View of the mountains from Bloomin' Inn, Pincher Creek (Photo by NCC)

View of the mountains from Bloomin' Inn, Pincher Creek (Photo by NCC)

Interns assemble for summer adventure prep

2018 summer interns (Photo by NCC)

2018 summer interns (Photo by NCC)

Jackie Bastianon is the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) communications intern for the Alberta region this summer. She is currently studying journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa and hopes to use her writing skills this summer to compel people to care about the environment as much as she does.

At the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), the first week of May marks the emergence of spring and a flood of eager new interns.

I started my first day as the communications intern for the Alberta region on May 3, exactly one day after I’d flown my life over from my home in Ottawa, Ontario.

After my first week at NCC’s Edmonton headquarters, I'd been exposed to the overwhelmingly long list of names of the rest of the organization’s summer interns. I was ready to put some faces to those names at the annual intern training retreat, as I'd be working with them to create story content during the next four months.

My adventure began on a Monday morning when I was picked up by one of the Edmonton-based natural area managers and two other interns. The NCC truck shuttled us past the dry outskirts of Edmonton, through Red Deer, Calgary and then finally through the rolling foothills of Waterton to our final location: Pincher Creek.

This being my first summer exposure to the Rocky Mountains, I spent much of the trip glued to the window, mesmerized by the sights outside. As we weaved up and down the gentle green slopes, to my left were flat fields speckled with sheep, cattle and cartwheeling windmills, and to my right snow-peaked mountains loomed ever closer in the distance. 

I was to spend the next three days nestled in the Bloomin' Inn Ranch, surrounding by these new sights.

Once everyone arrived, I had the opportunity to meet the other 13 interns who came to congregate in Pincher Creek from their posts across the province. The first day was mainly a travel day, and after a few icebreaker activities, we settled in for a night of snacks and mingling.

The second day I woke up bright and early to the unfamiliar sound of cows “moooo-ing,” and blinding Alberta sunshine streaming through my window. After an early-bird breakfast provided by the lovely couple who ran the inn, we buckled up for a day jam-packed with training.

Interns learning to change a tire (Photo by NCC)

Interns learning to change a tire (Photo by NCC)

We started with an overview of NCC’s work. We were then encouraged to create an elevator pitch for what we were warned would be the many, many times we'd be asked to explain what NCC is and what we do. I learned that the majority of the interns were conservations technicians and their work involves a lot of time outdoors, working one on one with their natural area managers. As a group, they went over how to use their communication devices and iPads, which they use throughout the summer to monitor and map their properties. This information was less applicable to me, so I was added to the development team with the Conservation Volunteers (CV) program manager Zoë Arnold and her two interns, Emma and Hannah. 

We sat outside on picnic tables, baking (and in my case, burning) in the heat and going over how to properly conduct Conservation Volunteers events in order to best avoid volunteer-related disasters. CV events can be anything from weed pulling to amphibian surveys, and from fence removal to butterfly catches. According to Zoë, they often draw a hardworking group of loyal volunteers who are so dedicated that they must be gently reminded to take breaks throughout the scorching summer days.

After lunch, the rest of the interns joined us outside as we headed over to the NCC trucks to practise changing a flat tire. The group was then given a detailed, and much needed, overview of the proper use of bear spray.

As an Alberta newbie, I'm only just beginning to learn the amazing variety of natural areas across the province, including boreal forests, grasslands and prairies, badlands and the Rocky Mountains. Each is home to a huge variety of unique plant and animals, including bears. 

Bear spray 101

Black bears can be found in most areas throughout North America. I learned that, contrary to their name, black bears can come in a variety of colours: cinnamon, grey, black and even white. Since they generally find themselves in forested areas, their first tendency when confronted is to run and hide (or climb).

Bear spray training (Photo by NCC)

Bear spray training (Photo by NCC)

Grizzly bears, however, are rarer and can be mainly found in both BC and Alberta, as well as in small areas of the United States. These bears are generally a brown/grey colour, but as mentioned above, colour is a poor way to try and distinguish between a black bear and a grizzly. Since grizzly bears often roam in more open areas, they are more likely to stand and fight upon encounter and are generally regarded as more dangerous.

Although adverse encounters with bears are relatively rare, according to some of the returning interns and the natural area managers, spotting bears or seeing signs of them when spending time outdoors in Alberta is not. 

One by one, interns took turns practising taking the safety off and spraying the cans full of non-toxic, condensed liquid, used to simulate real bear spray. I tried it, and I'm glad I did because it worked a bit differently than I would have guessed. It startled me how powerfully the spray came out (it pushed me back a bit) and how far it could reach (about six feet).

After testing the spray, the interns were asked to walk through a slightly forested part of the property, where they were confronted by a plastic black bear (named Bob) hurling down towards them on wheels. This activity was designed to simulate a bear charge and to practice unharnessing, uncapping and spraying a bear in a high-pressure situation. The supervisors in charge of releasing the bear got a lot of laughs as the startled interns jumped at the sight of the incoming flying object and scrambled to disable the bear spray in time. Many were declared as “eaten.”  

Training wrap up

After the bear spray activity, we had the rest of the afternoon off. Some of us took this opportunity to explore the outskirts of the ranch and admire the mountains, which appeared crystal clear on the cloudless horizon. In the evening we played cards at the picnic tables and sat around a cozy campfire chatting well into the night. To my surprise, the sun only set at around 10 p.m. and was replaced by a twinkling blanket of stars. Before heading to bed, I lay in the grass looking up as the sky continued to darken and traces of the Milky Way materialized before my eyes.

The third and final day was spent inside the lodge going over some of the most common hazards for the conservation technicians to pay attention to. I learned that our number one hazard was not bears, cougars or angry livestock, but vehicles. Many of NCC’s properties are remote and much of the natural area managers’ field days are spent in the trucks driving to and from their areas on dirt roads. 

Intern training at Bloomin' Inn (Photo by NCC)

Intern training at Bloomin' Inn (Photo by NCC)

The training wrapped up early afternoon on Wednesday with a discussion of how to properly interact with NCC property owners. A date was set for the end-of-year wrap-up event and there was unanimous conclusion that food and fun should be included.

We then said our goodbyes and hopped into trucks, which dispersed to our various places across the province. Some of the southern staff had a quick 30-minute trip back home, while the north-bound crew braved the traffic through Calgary and back up toward Edmonton.

My long list of intern names and staff titles are now matched up to friendly faces. Back here in the Edmonton office, I'm brimming with questions, observations, connections and story ideas that will keep me hard at work for the remainder of my sunny summer days in Alberta.

The Conservation Internship Program is funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Summer Work Experience program.

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