lily land life among the pond lilies

Standing knee-deep in the water at Burnt Stick Lake, I was waiting for the ripples to subside.

I was trying to take underwater photos of the pond lilies floating along the shore and, although I couldn’t actually see what I was shooting, I figured that things might look a little better if I waited for the wavelets I’d made by walking in to calm before hitting the shutter button.

The water felt almost as warm as the air as I stood there. The sky was overcast and forest-fire smoky and I expected rain to fall at any minute. I could hear a loon chortling somewhere down the lake while directly across from me a pair of red-necked grebes paddled around chasing minnows. It was quiet and peaceful and as the water stilled, I leaned ahead and lowered my above-water camera to the level of the lily pads to shoot a bit of video.

That’s when the dirt bikes showed up and scared the geese that were napping on the shore behind me. Honking and flapping, they took off right over my head so close I could feel the wind from their wings and skimmed low along the water. Startled, I shuffled around to aim my camera and sent the lily pads rocking again.

I’ve always been kind of fascinated with pond lilies. They’re such interesting plants, with their roots anchored in the pond bottoms and their broad leaves floating perpetually face-up on the surface. They seem so exotic, like something you’d see in a movie rather than along the shore of a muskeg beaver pond or a central Alberta lake.

The truth is, they’re kind of common. Check pretty much any permanent pond up in the Caroline area and you’re likely to find them. They’ll be along the edges of most of the pothole lakes and muskeg ponds around there and if you time it right - which I didn’t - you can see their big yellow blossoms as well as their huge leaves brightening up the tea-coloured waters.

But common though they are, I still find them fascinating.

Maybe it’s because, growing up in the driest parts of southern Alberta, I never actually laid eyes on a pond lily until I was well into my twenties. They don’t grow anywhere down south, certainly not in the alkali sloughs that dot the prairies nor in the cold mountain lakes of the foothills. In fact, I’ve never seen them much south of the foothills west of Cremona and even there, they’re not as common as they are a hundred kilometres further north.

The very first ones I remember seeing were over in the ponds of southeastern B.C. and I likely only noticed them because I was looking for turtles on my way to pick up more beer. I was kinda dumb in my twenties.

But the first pond lilies that really caught my attention were in Guatemala, giant things that covered the ponds in the ruins of Tikal and spread along the lake shores of the tropical Peten region. Big-leaved and studded with lotus-like flowers, huge-footed purple gallinules striding over them and butterflies everywhere, they truly were exotic.

And that’s the image of pond lilies that has really stuck with me.

Looking down on a beaver pond on the video feed from my little copter, the view I had now was hardly tropical. Spruce and larch ain’t exactly palm trees. But the pond lilies were there.

I could see the lily pads along the shore clearly but when I had tried to walk over to them I couldn’t get anywhere close.

Even though there was plenty of open water in view, it turned out that most of the actual water that filled the pond was under a floating mat of willows and sedges. Walking on it was like trying to walk on a water bed or a trampoline. I bounced and lurched from starboard to port with every step. And when I stood still, I just sank.

I could see why from the copter’s view. The entire basin was veined with beaver-cut channels, no doubt the work of many generations of the industrious rodents. The beaver house on the edge of the open water was nearly the size of my own palatial Bankview manor and well away from any dryish land. A perfect place for beavers. And a perfect place for pond lilies.

Hard to explore, though. So I followed a couple of gravel trails until I came across a little stream.

Stopping to peer over the bridge, I saw trout rising at the head of a pool. Fireweed and fleabane grew along the banks. The creek was narrow enough that if I had tripped on one bank, I would have face-planted in the grass on the opposite side. Might have landed on a wood frog, too. There were everywhere in the grass there. I picked one up for a photo. Shouldn’t have done that. I know better than to grab onto wild things.

But it was also completely choked with willows and spruce trees. If I’d had my lighter fly rod with me, I might have given it a shot but I had to scramble to get out of the way of an oncoming truck anyway. The friendly driver stopped and told me that I was on the upper reaches of the Raven River. No wonder it was so trouty.

But I really wanted to get some lily pictures and I wasn’t having much luck so I headed to where I knew I could reach some for sure.

Burnt Stick Lake is a big, shallow pond southwest of Caroline. It’s a pretty place, reedy along the shore and surrounded by forest. There’s a summer village there, too.

And lots of pond lilies.

The ones I wanted were right by the little outlet creek.

Passing the resting - and unperturbed - geese, I walked to the shore, set up my GoPro on the painter pole I use to stick it underwater and waded in.

The shoreline water was sun-warmed and pretty close to the temperature of the humid, smoky air above it. Every step I took sent up clouds of silt and set the lilies pads shifting on the ripples. Stopping by a nice-looking patch, I stood still to allow everything to settle.

Then the geese flew by as the dirt bikes passed and I rippled the whole thing again.

But it gave me a chance to really look at the pads.

Little water crowfoot flowers poked up among them, a bleached snail shell rested on one. Insects buzzed among them, dragonflies and craneflies. The yellow-eyed bulbs from the last of the blossoms bobbed as the ripples subsided. Sunlight, copper-coloured from the smoke, reflected among them. From underneath - now that the water had calmed - the transilluminated leaves glowed green against the grey sky.

It wasn’t Guatemala, no, but it still looked exotic to me.

Pond lilies. A little touch of the tropics so close to home.

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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