poisoning your children.

Can we really only have foresight in hindsight?

September 21, 2011

Go to the cliff?? Where’s the frigging cliff??

Can we really only have foresight in hindsight? Or are we smarter than that?

It’s funny how things tie together. I wrote just last week about how, if we can see that something bad is going to happen, it is our duty to act to prevent it.

And now, this week, the seven Italian geoscientists, engineers and government officials who are charged with failing to give the public adequate warning of a probable earthquake are big international news. (I actually wrote about this case back in June, for the Guardian).

I can’t help but relate this example to the story here in Tofino. (Although I have moved to Port Alberni, I am actually in Tofino at the moment as I write this – my house sale closes today!)

So, over in Italy those officials are being charged with manslaughter – after the earthquake. (The earthquake that occurred there, just six days after the group had released a statement that there was no increased danger of a major quake, killed 309 people).

Over here, we know with 100% certainty that a major quake is coming. We cannot predict exactly when – it could come this afternoon, or not for another 200 years – but there is 100% certainty that it will come. And the destruction of buildings and infrastructure and the loss of human life will be on the scale of what we all witnessed in Japan this past March. It  is most likely that thousands, possibly even tens of thousands, will die.

We cannot prevent that quake. But we can prevent many of the deaths if we educate ourselves, and prepare for it now.

And this is one of the main reasons that I have moved away from Tofino. Port Alberni is not that far away – the earthquake and tsunami will be almost as bad there as they will be here. But how these two communities are preparing for these coming events is completely different.

Tofino came out with an emergency plan in 2007. It was failing in so many ways:

  • It had evacuation routes that actually sent people into the tsunami inundation zone rather than out of it
  • There was insufficient understanding of the nature of a magnitude 9 earthquake (which means that numerous trees will be down across the roads and driving will not be an option for evacuation). Safe zones must be close enough to reach on foot, within 15 minutes of the earthquake. The plan assumed people would be driving.
  • There was insufficient understanding of the events to understand what kind of emergency kits people must have: Two types are required: the so-called “Grab’n’go” kit, which you run with to escape the coming tsunam; and then a long-term survival kit to withstand the weeks or months where access to food, water, and other basic supplies will be limited.
  • Their official Grab’n’go kit list contained 126 items! (which included items such as a cribbage board, fire extinguisher, and shower cap) – virtually guaranteeing that anyone who obeyed the official planners’ recommendations would not be able to drag that kit up the hill before the first tsunami wave hit.

I could see that this plan would actually put more lives in danger than if people simply ignored the plan, so I wrote two articles for the community, and made sure that they were published in both of our local newspapers:
Info about the character and magnitude of our expected earthquake and tsunami events (PDF file of text originally published in The Westcoaster and the Westerly newspaper,  April 2007)
A critique of Tofino’s emergency plan (PDF file of text originally published in The Westcoaster and the Westerly newspaper,  April 2007):

I continued to research the subject, and to offer information to Tofino’s emergency planners and to Tofino Council. I published blog articles, I talked on CBC Radio, I was even interviewed on CBC TV’s The National. To this day, four years later, no Tofino official has ever responded specifically to my input (even just to tell me to shut up!).

I tried increasingly provocative blog post titles (from You’re all gonna die: Whatever in June 2010) to an angry but informative rant published last March. By the time of that last one, I had given up on Tofino… I was already half-moved to Port Alberni – but I left it as a bit of a legacy, with all of the links to every article and interview I had done on the subject, in case someone in Tofino ever decides they do want to use my research.

And where has Tofino got with this?

Well, in June of 2010 the mayor, John Fraser, finally mustered himself up to get on CBC Radio to address this subject. Apparently his understanding of the event is so minimal that he does not actually understand that the earthquake will affect the entire west coast region, not just Tofino – so Vancouver will not be dispatching a ship to Tofino within 24 hours, as he is counting on. Vancouver will be digging itself out.

And he believes that Tofitians will survive by eating farmed fish. (Umm, if anyone saw the Japan videos, you might remember that there is a bit of current associated with those tsunami waves. I don’t think those Atlantic salmon will be sticking around). You can listen to that CBC interview with the mayor here.

And then, this past March, the mayor stuck his foot in it again on GlobalTV – saying that locals “should” know where to go to under a tsunami warning (well, if they follow the official Tofino recommendations, sadly, that would be into the inundation zone) – but that visitors will be running around like crazy. (Umm, shouldn’t Tofino take some responsibility in making sure that visitors know what to do too? Not to mention that he is not making a tourism-dependent town look very inviting to tourists!) Unfortunately, GlobalTV seems to have taken down that video clip  but you can read some of the locals’ reaction to it here.

So, back to the Italian case. Scientists and government officials are being charged, the earthquake, for allegedly not providing adequate information and warning. 309 people died.

I want to know about here. I want to know about now, before the earthquake, before people have died. Here in Tofino, government officials are not providing adequate warning or information or planning for an event that we know is coming, and that we know will be deadly.

Must we wait until after the event happens, and hundreds or thousands of people die needlessly, due to inadequate or, in the case of Tofino, also dangerously inappropriate information? Or can we actually act with foresight, rather than hindsight?

Must we wait until people die? Or can we charge them now?

Reference: Map showing official Tofino tsunami evacuation routes.
Brown area is the tsunami inundation zone. White areas are safe areas. Look how much of the inundation zone people are expected to travel through, and how many safe areas they bypass, if they follow this plan. Remember, trees will be down and driving will be impossible. They have 15 minutes to get to safety.