Vancouver International Film Festival

Join me on February 12th at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where I’ll share what it was like to live on Todagin Mountain for five months while shooting a story on one of the largest herds of Stone’s sheep before it loses its habitat to mining. Tickets and information.

Paul_Colangelo_VIMFF_550

National Geographic Explorers

I am honoured to be counted among the National Geographic Explorers!

National Geographic Explorers

Wolf Pack on Todagin

Visit the NatGeo Explorers Journal to watch a wolf pack 16-strong patrol the Todagin plateau in search of sheep.

Todagin Mountain

Mating Season on Todagin

Visit the NatGeo Explorers Journal to read what it’s like to camp for three weeks on Todagin in the winter to photograph the rutting season.

Todagin Mountain

National Geographic Explorers Journal is featuring a three-part series on Surviving Todagin. Check out the Introduction here:

Cleaning Up and Drying Out

I can’t think of a better way to clean up after the first leg of fieldwork. I am off the mountain for a few weeks as I prepare for the return trip to photograph the rutting season in November.

Day 54: Todagin Weather

High wind is a frequent problem on the plateau, and again it got the better of my camp. When I return in November to photograph the rut, I’ll move camp off the plateau down to tree line to escape the weather, which will only get worse.

Day 45: Escape Terrain Camera Traps

The plateau is etched with a complex network of sheep trails, many of which follow precipitous routes across cliffs. These are used to escape predators, such as wolves and grizzlies, and to access safe places to bed down for the night. Escape terrain is a critical component of sheep habitat – a herd will settle with poorer forage if needed to ensure adequate access to cliffs. In an attempt to capture the importance of this terrain, I rappelled the cliffs to install camera traps along these trails.

I fell madly in love with Rachael in three days. And it didn’t take long to know that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. So when Rachael traveled north for a short visit, we hiked to a peak on Todagin and I asked if she would marry me. I love you, Rachael. Thank you for making me too happy for words!

Camera-trapped proposal pics:

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay walked up Todagin Mountain to witness this threatened landscape the same way he has witnessed so many others: one sandaled foot in front of the other. It is inspiring to sit on this plateau and talk with the man who spent 455 days walking 3,200 miles across Africa and helped create 13 National Parks in Gabon.

His new work looking at the wave of resource extraction developments sweeping across northern BC is shocking. The rate and scale of development is unprecedented. I have partnered with Mike to produce in-depth stories of some of the hotspots in the region he is covering, Todagin being the first.

The cook at a nearby lodge was thrilled to meet Mike. He has had a Fay quote tattooed on his arm for a decade: “There will not be a day for the rest of my life that I do not think of this place. I finally found here what I have been looking for all my life.” – Mike Fay

After hiking down to arrange a shoot with local hunters, the Beaver Lodge becomes my office where I edit, catch up on communications and plan shoots.

There are many narrow shoots and trails that are perfect for camera traps. The sheep funnel through these passages as they move from the plateau to the cliffs, which serve as safe bedding areas and escape terrain when they are pursued by predators (mainly wolves and grizzlies). The sheep take their own portraits as they pass the automated camera that detects motion.

I am feeling snowpack-fresh, which is a welcome change, as this time last year it was snowing and windstorms were destroying my camp.

In the region for research, filmmaker Nettie Wild decided to join me for a week on Todagin. One of the greatest rewards of working in the region over a number of years has been witnessing the awareness of the area snowball. One project is the spark for another, and the fire spreads. Just a week ago in MEC, I overheard a couple discussing their upcoming trip to the Sacred Headwaters. Four days ago I met another young couple in a nearby lodge who were here to explore for the first time. Artist Ann Perodeau is championing a project to have artists across Canada paint images of the Sacred Headwaters. In all four cases, the spark was the Sacred Headwaters book created by Wade Davis and the International League of Conservation Photographers. For me, the spark was Ali Howard’s Skeena swim (the entire 355 miles!) So thank you, Ali, and welcome, Nettie.

What started out as a project to get to the bottom of and raise awareness of land-use plans that didn’t seem to make sense has grown into a love affair. The landscape is spectacular. Its wildlife values are obvious. It is woven into the history of local people. And it is accessible. The Todagin Plateau could be a world-class wildlife viewing, hiking and hunting destination. Perched on the edge of the plateau and watching sheep cross a valley as the sun drops, the knowledge that this place is now a mining tenure makes me feel ill.

Day 1: A Return to Todagin

After just over a year, I have returned to Todagin for three months of shooting this wonderful, if at times heartbreaking, story: What is thought to be the largest lambing herd of Stone’s sheep in the world lives on the Todagin Plateau, a kind of prairie heaved into the sky. Recognizing the value of the herd, the BC Government made the herd’s winter habitat a provincial park in 2001, but in 2010 the same government authorized exploratory mining across nearly the entire plateau, which makes up the herd’s summer range.

For the next three months, I will camp on Todagin Mountain to photograph the herd and map its habitat use. You can follow along via my tweets from the mountain (thanks to Iridium), and I will update this journal in batches when I hike down for supplies.

Day 62: Season-ending Storm

Tents torn apart. Poles snapped. Foot-and-a-half-long stakes ripped out of the ground. I have no idea how fast the wind was to do all this, but 3,000 ft below me it was knocking trees down across the highway. Todagin is known for its wind, but not like this. Some pilots wouldn’t fly in it, but luckily one helicopter pilot was nearby and able to pick me up. When he landed, he actually held the nose down to keep the wind from tipping the helicopter back on its tail.

All this to say that a storm has cut this leg of the fieldwork short. It was the second time this year that the tents were completely destroyed, and it would be serious trouble should this happen in the middle of a -15C night. So I’ve decided to pull everything off the mountain until I can find a solution for the wind.

Time to dry out…

Day 57: Sunny Return

The highway finally reopened, allowing me to make the six hour drive north from Smithers followed by the six hour hike up the mountain. It’s good to be back and especially good to be greeted by sunny skies.

Day 53: Extended Stay in Smithers

What was supposed to be a three-day trip to the nearest town of Smithers has now stretched to over a week. It’s official: BC has had the worst summer for weather in 50 years. It has become so bad that flooding and mudslides have closed the highway, delaying a return to Todagin.

The silver lining is that it makes time for much-needed editing and updates.

Day 40: Preparing for Civilization

Necessary before hiking down to civilization…

Day 38: Mountain Office

I have to say I’ve become so used to conducting day-to-day business from a mountain that I’m starting to wonder why I need an entire office. A laptop and an Iridium sat phone are all you need, and of course a way to keep them powered. Brunton’s portable solar panels are somehow able to suck enough energy from even the most overcast days to power the phone and laptop. These panels do away with the need for a loud generator and are the only option if you’re backpacking.

Day 36: Scouting

Soon the sheep will make their way to their rutting grounds where the rams will battle for the right to mate. Fierce headbutting competitions will establish the hierarchy and leave all exhausted. It’s a time that promises plenty of action.

Our camp is too far away from the rutting grounds, so we plan on relocating. But high winds (tent-destroying) are an issue, as the rutting grounds are completely exposed, so finding a somewhat sheltered camp location is crucial.

Today we packed light and made the long hike to scout for our new base camp location.

Day 32: Resupply

Hiking off the mountain to resupply afforded a night in a cabin with heat. Pure luxury.

Day 27: Winter?

A typically unpredictable August day on Todagin.

Day 26: Hurry Curry Chicken

It took a while to try all the AlpineAire meals, but I’ve found a favourite hands down: Hurry Curry Chicken.

Day 24: Laundry Day

Day 23: Staying Sane

Day after day of freezing rain and high winds are enough to drive you mad. Sitting inside a small tent isn’t much better.

Two pieces of gear have kept me sane and changed camping forever. First Ascent’s base camp tent is the size of a small living room and is just as comfortable when it’s raining. There will be no going back to sitting by myself in a tiny tent after experiencing this.

The other is contact with the outside world via email made possible by Iridium’s sat phone. There’s nothing like notes from loved ones to brighten yet another rainy day.

Day 21: Camera Traps

One of the techniques I’m using to capture images of the sheep is camera trapping. An infrared beam is set across a sheep trail, triggering the camera when broken.

The great thing about Stone’s sheep is that there are well-defined trails everywhere, so at any given location it is fairly easy to know where they will walk. The frustrating thing about Stone’s sheep is that are well-defined trails everywhere, making it impossible to know at which location they’ll be.

Day 14: Dinner Guests

Well our First Ascent base camp tent has gained renown among the hunters throughout the plateau. As word spreads, we receive more and more visitors seeking shelter from the rain.

Tonight Steve and I even played host to a couple hunters who stopped by for dinner. That’s right. We had a dinner party on Todagin. Complete with pleasant conversation and wine. We compared AlpineAire meals and spoke about the weather. We even gossiped about a hunter in the neighbouring drainage we saw wearing cotton.

At the end of the night we said our goodbyes and Steve and I did the dishes while agreeing what a nice evening it was.

Day 14: Mapping Habitat

The first step in ensuring sustainable development and the protection of a wildlife population is understanding the population and its needs.

Stone’s sheep research has traditionally focused on winter habitats, as this is when they can be found in higher concentration. The protection strategy on Todagin reflects this. Their winter habitat was protected in 2001 by means of Todagin South Slope Provincial Park, but the rest of their habitat — the plateau and other cliff areas — has remained unprotected.

It is this unprotected habitat that was recently opened up to mining exploration. At this point, the mining company is just looking around with relatively low impact, but should they decide to propose a development, we must understand the herd’s needs to ensure sustainable development.

As a preliminary step in this direction, we are mapping the herd’s habitat use during spring, summer and fall by photographing the sheep with a device called FotoSpot by Eka that provides the coordinates of the camera and its bearing. Through a series of trigonometry calculations we are able to pinpoint the exact location of the sheep being photographed.

This data will then be mapped to show the where and when of the Todagin herd’s movements. Habitat protection involves protecting not only core areas but migration routes, which this data will help provide.

Day 12: Living with Grizzlies

In 12 days I’ve come across five grizzlies roaming the plateau. Thankfully these are the type of grizzlies you want to be sharing a plateau with. They are primarily interested in digging up marmots and ground squirrels and don’t pay any attention to people or their things. I watched as a grizz sauntered past a hunter’s tent without so much as looking at it, not to mention the stash of food laying in the open.

But nonetheless, when you have four months’ worth of food and a longterm camp where you’re cooking, it’s a good idea to take precautions. I’m using UDAP’s Bear Shock Electric Fence to dissuade any inquisitive bears. At only three pounds, I definitely recommend it for backpackers seeking a sound night’s sleep in grizz country.

Day 12: Mountain Office

Thanks to Iridium sat phones, I not only stay safer but in touch. This length of time in the field requires being able to keep up with emails on location. Deciding on which sat phone to use was easy, as every inquiry I made was met by one answer: Iridium is the only reliable option.

Day 11: A Day of Firsts

A bittersweet day for the sheep: first day without rain and first day of hunting season.

Small tents sheltering bow hunters have popped up across the plateau. Todagin Mountain is world-renowned for its Stone’s sheep hunting. A Stone’s sheep kill is one of the requirements of a Grand Slam, a coveted award for which a hunter must kill one of each of the four North American wild sheep species — the Dall, Stone’s, bighorn and desert bighorn.

Hunting on Todagin is not a simple task. While one may use a rifle to shoot Stone’s sheep elsewhere in the province, Todagin is limited to bow hunting and its conditions aren’t ideal.

First a hunter must confirm that a ram is “legal”, meaning they have to get close enough to ensure there are at least eight rings on the horns or see that the horns breach the height of the nose. Getting this close to an animal that has been conditioned by years of hunting to take flight from humans would be difficult in any environment, but consider that Todagin is essentially one big open field. There isn’t much to hide behind and even the grass is only an inch in height. I watched as a pair of hunters attempted unsuccessfully to “be the grass” — disappearing into the ground via camouflage.

Then the hunter must get even closer to kill the sheep with one arrow. Again, difficult enough in any condition, but consider that one of Todagin’s defining features is high wind.

Because of these challenges, only a handful of rams are taken from Todagin each year.

Day 10: Rain, Rain, Go Away

The weather forecasters predict this will be one of the worst British Columbian summers in decades. Of all times to be right…

Day 10 marks the tenth day of rain. I’ve spent the days following bands of sheep to document their habitat use, scouting photography locations and setting camera traps.

Day 7: First Snow

Snow in July? Yep. Todagin has it all.

Big thanks to Innate Gear for their thermoses that keep the tea hot all day.

Day 6: Ode to Steve

Camping might be one of the most efficient means of getting to know a person. I met Steve Ablitt for the first time as we boarded the helicopter to fly to Todagin. In this short time I have come to know Steve as perhaps the most unique and gentlest person I have ever met.

Steve splits his time between a seagoing sailboat he built himself over nine years and a remote bush camp hidden deep within the Sacred Headwaters, where he lives in a trailer packed with high-tech video equipment.

When a pair of swallows flew into his trailer one spring, rather than usher them out he allowed them to build a nest and raise their young on his bookshelf. He kept the door open for the entire season. When he awoke before the birds he would take care not to disturb them. The bugs eventually got so bad in the trailer that he opted to move into a pup tent.

He gave up his home to a young family of swallows. Gentlest man ever.

Day 5: Relocating Base Camp

It took only five days of having to hike uphill for three hours before finding sheep to convince us to relocate base camp. Our new home is on a lovely piece of sheltered waterfront property. The best part about it: views of sheep.

Day 1: Setting Up Camp

Months of research, planning and fundraising capped by two weeks of logistics madness has landed me on Todagin Mountain, my home for the next four months. I could finally let out a breath held for weeks as the helicopter left me in silence. It is refreshing to shift from the abstract and administrative to the tangible and real.

Joining me for the first two weeks is videographer Steve Ablitt. We set up base camp in a sheltered clearing tucked in next to a cliff often used by the sheep. From here I will spend the next four months photographing the herd and mapping their habitat.