prairie now and forever

I was sleeping so comfortably until the skunk woke me up.

Sprawled out in my new tent at the little campground beside the Red Deer River near Buffalo, I’d drifted off just after sunset, sung into sleep by a lullaby of bird song. I’d actually planned to spend only a few hours with my eyes shut and had set the alarm on my phone for 3 a.m. so I could get up and photograph the night sky.

But then the skunk came along.

I’d been waiting for a while to make a run out to the prairie. And by prairie, I mean the native grasslands of southern Alberta. Sure, the farm land around the cities and out into the irrigation belt that stretches across the southern third of the province is still prairie but it’s been altered so much over the last century that it bears little resemblance to the grassland that it was for the past dozen or so millennia.

But there are still fairly big chunks of native prairie still around. Places like the Milk River Ridge and the Pinhorn area near the Montana border as well as the Cypress Hills - the summits of which have been around even longer than the surrounding prairie - are some of the biggest parcels.

The area I was headed to, though, was the Red Deer River valley on the northern edge of Canadian Forces Base Suffield. This huge tract of grassland was set aside so that troops from both the Canadian and British armies could train in open country and because of that, as a stroke of unforeseen luck, this piece of prairie has remained pretty much intact.

I couldn’t go onto the base, of course, but I could go to the adjacent grasslands that surround it, the prairie along the Red Deer River.

This is dry country. In most places the grass barely reaches mid-shin height and prickly pear cactus studs the slopes. Waist-high sagebrush covers big areas on the flats. Huge cottonwoods mark the course of the river.

It’s a harsh place, a tough place to live, a remote piece of the world a long way from any big city amenity.

And I love it.

I’d timed my visit to arrive as the long weekend was ending so I could be sure to find a place to pitch my tent so it was evening before I got anywhere near the Buffalo campground. The day was warm, the wind calm and the huge sky cluttered with white clouds as I passed Jenner and headed east.

I’d seen antelope everywhere and stopped to photograph a trio of them walking through the shimmering heat waves coming off the ground near Tilley. It was like seeing them walking underwater through the long lens. Mule deer were everywhere. There were whitetails around, too, but this is really mule deer country.

And elk country.

Elk are native to the area but they were hunted out long ago so back around the turn of the century, elk were transplanted onto the Suffield range with the idea that, as native animals, they would be easier on the land than the wild horses that had been there for the previous hundred years or so. Once the horses were removed and the grassland had regained some of its strength, the elk were turned loose.

And they thrived. There’s now around 8000 of them in the area. And they’ve spread well beyond the base’s borders.

I saw the first ones on the base as I drove along and them spotted a dozen or so of them on the bits of farm land near Jenner. But I was most of the way to Buffalo before I found any I could photograph.

It is truly amazing to see them out on the open grassland like that and I’m thrilled that an animal gone so long from its rightful place is finally back again. But the ranchers out there have legitimate concerns over their rising numbers. And those numbers that are likely to increase.

I cut down into the river valley and set up my tent before continuing on to explore some more. The campground was empty, as I figured it would be, and it was just me and the birds as I pitched camp. The air was filled with the delicious scent of saskatoon and chokecherry blossoms and the smell of new leaves and sage. I could have just sat there and soaked it all in.

But I was hoping to find a rattlesnake or two.

They are pretty common out here on what must be the very northern edge of their range and I’ve seen dozens of them out here before. And at this time of day they head to the edges of the roads to soak up the last of the day’s heat.

Up on the benchland above the river I found dozens of mulies while down along the river itself there were whitetails. Meadowlarks were everywhere and when I stopped for pictures I could hear Sprague’s pipits overhead singing as they flew up and dropped from the sky. A thin haze shrouded the river valley.

As the sun set I watched a momma antelope silhouetted on a ridge as she licked her brand new baby.

But no snakes. I headed back to camp.

The skunk came by around one in the morning but I didn’t hear it. I smelled it.

It must have sprayed somewhere close by because it was eye-wateringly strong and I almost abandoned the tent to climb into the truck to escape it. But stumbling about in the dark with a skunk so close didn’t seem like the best idea so I toughed it out. And then slept right through my alarm.

The sunrise, though, was brief but lovely and the day warmed rapidly.

By mid-morning I’d found a dozen more elk and double that many antelope. I’d stopped by the Curry ranch to take pictures of the skull-festooned gateway - thanks for the permission, Mr. Curry - and launched my little copter a half dozen times to get pictures of the glorious grasslands.

But it was noon before I found the first rattler and it was just a little guy.

Patient, though. It let me take a bunch of photos. And I saw several more less-patient ones that slithered into the grass along the roads between Buffalo and Bindloss before I could get a picture.

The day was hot and windy and cirrus clouds flicked like horse tails across the sky. I rolled on over to Empress as the wind gained strength and nearly had the door torn out of my hands when I stopped for gas back at Jenner. It was so windy that even the antelope were spending most of their time laying down in the grass.

Grass that I followed back west as far as I could.

Heading west, I followed the ranchland that stretches along the Red Deer River from here all the way to Highway 36 and beyond. I saw more elk, more mulies, more antelope and one more really feisty rattlesnake at Steveville. Finally, with sun on the horizon and the wind momentarily backed off, I launched my little copter one more time for an aerial view of the buns-in-a-pan, grass-covered hills just east of Hussar.

At one time, and not that long ago, grasslands covered the middle of the continent from Edmonton to Mexico. Now, most of it is gone. But southern Alberta still hosts big chunks of it and it’s a landscape I absolutely love.

Prairie now. Prairie forever.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

MAY 23, 2017

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

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