The Snow Below

After whining about the cold for the last month, I went out while it was still chilly to get some pictures of the snow-covered countryside before the chinook ate it all!

the snow below

If It's Foggy, It's Tuesday

Okay, I guess if it’s foggy, it must be Tuesday.

For the third time in the last month I headed out into a thick blanket of morning fog. Not that there was a choice, really. There was fog in every direction and no way to avoid it. 

But this time, instead of just heading out blindly, I checked the weather forecast. It said that the fog would clear as I rolled east and the morning wore on. Partly cloudy skies by mid-day.

Blind in faith and nearly so in fog-shrouded vision, I lit out for Bassano and Crawling Valley.

You already know how it goes from here. Still foggy at Gleichen, frost and fog at the summit of Cluny hill. Slightly better visibility at Crowfoot. No visibility at all at Crawling Valley.

The only real difference this time was that it was cold enough for frost to form. Not that crystally, feathery frost, though, but mainly just a concretion of tiny white crystals, more like the coating on a KFC drumstick than a scattering of down from a burst pillow.

Still, it was kinda pretty. And I’ve always been a sucker for frost. So I kept rolling on into it instead of heading south where I knew the sun was shining. But maybe the third time would be the charm.

There was very little ice on Crawling Valley reservoir, not a surprise given how warm November has been. And there were birds there, too. 

The big flocks of tundra swans and snow geese have moved on but there were plenty of mallards, Canada geese and coots. Family groups of tundra swans paddled around - usually the parents and a couple of nearly-grown cygnets - and harriers flew low over the frosty cattails and reeds along the shore. 

The light was dull and turned everything shades of grey but there was just enough autumn tawniness to the cattails and the shoreline ryegrass to add a bit of colour. Even the occasional clumps of aspens sitting in damp spots on the sagebrush prairie offered a big of brightness, their trunks a couple of shades whiter than the frost that had formed on them.

I passed several birds as I drove on toward Gem. Pheasants crossed the road in front of me while shrikes flew around the thickets of buffaloberry. I saw snow buntings and horned larks. And one snowy owl that took off and disappeared into the mist - like all the other birds I’d seen - before I could shake loose the camera.

I did manage to find a lone mourning dove that bobbed its head at me from a perch in a cottonwood in a farmyard, though. Not sure how well equipped a delicate thing like that will be for the winter weather that’s eventually going to get here. It should have headed south a month ago.

I’d hoped to find antelope north of Gem on the wide swath of prairie that leads to the Red Deer River valley but they must have better places to be. So I headed down to the Finnegan Ferry to have a look.

I know it wouldn’t be in operation but the coulee that leads down to the river crossing is just so pretty. And even more so today. As I descended toward the river I dropped below the fog line. The reds of the willows and dossier dogwood shone in the soft light. Cactus, although winter desiccated, glowed with a solemn green.

The grass along the coulee sides was fawn-coloured, tawny, milk chocolate and plain old brown. The spring-fed creek running through the coulee sang along, the water splashing up onto the moss and bankside grass and coating it with splash ice and ice bells. I scooped up a handful of its icy waters to have a sip and it tasted of iron with a touch of sulphur.

I hadn’t seen them on the way down the coulee but on the way up I spotted first one and then two more mule deer bucks. They should be with their harems at this time of year but maybe they’d just been unlucky with love.

Or maybe their girls were up top and wandering in the fog and these guys were just having a boys getaway. Either way, no ladies.

There were more shrikes at the top of the coulee - man, they are hard to photograph - and a whole flock of doves up the road. I watched a tractor knocking down sunflower stalks in a field and got pictures of some of the still-standing ones coated in frost. 

I started heading east now, circumnavigating Crawling Valley. I’d hoped there might be some more big birds on Wolf Lake but no luck there. And I saw another snowy owl sitting like a barely differentiated white lump in a frosty field. There were rough-legged hawks around, too, but they were easily spooked for some reason.

It wasn’t until I turned south from Crawling Valley that I could anything at all. And I heard them before I saw them.

The d Diet Coke and coffee I’d had for breakfast had worked their way through my system so I pulled over to, um, check the weather. And as I stepped from the truck I heard a chorus of honks.

There were a couple of hundred Canada geese on the ponds due east of Bassano, a noisy gathering of dark, noisy semi-silhouettes gathered on the ice along the open water near the middle. I figured they’d all take off as soon as I stopped but they held while I shot my pictures. 

Pictures which I have to admit don’t have a lot in common with something that’s in focus. Hey, it’s hard to focus through fog.

By then I’d had enough of blundering around half-blind so I rolled back west again. And as I neared Cluny, the sky started to glow. 

The fog was thinning, lifting, enough sun was getting through to start melting the frost. And then just north of Gleichen, the sun broke through. Glorious.

The fog wasn’t done yet, though. I cut west toward Namaka with the sun a silvery disc in the sky and stopped by Carseland as the disc turned from silver to gold. A soft mist persisted all the way back to the city.

But at least I could see. If only the forecast for Bassano had been right. 

Oh well, there’s always next week. But if it’s foggy again, I’ll know it’s Tuesday.

In which case, it’ll be Wednesday when I’m on the road again.

Slomo Snow

Big flakes falling near Longview. Shot at 1080p 120fps on my iPhone 6s.

The snow was coming down heavily near Black Diamond.

I could see maybe four car-lengths in front of me and the wipers could barely keep the windshield clean. Under the tires, the road was a sloppy mess and the truck was having a bit of trouble tracking along.

Somewhere up ahead, up along the Sheep River, I knew that bighorn rams were butting heads. But the road was too slick, the snow coming down too thick. They’d have to wait for another day.

I turned south and headed toward Hartell.

It was still snowing in the Tongue Creek valley but not as hard. I was on the southern edge of the heaviest snowfall and overhead I could see bits of blue sky starting to poke through. Now it was just squalls.

I stopped to take some pictures of cattle that had waded into a slough and were chomping on the green still growing there but they were shy and sloshed out before I could get a shot. But then they stood there and stared at me - as cattle will do - while the snow sifted down around them.

Then the sifting slowed and a few minutes later, it stopped. Grey mist filled in the gaps. Across the ridge in the Highwood River valley I found a bald eagle sitting in a tree while a gang of ravens picked at a road-killed deer. The wind was calm. I could hear cattle off in the distance.

I might be making it sound kinda miserable but it was actually really pleasant. It was cool and grey, true, but it was also quite relaxing. I passed through Longview and headed south, the sky brightening as I drove along. By the time I reached Pekisko Creek, the sun was shining.

What little snow had fallen here had mostly melted and in the sunlight the fence line, the grass, the aspens and cottonwoods all glittered with water drops. There were ducks on the roadside ponds and a family of trumpeter swans flew by low to the ground. Cattle were clumped in groups out in the open fields.

Behind me I could see the snow line, a bank of dark clouds on the northern horizon. It looked like it had hit the big hill at Longview and snagged un the ridge unable to move any further. There were still clouds above me but they were clumped like the cattle in the pastures, groups of them here and there dark against the blue, some casting shadows on the land, others trailing curtains of snow.

I stopped to shoot one of those curtains by Stimson Creek. 

Big feathery flakes were falling like down from an exploded pillow so I set up my phone to shoot in slow motion and let them fall around me. I could feel them landing on me, on my head and hands, and melting almost instantly. Magical.

The sun was shining just down the road, though, so I moved on and turned on Williams Coulee Road. Looking back from the crest where the road turns into the Porcupine Hills I could see my little snow storm sweeping along the ridge just south of the Bar U Ranch, a soft pigeon-blue broom sweeping across the brown hills.

The wind started up as I rolled down into the Mosquito Creek valley. There were still clouds and snow to the south, the mile-high ridges dark under their shadows, but the wind was shredding them, sending waves of them northward where they evaporated against the blue above me.

It was still clear here but off to the north where the cold front had stalled I could see clouds building higher and higher. A single white horse stood in a pasture with the sky churning behind it. A mule deer doe - the only deer I saw all day - looked up from feeding along the creek as a gust of wind swept down the valley.

I turned south and headed to the higher country.

It was much windier up here. I stopped to try for a picture of a golden eagle but it took off and was immediately swept away. A tractor loading round bales left a stream of loose straw trailing behind it in the wind as it picked up the hay. 

The light, though, was superb. 

The bright sun kicked speeding shadows across the valleys and hillsides as the clouds moved along and lit up the damp grass and green cover crops with a low-angle glow. I stopped to take a picture of a lone tree on a hilltop with a road leading up the ridge and every picture I took looked different as the cloud shadows shifted and flew.

I headed out through the magnificent slash of Williams Coulee and hit the wind again on the other side. There were horses bathed in sunlight with their manes and tails tousled by the gusts as they grazed along. A coyote bounced across the road in front of me like a tumbleweed, looking back over its shoulder before taking off like a shot. Snow seemed to fall from the blue sky sky but it was just the wind scattering the flakes falling a kilometre away.

I carried on westward and stopped again where the road rolls over the summit of the Porcupines. 

Looking north I could see the clouds building even higher while to the west they were absolutely flying over the hills, The wind was coming straight out of the south and it must have gathered strength as it pushed up the Willow Creek and Beaver Creek valleys just beyond the ridge before dropping off toward Mosquito Creek below me to the north. The clouds were being torn to pieces.

But the day was nearly done. I turned around by Willow Springs and headed back toward the city, the sun nearly at the end of its short early-winter arc and about to dip behind the clouds over the mountains.

A short day but a dramatic one.

East to Nanton, north to High River, a flock of tundra swans in a white V flying past between them and the day was done.

Heavy snow, soft snow, sunshine, wind, white landscape right next to brown. Yet another lovely southern Alberta day.

Bank of dark clouds in front of me, I headed on home.