During my high school reunion, one of the Saturday activities available was a walking tour in the river valley. I thought I should see how much I didn’t know about my home town. The area where the center is located played an important role in my youth as it  very close to where my parents had their business for almost 60 years. I spent a lot of time in the vicinity. The Helen Schuler Nature Center is in a nature reserve in the river valley of the Old Man River in Lethbridge, Alberta. The nature reserve has three unique ecosystems in this 196-acre park:  the prairie, the coulees and the floodplain.

For those unfamiliar with the local terminology, coulees are the steep-sided, v-shaped valleys found along the river throughout Lethbridge. They were formed when the last glaciers retreated from the area. Since that time, the coulees have been eroded by water and wind and serve as a sanctuary for wildlife as well as home to hundreds of native plant species.


The center offers guided walking tours that are interesting and educational, with programs available for all ages. This was my very first visit to the Helen Schuler Nature Center and I learned a number of intriguing things. For example, I learned something about trees.

Cottonwood trees are the only native tree species found in the Lethbridge area.  There are three species of cottonwood that grow in our river valley:
  • balsam poplar
  • narrowleaf cottonwood
  • plains cottonwood

The Oldman River valley, from Brocket to Lethbridge, is unique. (These places are about 43 miles or 70 kilometers apart.) This is the only place in the world where these three species interbreed to produce hybrids! Hybrid forests support a wider variety of insect and bird species. In order to survive during times of drought, cottonwood trees can cut circulation to specific limbs, in order to conserve water. Those limbs die, but the tree is able to survive. Wow am I glad that people don’t have to do that! A mature female tree can produce up to 55 pounds of seeds each year. Considering that they are released in cotton fluff that weighs next to nothing and blows all over, you can imagine how much fluff is released each summer. If you live near cottonwoods, that fluff is almost everywhere.

cottonwood trees

I also learned that porcupines are abundant in the area, and that they spend a lot of time in those cottonwood trees. They are excellent climbers, using sharp, curved claws that easily grab into the course, rutted bark of the cottonwoods. Porcupines also have very course bristle-like hair on the underside of their tails. This helps to prevent the porcupines from slipping down as they are climbing as the bristles catch against the bark.

cottonwood bark

We didn’t see any porcupines, but this is what they look like. (photo from Wikipedia.)

North American porcupine

 We spotted some deer while we were walking, and learned that their antlers weigh about 5 pounds. We were given the opportunity (with a weighted helmet) to feel what 5 pounds would feel like on top of your head. I appreciate why deer have such beautiful strong necks.

testing antler weight

The nature center surrounds the base of the High Level Bridge, which is a Lethbridge icon than never fails to draw appreciative comments from me – no matter how many times I see it! It is so beautiful. Some of my favorite photos showcase my newest obsession – rust.

high level bridge

looking up at bridge

rust on high level bridge

rust on bridge

more bridge rust

Another fascinating tidbit that I have to share is my discovery that Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the milkweed plant, which happens to grow here. Butterfly picture courtesy of Monarch Butterfly website. (yes, these beauties have their own website.)

monarch butterflies

I had never seen a milkweed plant before, or perhaps never in bloom. Either way, I was taken with the beauty of the flowers.Here are my photos of the milkweed plant, a partly opened flower and an open bloom.

milkweed plant

milkweed flower starting to open

open milkweed flowerIsn’t this just incredible? And to think that the butterflies travel from Alberta to Mexico – talk about determination. Of course only the fourth generation of monarchs born in September and October make the trip, but check out their website for all the details.

I thought I had shared all the good things I learned but I forgot this fabulous caterpillar that I found. (I only wish I’d had my macro lens and SLR camera with me. I did some research and found his family info on the internet. I proudly present the caterpillar of the Spurge Hawkmoth. The moth is not that attractive, but I think this little bug is one of the most amazing things I have seen in weeks, and I’ve seen some pretty amazing things lately. How do you like him? (Actually not sure of how to determine sex on caterpillars, so forgive me if I’m wrong on that point.)

spurge hawkmoth caterpiller

I hope you appreciate that I’ve spent hours doing the post for a nature walk that only lasted about 90 minutes. I really enjoyed it, perhaps you can tell?

13 thoughts

  1. One summer as part of a National Endowment of the Humanities fellowship I visited western Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta as we discovered the area of the country where writer Wallace Stegner grew up. It was incredible. I’ll never forget the skies and the coulees. Beautiful, lonely country!


      1. We did go to a dinosaur center on a hillside outside of Eastend, Saskatchewan, which is where Stegner lived as a child. Very small town. Quite amazing!


  2. I so enjoyed this post — and your terrific pictures. I agree with you, that caterpillar is gorgeous, and so is the milkweed plant. I was half-hoping you that you were going to share with us a glimpse a porcupine climbing a tree, but it wasn’t meant to be. Naturally, the goofy 5-pound moose helmet with the ears and antlers amused me very much. Thanks!


  3. Hey! Looks like you are well on your way to becoming a Tree Hugger 🙂 The Helen Schuler Nature Centre is my favorite place in Lethbridge, Once I had a stand off with one of those porcupines on the paved path, guess who won? I was the one that had to move off the path, walk up the hill and around. Now that I know they have a lot of friends thanks to your informative blog, I’m glad I moved.


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