lucky land we are so lucky to live where we do

Let’s take a two-hour drive in any direction from Calgary.

What would we see?

If we went south, we’d be on the windy plains and rolling hills between Fort Macleod and Pincher Creek, the long ridge of the Porcupine Hills rolling north from Head-Smashed-In back toward Nanton. We’d see mule deer and spreads off balsamroot blossoms. The mountains of Montana would be rising off to the south.

Heading west, we’d be deep in the mountains, up around Lake Louise, maybe, or rolling toward the headwaters of the Bow River, Snow-covered peaks would be rising above us, forests would fill the valleys. Tourists would be nearly as thick as the trees.

Northward, parkland country. Two hours would put us in the vicinity of Red Deer or Sylvan Lake in the land of aspen groves and undulating hills. On warm days we could sit and watch thunderstorms churn up and roll eastward from the mountains or hunt for wildflowers among the numerous copses of trees. Might see a moose.

East, we’d see nearly everything. Past Dinosaur Park and the badlands of the Red Deer River, we’d be somewhere around Jenner. We’d see antelope wandering among sagebrush in the shimmering heat, elk on the grasslands, cottonwoods in the river valleys. The sky would stretch 180 degrees overhead. The hot wind would carry the lovely scent of wolf willow and the last of the chokecherry blossoms. There’s a very good chance we wouldn’t see another single human being.

I say all this to point out, to emphasize, what a wonderful place we have chosen to live. The sheer variety of landscape we have within the range of a half-tank of gas is amazing almost beyond belief. In fact, I don’t think there’s another major city on the planet that has such an amazing choice of landscapes within such easy reach.

This week, for example, I took a drive out toward Water Valley, barely 45 minutes away. I rolled up the Dogpound Creek valley, passing from the rolling fescue grasslands and dandelion-covered slopes on its eastern flanks up to the forested valleys around Winchell Lake. I’d decided to go out that way to look for wildflowers because, well, it’s that time of year.

I found some, too, calypso orchids - my favourites - as well as pretty pink hedysarum, soft white wood violets, even a few paintbrush starting to show colour. Along little Deer Springs Creek the horsetails were starting to spread out, their new green fluorescing in the damp, cools shadows beside the water.

Out on the beaver ponds close by there were ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teal and mallards. Noisy geese swam along with a pair of muskrats. A blue heron took off and flew low over the still-brown cattails.

Wrens sang from the deeper parts of the forest while yellow warblers chose the tops of willows to belt out their songs. Clay-coloured sparrows buzzed from lower down in the same bushes while song sparrows trilled further away.

Heading further west from Water Valley, I found a moose that was too shy for a photo and a couple of whitetail deer that paused just long enough for me to get a shot. Every time I stopped I could hear redtail hawks screeching. Ravens bounced through the roadside grass looking for snacks.

Great grey owls, common but rarely seen, suddenly appeared everywhere. I was able to practically drive right up to them as they concentrated on hunting, the wide dish around their faces channeling the faint sound of voles moving through the grass to their sensitive ears. Once in a while they’d glance my direction but mostly they just looked down, ready to pounce.

It was a lucky day. I was able to photograph four of them.

And one chubby grizzly.

I had planned to go have a look at the willow flats along Harold Creek about 20km west of Water Valley both because the lush spread of growth looks so lovely at this time of year and because I figured I might find a few more varieties of orchids in the damp forest margins.

But once I saw the griz, I gave up on everything else.

I was surprised to see it there although I really shouldn’t have been. Pretty much all of southern Alberta is grizzly country so I suppose you could run into one anywhere. But I was still amazed to see this bulky silvertip gobbling down mouthfuls of grass and dandelions right beside the road.

He certainly didn’t have any problem with me taking pictures. Aside from the one big truck that rolled by, I was the only one around and he was ignoring me completely. I could see through my long lens that he was wearing an ear tag and a radio collar. Looking up his tag number later - tag 164 - I found out that he’d been tagged and collared over in Kananaskis Country, about a hundred kilometres to the southwest of where he was now. They do get around, these guys.

Kinda like me.

In fact, seeing the grizzly through my viewfinder reminded me that less than a week before, I’d been only about two hours east from here laying on the ground with the scent of sagebrush and dust in my nostrils, looking through this same viewfinder at a rattlesnake.

The only thing similar between the two events was that I was photographing truly charismatic animals. Well, that and that I could turn around and be home for supper with relative ease.

And that got me thinking - once again - about just how lucky we are to live where we live.

On any given day, especially at this time of year, I can choose to go look for, say, mountain goats or maybe swing around and see if I can find a six-foot bull snake. I can photograph white pelicans one direction and willow ptarmigan in another.

I can stand on a high ridge and see the mountain peaks looming both in another province and another country. I can watch thunderheads build up over rolling mixed forests and still see them as they roll off toward the eastern horizon where they drop curtains of rain and glow with lightning over sagebrush plains.

And at the end of the day I can be back in the city in the company of 1.2 million of my closest friends.

You may not think it’s all that thrilling to be able to commune with grizzlies and rattlesnakes but when you think about you’ll realize that, yeah, just the fact that such creatures thrive so close by and in such diverse environments is a pretty amazing thing.

Sure, lots of other places interesting things close by but generally they only have one or two. And they are mostly variations on the local theme.

But not here. Nope, here, we have it all. Here, we are blessed.

Here, is where we are so lucky to live.


MAY 30, 2017

Wanna come for a drive with me? My friends at The Camera Store and I are taking a day-long trip around the Porcupine Hills on Saturday, June 10. We'll explore some incredible country and take lots of pictures!

If you'd like to come along, click here - The Camera Store - to find the sign-up page and put in the code MDSUN for a $50 discount.

Hope to see you there!

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