Northern Lights

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of northern Canada (besides snow) is the northern lights: the amazing light show created by the sun.

Of course, the northern lights can only be seen when the sky is dark and since the sun doesn’t set  in the summer, it is only visible from September to March.

The lights also depend on activity on the sun. They are powered by particles that are thrown out by the sun and solar flares tend to make the lights brigher. These particles hit atoms in the earth’s atmosphere which then light up. The colour depends on what gases are being hit by the particles. Oxygen tends to glow red or green, and nitrogen red or blue.

This activity produces enormous amounts of electricity. In fact, they produce 1000 times what the largest generator in the world can produce.

Sometimes this can interfere with things on the earth, confusing radio signals, making compasses point the wrong way, and sometimes overloading power and telephone lines with electrical current.

The lights occur in the thermosphere around earth. The lowest edge of the curtain of light is around 96 km above the earth (10 times higher than most airplanes fly) and it can reach up 321 km.

When the northern lights or aurora borealis is happening in the north, the same show is happening in the far south and is called the aurora australis.

Watch the northern lights in a real-time film by Alexis Coram.

Activity: Make some northern light art using chalk and black paper.

Northern Canada

This week we will look at photos of places in northern Canada: Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

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St. Elias Mountains, Yukon by Amanda Graham

Baffin Island Davis Strait

Baffin Island by NASA ICE

Tombstone Mountains

Tombstone Mountains, Yukon by Joseph

Dempster Highway

Dempster Highway Tundra by Astrid Van Wesenbeeck

Siku

Frobisher Bay Sea Ice, Nunavut by Fiona Hunt

Activity: Use a good atlas or google maps to find the places referred to in these photos and mark them on your map of Canada.

Climbing a Mountain

A mountain is defined as a physical feature that rises more than 300 meters (1000 feet) above the surrounding landscape. The tallest mountain in Canada is Mount Logan in the Yukon at 5959 meters (19,551 feet).

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Mountains store water on their peaks in the form of snow and gradually release it into the valleys below. They also affect climate as air is deflected up and as the air rises it loses its moisture in the form of rain creating the rain shadow effect. The other side tends to be drier.

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There are several mountain ranges on the western side of Canada with the Rocky Mountains probably being the most well known. So we are going to climb Ha Ling Peak, near Canmore, Alberta in the Rocky Mountain Range.

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The lower part of a mountain is mostly broadleaf forests. As you get higher this changes to conifers such as pine and spruce.

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The trees gradually thin out until it is mostly small alpine plants, and the top is bare rock. Mountains are gradually worn down by water (flowing and freezing), wind, and even the roots of plants splitting the rock.

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As you climb a mountain, the temperature drops about 6 degrees Celsius for every 1000 meters. The height can also have an effect on your body as there is less oxygen available as you go higher making you feel breathless and dizzy.

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Coming back down the mountain was probably harder than going up.

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Here are some friends we met along the way: A Rocky Mountain Goat and a Bighorn Sheep.

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Activity: Mountains are made of rock, but it’s not quite that simple. There are lots of different kinds of rock. The Rocky Mountains are made of mostly limestone, dolomite, sandstone and shale. What kinds of rocks do you have where you live? Here is a website that may help you to identify them: Geology.com

Sea Otters

The Sea Otter is one of the smallest and cutest marine mammals. They were almost hunted to extinction for their beautiful fur about a hundred years ago, in fact, they disappeared from the coastline of British Columbia. They were reintroduced to the west coast of Vancouver Island around 1970, and protected, and the population has done well.

They are extremely important for the well-being of the coastline ecology because sea otters eat sea urchins and shellfish, which can crowd out seaweeds such as kelp. Kelp takes huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air and releases oxygen which is good for the earth.

Sea Otters on Canadian Geographic: Animal Facts Page

seaotterinletThis is a lovely book to read: Sea Otter Inlet by Celia Godkin.

Without the sea otter to eat them, the spiny purple sea urchins began to multiply.

There is a balance in nature, and when one part is removed, it has an effect on all the other parts.

Activity: A food web shows feeding relationships – who eats what in an ecosystem. See if you can make a food web that includes the plants and creatures you come across in this book.

seaottersAnother book option is: What if there were no sea otters? by Suzanne Slade.

Art of the West Coast

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The first people of the Pacific Northwest were carvers of wood. They had lots of big trees to choose from, but the favourite was red or yellow cedar. They cut planks and beams out of it to build their houses, hollowed it out to make canoes, grooved and steamed thin planks to make bent boxes, carved out totem poles, and whittled out of it many other tools and household utensils.

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Haisla canoe (UBC-2009)

The symbols they carved or painted on their works often brought to mind tales that explained the world around them. They were excellent story-tellers. Here is a story from a collection of Totem Tales:

The Rain Song

Totem Tales: Indian Stories Indians Told Gathered in the Pacific Northwest, by W.S. Phillips

The Talking Pine nodded in friendly greeting as I got out of the canoe and came up to my usual place at the foot of the great tree:

“Klahowya, T’solo, the wanderer, it is well that you came to-day, for to-day the pines will sing the rain song, and you shall sing with us, for it is a good song and one to know.”

“So be it, Wise One, I will learn the rain song, that I may know it when I am in other lands. It is a good song to know when the air is dry, and you can get no water for your throat. I will learn the rain song of you, Wise One.”

“Come, T’solo, the wanderer, and sit at my feet, where I can spread my arms over you and keep the rain away.

“Now when the wind comes all the pines will sing the wind song and dance the wind dance before they sing the rain song. You know, my friend T’solo, that the wind must always come to help the pines sing, so be not impatient to hear the rain song until the wind can help us.”

So I sat down by the feet of the Talking Pine, and smoked my pipe and waited for the coming of the wind to see the wind dance, and hear the rain song.

Soon the wind came slowly out of the Southwest and the pines began to sing and the wind sang with them. At first, so softly I could scarce hear it, and I asked the Talking Pine, “Do you sing, Wise One?” “Yea, listen,” answered he.

Then I heard the wind song, for it had gathered strength as all the pines began to sing, and I could hear it very plainly. Then the pines all began to dance and to swing their long arms in time with the song, and to sway and sing until they were all mad with the dance, and I thought they would fall.

The song was wild and mournful, as it always is, and they sing it in the language of the pines, so one must know their talk to learn the words they sing.

I heard them calling the rain to come out from behind the clouds and sing with them. Then the rain rode down with the wind, and some rested on the pines, but most of it went on down and sung with the flowers and the grass; for the rain, you know, is restless and cannot stay long in one place.

The pines all love the rain and always sing the rain song when they see it coming in the clouds, so it will stop and sing with them.

For a long time the pines and the rain sung together, then the rain went away, and the wind went with it, and the pines were left all alone.

The wind, you know, is never tired, and travels all the time, so the pines always call the wind to help them dance, and they always go to sleep when the wind goes away, and the sun wraps his warm blanket around them.

“It was a good dance,” said the Talking Pine, when they had finished and the wind had gone. “Come again, T’solo, the wanderer, and I will show you other things, and sing other songs, but now I sleep.”

Then I got in my canoe and crossed the Lake of the Mountains, and left the Talking Pine to sleep out his sleep until another time.

Activity: It is fun to learn how to carve wood, but if you are just a beginner, it may be better to start with something a little softer. First choice would be carving an apple head: Applehead Doll. If you want something a little more challenging, you could try carving soap. Have fun! If you don’t want to try carving, maybe you would like to draw a picture from the Totem Tale.

Here are a few contemporary Canadian wood artists to be inspired by: Coast Raven Native ArtRobinson CookBob Whitehead