Alpine Adventure – by helicopter!

Alpine Adventure – by helicopter!
by Tom Koleszar, 12 August 2017.

Twenty members of the Malaspina Naturalist Club recently enjoyed an alpine adventure, travelling by helicopter to an area near Skwim Lake.  While some were able to fly in directly from the airport, most of us flew from a staging area near Freda Lake.  Pilot Ben made sure all the flights were very interesting indeed!  We were also very lucky with the weather, finding a window just as the forest fire smoke was leaving and before the clouds arrived!

We spent the day exploring a ridge just above Skwim Lake and enjoying the views of the surrounding landscape. Our explorations included a tour along the ridge before lunch looking at the geology, flowers, shrubs, trees, and even a marmot!  Thanks to Andrew Bryant for an impromptu lecture on marmots and marmot habitats!  We found some fossils in the ancient sedimentary rocks of the area, and enjoyed several different varieties of wildflower growing among the snow patches, rocky terrain, and stunted alpine trees.  While Skwim Lake itself was mostly free of snow and ice, the upper lake near our ridgetop was still almost entirely covered, with some fascinating snow and ice formations around the shoreline!  After lunch, we had some free time to explore as we wished, or just relax and enjoy a beautiful alpine day. Our local alpine areas are fascinating, but very difficult to get to, so I think a great time was had by all exploring new territory (or in a few cases, revisiting old haunts!).

Special thanks go to Laurette Hamoline and Nancy Pezel for helping to organize the trip, our drivers who took folks to the staging are over many kilometers of dusty roads (Mel Lougheed, David Bedry, Nancy Pezel and Andrew Bryant), and also to Pilot Ben Berukoff of Oceanview Helicopters for safe flying and interesting tours!

Andrew and Laurette sent out the following emails upon their return:

Hi everyone,
Something quite amazing happened at the very end of the trip.
Specifically, we were on final approach to landing on the logging road.  I was in the front seat snapping photos.  The first two images show our landing approach.  The 3rd image shows the helicopter landing in the same spot (taken earlier in the day).  We were about at the same altitude, facing the same way, when Pilot-in-Command Ben exclaimed:
“what the F___ is THAT going on ABOVE us?”
It took a second to see what Ben had already seen through the swirling helicopter dust.
Tumbling arse-over-teakettle down through the shubs, and then down the bare slope, was an adult deer.  With a large cougar firmly attached to it.  I have an image of alternating paws, hooves and frenzied shubbery.  That was a lot of body mass to be performing somersaults. I saw this apparition quite clearly – and then I didn’t – because they tumbled down behind the log pile.  A moment later we were on the ground.  Unscheduled shut-down.  Fumbling with seatbelts and doors to disembark.  Five of us stood there, knowing there was an excited cat behind that wood pile, and a dead or dying deer there too.  We didn’t go closer.  A few moments later we caught another glimpse – the cougar streaking back up the embankment and disappearing into the undergrowth.  Ben rebooted his helicopter and was quickly airborne.  We thought it best not to check on the deer, but instead loaded gear and drove home.
Several things make the event noteworthy for me.  In 25 years of fieldwork on Vancouver Island, I only saw about 15 cougars, and never watched one kill a deer in front of me.  Second, I had the camera, literally in my hands, but the moment was too fleeting even to raise it to my eye.  Finally, the time elapsed from frame DSC_300 and touchdown was short…maybe 10-15 seconds?  So I suspect that both predator and prey must be somewhere in that photo – but damned if I can see them.
Nature, red and tooth in claw
To continue Andrew’s story ……. I was in the next shuttle run to the landing and Ben was, of course, telling us of the raw nature scene you had witnessed so we are anxious to see how the story was unfolding and especially to know where that cougar was now.  As we approached we were amazed to see the wounded deer limping across the landing right across our parking spot and down into the brush below.  It was, to be sure, a rather pitiful and disturbing sight but it’s just nature taking its course.  I’m quite certain that cougar, frightened off by all the noise of the chopper, was keeping a close eye on his supper and was just waiting for us to all to leave.  Quite something!