As rattlesnakes go, it was pretty tiny.
Maybe as long as my shoe, it was just a little bitty rattler with only one button on its tail and a head the size of my finger tip.
But it was unmistakably a rattlesnake.
I was out east of Jenner heading toward the Saskatchewan border, thoroughly enjoying a day that had begun for me just a bit past 4 a.m. The light was luscious, the day warm enough to justify leaving the jacket off, the air humid and soft.
And smelling delicious with the perfume of wolf willow flavoring every inhalation.
I’d come east along the big highway as far as Bassano and then followed the gravel through Duchess and on past Millicent. Clouds on the eastern horizon prevented the sunrise from picking up much color but as the sun rose higher in the sky it sent streamers of shadow stretching out below the clouds and patches of sunlight set the green grass aglow.
There weren’t many people up at this time of day but the birds and animals were all active. I watched a pair of bulls kicking dirt onto their backs - protection against mosquitoes, maybe? - and every bird was singing its little lungs out. Crickets were chirping. The only thing missing was frog song. Guess they’re done with mating season.
Everything is green out there. Trees are nearly fluorescent with new leaves, pastures calf-high in bright grass. I came across a horse grazing near a twisted willow tree with light streaming between cracks in the clouds. So gorgeous.
And it was just as lovely beyond the irrigation zone. I love that abrupt transition from the treed areas around the irrigation canals to the sagebrush and cactus past where the canals end. Suddenly the sky gets bigger, the horizons recede farther into the distance.
I pushed on past Patricia and turned down the Iddlesleigh road before stopping for fuel at Jenner and then crossing the wide, runoff-brown Red Deer River. There were mule deer on both side of the bridge and a trio of whitetails bounced across the road in front of me. I saw the first antelope of the day far off on the prairie, a tawny dot on a sea of green.
But there was a surprise at the top of the river valley.
A bull elk was grazing right beside the road. A century or more ago they would have been a common sight out this way and great herds of them roamed with the buffalo that used to graze these plains. Now, though, we think of them more as mountain animals.
But for the last several years I’ve been spotting them with more and more frequency out on the prairie. I’ve seen them from the Milk River valley to the eastern slopes of the Hand Hills. I couldn’t be happier to find them back on their ancestral lands.
I cut east along the north side of the Red Deer River valley through cactus-studded pastures and stopped to photograph a pair of horses on a hill above my favorite gate posts, the entrance to a ranch that’s studded with old skulls. Gross to some, maybe, but I really like it.
As the day warmed a bit of breeze began to pick up and the wolf willow perfume really started to fill the air. Behind it was the scent of sage and damp earth. Redtail and ferruginous hawks soared along the ridge lines. I saw a golden eagle flying along high up, the morning sun sending flashes of bronze from its feathers as it banked in the wind.
I crossed the river again at Buffalo and came across the little rattler before turning again at Bindloss to recross the Red Deer. I’d yet to see another vehicle, even on the highway, and I was able to lay on the pavement photographing the little one-button for more than ten minutes. The only sound was the wind and the mosquitos. No man-made sound reached my ears.
I walked back to the truck and drove on, passing a second, much bigger rattler just down the road and spooking some whitetails on the other side of the river. Near Empress I watched horses grazing on grass in a flooded slough while a blue heron hunted near by. A coyote watched me sleepily from a ditch.
I kept going south to take pictures of the South Saskatchewan River valley before heading back west again. I saw more antelope far off - never did find any close enough for a picture - and a bunch more mule deer. Two more rattlesnakes as well, one of them as long as my leg and fat as my wrist. Such elegant animals.
I stopped for a nap in the river valley by Buffalo. I’d been on the road for eight hours now and I fell asleep to the sounds of catbirds, wrens and mourning doves mixing with the watery sound of cottonwood leaves rattling in a warm breeze. And the scent of wolf willow.
I woke up an hour later and headed home, leaving the prairie behind. But not that far behind. We are so lucky to live where we do.
I hope I see that little rattler again. What a great place it is to live.