a chinook rolls in warm and cold air meet and mix

I could see Chief Mountain on the far southern horizon.

From my vantage point in a valley just south of Brant I could see its distinctive square shape against the sky, hazy but unmistakably the most recognizable peak visible from southern Alberta.

Thing is, though, I shouldn’t have been able to see it.

I’d started off the day - well, afternoon, really - cruising around looking for whatever I could find in the broad valley between Mossleigh and Brant. After all that Christmas snow I was pretty sure that I’d find a world of white and on this bright, crisp day I was equally sure it would be beautiful.

There was just the slightest hint of a breeze as I drove along and the snow kicking up behind the truck hung and sparkled in the air. The landscape was a vast, white expanse tinged with shadows that reflected the blue of the sky overhead. The horizon all around was the colour of skim milk, the white of the snow cover easing into the cerulean bowl up above.

The temperature wasn’t exactly balmy at around minus-10 but it was certainly better than it has been. And the strength of the sun made it comfortable. Stopping the truck to check out some tracks in the snow I didn’t even bother to put on my gloves.

And it was quiet, too. I could hear the chittering of sparrows coming from somewhere close by and the hum of traffic coming from somewhere beyond the horizon. A crow flew by cawing and there was the soft pop-pop-pop of an oil pump working in a field but that was it. The only other sound was the squeal of snow under my boots as I walked along the trackway.

It looked wintery but in a good way, a beautiful way. There was snow covering the ground and frost on the roadside grass and farmyard trees. There were trails in the pastures where horses and cattle had wandered, darker, irregular lines left by their hooves. Off to the west the mountains rose, soft clouds around their peaks, snow covering their flanks.

It looked like winter. It looked lovely.

Flocks of snow buntings thronged the fields and coulees, masses of cream and toffee-coloured birds down from the north to spend the winter foraging for seeds on the southern Alberta plains. Hundreds of the them flitted around never staying in one spot for very long before taking off en masse to head to another spot. I never did get a very good picture of any of them.

I had better luck with a snowy owl, though. He was perched on a power pole just south of Herronton and, unlike the buntings, he stayed still as I drove slowly up to his perch and aimed the camera. The males are smaller than the females and almost completely white and he stood out bright against the blue sky as he stared down the barrel of my lens.

I saw four more in the same general area. If you’re heading out to look for snowies, the valley around Herronton is a great place to start.

The breeze was starting to pick up a bit now and it sluiced away the warmth of the day. The horned larks I saw digging for seeds on the edge of a field had their feathers puffed up and the partridges I surprised along a row of caraganas seemed reluctant to leave the shelter of the brush. By the time I reached Brant - only about 15km down the road from Herronton - snow was starting to drift.

I stopped by a farm yard to take pictures of frost blowing off tree limbs and falling in puffs of prismatic crystals and tried to catch up with a pair of coyotes I saw running across a field. Not sure what they were fleeing from but they were at a dead run when I spotted them so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.

I watched a rough-legged hawk drop out of the sky and land in a stream of blowing snow as it pounced on a mouse or vole but by the time I got the camera aimed it had flown off with its prize in its claws. Cattle rattled their way through a cron field not far beyond, the steam of their backlit breath torn away by the increasing wind.

And then I saw Chief Mountain on the far southern horizon.

Something that, from my vantage point near Brant should have been impossible.

Chief Mountain lies about 150km to the south, just across the Montana border. On a good day you can see it from the rise of land between Nanton and Stavely but even then it’s just a nubbin on the horizon.

Not only was I about 40km further north, I was in a valley below a ridge that blocked the southern view. On top of that, cloud was starting to move in.

But it was chinook cloud.

What was happening was that I was seeing a diffraction effect, like what happens when you put a stick in clear water and it seems to bend. The warmer air from the chinook was blowing over top of the cold air in the valley and the light was bending as it passed through the varying air densities making it possible for things beyond the horizon to become visible.

So I could see actually see Chief Mountain. But it was a mirage.

And it wasn’t the only one.

Off to the west I could see the land dancing below the mountains, dark lines moving side to side like a bar code as the chinook rolled in. Hills turned from round to square, power poles seemed to grow and stretch upward, cattle walked on shimmering air.

Through the compression of perspective caused by my long lens, I could actually see the varying air densities mixing as I looked toward the Porcupine Hills. The barn in the foreground stayed in focus while the air behind it looked like a mountain stream running over cobbles. I tried for a picture of Chief Mountain but it had already disappeared as the warm air flooded into a different patch of cold.

The wind began to roar. First it was just gusts, then it turned steady and began to climb. Snow started to fly and soon the road in front of me started drifting over. The sun dropped behind a ridge of chinook cloud and then popped out again as I stopped to photograph mule deer in a field.

The wind might have been out of the west and it was definitely a chinook wind but it had a lot of cold air to shove out of the way and it was frigid as I rolled down the truck windows.

By now, too, the mirages had gone, the air densities mixed thoroughly as the wind hammered its way from west to east. Chief Mountain was back where it belonged. I headed toward home with the hope that 2017 turns out a lot better than 2016 did.

I’m confident that it will. And I’m equally sure that it won’t be a mirage.

Happy New Year!

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

DECEMBER 27, 2016

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