Project Peregrine

So what's a good way to make an amazing weekend? Taking things you love and combining them into a crazy smorgasborg that barely gives you time to sleep. And that's exactly what I did this past weekend.

As those of you who have read some of my other postings probably realize, I love climbing (and, more generally, exploring).

Something few of you would know is that one of my favorite animals is the peregrine falcon. A majestic bird capable of insane speeds and precision strikes, the peregrine falcon is a marvel of nature. This bird regularly swoops at speeds exceeding that of a human in free-fall (potentially even double that speed), all while catching other birds midflight for dinner. So...how does this have anything to do with climbing? Well, you'll see soon enough!

This weekend I flew back up to Thunder Bay. As normal for one of these trips, I landed, grabbed a rental car and met some friends at the Sovereign Room for a few drinks (well...a friend in this case...). We hung out for a bit, grabbed some food and found a place to crash for the night. With a slight confusion between left and right almost making things extra fun (thanks for catching that, GPS!).

The next day, we called and emailed around a bit to see who was up for what. First up? Brunch at the Hoito. Mmm Finnish pancakes. After fueling up, we drove down to Silver Harbour for some climbing. Even got to introduce a few new climbers to the sport. And you know what else is nice at Silver Harbour after a bit of climbing? A bit of swimming in (still frigid) Lake Superior--really helps cool off after a long day on the rock. Rounding up a few more (non-climbing) people, we ended up back at the Sov for food, beer and a night of fun. And I bet you're still wondering where those falcons come in. Well, patience is a virtue!

Given the beautiful night, I figured it was well worth finding a good spot to watch the sunrise. Driving out to one of the great hilltop vantage points in the city, I waited for the first light of dawn. As it arrived, I was not disappointed. Beautiful colors painted the horizon and, despite the old sailor adage (red sun at morning, sailors take warning), I was glad I made a point of seeing it. But I couldn't linger long, as there was more climbing to do!

So I met up with the Alpine Club--we were hiking out to some more remote cliffs this day. Arriving at the first site, we're greeted by the property owner's nice big shaggy dog. Picking up our gear we begin our trek through the dense forest up to the cliffs, keeping a careful eye for numerous ticks climbing on our clothing. After a few significant detours (a combination of large poison ivy patches and GPS malfunctions), we reached our first site. While a bit low on water from all the detours, we began to set up our ropes and such.

OK, I admit it. I fibbed a bit above. We weren't out here to climb. We were here to tag baby falcons! For those who don't know, peregrine falcons nest on cliffsides, including in the Thunder Bay region. When the chicks are a few weeks old, scientists from the Thunder Bay region come out to put identifying tags on their legs to help track the population: Project Peregrine. The local section of the Alpine Club of Canada helps to safely do this tagging.

So one climber rappels down the cliff and puts the babies in a specially crafted box. The box is hauled up the cliff and everyone works to quickly catalog the number of chicks, their sex (based on the size of their legs, which are fully grown by this point), approximate age (based on markings and similar), weight and diet (remains of various birds are found in the nests). Small identifying tags are also attached to their legs, to aid in population tracking. Several types of parasites are checked for and cleaned out of the birds' ears. Once all this is done, the chicks are returned to the box, lowered to the climber on the cliff and returned to their nest.

Did I mention the parents are circling overhead, calling out and swooping down on us as we do this? Slightly sad to watch (but also impressive and even a bit scary, especially after feeling the talons on the babies), but the small amount of energy they waste on us here has really paid off in helping the falcon population recover. Luckily they don't care about human smells on the chicks by this point and this work only serves to help the falcons in the long run.

Finishing at the first site, we hike back (again constantly picking ticks off our clothing), drive to the next property, hike up and repeat the process. And a good thing we had ropes this time--someone almost slipped off an edge before catching on. Getting back from this site, though, we end up with a bit of a surprise--the property owners also happen to make excellent apple wine and other snacks. After enjoying our show through their spotting scope, they were more than happy to share.

Having spent many hours on just these two nests (the falcons don't make them easy to reach without wings), it was time to head back to town. Luckily, things were far from over--one of my friends was having their birthday party that night. Being a Ukrainian, his party involved alcohol, food, alcohol, throwing knives, alcohol, more food, music, dancing and did I mention alcohol? Still, when most of the guests are of Slavic blood, the alcohol doesn't do much other than make for a good party.

And, like a good Ukrainian, I still managed to get up the next morning for more climbing. This time, the target was Mt Helen, an approximately 70 meter (230 foot) tall cliff with grippy rock overlooking a beautiful glacier lake about 90 minutes north of Thunder Bay. Great spot with perfect weather--bright and sunny but not too hot and dry enough that there was no need even for chalk. While the bolt spacing is a bit large (an unlucky fall at some parts might involve sliding 15 meters/50 feet down the cliff face--probably should really back the bolts up with trad gear), it's a nice long multi-pitch slab climb. But currently infested with biting ants...while a bit painful and slightly harder than without the distraction, still very much worth the drive out. Sadly, given my plane flight that evening, we couldn't stay overly long.

In the end, to top off an already wonderful weekend, I managed to stop by Merla Mae for some delicious ice cream (another thing I love) before heading back to the airport.

All in all, a pretty awesome weekend.

The peregrine falcon! Alex learning to climb. Ignace giving some tips. Ready! Aim! Fire! Thunder Bay morning.
The Sleeping Giant awakens. Daybreak. Rise and shine! Bones! Terry ready to go!
Frank hiding in the trees. Monica scrambling on up. Still a ways to go. Deeper into the woods. Falcons aren't the only thing around.
Brian surveying the nest. Bird's eye view. Frank and Brian getting ready. July haze. Terry and Monica ready to belay.
Frank climbing down. Brian finishing preparations. Frank rappelling down. Beautiful views. Frank getting to the nest.
Loading the baby bird box. Loading the baby bird box. Hauling the baby bird box. Project Peregrine supplies. The boxed baby birds.
Determining sex by leg size. Noisy fella. Calming down. Brian and Ignace banding. Checking for parasites.
Cleaning the ears. Perched on a leg. Monica shares a moment with the falcon. Are we done yet?
Banding. Back to the box! Soaring.
Dropping something.
Dinner! Nesting site. Soaring past.
Moving fast!
An older chick. Can I go home now? Banding time! Banding time! Back to the box.
Brian and Monica with another chick. Weighing the chick. More banding.
An old church. The cliffs behind the church. Going up the cliffs. View from the top.  Stitched with Autostitch. Hiding in plain sight.
The long climb, from below. Going up the climb. Setting up the half-way station. Ready for the next climber.