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Rock Climbing Update

Last night the Ottawa Gatineau Climbers’ Coalition held a meeting to allow their membership to react to the latest NCC plan for climbing in Gatineau Park. The NCC is offering a restricted number of routes but wishes for the Coalition to sign a partnership agreement that will enable joint management of the activity.

This morning the Coalition president Eric Grenier was interviewed on CBC’s Ottawa Morning show along with NCC Biologist Catherine Verreault. The audio for that interview is posted at the show’s web page under the heading “Rock Climbing.”

Eric Grenier reported that the Coalition saw itself as having three options:

  1. Accept the conditions offered by the NCC and work with them
  2. Reject the NCC offer but continue to work with the NCC toward better access
  3. Disband the Coalition in the view that it has failed in it’s goal.

He reported that it was the second option that was chosen.  He reiterated the view that has been reported here, that the climbers feel that the NCC has imposed these considerations based on outdated information and without sufficient involvement of the community.

Catherine Verreault spoke second and reported that the escarpment was the most ecologically sensitive and important part of the park, and also that the park is now operating with conservation as a priority. To Grenier’s comment about peer review of the climbing management approach she indicated that the overall conservation plan had been reviewed my outside experts. She acknowledged the quality of the plan put forward by the Coalition and expressed gratitude for the efforts they contributed but she said that some of the ideas couldn’t be taken into account because of the constraints of the Ecosystem Conservation Plan.

The difficulty appears to be that the NCC is operating on a basic principal that human presence in the area is problematic in itself. The climbers on the other hand take the view that their presence is minimal and that best practices now used reduce this even more.  In the past they’ve claimed that the full historical list of climbing routes, approach paths and staging areas constitute about one percent of the escarpment.

When asked questions about the impact of climbing and how that compares with other activities Catherine Verreault said that their studies had not looked at those comparisons because that was not the goal. She said “the goal was to restrict the activity, to be able to protect more the escarpment because any human presence has impacts…”

Monday’s Rock Climber Info Session

Back in 2005, the NCC attempted to ban climbing on the escarpment altogether. The Coalition was formed at that time. In 2006, under the original Coalition structure, an agreement was worked out between the NCC and the climbing community. Most of you are probably aware of the contents of that agreement. It eliminated climbing in certain parts of the escarpment and imposed some best practices on the climbers as to what we should be doing out there in the park.

By all reports, the NCC’s been extremely pleased with the level of compliance that the community has shown towards that agreement, and it’s worked out for them very well,as far as I know. I haven’t heard any complaints about it, and as far as I know, nobody else has.

That agreement was valid for I believe it was a year. In any case, it was renewed a couple times since then. The last renewal at the beginning of 2009 was for one further year, and it expired at the end of 2009. So in December, it ceased to be in force.

Around this time last year, the NCC’s second workshop for their ecosystems conservation plan was held. Members of the community and other interest groups attended, and basically we were presented with a second draft of what the contractor, Del Degan Masse, produced.

Most of you are probably aware of what was in the summary that was released by the NCC. The plan was actually formalized, I think it was in September, presented to the NCC board in November, and released in February, I believe.

Essentially, what this contractor produced was a series of recommendations that went into this plan, and what they were recommending to the NCC was that climbing be limited to the two or three most affected rock cliff faces in the Gatineau Park, which brings us to this current situation that we’re in now.

Despite the fact that the NCC claims to be engaged in a process where community involvement is at work and where user input is valued, that hasn’t been what we’ve noticed happen over the last couple of years.

I believe at this point that the NCC has already produced a draft agreement that they want to present us with at their earliest convenience. I believe they wanted to have it done before May 1.

In the NCC’s eyes, they’re really viewing this as a transition year. They ideally would like to have all these changes that they’re proposing in place by this time next year. So before the next climbing season starts, all these measures were to be put in place.

These measures, they’re proposing to limit climbing access to the Twin Ribs, so Copacabana and Down Under, Eastern Block, and Home Cliff West, which is the Main Corner and the Peggy area. That’s all the climbing that they are willing to allow on the Eardley Escarpment. Mostly the reasoning is that these are the areas that are already most affected.

In addition to this, they are also proposing to ban ice climbing, citing as justification some regulations regarding winter use trails being prohibited. Additionally, they’ve also already started to implement some of these initiatives that they have developed based on the recommendations in the park.

A lot of you are probably aware that the hang‑gliding parking area has already been closed. A culvert’s been dug, and there is no access to that parking lot anymore. They state that that parking lot was disused.

Obviously anyone who’s actually been there knows that that parking lot and overflowing every weekend. They’ve done this without any consultation to anyone. It was a surprise when this happened. People just showed up and were wondering what was going on.

So that’s the situation as it stands today. Essentially, the NCC seems to be just going ahead with whatever they’ve decided to do based on recommendations of a consultant in a process that hasn’t had any meaningful input from the community.

There are still a lot of things that we don’t know. They have produced a report on a study that they commissioned also over the last year or so. Essentially, they’ve taken eight of the most frequently used sites on the escarpment and counted the number of rare plants that occur in the area.

They’ve established some criteria for evaluating the ecological value, and the climbing interest, and other aspects of these eight areas and have used that information to determine which areas they want to keep open to climbing. As I mentioned, it was those four areas: Twin Ribs, Eastern Block, and Home Cliff West.

What they don’t mention explicitly is bouldering. They do acknowledge in that study report that bouldering is a type of climbing, and they do in one spot mention that it does happen in some of the zones that they surveyed. But that is the only reference that they have, and it’s the only information that they’ve provided to the Coalition.

Up until this written occurrence in the report, bouldering didn’t exist. In addition to what is in the report ‑ well, probably more important is what isn’t in the report ‑ and anything that isn’t specifically spelled out in the report as being an area that is going to be left open is closed.

So all access is prohibited to any area not listed in the report. Like I mentioned, they only surveyed eight of the most populous areas and they’ve left out all the outlying areas. So there are a lot of things we still don’t understand about what the NCC is planning to do about climbing.

It’s clear that the NCC doesn’t understand what climbers are looking for in terms of recreational experience. It’s clear from information in the report that they don’t have any experience managing climbing activities. They don’t have any expert knowledge on climbing. Some of the conclusions they’ve drawn are based on the impacts of climbing that they perceive seem to be related to climbing practices that are decades out of date.

So we have a lot of issues with what we don’t know about the NCC’s plans and what the NCC doesn’t know about climbing.

In addition, there’s been a very large disconnect in terms of how they’ve been interacting with the community. They, like I mentioned, they claim to have a transparent and community involved process and that simply hasn’t borne out to be the case.

We’re getting dictated to based on misinformation and regressive management practices that really aren’t defensible in terms of any modern management that they bring us.

So our position, essentially then, is that the process hasn’t happened. The process that needs to happen to develop proper climbing access management in the Gatineau Park simply hasn’t happened. Nothing that the NCC has shown us demonstrates that they’ve been willing to actually engage in a meaningful process with us despite claims to the contrary.

One thing that’s for sure is that the climbing community does care greatly about the ecological integrity of the escarpment and the whole Gatineau Park. As far as the NCC’s concerned, I’m sure that they see it differently but they’re badly misinformed.

The Coalition is committed a management plan with the NCC that ensures the protection of the escarpment and protects climbing access. There are methodologies that can be employed, tools that can be used, processes that can be put in place that would ensure that both of these goals can be met.

So what are we going to do? How are we going to convince them of this? It was my hope that we were going to be able to have dialogue to develop this process together. But the communication we’ve had with the NCC over the past couple of weeks ‑ well, mainly the last communication I had with them where they requested a meeting with the Coalition in order to present us with an access agreement ‑ left me with the impression that they’re not interested in the process.

How do we engage them in that process? I think that the way we have to go about doing that is by employing public influence. We have a post card campaign directed at the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. We have that ready to go.

We’ll be asking the community to write letters, email the CEO of the NCC, email John Baird, who’s the Minister of Transport, and hopefully with these measures, we will create an atmosphere where they’ll be more inclined towards a collaborative process with the Coalition.

So essentially, we need the membership to go ahead and make that happen for us. We’ll make this as easy as possible for people to be able to do this. We got some postcards that we’re ready to distribute, and all you have to do is sign your name and mail it in. We have an action center that will be live on the website shortly to help you email the people in question, some topics suggestions for a letter you might write to these people.

On the other side of the equation will be the Coalition’s approach towards NCC Park Management in order to try and promote the idea of this process. We’re really demanding from them that they sit down with us and work out something that will work for everybody because it is possible. They are simply choosing not to engage in it, and I think that’s what we have to change.

The details of what stays open, what to close, those are things that we aren’t ready to discuss with them yet because there’s no framework in which we can address those issues. We haven’t got any way of having meaningful communication with the NCC, based on what they’ve provided to us now.

If they’re willing to work with us, that is the goal, that we develop, as I mentioned, this framework that we can come to agreement on access and figuring out how we protect ecology, how we protect access, how do we do these things together? That’s something that the community can get behind and that’s something that everyone wins at.

If we can’t make that happen, the only alternative for the Coalition is simply to withdraw from the process. We can’t continue to be a contact point for the NCC to this community. Essentially, the Coalition cannot agree to something the community will not support. So being presented with an agreement, really it’s rather silly. An agreement is something that parties come to together. I think that’s the direction the NCC and the Coalition should be taking.

So my hope is that we can make that happen. My fear is that it’s going to be messy.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

The full audio ran a full hour and a half. I’ve pulled out a few of the gems that struck me.

Note that these are my memories of what was said, not direct quotes. Further they are hearsay as opposed to allegations.

  • Some people had read the Ecosystem Conservation Plan in detail, including documents and studies referenced as sources and pointed out that some of the authors of these cited studies had subsequent study reports that were not mentioned in the Plan yet which called into question the very conclusions that the Plan relied on.
  • One or more people were reported to have been hired by the NCC to survey climbers but the climbers felt that the results that these studies produced were not what the NCC wanted to hear and so the survey staff were not renewed in their contract and the study results never seen publicly.
  • The NCC is said to have budgeted $1.6 million to rehabilitate the climbing sites.
  • The NCC were said to have used proximity to parking as a measure of how desirable a climbing route might be to a climber.
  • As the 2010 climbing season approached the coalition is said to have offered to re-sign the 2009 MOU until the new MOU could be worked out but the NCC had not been interested.

Why Is There A Penguin In Gatineau Park?

There exists in Gatineau Park a lovely picnic site called Penguin. This is an unusual name for a geographic feature, lying as it does about eleven thousand kilometers from the nearest penguin habitat; therein lies a tale.

In winter skiers can park at P5, also called Penguin and if they head north they pass the sign for the Penguin Picnic Area and may head up Trail #1 toward Wattsford lookout. I’ve heard this steep pitch up toward Wattsford called the Penguin hill but in days of old it was known as Excelsior hill; excelsior is Latin for “higher.”

It appears from time spent squinting at the old maps that the present course of the Gatineau Parkway as it curves north after passing beneath the Kingsmere Road, follows quite closely the route of something called the Penguin Trail. This is another story from the annals of the Ottawa Ski Club. As an aside, what is now called the Penguin Picnic Area seems once to have been called the Meadow Picnic Field.

Skiers in the 1920s were looking for alternatives in trying to get in to Camp Fortune. There were no ski tows at the time. These were all cross country skiers. Camp Fortune at the time was a Lodge, not an alpine ski centre, though there were ski jumping enthusiasts who cross country skied into Camp Fortune for the jumping that took place there.

At the time there was a farm on the Kingsmere Road about the place where its bridge crosses the Parkway today. This was Young’s Farm and it was as far as the newly deployed municipal snow plow went. Consequently skiers taking the bus or those lucky few who owned cars and were daring enough to drive them (most of which were up on blocks for the winter) kept trying to bushwhack across the farm fences and wooded ravines between Young’s Farm and the bush road that ran up Excelsior hill. In to fill this evident need stepped Joe Morin the Ottawa Ski Club’s Director of Trails.

The Penguin Trail was short, spanning considerably less than a kilometer, but it was memorable. This is because Joe Morin claimed to have found a penguin in the snow just as they were finishing the trail. He caught it, put it in his backpack and skied it in to Camp Fortune where he and his Night Riders nursed it back to health. They made a sort of mascot of it and claimed that it must have walked from the southern hemisphere and that’s why it was so tired. Other people were skeptical and arranged for a visit by—as the 1943 Ottawa Ski Club Guide puts it—“learned and bespectacled ornithologists” to disprove the unlikely claim. The bird however, having regained its strength, flew out the window before the bespectacled doubters could inspect it and Joe maintained his claim that it had indeed been a penguin.

Modern day Park users may be aware that a penguin is a flightless bird. This undercuts Joe’s authority in the event of the bird leaving on the wing, though it may give a small degree of support to the “walking-thus-tired”  theory.

Yet another theory has to do with a linguistic misunderstanding. Whereas English penguins do not fly, in French a pingouin is a bird that flies; it changes its name to razor billed auk in English and inhabits the north east Canadian coast, sometimes getting lost and finding its way quite far inland—though perhaps not walking.

Here’s an extract from that 1943 Ottawa Ski Club Guide:

The village of Old Chelsea, nestling at the foot of the Gatineau Hills, was for a long time the terminus of the wheeled vehicles after t eh latter made their appearance on the Gatineau Roads in winter—the end of the ruts, so to speak. There were sleigh ruts further on of course, but these were insignificant scratches in comparison to the deep, cave like tracks left by buses and motor cars. When the municipal snow plough, equipped with a new engine, managed to crawl up to Kingsmere, busses and cars followed in its wake, cautiously at first, going no farther than Young’s place, and not even that far when the going was bad. It was not a very great gain, except perhaps for the bus company which charged fifteen cents more for this extra short mile; in fact it was no gain at all for the skiers who had almost the same distance to cover to get to the foot of Excelsior hill, there to pick up the Canyon trail, than if they had started from Old Chelsea, but they could not be convinced of that and they called on the Ottawa Ski Club to open a way through the maze of wire fences and ravines that stood between them and their objective. This new trail was cut in short order by the Company of the Night Riders and was named the Penguin.

And Thereby hangs a tale: Late in the afternoon of a cold, winter day, just as the sun was sinking in a sea of gold and red behind King’s mountain, a gang of Night Riders led by their Captain Joe Morin, was busy putting the finishing touches on the new trail and snipping the last barbed wire when they heard a noise like the flapping of wings in a deep ravine near by. Joe went over to investigate and found a rather large, strange looking bird floundering helplessly in the snow. He picked it up tenderly, put it in his haversack, and brought it to the dormitory of the old Camp Fortune Lodge where the bird quickly revived under the influence of warmth and good food. It was at once identified as a penguin by C. E Mortureaux who had seen a few penguins in zoos, many pictures of them in books and had read a log about their habits. The bird stood up exactly like a penguin, making a neat little bow whenever any one entered the dormitory, uttering an incessant prattle that no one could understand, not even the Night Riders, accustomed though they were to the meaning of strange sounds in the bush. All these were clear cut characteristics of the Penguin family, the standing up habit, like a man, the affability and civility and the inarticulate, unintelligible language. The bird was a penguin, there could not be a doubt of that, and he was accepted and adopted as such b the Company of the Night Riders with whom it made fast friends.

Not so by the world at large, however. The news that a penguin had been found in the wilderness of the Gatineau hills met with general skepticism, and a violent controversy raged for a while. Penguins live in the Antarctic circle said doubting Thomases; they cannot fly, they only walk, and rather slowly at that. How could one of the tribe possibly tramp all the way from the Polar regions to Camp Fortune? The thing was preposterous. To that, the supporters of the Penguin theory replied that this particular bird might have been a champion walker. Anyway, the condition of extreme weakness in which it was found clearly showed that it had come a very long way. Possibly it was brought on the wings of a storm. Stranger things than that have happened. Perhaps also penguins had been creeping closer to us with the new ice age that was coming [clearly this was written before worries of climate change and global warming were dreamt of]. Anyhow, if it was not a penguin, it was up to the other chaps to prove it.

The other chaps took up the challenge. They refused to be taken in by this impersonator, as they called it, who posed as a penguin. They filled up a sleigh load with learned and be-spectacled ornithologists, and another one with all available treatises on birds, including the works of Audubon, and the little caravan set out for Camp Fortune on a bright winter day. Whether the feathered visitor had wind of their coming and did not want its identity revealed, whether it just happened that it did not want to trespass any longer on the hospitality of Camp Fortune, no one ever knew, but just as the steps of the winding stairway leading to the dormitory were groaning under the weight of the ponderous scientists, the bird jumped on the sill of an open window, flew high into the sky with powerful strokes of its short wings, soared for a while, orienting itself, and then flew straight towards the great northland. It never came back. Now how did that penguin ever learn to fly?

A very plausible theory was offered that appeared to solve the mystery and left both camps satisfied. The bird was not an English penguin but a French “pingouin”, in fact a member of the auk family – not the great auk which has become completely extinct through the greed and thoughtlessness of man – but the “razor billed auk” (Alca torda) a close relative of the penguin, known under the name of “Pingouin commun” by the French. The razor billed auk inhabits the coasts of the North Atlantic. Specimens at times have been found far inland, in a starving condition, unable to return to their sea homes. Their wings are short but powerful, and they can fly a long distance. And this is how the short bit of trail from Young’s farm to Excelsior, over the brow of the Bald hill, came to be known as the “Penguin’s”. After all, does not this sound better than the “Razor billed auk’s trail”?

To this day, however, Captain Joe Morin who, eighteen years ago, on a cold winter night, found this strange bird in a deep ravine on Lemay’s farm, has remained convineced that it was a real “penguin”. And he might be right. Chi lo sa ! [which I believe is an Italian phrase meaning “who knows?]

This photo of a razor billed auk shows why there might have been some confusion those nearly 90 years ago.

By the merest coincidence in the fall of 2009 I happened to interview the Philip Durkin, Principal Etymologist for The Oxford English Dictionary and he happened to mention one of the most recent theories on the etymology of the name of this bird, a penguin. In part he said that it may have been the extinct Great Auk that was first called a penguin by Welsh sailors in the 1500s and that this name only later was applied to penguins of the Antarctic. The Welsh name may have come from one of the North Atlantic islands off Canada that had been inhabited by these birds which could have been called “white head” because of its white cliffs (perhaps white with guano?) the phrase in Welsh being rendered as pen gwyn. The auk then taking its penguin name temporarily from the name of the island it was found on in such numbers.

According to Wikipedia the Great Auk was brought to extinction based on being hunted primarily for its downy feathers, and this despite legislation to protect it as early as 1794 in London. The Wikipedia article even identifies the names of the people who killed the last Great Auk in the middle 1800s.

Credits: I want to thank the Canadian Ski Museum for allowing me to use a couple of the images from the Ottawa Ski Club. Please give the museum your support.