Canada

Posted by Ellen

The night owls who officially discovered–and named–Steve are the members of a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers. They are folks who like to stay up late and drive out to remote pastures and mountain valleys, even when the winter nights are insanely cold, which they often are in the prairies and Rockies of western Canada–all in hopes of a chance to enjoy big, unpolluted views of shimmery aurora borealis lights in the northern sky.

Steve is the name the aurora chasers borrowed from the children's movie Over the Hedge and applied to a particular, somewhat unusual aurora-like phenomenon, streaks of purple light that ripple vertically from the horizon instead of dancing horizontally along it like a normal, well-behaved, aurora. Normal auroras are produced when electrons thrown off by the sun approach earth, where they are pulled by our magnetic field toward the north and south poles. As they collide with gas molecules in the upper atmosphere, they can put on a bright light show.

Steve, scientists thought at first, could be generated by protons instead of electrons crashing into our atmosphere. But a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, Eric Donovan, suspected otherwise; proton collisions, he thought, wouldn't give off much visible light for aurora chasers to photograph and enjoy.

In 2016, Donovan was able to track down something he thought might be an instance of Steve that was picked up by a satellite flying right overhead in Alberta. So he went on Facebook and asked the Alberta Aurora Chasers if they'd seen anything that night, at that location.

They had noticed it and photographed it. Donovan correlated their photos with the satellite data and concluded that Steve wasn't technically an aurora at all; it was a ribbon of extremely hot gas flying through space, more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than its surroundings.

Donovan believes the Steve discovery demonstrates the potential of "citizen scientists" to leverage data from satellites and other instruments in our brave new world. Of course, it also demonstrates what happens, à la Boaty McBoatface, when digital anybodies are charged with coming up with names for stuff.

Posted by Ellen

In the wintry weather currently gripping eastern North America, icy mounds of frozen spray, known as sugarloaves, are growing huge atop frozen rivers below not-quite-fully-frozen waterfalls. There's a sugarloaf at the base of Niagara Falls this year, and also one at Montmorency Falls near Québec City; the falls at Montmorency are some 98 feet higher than Niagara and are located almost a thousand kilometers to the northeast, in a climate zone where every winter is plenty cold enough to make a sugarloaf.

The painting shown above, The Ice Cone, by Robert Clow Todd, shows Montmorency Falls and its sugarloaf in the winter of 1845. The place looked pretty much the same when we visited, in the winter of 2004, minus the horses, of course.

Tall, cone-shaped things with slightly blunted tips are often called sugarloaves, especially if they are ski resorts or a mountain in Rio de Janeiro with a statue on top. That's because real, old-school sugarloaves–actual hard, solid loaves of refined sugar–were produced in molds shaped like that. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, when manufacturing processes emerged to refine sugar into a granulated product, people who could afford to buy white sugar–meaning rich people–bought it by the loaf, which might weigh as much as 30 or 35 pounds. They chipped off pieces as needed, using heavy, sharp-edged pliers known as sugar nips.

The sugarloaves pictured below are on display in the Sugar Museum in Berlin.

Posted by Ellen

The post in the foreground marks the border between the Canadian province of Manitoba and the state of North Dakota; the farm fields in the background are in North Dakota. Last weekend, 22 refugees, mostly from Somalia, walked for miles through these fields in below-zero cold and waist-deep snow, attempting to escape the United States and find freedom in Canada.

In 2016, more than 400 refugees crossed the border here, in hopes of being granted asylum in Canada. Thousands more attempted the crossing elsewhere along the northern edge of the United States.

A common story behind this journey involves fleeing a war zone or other hellish homescape and eventually making it into the U.S., usually by way of Mexico. The refugees plead for asylum and are taken into custody; they are imprisoned for a year or more, during which time contact with their families back home is extremely limited. In fact, communication with the outside world is so limited that they find it impossible to properly prepare their asylum paperwork.

Eventually, they may be released under restrictive orders, pending an asylum decision. Their petitions are judged inadequate, their claims rejected, and they are ordered to report for deportation back to Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, or whatever land they had fled.

Instead, they head north. Canada and the U.S. have had a treaty since 2004 called the Safe Third Country Agreement, which basically says that refugees just get one shot at filing for asylum, either in Canada or the U.S., whichever they come to first. But the refugees argue that the U.S. isn't really a safe haven and keeps refugees locked up and unable to obtain documentation needed for their claims; Canada, they say, has a fairer system.

As long as the treaty is in effect, Canadian border agents have to turn over would-be asylum-seekers from the U.S. to U.S. agents. So the refugees can't enter Canada by road. They walk through woods or fields, or in some cases swim, across the border in between offical crossing points, and then they turn themselves in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The police call in organizations to help find housing and other support for the border-crossers. Immigrants from their homelands are contacted, to help with employment and translation. Advocate groups help with the asylum paperwork. Border towns, such as Emerson, Manitoba, the settlement closest to the fields shown here, are sometimes called on to provide emergency food and shelter.

On Christmas Eve, two men facing deportation back to Ghana, where one of them said he would be killed because he was a homosexual, paid a cab driver $400 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to drive them to the border. The driver let them out near this field in a snowstorm, with wind chill far below zero.

For seven hours, they struggled through snowdrifts to cross the field. Only one of them had a hat; neither had gloves. When they finally crossed the border and came to a road, they spent three hours trying to flag down a passing vehicle. Finally, a truck driver stopped for them and called 911.

Both men are still in the hospital in Winnipeg, where they face amputations from severe frostbite. One has been told he will lose all his fingers and at least one toe. Still, they say, their situation is far better than it would be back in Ghana.

This refugee railroad, headed north to freedom, predates the election of Donald Trump. But there is now much greater interest in sneaking into Canada even by asylum-seekers who have not yet had their claims rejected; they fear that even if somehow they can manage to stay in the U.S., their families will never be allowed to join them. 

There is also increased interest among Canadians in ending the Safe Third Country Agreement, in light of recent evidence that the U.S. can no longer be considered a safe destination for many refugees.

Posted by Ellen

In the middle of Fairy Lake, near the remote town of Port Renfew on the west coast of Canada's Vancouver Island, sits an old Douglas fir log, partly rotting where it's exposed to the air but mostly submerged in the still waters of the lake.

On the rotten tip of the log is another Douglas fir tree, alive and growing but not exactly flourishing; its roots struggle to maintain purchase on the log and to pull nutrients from the rotting wood. Without soil to grow in, it is stunted, a natural bonsai tree, starved but somehow much more interesting and impressive than all the millions of ordinary fir trees growing fat and happy where trees are meant to grow.

Posted by Ellen

Last week saw the finals of the 2016 World Figure Skating championships, and needless to say, Bobbi Cochar was there for every minute of every program. Ever since she sat rinkside at the Canadian national championships in Ottawa in 1984, this Toronto native has never missed a major skating event, no matter where on earth the venue might be.

She cheers on her Canadians, of course, two of whom, Megan Duhamel and Eric Radford, did skate away with the gold medal last week in the pairs category. But Cochar is really there for all the skaters, making sure that every single one of them receives one of her trademark needlepoint skate ornaments as she or he goes out on the ice, along with a personal note of encouragement and thanks.

Skating looms large in Cochar's heart, especially since her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis at the age of 28. She had always been a noncompetitive dancer, and after her diagnosis, she was stunned to realize that she could still skate, even performing complicated moves and routines. "But once I was off the ice," she recalls, "I couldn't walk to save my life."

Multiple sclerosis has since cost her the hearing in one ear and the color vision in one eye, though the doctor who predicted she'd never walk again was incorrect. She skates six days a week now, four days for her work with the CanSkate program and two days on her own, just because she can.

Until recently, Cochar's mother, also a longtime ice dancer, traveled to skating events with her. The two of them collected autographs on their jackets from skaters all over the world, and took personal responsibility to make sure that anybody at all who was brave enough and hard-working enough to go out there and skate their hearts out in front of a crowd would go home with words and tokens of appreciation from skating's unrivaled superfans.

Posted by Ellen

Last weekend, Hank, his climbing buddy Pat, and their other climbing buddy, the orange-footed yaller guy, summited Mount Gimli, a 9,000-foot spire of gneiss in the Valhalla Range of southeastern British Columbia.

Posted by Ellen

Where's Momo? Andrew Knapp regularly posts photos of his border collie playing hide and seek in and around Sudbury, Ontario, a city 400 km north of Toronto that is still recovering from more than a century of nickel mining.

Posted by Ellen

Tadpoles swarm amongst the lily stalks in a Canadian pond, in a photo submitted to National Geographic by Campbell River underwater photographer Eiko Jones.

Posted by Ellen

Almost nothing is known about this photo, which apparently showed up recently in a secondhand store in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Dominion Photo Company, which takes credit for the picture, operated in Vancouver for about fifty years, beginning in 1914. The fashions on display here, in clothing and music, not to mention the light fixtures and potted palms, suggest the 1930s?

We would imagine that when all those dozens of lap guitars got to strumming, the sound of the islands would have really filled up a room. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, master slide guitarist Johnny Pal shows how it was done.

Posted by Ellen

Just west of Toronto, in the fast-growing suburban city of Mississauga, these two condo towers have scratched the sky in flat-out defiance of latter-day suburban trends: they are not boxy, they are not real-estate development disasters, and not a one of their 800-plus condo units is exactly like any other in size or shape.

In 2005, Mississauga's mayor announced an international design competition for a single 54-story tower at the site, to be known as Absolute World. In 2007, the winning architect was announced, chosen by the voting public from among six finalists selected by a panel of Canada's leading architects and planners. The winner was Yasong Ma, of MAD Architectural Design Studio in Beijing. Almost immediately, the spiraling, curvaceous tower was nicknamed Marilyn Monroe.

When condominiums in Marilyn Monroe were offered for pre-construction sale, almost all were under contract within 24 hours. The developers quickly announced a second, companion tower, also spiraling and asymmetric but a bit more buxom, so as to accommodate a few more units. This second tower sold out within about a month.

People began moving into Marilyn Monroe, the righthand tower in this picture, in July 2011. Both towers are now fully occupied. They feature six stories of underground garage space and are located across the street from one of the largest shopping malls in North America.