Mike Drew: Frosty reception up in Alberta’s foothills

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I made it out of the city right before sunrise.

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Which is, actually, not much of an achievement seeing as the sun rises well after breakfast these days.

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But the sky was just starting to colour up as I rolled through the Quarter-Tank Hills south of the Ann and Sandy Cross Conservation Area. Venus was still shiny and bright in the southeastern sky and the moon, still mostly full, hung high above the mountains to the west.

The wind hadn’t picked up quite yet but it was coming. Directly to the south of me, a stack of lenticular clouds — the kind that form in high-altitude winds — were layered in shades of red and blue, lit from underneath by the sun still below the horizon. The wind was there but it hadn’t reached me yet.

Sunrise on Rocky Mountains
First light on the mountains west of Millarville, Alberta, on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Lenticular clouds
Lenticular clouds catch the sunrise colours the foothills southwest of Calgary, Alberta, on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I was heading southwest to see if I could get any pictures as that big, bright moon disappeared behind the snowy mountain peaks. At the moment, they were just getting the first blush of dawn and the moon was still pretty high above them but I’d looked up what time it was due to set and figured I’d have plenty of time to position myself.

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So I idled along.

The sun rose and filled the Sheep River and Three-Point Creek valleys with light, the dry grass and leafless trees turning from red to amber and brown as the light intensified. The patches of snow in the shade — and there were very few — picked up the blue of the clear sky overhead while the mountains began to blare with bright white.

Deer were everywhere.

There were whitetails along the edges of the fields while mulies lazed out in the open. In downtown Turner Valley — or west Diamond Valley or whatever — I watched a rather intense young mule deer buck stalk and harass a quartet of does. They wanted nothing to do with him but he was determined.

Beyond his antics, though, the day was starting out pretty laid back. There were more deer out in the bright morning sun, some sharing the pastures with grazing horses, others just idling along. Several bands of ravens were picking at animal carcasses dumped in the ditches by hunters who should really know better, while small flocks of geese flew overhead.

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Mule deer
A mule deer buck on the move along the Sheep River near Diamond Valley, Alberta, on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The moon was scheduled to set somewhere around 9:30 a.m. but it was still pretty far away from the peaks as the time approached. Could I have miscalculated? Wouldn’t be the first time.

But as I drove farther south, it looked like I had.

The moon was fading as it approached the peaks and it was blending in quite well with the western horizon, making it hard to see. In addition to that, it was more to the northwest than directly west so none of the peaks in front of me were lining up. And the farther south I went, the worse it looked.

So at the first opportunity, I turned west. I barely made it another 5 km before I knew it wasn’t going to work. The moon and the mountains just weren’t going to line up.

No matter, I’ll try again next full moon.

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Moonset southwest of Calgary
The moon sets behind twisty aspens in the foothills southwest of Calgary on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But since the light was nice and the day had barely begun, I decided to keep going west anyway.

Morning sun was shining through the trees along the south side of the Sheep River valley, its light still tinted with dawn’s glow. Finding little gaps among the spruce and pine, it lit up patches of fall-brown grass and silhouetted lichens and moss hanging from the branches.

I was surprised to see filaments of spider silk still catching the light although, with the lack of snow, I guess I shouldn’t have been. Here, out of the direct wind, it would take a snowfall to knock them down.

A snowfall that was yet to come.

The Tongue Creek valley was bare and brown and it wasn’t until I got well up toward the mountains along the Highwood River that there was much snow cover at all. I could see some snow where Cataract Creek meets the Highwood and the tops of the ridges had quite a bit. There was ice along the river banks, too, especially around fallen trees and places where it splashed into the shadows.

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There was so little snow, in fact, I decided to brave the road going south toward the Crowsnest Pass. I had no intention of going that far, of course, but there might be something interesting between here and the Livingstone River valley.

The snow got deeper as I rolled south but only in the sheltered areas. The road itself was fine. As an active log-haul route, it was kept in pretty good shape for the big trucks. I didn’t get far, though, before I had to pull over.

No, not because of the road or the log trucks, though the trucks did take up a lot of both lanes. It was because of the frost.

Front on spruce
Frost on a spruce and patch of willows in the foothills west of Longview, Alberta, on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I truly hadn’t expected to find any, wasn’t even looking for it. The day was relatively warm and sunny, the sky was clear and the temperature just a bit below freezing. Not the ideal conditions for a coating of frost. But there, all around the Etherington Creek campground, it was.

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It was mostly just a light coating. Backlit by the sun against a backdrop of dark evergreens, it shone and sparkled as the light hit the rime, making the tangle of willows and frosty spruce needles stand out.

But there were a few spots with bigger crystals, some the size of my littlest fingernail. They looked so pretty on the red-barked willow stems and dry leaves.

None of it lasted very long, though. I was barely there for 15 minutes and by the time I pulled out onto the main road again, virtually all of it was gone.

I kept going south now, pulling over to let the logging truck go by as I went, crossed Cataract Creek and then followed Wilkinson Creek deeper into the backcountry. But not very far.

Back in the summer, the last time I was up this way, the logging trucks were rolling then, too, and it didn’t make for a pleasant drive. So after pulling over just past the second bridge on Wilkinson Creek, I turned around. The valley gets quite narrow beyond there so, though the road was fine, I decided not to tempt fate.

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Besides, I wanted to look for more frost.

Front Wilkinson Creek
Feathery frost on Wilkinson Creek in the foothills west of Longview, Alberta, on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Mike Drew/PostMedia Mike Drew/Postmedia

There was some on Wilkinson Creek, tall patches of crystals beside runs of open water, and I was pretty sure if I looked around at Cataract Creek and downstream from the campground at Etherington Creek, I’d find some more.

Cataract was mostly open water, though there were some ice pans where it ran more slowly. But it was also much more windy. The valley here is wide open and the wind coming off the western peaks doesn’t have much to slow it down.

Over at Etherington Creek, things were more calm.

The frost, of course, was all gone. But the ice on the creek was nice.

There were small waterfalls and plunge pools along the creek, and the ice around them was really pretty. There were even some patches of big crystals here in the nearly perpetual winter shade where the water flows.

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But, man, it was slippery getting down to them. The banks were icy and thinly snow-covered and I, not really expecting to encounter these conditions, had left my ice cleats at home. I nearly bit it a couple times — and did end up on my butt closer to the water — but it was worth it.

Back in the truck, I headed down to the Highwood River valley again. And into the wind.

As the bare, grassy hillsides on the south-facing slopes of the valley came into view, the gusts began to hit me. By the time I reached the river, they were rocking the truck.

Limber pine
Ancient limber pine above the Highwood River in the foothills west of Longview, Alberta, on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I had hoped I might see some bighorn sheep here, as I often have before, but they must have been hunkered down out of the blast. The light was nice on the limber pines, though. Gorgeous, twisty trees, they love these open, windy spaces.

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And they are just as lovely in death as they are in life. Their very long life. Even by tree standards, limber pines live a very long time. A tree like the dead one I found on the edge of a cliff above the road could easily have taken root there around the time Shakespeare was writing his sonnets. Maybe even before then.

I headed out of the mountains and foothills now, letting the wind shove me eastward. But, strangely, by the time I was approaching Longview and cutting north across the Tongue Creek valley, the wind died down. From the ridge over the valley west of Hartell, I looked back toward the mountains and watched as vehicles left plumes of dust that hung in the air like the contrails behind jets.

And just over the hill from there, I watched as a herd of cattle being moved from one pasture to another did the same thing. Bawling and churning, they thundered in a cloud of dust across the road in front of me and into the next pasture. Which was already occupied by a momma moose and her baby.

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Momma looked up and watched the cattle approach but baby was having none of it.

After first hiding behind momma and then snuggling up to her flank, it finally had enough of the charging bundles of black hair and noise and fled into the nearby woods. Momma followed a beat or two later.

After that, though, all was calm.

Etherington Creek
Ice pearls on Etherington Creek in the foothills west of Longview, Alberta, on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Photo by Mike Drew /Mike Drew/Postmedia

The deer were still out in the fields and wandering around the streets in Diamond Valley. Clouds — regular, fluffy ones this time — flew over the ridge-top aspens in the Quarter-Tank Hills. And at 3:30 in the afternoon, the sun was already getting close the the mountain peaks in the west.

I thought, just for a minute, I might wait for it to kiss their snowy summits but if I did, that would put me into rush-hour traffic as I headed into town.

No, I’d already had a pretty good day.

A lovely sunrise, warm sun in the foothills, a bit of ice and frost among the mountain peaks. Not a bad way to finish off November. I’ll wait for December to catch a sunset.

And with that, I headed on home.

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