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Mike Drew: Oranges, purples, greens and turquoise — a colourful day

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I was afraid that nobody was going to believe it when they saw it.

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The oranges were too bright, the purples were too deep, the yellows were too lemony, the silhouettes were too crisp. The whole thing looked like one of those garish velvet paintings that used to be so popular or a blanket bought from a roadside stand.

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But no, as surreal as it looked, that was the sky at sunrise on Tuesday morning. I didn’t brighten the colours, I didn’t drunkenly start flailing away at Photoshop’s saturation slider, I didn’t do anything but adjust the highlights and shadows to remove a little bit of the thin morning haze.

But I don’t blame you if you think I cheated. Sitting there watching it happen, I felt like I was cheating just by recording it.

A ridiculously colourful sunrise north of Calgary, Ab., on Wednesday, January 31, 2024.
A ridiculously colourful sunrise north of Calgary, Ab., on Wednesday, January 31, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I was on my way west to look for horses, so after watching the sunrise go all Gone With The Wind Technicolor, I kept on rolling through the foothills toward Sundre and beyond. The forecast was calling for temperatures that would make April happy and the wind was supposed to be light. It was going to be a lovely day up in the wild horse country along the Red Deer River, so I hurried to get there.

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It was already 10 C when I passed through Sundre and the road through the narrow part of the river valley west of there was slushy and sloppy. Low spots in open pastures and along side roads were puddled with melted snow, while the river itself was carving its way through the ice cover wherever it was flowing the fastest.

Cattle were feeding in the pastures where the valley first opens out into ranch country and off in the distance I could see horses. Not wild ones, I was pretty sure, given where they were. But I was getting close to the real horses’ territory.

First, though, a little drone flight.

I had been noticing flashes of turquoise as I drove along the river, the colour caused by water flowing over the river ice and then refreezing in slushy layers. Through the narrower part of the valley there was no place to easily stop for a better look. But now that I was out here in the open ranch country, I could safely pull over to check it out.

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The blue, green and turquoise of the ice was easy to see at ground level and I could even make out some of the spots where the river’s current had pushed through and spread a layer of rippling water over the surface. But if it looked good from the riverbank, it had to look even better from above.

Turquoise ice on the Red Deer River west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Turquoise ice on the Red Deer River west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And it did. From 20 metres up, I could see the river winding off to the west in all its glorious colour. There were differing patches of intensity where the water ran deeper and soft-edged bulges in the ice where the current pushed through. There were tracks in the snow on the far bank left behind by at least two large animals.

I kept heading west now, scouring the forest and open meadows for horses — or anything else — as I went. There were horse signs everywhere, those piles of droppings that stallions use as signposts and tracks in the snow. But there were no horses to be seen among the willows by the Deer Creek picnic area, nor were there any over by Yara Creek.

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Prismatic ripples on a spring-fed pond in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Prismatic ripples on a spring-fed pond in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

That was fine. Confident that I would find them eventually, I stopped by a little spring-fed pond next to the river and found a lone goldeneye duck paddling in its ice-free waters and, as the wind started to gust, I shot the prismatic splashes of light that the ripples cast on the rocks on the bottom.

It was even warmer here than it had been back in Sundre and snowmelt was running everywhere. The south-facing hillsides are almost entirely snow-free, as they often are in the winter. That’s why wild horses, elk and deer thrive here, no pawing through snow to get to the grass. But even the flats were beginning to bare. Snowmelt was puddled among the willows and rivulets were running down the ditches.

A lone goldeneye duck on a spring-fed pond in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
A lone goldeneye duck on a spring-fed pond in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But still no horses. It was midday by now so maybe, I thought, they were taking advantage of the warm sun to relax out of sight somewhere. No problem, lots of daytime left.

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And more to explore.

Ice covers green growth in a forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Ice covers green growth in a forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Back in August, I think it was, I had stopped by a little campground just downstream from the bridge on Highway 40, and found lots of interesting things on the forest floor among the spruces and pines. But that was back in the summer, so I just assumed access would be locked up for the winter.

Turns out, it wasn’t. So I pulled in to have a look.

Patches of ice left by dripping snow melt in a forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Patches of ice left by dripping snow melt in a forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There was surprisingly little snow. True, a lot of it had melted, but I still expected to find the ground among the trees fairly well covered. Instead, I found bright patches of green moss and puddles that reflected the wind-bent trees above. In places there were weird platelets of ice that I guessed might have formed when snow melting in the upper tree branches splashed down and froze on the colder forest floor.

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Naturally, I had to get down on my belly for a closer look.

A spruce cone sits on a hoodoo of ice in a forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
A spruce cone sits on a hoodoo of ice in a forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were little spruce cones sitting on hoodoos of ice, soft green lichens on shady patches of snow. I found green leaves poking up everywhere, some surrounded by ice, others among damp forest duff. Where the sun struck it, the moss was every bit as green as it had been back in the summer.

The only thing missing was that glorious scent that a forest has on a summer day. That was still locked among the dormant trees and in the frozen ground.

Green lichens and moss on a fallen pice of wood in a forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Green lichens and moss on a fallen pice of wood in a forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Thoroughly soaked now, I continued on up the valley, westward past the willow flats and into the burned-over area on the way toward Ya Ha Tinda. Plenty of horse signs but, still, no horses. They had to be there, I was sure, but I wasn’t seeing them.

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So I stopped to shoot the tall, dead trees by a spring-fed beaver pond — love the starkness of this area — and then turned to head back into the horse country to have another look.

Remnants of a burned forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Remnants of a burned forest in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I drove slowly along, looking down across the log-strewn grassland toward the river as I went and as I did, I noticed a couple of trucks coming up behind me. Not wanting to hold them up, I pulled over at a wide spot to let them pass and as I angled away from the road, I saw something in my mirror.

There were animals grazing right behind me. But they weren’t horses. They were bighorn sheep.

Objects in the mirror: Bighorn sheep graze on snow-free grass in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Objects in the mirror: Bighorn sheep graze on snow-free grass in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I’ve seen them here a few times before but they’ve always been farther up the slopes, more toward the rocks. These ones, though, were nearly beside me. Funny, if I hadn’t pulled over for those trucks, I likely would have driven right past them as I scoured the far side of the road for horses.

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I counted more than 20 of them in two different batches, one set close to me on the grassy flats and the other further up on the slope. Those ones were pawing at the ground and licking up something, probably mineral-related, from the holes they dug, while the closer ones were nibbling away on grass and shrubs.

Bighorn sheep dig for something in the soil on a slope in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Bighorn sheep dig for something in the soil on a slope in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia
Bighorn sheep graze on snow-free grass in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Bighorn sheep graze on snow-free grass in the Red Deer River valley west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I was still hoping to find the wild horses, though. With the wind now blasting along, I had visions of flowing manes and wind-blown tails catching the winter sun. So I left the sheep to their grazing and drove on.

With no luck. Wherever the horses were, it was someplace I couldn’t see them. I tried the willow flats again, crossed the bridge at Mountain Aire to check out the open country south of there, stopped to shoot the river as I crossed the bridge back again and then headed up the Yara Creek valley.

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Ice and fast water on the Red Deer River west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Ice and fast water on the Red Deer River west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The only things I found up there were more piles of stallion poop and a dangerously icy road. I turned back.

It was pushing 15 C when I hit Sundre again and water was running everywhere. There were tea-coloured streaks on the Red Deer River ice where runoff was flowing from the banks and further east, the Little Red Deer River was full of brown slush. Near Harmattan, every little coulee was rushing with water and puddles were mirroring the chinook-clouded sky in every field.

Tea-coloured snowmelt flows down a ditch east of Harmattan, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Tea-coloured snowmelt flows down a ditch east of Harmattan, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I stopped by a culvert running under the road to shoot the red water flowing through and nearly slipped into current on the muddy bank. Water was shooting up like a fountain at another culvert and the melt was flowing out into a field. Man, I hope at least some of it was able to soak in.

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Tea-coloured snowmelt runs into a culvert east of Harmattan, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Tea-coloured snowmelt runs into a culvert east of Harmattan, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Finally, with the day waning, I stopped by a stand of poplars with runoff flowing past their ankles and aimed my camera toward the setting sun. Would I get a repeat of that morning’s spectacular light?

Nope, I would not. The sunrise had been almost literally unbelievable. The sunset, well, no one was going to do a velvet painting of this one. It was entirely believable.

Ice and fast water on the Red Deer River west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Ice and fast water on the Red Deer River west of Sundre, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But it had been a lovely day anyway. And though I never did find any wild horses, I found green moss and turquoise ice and tawny sheep and now, tea-coloured runoff water. No, none of it was as gaudy as the dawn.

But not everything has to be in Technicolor.

Water from chinook-melted snow fills a low spot in a pasture east of Cremona, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024.
Water from chinook-melted snow fills a low spot in a pasture east of Cremona, Ab., on Tuesday, January 30, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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