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The quintessential David Lawley

In "The Snowy Owl", David Lawley wrote: "Myths like these are slowly being replaced by scientific truths. Most people no longer believe the world is flat, or that the world was created only a few thousand years ago." Below are samples of Lawley's writing selected from the span of his work, mostly, we hold, reflecting a truth.

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Seals on the Move

I remember very closely my own experience observing Grey seals on the pack ice. The sky was silver-coloured and the entire ocean seemed frozen just off La Bloc, an historic Acadian fishing village located only a few miles from the western entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

I watched from a distance through a telescope a very dark seal attended by two rather large northern ravens. I could hear the huddled ravens having a discussion, probably about the meal they will make of the afterbirth. Fresh protein and fat may very well mean the difference between life and death for the raven during some of our harshest winters.

Only the ravens watch as the seal lay on the cold ice. There was no sound; her large black eyes showed no pain as she gave birth. The little pup's first experience outside it's mother's warm umbilical fluids was to land head first, splat!, on frigid ice. The temperature was -20 Celsius with an 80 km wind enriching the newborn pup's introduction into this world. The pup would soon discover the warmth and protection of the sea, windless under the water.

As I approached the mother and her pup the next day, she barked and hissed at me, then lumbered over to a hole in the ice, her nostrils pinched tightly shut, and slipped gracefully under the ice. I immediately left the area. I knew the newborn needed its mother's rich warm milk and secure company. The pup would nurse about three weeks and then shed its natal coat, called lanugo. It's an extra coat for the first few cold weeks before they can swim in colder water. "Mother thinks of everything," but she will only feed the pup for the first three weeks, then she will suddenly abandon it to fend for itself."

Shunpiking, Volume One, Number Two, February-March, 1996

Skiing the Cape Breton Highlands

The deal grouse reminded me of a story an old park warden had told me. He had once seen a moose standing in the same place for several days - frozen solid. Eventually, it thawed and keeled over.


I had to answer the call of nature first.

As I stood in the freezing rain I heard footfalls. Quick, dainty feet were dancing in the dark just in front of me. Two red eyes shone in the glow of my penlight and I could just make out that they belonged to a coyote. Beautiful, but frightening. I yelled at Gervais to come out with the big flashlight. Even with that powerful light on its face, it didn't appear frightened. When Gervais yelled and hit it with a snowball, it jumped into the air and landed even closer. Into the distance came another pair of red eyes.

We retreated to the snow house. Gervais said this pair of coyotes might never have seen a human being before. "They were just curious."

"Sue," I said. I could still hear them circling outside. It had gotten so cold after the fog lifted that their every footstep crunched. But I finally drifted off to sleep.

Upon waking, we found the world covered with ice and the area around our shelter marked with little yellow spots. "I think they are telling us that this is their domain," said Gervais, the coyote psychologist.

Shunpiking, Volume One, Number Two, February / March, 1996

A century of suÍte winds

Some people claim they can hear the suÍte winds coming, they hear an echo in the mountains. Laura said that she could always tell when the suÍte was near - the "children would get crankery and jittery."

Shunpiking, Volume One, Number Four, May, 1996

Dances With Whales

We spotted five fin whales, apparently feeding on small herring fish. Some fins were rolling on their sides, herding the fish together before opening wide and feasting. Calixte slowed the engine to an idle. The whales were about 50 meters away, and we were all leaning over the port side trying to get a better view. I turned to see if perhaps a whale would surface on the starboard side, and noticed not everyone was portside watching whales. New found shipmate had decided to hastily disrobe. By the time I swaggered across the deck of the softly heaving vessel, my friend was down to his shorts. He pulled a snorkel out of a bag and head for the gang plank. "I'm going to join them," he said. "I want to be with those beautiful animals." I lightly touched his hand as he reached for the rail and whispered that the boat didn't have any insurance covering people cavorting with lower life forms, and could he please perhaps change his mind. He showed many facial expressions, but the last one was recognizable as relief as he gave up on diving overboard. Somewhere in the corner of his sparkling eyes, though, I saw that he would try again some day. I hope he makes it.

Shunpiking, Volume 1, Number 5, June 1996. Also included in Whale Watching in the Maritimes (Nimbus Publishing) 1998

The snowy owl; new understandings about this fearless bird of myth

Myths about nature abound. I remember as a child my father told me such wrongs as "Even if you cut a snake's head off, it won't die until sunset." Other favourites of his were "Cats have nine lives," or "If you cut a worm in two, you simply have two live worms." Myths like these are slowly being replaced by scientific truths. Most people no longer believe the world is flat, or that the world was created only a few thousand years ago. What does this have to do with the snowy owl?

The snowy owl is another creature that has attracted its share of human misperception. Why they appear here in winter has been a subject of considerable debate in the bird-watching world. A sighting would be followed by the folk wisdom that "It must be a bad winter up north." It was believed that the extreme cold of the northern winters drove the snowy owls south.

But as it turns out, sometimes the winter isn't hard in the far north and yet many snowy owls are sighted in the south. At other times, severe winters don't seem to increase the numbers found in our region. Some other explanation had to be found to account for their migrations. During the last twenty years new light has fallen into our understanding of the life on the snowy owl, light that has dispelled previously held ideas. A closer looks reveals some of nature's complexity.

Partici-Paper, Inverness County Recreation/Tourism Department

You never know who you'll meet in a cold dark pond at night

Our neighbours are playing loud music practically all night. Their rowdy night life takes on the character of a kind of swinging disco where it's easy to pick up a date. You'll hear snoring, peeping, quaking and trilling calls. There's a sound like banjos.

It's a cool overcast night with a soft breeze gently swaying last year's cattails and bulrushes. Hundreds of peeping sounds come from every direction. Looking closely at the pond vegetation you detect a very small, delicate creature with large eyes and a throat sac that looks like a balloon ready to pop. It's a spring peeper, a tree frog that's usually found in bushes and trees far from water. In the spring these brownish frogs head to the nearest ditch or pond to mate. They gather in great numbers, clinging to grasses near the pond's edge, calling out for a lover in the dark of night. As the clouds thin, the bright moonlight falls and the some individuals of the chorus of singers are suddenly quiet. Others see the object of their heart's desire, and they call louder: "Come on over, honey."


Our spring amphibians sing us to sleep each night in rural Cape Breton. Their songs are ancient, sung millions of nights before us, and perhaps millions after we are gone.

Partici-Paper, Inverness County Recreation/Tourism Department

The trail to Lowlands Cove '.with moose, gulls and whales'

Driving along the quiet roadways of Cape Breton always gives me a good feeling. But it is meandering through the hardwood valleys and uplands in the fall when every tree exposes its own uniquely-coloured leaves and enlivens my sense of sight that I feel absolutely wonderful.

The phenomena of nature are never the same twice. Autumn is a vivid testament. Just as we humans are each different, so too every leaf and tree exhibits its own individuality. Yet there are similarities; which is how a botanist categorizes individuals into species. And then we come to leaves! Even on the same tree, they show great differences in colour, hue and shape.


The hike to Lowlands Cove passes under a canopy of multi-coloured hardwoods. It is the season too when spiders and other small animals climb or fall out of the trees and begin burrowing under the soft new blanket of leaves for winter. The air is fresh and clean: this is shunpiking at its very best. After passing over hill and dale for what seemed a very long time, the horizon opened up to a most gorgeous valley in full fall crescending hues. Lowlands Cove, with its headlands and rocky shores splashing with white, violent waves. A strong wind was blowing, yet the sensation of wind on my face was just right.

Shunpiking, Volume 2, Number 16, October / November 1997

Coming out of the woods

In a 1998 article, David enthusiastically tells about discovering The Tuonela Trail, which he describes as a "shunpiker's dream come true" hidden on the largest hillsides at St. Anne's Harbour.

"Looking high up through the tops of the evergreen hemlock forest you may hear the great horned owls calling for their mates. The crisp magic of winter in Cape Breton will fill your little ski shoes with more of yourself than ever before. Just you and the wilderness, and the merger of you becoming one with or part of winter, here in northern Cape Breton."

Shunpiking, Volume 3, Number 18, February / March 1998

A story of the porcupine's love life

There is a clearing or glen in the forest, known only to the porcupines, where they gather in large numbers. This happens during the fall harvest full moon. They begin gathering right after sunset and form one large circle, male and female together. As darkness overtakes the forest they stand upright on their hind legs holding their balance by clasping their hand-like front paws together and resting them on their round plump bellies and resting their prickly tails on the forest floor.

Then they start to softly pat the forest floor with their feet, and commence to sing in low voices, creating a sort of humming sound. As the full moon continues to rise, so does the humming increase and the soft foot patting becomes louder. This continues, as every new ray of moon light falls on their secret fertility grounds until the brightness of the moon reaches its zenith.

Each male mates with every female. The soft gurgling voices of the females are then all that is heard, except for the occasional yip of a young inexperienced male that in his haste to fulfill his sexual dharma moves too fast. As you can imagine, mating with a porcupine can be dangerous for the inexperienced and hurried. The coupling continues until the moon disappears behind the nearby tree tops. Then each porcupine turns away, not wanting to see another porcupine until the next year's full harvest moon.

Shunpiking, Volume 3, Number 19, April / May 1998

A Nature and Hiking Guide to Cape Breton's Cabot Trail

I always enjoy lying down on the coastal headlands. The smell of crowberries and the beauty of the small blue and yellow eyebright flowers is wonderful. We may see the small crowberry blue butterfly or just bask in the sun. Listen to the waves endlessly lapping the shore marking time on the eternal clock.


Thanks for joining me, and remember, of all the things that visitors take away from Cape Breton, the magic found in the highlands, the people, and the forest remains. We all feel the magic but we can only breathe it in our lungs, then give it back. It remains for all of nature to share.

A Nature and Hiking Guide to Cape Breton's Cabot Trail (Nimbus Publishing), 1994

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