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Mike Drew: Through the ghostly fog

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I was kinda driving by feel.

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I could see the road in front of me, more or less, but with the heavy fog diffusing the morning light and all the fresh, white snow covering the ground, everything just seemed to blend together. I could see the trees beside me and I knew there was a road under my wheels but I couldn’t really tell where the gravel ended and the ditch began.

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It was a world of white out in the foothills. Or, maybe more accurately, a world of grey. The cooler temperatures had brought a fresh coat of snow to replace that which had melted the week before and now, a thick, cold fog had settled over it all. The light was shadowless, the countryside nearly featureless. It was going to be a challenge to find anything to photograph.

Provided I could get anywhere to look.

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I’d had a bit of luck earlier in the day, though. Heading southwest from the city I cut south on a road just shy of the turn to Priddis and made my way down toward Millarville. The fog was thick here and the air was cool enough that ice was building up on the truck’s radio antenna as I rolled along.

But most of it was at mid-tree level so, except for rises in the road, I was mostly driving underneath it. That’s how I saw the deer.

A mule deer buck in the snow near Hartell, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
A mule deer buck in the snow near Hartell, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

There were six of them, dainty little whitetails crossing a frozen bog and headed for the other side of the road. I knew, though, that if I stopped right beside them that they would likely bolt so I drove ahead to a ranch driveway to turn around and make a more calm approach.

But in all my hurry, I misjudged where the edge of the road was and dropped a front wheel off the edge of the driveway. Quickly, I jammed the truck into reverse but all I did was spin the tires. The deer, ignoring me, crossed the road while I spun so I jammed the truck into park, hung the camera out the window and aimed the 600mm lens down the road.

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A whitetail deer crossed a road in theft near Millarville, Ab., on Wednesday, February 7, 2024.
A whitetail deer crossed a road in theft near Millarville, Ab., on Wednesday, February 7, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I was shooting pretty much blindly but, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, the autofocus found the last deer making the crossing. And modern four-wheel drive technology got me back on the road again.

Funny how fog works. If you could see it from above, it would look like the cloudscapes you see from a plane. It would be lumpy and bumpy and it would follow the contours of the land. But when you’re in it, it seems like it’s even, uniform, everywhere you look. Until it isn’t.

Like along this road. Thick in the high spots, thin in the low.

The sun tries to come out near Hartell, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
The sun tries to come out near Hartell, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

And then, out on the flats near the Millarville race track. None at all. I mean, none anywhere around me. It was still hanging on the hills and everything to the west was obscured but here it was like I’d driven into a bowl. And it stayed like that until I got to Hartell on the way to Longview. Here, the Tongue Creek valley was solid.

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There was really nothing to measure the density of the fog, no point of reference that I could see, but if I had to guess I’d say there were maybe three car-lengths of visibility on the highway. And once I turned onto the gravel road that runs along the north side of the Longview Hill, there was even less than that.

The sun eats away at the fog west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
The sun eats away at the fog west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Fortunately, mine wasn’t the first vehicle that had come down the road. Two or three had passed this way before me and their tracks at least gave me a point of reference. Still, I drove slowly and tried not to stray from the path the others had pioneered.

The ditches on either side of me blended perfectly with the road so, even though I knew I shouldn’t, instead of pulling over I stopped right in the middle whenever I wanted to take a picture. And that flat, blended light made the pictures tough, too.

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Aspens in frost and fog near Hartell, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
Aspens in frost and fog near Hartell, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The aspens and poplars were rimed with frost and the forks of their branches were heavy with snow. But the mist was so heavy it was hard to pick out any details. Through my lens, everything just looked ghostly and grey with no true blacks or whites. Even the deer looked drab.

I’d never have seen them if I hadn’t been driving so slowly. They were maybe 50 metres off the road, lying down among the trees, and if they hadn’t moved as I rolled by, I never would have noticed. There was about a dozen of them scattered through the patch of poplars, a couple of does and fawns, three little bucks. They stared as I bounced my finger off the shutter button.

A young mule deer relaxes in the snow near Hartell, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
A young mule deer relaxes in the snow near Hartell, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

I kept going down the road, hoping I would start to come out of the mist at least a little bit by the time I got to the top of the Longview Hill. And when I got there, it was a little bit brighter — I could see at least 20 fenceposts before the line disappeared into the grey — but a light wind was pushing the mist up the slope of the hill and swirling it around the top. Not much point in rolling on so I pulled into the first approach I came to so I could turn around.

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Turn around very carefully. I’d already dropped a wheel off the side of the road earlier and I wasn’t about to do it again.

The wind that had been blowing the mist around at the top of the hill had also snuck into the lower levels and seemed to be thinning out the fog as I drove back down the hill. It was growing noticeably brighter as I rolled along — still slowly — and the sun made a feeble but bright appearance as I neared the turn back onto the highway. Down at Longview, the fog was gone.

A brief moment of sunshine west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
A brief moment of sunshine west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But west of there, up the Highwood River valley, it was back again. Not as heavy but enough to make me rethink going any further west. So I turned north and rolled back through the foggy Tongue Creek valley.

But as I crested the far side of the valley the mist was thinner and I could see up the Sheep River. To my great surprise, there were mountain peaks showing. There were even patches of blue sky.

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OK, enough of this grey mist, enough of this driving by feel. I’m headed west.

Tracks in the fresh snow west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
Tracks in the fresh snow west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But having seen how capricious the fog had been throughout the morning, I figured instead of driving all the way back to Diamond Valley and going west along the north side of the Sheep, I’d head for my favourite — and much closer — dead-end road along the valley’s south side.

The fog was patchy here, low and thick in some places, wispy and high in the sky in others. Much more pleasant. The road, however, was even more sketchy.

Being a dead-end, it doesn’t get much traffic so there was only one set of tire tracks to follow. Which I did religiously. There were a couple of places where whoever had come before had gotten too close to the road’s edge and had to spin back onto the gravel. Luckily, it was on the uphill side of the road. On the downhill side it was a steep drop into the trees.

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Fortunately, I had no issues. The snow was deeper here than back by Hartell but it was fluffy and flew up like dust behind the truck. It had fallen straight down, too, covering the land with a cottony blanket and piling up in cones of the fencepost tops.

Fog dims to thin blue mist west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
Fog dims to thin blue mist west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The soft grey light made the red willows glow and turned the hilltops off to the south a watery blue. Then, as I approached the end of the road, the sun came out in full.

It flooded across the snowy landscape, lighting up the spruces and willows in the bogs and making the pines glow against the mist that still lingered over the river to the north.

The fog lifted for maybe a minute west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
The fog lifted for maybe a minute west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

But it didn’t last long. Looking back down the road I could see where the sunshine ended and the fog began again.

But it had thinned a lot. The fog drifted in again as I sat there taking pictures but it was nowhere as dense as it had been. Now, in fact, instead of obscuring the landscape, it enhanced it. The light was just bright enough to cast shadows and I could see where a moose had left tracks along the road as well as where my tire tracks melded with the ones that were there before.

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A moose made a u-turn west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
A moose made a u-turn west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

The soft light enhanced the colours of the horses that were pawing at the snow and nibbling on the wild rose shoots and grass underneath. Gorgeous animals, those guys. And though it was a lot thicker back down toward Tongue Creek, it added a lot of atmosphere to a group of horses and cattle that were hanging around a patch of scattered straw. As well as the cheeky magpies that had joined them.

A horse paws at the snow west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
A horse paws at the snow west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was still foggy back in the hills where I’d been in the morning but it had lifted some and left behind a fine filigree of frost. The willows were especially bright with it, rosettes of white on the ends of red branches and coating the grass and horse hair in an old bird’s nest beside the road.

Frosty rosettes on willows north of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
Frosty rosettes on willows north of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

Over in the Cross Conservancy, I could see a herd of elk lazing around on the top of a foggy hill while in the valley opposite them, cattle were grazing. The beaver ponds down along Pine Creek held water the colour of caramel, no doubt the leftovers from the previous week’s big thaw.

Magpies and cattle in the mist west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
Magpies and cattle in the mist west of Diamond Valley, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

It was nearly dark now but the mist, though now thinner, was still hanging on. Frosty elk hair hung on the fence lines while old aspen leaves rattled in the light breeze. The roadside looked pretty flat where I saw them so I pulled over to take some pictures. No ditch to slide into here.

But sometimes, like on foggy days after a fresh snowfall, it’s hard to tell where the ditches are.

And when that happens, you just might have to drive by feel.

Elk in the mist west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.
Elk in the mist west of Calgary, Ab., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024. Mike Drew/Postmedia

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