smoky hazy vistas and pretty trout

The morning sky looked creamy.

Aiming my camera down the Kananaskis River valley I could see the mountain peaks receding into the soft light, long shadows stretching out as the sun rose up behind them. The sky was the colour of milk, whole milk, a kind of yellowish beige.

It was forest fire smoke, of course, smoke that had moved across the mountains from a fire just over the B.C. border and settled here in the valley. It made the place smell like a campfire or a fireplace on a winter evening.

It looked a little bit wintery, too. The clear sky overnight had allowed the temperature to drop and there was frost in the shadows, even a little bit of ice where spring seeps had splashed.

The light, though, was lovely.

I’d headed west through Sibbald Meadows - as I usually do - and the light from the morning sun took on an amber tint as it pushed through the smoke. There was frost on the shaded side of Sibbald Meadows Pond and I watched a young merganser hunt among the yellow-green sedges in a beaver pond just up the road.

The sky above was blue, though, and a lovely day was on the way.

I didn’t have any real goal in mind as I pushed south toward Highwood Pass. Stopping at King Creek to shoot back up the canyon toward the smoke-shrouded sun, I momentarily considered cutting up Smith-Dorrien Trail. But no, Highwood Pass it was.

I paused to watch pikas scooting through the scree at Rock Glacier - so hard to photograph, those little guys - and dodged bighorn sheep heading down the east side of the pass. There’s still snow up there in the avalanche chutes. And hundreds of Columbia ground squirrels.

The power of the sun had melted the ice and frost at the summit but it was still chilly and it didn’t improve much at the lower elevations. The smoke, however, was much diminished as I rolled down the Highwood River valley.

The wildflowers along the road on the east side of the pass are stunning. Lots of paintbrush, asters, groundsel and fireweed. The highway is lined with colour all the way down to Highwood House. I stopped at several places along the road for pictures and the soft creamy light looked lovely on the blossoms.

But at Highwood House I faced a dilemma. It was barely ten in the morning and I’d already rolled up the Kananaskis valley and crossed Highwood Pass. While the smoke in the air made the morning light even more lovely, it was now approaching mid-day. The smoke wouldn’t help the light at all. It might, in fact, make it worse.

It was too early to head back to the city and there wasn't much point heading further east into the harsh light. Back west, the smoke was thick and the sunlight would look sickly. What to do?

Well, when in doubt, go fishing.

I headed south down toward Cataract Creek and kept going past there up the Wilkinson Creek valley. When that topped out, I dropped down onto the Livingstone River.

Further down where the river runs through the canyon, the Livingstone gets hit pretty hard. Justifiably famous as a trout stream and stunningly beautiful, it unfortunately gets whipped to a froth by phalanxes of fly casters every summer. I haven’t fished there in years.

But upstream where the river runs through what looks like a played-out gravel pit I almost always have the stream to myself. Dropping a stonefly imitation at the top of a run, I watched it disappear into the open jaws of a pretty little cutthroat trout. Putting it back and then walking upstream a quarter of a mile to the next run - yet another reason why there’s so few fishermen here - I watched the fly disappear again, this time gobbled up by a lovely butter, gold and orange 17-incher.

So much fun!

I wandered back to the truck and launched my little copter for a few pictures. From the air I could see north up the valley. What little smoke there had been over here had nearly all dissipated. Might be worth heading back to Highwood Pass again.

The smoke had indeed dissipated and the pass was almost clear. Stopping again at the Rock Glacier, I found a hoary marmot that was determined to lick up minerals from the middle of the road and just down from there I watched a large grizzly walk across the highway within about a hundred metres of folks coming back from a hike to Elbow Pass. Pretty sure the bear knew they were there. The hikers clearly had not seen the bear.

By now it was late afternoon and the sun had shifted far to the west. Shadows from the peaks were stretched the opposite direction from where they’d originated in the morning. Smoke still filled the Kananaskis valley and the light was back to the creamy colour it had had in the morning.

I stopped to explore a little spring creek close to the road and found that the moss was so thick back in the forest shadows it was like trying to walk on a trampoline.

The creamy, dappled sunlight fell on horsetails and baneberry, paintbrush and fireweed, arnica and groundsel. A hermit thrush appeared briefly on a branch to check me out. Bees bounced from flower to flower.

But it was starting to be a long day so I headed up the valley and turned to retrace my morning route up to Sibbald Meadows.

The light was turning amber again and the sun was heading toward the mountains. It wasn’t quite a red ball yet but it was trending in that direction. And it was moving fast. If I was going to get any pictures of it before it went behind the mountains, I’d have to race down the valley. I stopped again on the beaver flats by Jumpingpound Creek and launched the little copter.

From 30 metres up, the sun was a golden orb surrounded by copper and I could see the forest fire smoke flowing thickly below it and thinner above. The light in the valley was a soft bronze that glinted off the beaver ponds.

Lovely. I landed the copter and rolled on.

It had been a long day but a good one, a little smoky, a little fishy.

And altogether, creamy.

Time to head on home.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

JULY 18, 2017

Photographed with the Canon EOS M5, the Canon 7D Mark II, with the Canon 70-300, the Sigma 150-600C and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro.

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