Capturing change across the landscape

Features Series

Back in Victoria again, my fingers have relearned how to use a paring knife, while my hands recognize how a pan fits between palms during cleaning. Being dependent on someone else’s menu was incredibly helpful while working in the Rocky Mountains on a UVic-based research project this summer, but very little can replace the joy of making one’s own food.

As I look back over the field notes I wrote about the 2012 Mountain Legacy Project (MLP) field crew’s experiences, I am stunned by how quickly those seven weeks came and went.

The MLP focuses on repeating the photographs from historical photo-topographic surveys that ran from the late 1880s to the 1950s. Field crews like the one I was a part of this summer climb (or are helicoptered to) mountain peaks surveyors visited years ago. We are often able to line up the repeat photograph from the exact spot the original surveyor took it from, which enables us to track landscape changes to a large vista.

The project has been under way since 1998. About 5 000 repeat photo pairs have been taken. Tree-line shift, forest composition, glacial recession, historical wildfire patterns and human development’s growing imprint on the land are a few of the changes visible on both mountain slopes and valley bottoms.

Numerous graduate and undergraduate projects have been involved in this research, which has included collaboration across universities and a variety of organizations, including Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, which has provided the food, lodgings and helicopter support for the MLP through its fire camps.

What follows here is a short account of my best working summer ever.

The find

Job-hunting in Victoria in May is a challenge. Job-hunting in Victoria at any time is a challenge. I don’t think I know anyone who has had an easy time finding meaningful work, and I was certainly struggling in spring of this year.

I saw what looked like the perfect job advertised on a poster tacked to the School of Environmental Studies’ hallway corkboard. Six to eight weeks in the middle of nowhere. Photographing mountains. Being outside almost every day. Hiking. Processing digital imagery. (And, though I didn’t know it then, a lot of zipping around in helicopters, too.) I applied, crossed my fingers, and after a decent interview and several weeks of waiting, got the invitation to join the team.

The preparation

Wilderness First Aid. The course began four days after I accepted the post for MLP. I was glued to my laptop, reading the online notes in an effort to dispel the ragged ghosts of under-preparedness that poked at my sleep.

Put on gloves. Offer first aid. Get consent. Primary survey. Secondary survey. Check breathing. Circulation. Airway. Level of consciousness. Deadly bleed. The rule of threes: a person only has three minutes of life without oxygen, three days without water and three weeks without food. Be creative, but plan ahead. You can create splint materials out of all sorts of different materials, but make sure that if you don’t have branches around, at least you have hiking poles to improvise.

I bought two more pairs of work pants, a camping pillow, several tubes of Blistex, Band-Aids and a waterproof stuff-sack. And in case the cooks in the Alberta fire camps found it difficult to work around my garlic intolerance, I bought snacks.

A giant pile of equipment started to grow on the living room floor.

The history 

Surveyors traditionally took to the mountains in the summer — as I did — when the snows had melted, allowing safe access to all but the highest peaks. They were the first to develop Canadian-made photo-topographic surveying techniques. They used medium-format glass-plate cameras that took photos of startling quality and clarity. Only recently could digital-format cameras match the resolution of those early photos.

The maps produced from the combination of photography and traditional surveying techniques were extremely accurate (if there was any error, it was only to within metres), and many are still in use today. 

Early mountaineers exploring the Western Canadian mountains, such as A.O. Wheeler and M.P. Bridgland, played an enormous role not only in expanding the perception of the mountains (which were considered treacherous places to be avoided), but in building topographic maps and increasing access to the landscapes traversed on their summer excursions. Basically any prominent vertical feature in the Canadian landscape was surveyed this way, including an enormous Interprovincial Boundary Survey between B.C. and Alberta, plus other mountains in B.C. and the Yukon and some scattered patches in Ontario.

These early surveyors were also instrumental in building the mountain culture of the West. A.O. Wheeler helped co-found the Alpine Club of Canada, for example. What fun it was to reach some of our stations and wonder if anyone else had visited there since the original surveyor. At times, I was convinced no one could have made it back up some of the rockiest slopes.

Canada has the world’s largest systematic collection of 140 000 glass plate negatives between Library and Archives Canada’s collection and the B.C. Archives’ collection — more than several lifetimes of re-photography work.

In addition to repeating photographs and completing field research, MLP focuses on digitizing and storing the historic images, many of which are still only in glass-plate form. And once the photos have been taken, the project strives to present the comparisons between the two images.

The team

Originally based out of the University of Alberta, the MLP moved to UVic in 2002 with Eric Higgs, professor and graduate student advisor in the School of Environmental Studies, who spearheads the project. 

As for the field crew, the 2012 team was led by Jenna Falk, a master’s student in Environmental Studies at UVic. With a ballsy sense of humour, bushy brown hair and a chipper attitude, she was perfect to lead the team through a flash flood, a hail-storm and a night hike.

Mary Sanseverino was our multi-skilled genius: a professor in Computer Science at UVic and our photography specialist. Her camera knowledge was irreplaceable for our fondly nicknamed “Swedish Princess” — the approximately 20-pound Hasselblad H3 camera that occasionally acted up. Sanseverino could coax that camera into working like no one else could. A proponent of hiking poles, she brought a seasoned perspective to the mountaineering aspect of our trips, as well as enthusiasm for, well, basically everything except the toughest bushwhacking.

And I came along with a bit of point-and-shoot camera experience, a bit of mountaineering experience, writing skills earned through UVic’s Creative Writing program, and a passion for the outdoors.

We went by Chevy Silverado (a.k.a “The Silver Bullet”), by helicopter, briefly by river fording, by our own legs and in our sparse spare time, by swimming and by short trail ride on horseback.

 The regions 

We travelled a lot: from almost the furthest point west in B.C. to three different regions in Alberta over seven weeks.

We left Victoria with a truck packed full. A two-day drive saw us arrive in Alberta.

We had our crash course on radios, an introduction to our loaner fall-arrest harness and our helicopter hover-exit training on our first full day in Alberta’s Kananaskis country.

The next day saw us figuring out simple things like our Spot Beacon (a tracking device). We debated who should hold what in the helicopter (GPS, printed photos, camera), when to eat lunch and when to duck into the trees for a bathroom break.

We put in 12- and 13-hour days during our first work-week as we learned the daily workflow, how to organize the massive amounts of data we were beginning to collect, and a system of communication while hovering some of the trickiest shots out of the helicopter (“Please turn 20 degrees to the left; 30 degrees to the right”).

Hovers would happen for one of two reasons: the station location was at a lower elevation where dense trees prevented us from landing (taking photos of tree trunks doesn’t offer much in terms of visible landscape change), or the station location was at a higher elevation, but the landing looked horrible. Too rocky, too steep, too scary. Inexperienced as we were in those early days, we had noticeably more hovers than when we’d refined our ability to judge landing sites with the pilot.

Our first outings were in Alberta’s Clearwater region, northwest of Rocky Mountain House. We were rained out and dodged further north to the Willmore Wilderness Park. The Willmore is located to the south of Grande Cache, and words cannot describe the beauty of its wide valleys and round ridges. 

Then we returned to B.C., where we booted to our stations on foot, fighting hordes of hungry mosquitoes in Mt. Robson Provincial Park (MRPP) with our supervisor, Higgs. He had finished an intense week in the Yukon, taking MLP’s second field crew to, among other things, photograph Kluane National Park’s Kaskawulsh Glacier.

We headed back to the Clearwater after a short stay in the MRPP, trying to capture a few more images before the season ended. The rain dogs had disappeared, and we left there 55 photos richer.

A gorgeous drive through the Icefields Parkway took us back to Mt. Robson’s vicinity, and our two days at our last station passed quickly. We snapped 11 photos that form two partial panoramas from the top of the Rainbow Range.

After a 12-hour drive we were back in Victoria, unloading the Silver Bullet by moonlight.

The lifestyle 

Rise early. Greet cooks, fire-fighters and co-workers. Breakfast. Prepare personal gear for the day. Consult checklist to make sure you did not forget anything. Grab gear. Head to helicopter. Greet and chat with pilot. Fly to station. Report all movements to Dispatch.

Having successfully located station, set up. Take repeat photos. Take field notes. Pack up. Scour the scene to confirm no equipment was forgotten. Crack a pun while waiting for pick-up. Send a happy note from the Spot Beacon. Fly to next station. 

Repeat the above. 

In case of bad weather, pack up. It is impossible to take photos with any kind of significant moisture in the air. The camera will act up. Try again tomorrow or the next available sunny day. 

If the weather holds, continue until all prepared stations for the day have been completed. Return to base. Don’t forget to drink water and eat lunch somewhere on a grassy knoll, bear spray at the ready. 

Upon returning to base, unload gear. Sort through it. Confirm all gear is present. Replace radio batteries. Check other batteries. Join the fire-fighters and camp boss for a quick dinner. Or take a restorative nap. 

After dinner, process photos. Back up data in at least five places. Burn CD of newly captured photos and mail to Victoria. Prep photos for next day. Stock field notes. Sleep. 

Repeat the above. 

In the event of a rain day, sleep in. Do not attempt to rise early. The pounding rain will do nothing to dampen your spirits if you’ve caught up on sleep. 

The take-away

Change can be difficult to visualize, whether it’s landscape change or climate change. This is where this summer’s photos help immensely. Pairing images that cover over a hundred years’ time can show dramatic changes that wouldn’t be obvious if you simply looked out a window.

While digital analysis of the images is conducted in the lab, there were often remarks of “Wow, look at how that’s filled in,” or “Holy smokes! Look how much higher the trees are on that slope.” Sometimes there were seasonal variations in snowpack, as we likely weren’t taking photos in quite the same month. Often the dense stands of trees spoke for decades of fire suppression.

Through the MLP, I learned that the best adventures are those experienced with new friends who brave raging rivers, headlamp-guided night hikes and craggy mountain slopes (even if those same friends snore in tents at night and need to be poked so that you can get to sleep).

I also learned to trust my boots. We trundled through mud puddles and up and down slopes so steep that they made me marvel at gravity and feel grateful that both surface tension and friction exist. 

There’s nothing quite like a three-way snowball fight in the middle of July, kilometres away from any significant anywhere, where laughter can erupt uninhibited in the quiet of the peaks. And to feel small, staring at some of the greatest landscape features in the world is wonderful.

I’m almost sad to be starting my own master’s project this September, as it means I might not be able to participate in MLP 2013, but that also means that the portal to adventures is open for others next year.

For more info on the project, check out the website at or the blog at