in the wintering hills attack of the wind-chill factor

I stepped carefully onto the frozen slough.

I was pretty sure it was safe but when you’re stepping on ice, especially after the warm November we had, it’s wise to be cautious. In fact, had there been any other way to photograph the blowing snow, I would have chosen that option.

But there was a set of coyote tracks pock-marking the thin snow and the only way I could figure to get a picture of them with the snow blowing by was to walk over and set a camera down low beside them. I stepped gingerly down from the dry, grassy bank and eased onto the snow-covered ice. There was a pop and my foot sank.

But it was just a little air pocket in the ice along the shore. My next step was solid, the third equally as firm. I walked out onto the slough.

I was in the Wintering Hills north of Hussar. The day was bright and sunny, a pleasant change from the bitter blandness of the past week. Driving along in the truck I could actually turn down the heater and unzip a couple of layers. My weather app told me it was a balmy minus-10C.

But that all changed as I stepped from the truck.

The wind was blowing out of the northwest at around 30 km/hr, maybe more, and whatever scant warmth there was went flying away with the snow. My eyes teared up and turned the world a blur of blue and white. My earlobes sticking out from under my toque started to burn from the cold.

But it did look pretty nifty. Once I blinked away the tears and tugged my toque down I could appreciate the beauty of it all. The blowing snow sent silvery streaks across the sun and undulating white serpents side-slipped their way across the surface of the slough. A magpie flew by. Sideways.

I lasted maybe ten minutes. Despite the sun and the relatively warm temperature, the wind-chill factor made it downright unpleasant walking around on the ice. I climbed back into the truck to warm up.

I’d been poking around out this way for a couple of hours, heading first to Rockyford and then over to Redland before heading top into the hills themselves. I thought maybe I might see some wildlife on the way, some deer maybe or a peasant or two, but I saw next to nothing.

There were a few rough-legged hawks out hunting but none were close enough for a picture. And I spied a white bump far out in a field that might have been a snowy owl but really - beyond the ubiquitous magpies - that was it.

Still, though, when you’re out in the Serviceberry Creek and Rosebud River country, it’s pleasant enough just to drive along and take in the scenery.

There’s not much snow out there, far less than there is closer to the city. The coulees are shades of brown and copper and the copses of aspens stand out with their bright white trunks.

In the summer when their groves are all covered in green leaves they’re a uniform mass but once the leaves are gone they’re more like a collection of individual trees. Although nearly devoid of bird life now, it’s easy to see how populated they must be in the warmer months. Stopping by one little stand, I counted six bird nests in a span of trees maybe 30 feet long.

The wind was shaking the truck as I made the climb to the summit of the Wintering Hills. I’d left the slough behind and was criss-crossing back and forth hoping to find and kind of animal life. The north-facing slopes where the aspen groves were offered some shelter from the cold wind and I’d hoped that maybe a mulie or even a moose might make an appearance. No luck there. The grassy slopes that lead off toward the Red Deer River valley at East Coulee and Dorothy often host antelope but there were none in sight. I turned back south again.

Old farm buildings stood stoic as the wind roared, the faded red paint that covers most of them showing the ravages of 60 winters or more. Wind-powered water pumps and the remains of old wind-blown generators stood backdropped by their monstrous modern counterparts, their giant blades slicing through the cold air as the wind pushed over the hills and roared across the plains.

On a clear day you can see the mountains off to the southwest and the Hand Hills to the north. From some angles you can see Standard and Gleichen and the old grain elevator still standing at Chancellor. To the southeast you might catch a glint of light reflecting off Crawling Valley Reservoir.

But the wind was swirling what little snow there was up into the air and the flying crystals and the cold haze with them were enough to obscure the view. Below me I could see cattle grazing in a pasture with a big wind generator looming overhead and beyond them the tall modern elevator at Hussar. Beyond that, everything faded off into shades of grey and blue.

I drove down into the valley below. The Wintering Hills slope off more gently on the south side, dropping down to a series of lakes, the names of which, I’m embarrassed to say, I had to look up. They’re called Mattoyekiu Lake and Seiu Lake - such pretty names - and in the summer they are full of birds. Now, of course, they’re frozen.

The sun was already just about to kiss the western horizon - only a few more days and it will start its kissing later and later again - so I headed toward it.

In the last light I found horses grazing in a field, their manes and tails swept by the wind, their steaming breath torn away and blown through the dry grass. There was a harrier hunting close by and I tried for a picture but the wind was blowing it around as if it were a single feather instead of an entire bird.

By the time I hit Dead Horse Lake, the sun was nearly down and the sky was filled with shades of peach, lemon and orange. It looked warm and inviting.

It wasn’t.

The Wintering Hills had lived up to their name. Time to head on home.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

DECEMBER 14, 2016

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