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FORK IN THE ROAD: All in a flap!

Cygnus in space and hundreds more in our skies 
Fork in the Road 28.09 photo by Liz Barrett Pique--Two Swans
Liz Barrett hails from South Africa, where her love of wildlife and photography began. Decades ago she moved to Whistler, where she grabbed this powerful shot of male trumpeter swans vying for dominance, chasing each other and trumpeting loudly.

Some coincidences are too happy for words. Like the fact that at about the same time beautiful swans have been migrating through Sea to Sky country, another Cygnus grand flight was underway. 

“Cygnus” is the Latinized Greek word for “swan” and the name of the genus for these noble white birds that have grabbed human imagination for thousands of years. 

No surprise, then, that Cygnus is also the name of one of the most recognizable constellations in northern summer skies, and the name of the NASA spacecraft that recently delivered 3,700 kilograms of experiments and crew supplies to the International Space Station (ISS)—with the “proudly Canadian” Canada Arm pulling it into dock.

It’s been a blast, twice in a row, from NASA lately. Who didn’t have their mind blown by the amazing Perseverance Rover being gently, gently lowered onto the surface of Mars, then trundling about, an A.I. character we’ve remotely adopted like a surrogate pet. (It’s a she/her, BTW.) Images have been pouring in like crazy—some 7,000-plus have already been uploaded at mars.nasa.gov, inspiring art and sci-fi creations around the world. 

Meanwhile, two days after Perseverance touched down Feb. 18, another impressive space odyssey unfolded, but this one pretty much flew under the radar. The Cygnus NG-15 is the 15th Cygnus mission (they started in 2013), and was developed and launched by Northrup Grumman, ergo the “NG-15” designation. The latest Cygnus will stay at the space station for three months, load up with garbage, and then burn up as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, taking garbage incineration to a whole new level. 

But first Cygnus delivered all kinds of experiments, including one using nematode worms to study muscle loss and another that will help develop better artificial retinas. The spacecraft also carried fresh food for the seven male and female astronauts, currently living on the ISS some 400 kilometres above Earth. (You can track when to see the ISS in the sky at NASA’s Spot the Station.)

They do have refrigeration facilities on the space station, so up went Parmesan cheese, apples, tomatoes, nuts, salami, salmon, even candy. Cygnus also carried a better brine processor assembly that will recover more water from urine than current equipment can. Happy astronauts are more productive astronauts, and more productive astronauts do better science.  

All the rockets carrying Cygnus spacecrafts have been named for people, so far mostly men. But the NG-15 rocket was named for NASA mathematician, Dr. Katherine Johnson, a Black woman whose handwritten calculations were vital for human spaceflight. One of the women featured in the film Hidden Figures, Johnson died at age 101 on Feb. 24 last year, after breaking so many gender and racial barriers. 

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, it was exactly a year ago as I write this that hubby and I were lucky enough to see a flock of about 50 wild trumpeter swans—some of those lovely, more worldly Cygnet types—feeding in a mucky farmer’s field on the Fraser River Delta. 

It’s trumpeter swans we mostly see in this part of world, with their amazing wingspans of up to three metres. Every year about this time, hundreds migrate through Whistler then up to the Pemberton Valley, Mount Currie and Lillooet Lake on their way to northern B.C. They’re coming from their main over-wintering areas on the south coast—the Lower Mainland, especially around the Fraser Delta but as far east as Chilliwack; Vancouver Island, particularly Comox; and the Skagit River Delta in Washington.

“They prefer an inland route when they migrate, so the Sea to Sky corridor is one of many avenues they use to go north,” says Karl Ricker, a geologist and member of Whistler Naturalists, who was building club cabins long before the village or even skiing Blackcomb was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. (For more Karl stories, see Museum Musings in the Feb. 11 Pique.) 

As the magnificent trumpeters pass through Whistler, they stop to feed and rest on Green and Alta lakes, and the River of Golden Dreams. You can also see them feeding in Pemberton farmers’ fields, where they like to scavenge for leftover vegetation like cabbage roots or carrots.

Swans are mostly herbivorous, preferring to feed while on water. Those long necks are built for scrounging around underwater for all kinds of “green slimy vegetation” says Karl. Algae, water weeds, you name it. They also grab the occasional mollusk, frog or insect as they feed, “but they don’t have the right bills to grab fish,” he says. 

Wild swans were once fair game throughout Cygnus territory, including in Canada, but it’s forbidden to hunt them today. We nearly drove them to extinction in the 1930s by over-hunting. Ask Karl about the story of the guy at Lonesome Lake near Bella Coola that the government paid to feed swans there for decades to help them recover. It worked.

In England, swans might have suffered the same fate, but they were made property of the royal family in the 1300s—no one else can hunt them. Thanks to the Plantagenets, the Queen owns the wild swans in Britain today.

In Nunavut, Inuit beneficiaries do have the right to hunt and kill swans, in this case tundra swans since trumpeters don’t range that far north. One Inuk hunter, Mike Jancke, earned quite the following last year after he posted his escapades with roast swan. He served the dark, delicious meat with stuffing made from rice, veggies and extra garlic. It took him 25 minutes to pluck it. 

As for that big Cygnus constellation in the sky, it’s supposed to be a flying swan—a form once adopted by the Greek god, Zeus. Think of that next time you look up. 

Many thanks to Bob Brett, Karl Ricker and Liz Barrett—all members of Whistler Naturalists—for their help in putting this article together.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who is happy to learn that Dr. Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old cancer survivor with a rod in her leg, will join the first all-civilian crew aboard the SpaceX Dragon later this year.