Snake vs. Frog: An Epic Battle

Early this fall, my husband and I were hiking at our local conservation area, when I noticed something dramatic happening on the path. Usually, when you see a garter snake, it is only for a moment, as it slithers quickly into the grass or the bushes. They are hard to photograph, and we’ve only managed a small image once (See my other blog site: Featured Species). In this case, however, the snake stayed put, and this was because he had a firm grip on the hind leg of a live leopard frog. He wasn’t going anywhere.


It was an epic battle for survival.  The frog thrashed desperately around, and the snake, millimetre by millimetre, continued to swallow the leg. Size-wise, we couldn’t imagine what the snake would do once it got past the leg.  Of course I’ve heard about snake jaws (and how they aren’t actually connected), but it is difficult to envision in real life. We were able to get an incredibly close look at this interaction, as neither animal was particularly concerned about our presence.

Would you watch? Would you help the snake? Would you help the frog?

Unabashed, flag-waving Trekkies that we are, this quickly turned into a discussion on the prime directive (see prime directive) of non-interference, and we decided let nature take its course. Who are we to decide who wins?


Now, during this encounter, something strange happened.  My husband had his camera (see pictures), and was focused on getting a good shot. When another couple came up behind us on the path, I pointed out what we were watching. With not even a glance at the snake and frog, they hurried on their way. As a student of human behaviour, I find this almost as fascinating as the animal battle.

Wouldn’t you stop to watch that? Or at least take a quick look? Although clearly somewhat gory, it was undeniably fascinating. I wished my kids had been there to see it. What a great ecology lesson! We know we aren’t alone in this. There’s a nature channel for a reason.

Eventually the frog and snake thrashed their way into the bushes, and we continued our walk. I was left with three questions.

1. Could that little garter snake’s mouth actually stretch wide enough to fit that whole frog? (A Google image search on the topic would indicate yes.)

2. Are my husband’s amazing frog-snake pictures too gruesome to put on a wall? (If your answer to this last question is yes, ask yourself if a picture of a fish being caught by a bear, an eagle or a human would pose the same problem.)


3. Why wouldn’t those people stop to look at the frog and snake?


I suppose, on the flip side of this, I could ask: “What made us stay?”





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A Surprise Photography Adventure Weekend (or…the Search for the Elusive Moose)

About a month ago, an e-mail popped up in my inbox. “Congratulations!” it read… “You have won a trip…”

My immediate reaction, of course, was “SPAM.” As my finger headed over to the trash button, I happened to notice the words “Algonquin Park” in the following text.  I thought, “That’s funny, you don’t usually associate spam with Algonquin.”  Reading further, I noticed the trip was a guided “Photography Adventure” tour at the Wildlife Research Station in Algonquin Park. SPAM or not, I had to look further.

Apparently, a donation I had previously made to the station had automatically entered me into a contest arranged through

What a happy accident!

As my husband is an avid photographer, and I am an avid “doer of things that involve canoes, hiking, wildlife, and the natural world in general,” clearly this was going to happen.

So, we arranged babysitting, waterproofed our hiking shoes, and headed up this past weekend to the Wildlife Research Station nestled in the spectacular fall colours of late September in Algonquin Park.

Let me tell you a little about the WRS from their website:

“The WRS is situated on Lake Sasajewun in Algonquin Provincial Park and operates as a not-for-profit organization.”  It is “A leader in wildlife research through experiential learning.”


“The goals of WRS are: To Educate: scientists, the public and policy makers;

To Conserve: biodiversity, ecological integrity, and a culture of field-based research; and

To Inspire: environmental stewardship, a community of collaboration, and a connection with nature.”

During the weekend, we hiked through pristine wilderness, canoed through glassy lakes, searched for elusive moose, took more than a few pictures (yes, even me, and no, not with my cell phone), met some really interesting people who are genuinely passionate about the work they do, and temporarily cured ourselves of Nature Deficit Disorder (See Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv). The research station is not generally open to the public and we felt immensely lucky to be granted this privilege.

dsc08931As I am a wannabe naturalist (see my other blog – Featured Species), I wasn’t as focused on taking photos as I was on trying to retain all the details of the flora and fauna being pointed out by our incredibly knowledgeable guide. Did you know that wood sorrel (which, if you’re like me, you would probably mistake for clover) tastes like Granny Smith apples?

We had so many great conversations, but we spoke at length about the importance of environmental education that occurs away from a desk or lecture hall. If you’re at all familiar with me or my blog, you’ll know I’m a huge advocate of experiential environmental education for students of all ages. You’ll know that I don’t believe that a trip to a landfill (for three consecutive years) qualifies as environmental education for a JK/SK/Gr1 student (but I digress).


With degrees in Biology, Environmental Studies, and Planning, one might assume that I had my fair share of field courses and time in nature. Yet, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of course field trips I took in my 12 years of university education (and that is probably generous). Most of those lasted less than half a day. I actually took a course in plant identification, which never left the building. Yes, my Masters and PhD involved field work, but those were self-directed.

In this one short weekend, while spending time with an experienced guide, I know I learned more than I learned in whole courses.  THERE ARE SOME THINGS THAT MUST BE LEARNED IN THE FIELD. Are you hearing me, school administrators, funding sources, teachers and professors?


If you feel that researchers need wild places that are untouched by tourists in order to gain accurate information about the health and long term sustainability of the natural life of this beautiful country….


If you feel that students need places to visit to be fully immersed and connected with the natural world, and inspired to pursue a career in conservation….

Perhaps you will consider making a donation to the not-for-profit Alqonquin Wildlife Research Station.

(You’re probably not going to win a trip, but is that really the point anyway?)

Thanks again to our hosts at WRS, (station manager Tim Winegard), and (founder Gregg McLachlan), for this incredible opportunity. I hope we have the chance to cross paths again!



Photos by Cathy McAllister, processed by Paul Habsch

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Being Brave

My youngest son just started junior kindergarten. This morning we had a little talk:

“My darling, I have a very important job for you.”

“What is it?”

“Well, there are going to be some kids in your class who are sad or scared. I need you to be brave and help them out. Maybe you can ask them to play.”

“Or to be my friend?”

“Absolutely! Do you think you can do that?”

“I don’t know. What if I’m one of the scared ones?”

“Oh love, that’s ok. You just have to take a deep breath and keep going. Helping people is the most important job in the world.”

Then, I took a long walk in a beautiful, quiet forest, and came up with the long answer.

To my sons:

Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. Being brave means taking a great big breath and doing the things you need to do anyway, even if you’re scared. 

Some days that’s all you’ll manage, and that’s OK.fear4

But sometimes, after you do those things you need to do, you might have a little bit of that big breath, a little bit of strength, a little bit of bravery left over. If that is the case, you have the great privilege of giving it to someone else. You get to put out your hand and help another person be a little less scared, or sad, or hurt, or lonely.

You see, there’s a special kind of bravery, the very best kind, and it’s called being a hero. Now, real heroes don’t fly or wear capes or have x-ray vision. You can find real heroes everywhere. They’re called teachers, nurses, firefighters and police officers. career-1501615_640They’re called volunteers and good neighbours. Heroes are the politicians, researchers, lawyers and writers who spend every day trying to make the world a better place. Heroes are the kids who stand up for other kids being bullied, and the kids who spend their free time raising money for charity. These are real-life heroes, all the people who use their extra strength and bravery to help others.

And do you know what the greatest part is about being a hero? Every time you help someone else, it makes you just a little bit stronger. It also means that on those days that you don’t feel like you have very much bravery, someone else might be willing to share some of theirs.

Now, you’re going to school, and you’re going to learn a lot of things. But the most important thing I want you to learn, my love, is how to be the best kind of hero you can be.

This morning, we lined up at the Kindergarten door. I kissed his cheek and squeezed his hand. He grabbed my face and kissed my cheek too. I stepped back while he stood in the line. I watched him take a deep breath, and I took one too.


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The Suburban Buffet

My husband likes to grow food.IMG_20140808_093734

Now, when I say “grow food,” I don’t mean a tomato plant or two. This year, he has been working on (with varying levels of success) strawberries, rhubarb, beets, radishes, zucchini, beans, peas, carrots, turnips, green peppers, grapes, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and yes, tomatoes (and I look after the herbs). Did I miss any?

We love that the children will happily eat out of the garden, and there is just something special about freshly picked produce. It tastes better, and you know exactly what went into growing and storing it.

You’d think with this level of farming, even on our suburban lot, that we’d be feeding ourselves all summer with nary a trip to the grocery store. Not so. Some crops just inexplicably failed (seriously….who can’t grow zucchini?), some fall victim to insects, but the majority have become an unauthorized, well stocked food bank for a veritable zoo of local fauna.

woodchuck.jpgNow, when I say “zoo”….I don’t mean a squirrel or two. In the past year, we have repeatedly had mice, chipmunks, a whole family of raccoons, countless squirrels, every type of local bird, rabbits, toads, snails, neighbourhood cats and a groundhog (who is nearing size of a small bear and lives under the deck.). I won’t even try to list the insect infestations.IMG_20140716_095310

My husband has tried a variety of half-hearted attempts at deterring the animals, from applying cayenne to the tomatoes, to building a cage for the strawberries. But, to be honest, I kind of enjoy seeing all these animals hanging out in our yard. Tomatoes don’t provide much entertainment value. On the other hand, watching my husband quietly stalking the groundhog with a big cardboard box, with the intention of running out and pouncing on it, is pretty damn funny. (What he planned to do if he actually caught it is beyond me).

Politicians in our community are considering a ban on “feeding wildlife” (with the exception of well-maintained birdfeeders). Uh oh. I hope they mean intentional feeding.

I’m thinking if we want a return on our investment of gardening supplies, effort and timeIMG_20130625_182241, we are going to have to take up hunting small mammals instead. How does pesticide-free, garden-fed, locally-grown, free-range groundhog sound? And, I’m about to go all Mr. McGregor on those rabbits.

At least they left us some rhubarb.

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The Kid at the Back    

I’ve decided to take a minute and dedicate this post to a special group of people.

Here goes: A big high five, a handshake, a hug and a sincere THANK YOU, to all the teachers, camp counsellors, children’s performers (and so on) who make the effort to notice the kid at the back of the crowd.

Which kid is that?


  • One who is battling anxiety or depression.boy-843484_640
  • One who just moved here and doesn’t speak English very well.
  • One who feels uncomfortable in large groups and is more at home with a book.
  • One who doesn’t like physical confrontation and doesn’t like the pushing that happens at the front.
  • One who is scared by loud noises.
  • One who has been taught to be generous and to let others go first.

But still know that….

  • he would also really like the corner piece of cake. You know….the one with the extra frosting and the biggest flower?kid back 1
  • she would really enjoy being chosen to shake a maraca during the song.
  • he loves red popsicles and is tired of getting stuck with the leftover purple ones.
  • she would really like to be invited to the party too.
  • they could really use a friend right now.
  • he deserves just as much, and maybe more, than the noisy kids shoving their way to the front.

I think we can agree that the world needs a little more gentleness, kindness and kid back30generosity, and a little less yelling, shoving and selfishness; a little less “ME FIRST!” and a little more “No, after YOU.” The kids at the back of the crowd need to know how much they mean to the world.

As an instructor or performer, it is easy to feed off the energy of noisy, enthusiastic kids. Your performance depends on them, after all.

It’s not always easy to look after the kid at the back, but it’s harder to be that kid. So, when you learn his name, give her the first balloon animal, notice his timid half-hand raise or take the time to get to know them, it sometimes means the world.

And for those that make that effort…

Thank you.



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Fear is the Path to the Dark Side

fear1There’s a short moment before I open the newspaper when I brace myself for the worst. What’s going to be on the front page today? Another school shooting? A suicide bombing? Political unrest? Donald Trump rising in the polls?

Along with this feeling comes one of complete and utter helplessness. When terrible things happen, I can’t help but wonder how in the world we are supposed to protect ourselves and our families. And, how can I possibly effectively teach my children about kindness, sharing and inclusion when bad things keep happening and powerful politicians react by preaching the building of walls, racial discrimination and promoting homo- and trans-phobic policies?

So, after yet another mass shooting at a bar in Orlando, Facebook erupts with “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their friends and families. What else can we offer? Indeed, these messages are infused with the best of intentions, and provide an element of support in difficult times, but admittedly sound a little hollow in the face of this stream of constant tragedies. What else can we do?

As a wise muppet once said:fear5

“Fear is the path to the dark side

…fear leads to anger

…anger leads to hate

…hate leads to suffering.”

 – Yoda

When our kids are small, we encourage them to make new friends and try new things. We tell them Kindergarten will be great, that they’ll make so many new friends and learn sofear4 much. We bring them to a playground and encourage them to play with the lonely child in the sandbox. Then, we promptly turn around, retreat into our comfortable little exclusive circles and look away when something or someone makes us uncomfortable or tests our boundaries.

This. Must. Stop.


Of course we all have biases and prejudices. They are part of human nature, and there’s actually an evolutionary purpose behind them. But, it is up to us to determine if our biases are based on reality or on ignorance.  This takes work. For those of us who haven’t been directly affected by these issues, it is nice to pretend that prejudices don’t exist in our communities, but they do, and things can get worse. It is time to figure out what makes us uncomfortable, and meet it face on.

Who makes you uncomfortable? Teenagers? Gay People? Americans? Old people? Dentists? Christians? Atheists? Homeless people? Women? Muslims? Then, I suggest it is time to go meet some (Yes, even the dentist. Your teeth will thank you.). There are countless opportunities for volunteer work that can put you in touch with people from different fear3cultures, income brackets, religions and ages. There are countless opportunities to welcome neighbours from different cultures, to start a conversation at a bus stop or to learn a little more about someone’s belief system. You don’t have to agree with everyone’s worldview or lifestyle, but a little understanding goes a long way towards conquering fear and building peace. I don’t teach my children about tolerance. I don’t like that word. I teach diversity and acceptance. Tolerance implies that differences are to be tolerated rather than celebrated. Tolerance implies superiority.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.

Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

-Marie Curie

When we are afraid, we can’t just build walls, or hand out assault rifles or discriminate against innocent people. We can’t just look away. We figure out the root of the problem. We embrace the beauty in diversity. We learn as much as we can. We do everything in our fear2power make every single person feel welcome, comfortable, supported and included and we hold on for dear life to the hope that others will follow our example.

THIS is the way through fear. THIS is lesson that I want my children to learn.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

-Franklin D. Roosevelt


Check out this community initiative:




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Playgrounds: And the winner is…….

Every once in a blue moon, someone does something so incredibly well, that you just have to sit down at your computer and write a blog post about it. Here I am.

When I originally saw the plans for a natural playscape at Huron Natural Area in Kitchener, I got pretty excited.  Given that my doctoral research revolved around reconnecting children with nature in urban settings, and the fact that I have two children…oh heck, let’s be honest….I just wanted to go and play there myself!

Huron Natural Area (HNA) is probably the loveliest nearby green area we have found. The trails are well-marked, and boast diverse landscapes, including ponds, fields, dense forests and streams.  When you’re in the heart of it, you feel completely separated from the city. I love to take the kids hiking there, and the addition of a natural playground makes it all the more appealing for them.

Now, I have mentioned before that I don’t like standard playgrounds. Most lack imagination, have no loose parts, all look the same, and frankly, the kids get bored. I suspect most were built by planners looking in a brochure, pointing to a picture, and saying “that one.” I have seen other attempts at “natural playgrounds” that appear to be built more for adults than children, and offer little to no challenge, loose parts, or creativity. But, let’s not dwell on those.

Not this time. This time, someone got it right.

At the HNA playground, there are places to hide, plenty of loose bits and pieces to play with, a giant sand pit with a water pump and a plethora of shovels, buckets and hollowed out log troughs to move around. There is a giant climbing structure with a net underneath (and…gasp…high places where kids can climb and potentially fall from). There are trails of logs and stones to climb and hop across and a slide in a hillside. There are little touches, like paths of animal footprints to follow in the sidewalk, and hollowed conversation benches. There is even one seemingly unintentional pile of huge logs that looks like it was just dumped there (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t). That was my son’s favourite part (sadly, I didn’t get a picture of it this time). Elementary schools come to visit HNA frequently, and when they do, there is a trailer that gets opened that is chock full of bits and pieces to build and explore with. This is really hard to capture in a photo, and it is even harder to visualize how it will look when all of the planted trees and shrubs fill in, but I know it will be spectacular.

This playground took a great deal of knowledge about how children learn and develop, how they like to play, and how to help them reconnect with nature. It is also beautifully designed to integrate with the landscape.

I do not know the people who built this playground, but I am delighted that they did.

If one of the people involved in the project happens to come upon this post, THANK YOU! This is something we desperately needed here, and serves as a beautiful example and inspiration for future projects.

You can see the plans and more pictures (which were taken earlier than mine) here:

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